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17 May 2019

Can TV salvage Magic Leap momentum?

Eyes rolled the world over when news emerged of a DirecTV Now app being developed for Magic Leap headsets-come-goggles around two months ago, a feeling the AR, VR and mixed reality (MR) markets are all too familiar with. So, upon learning the app had quietly gone live in beta mode, it was time once again to investigate whether Magic Leap is showing signs of a recovery – with first impressions oddly encouraging.

That’s right, this is the same Magic Leap that Rethink has previously called “AR underachiever” and “perpetual MR disappointment” – begging the question of how AT&T expects tying two bricks together and hoping they float is an acceptable first response to losing 627,000 video subscribers last quarter. Even our two bricks analogy comes over as flattering compared to the torrent of abuse Magic Leap has received from frustrated fanatics in the wider community.

Taunts aside, could even a speck of optimism be held for this latest project? If not together, or indeed separately should the collaboration fail, then at least their mistakes could inspire the next wave of budding mixed reality companies? Considering Magic Leap is single handedly responsible for setting back investment in the VR and AR space by several years, it certainly owes something to the industry – for all the promise it held in enterprise, industrial, and tangential IoT applications.

We’re clutching at straws here, admittedly, so let’s get down to the crux of it. The DirecTV Now app for Magic Leap mixed reality headsets (the ones costing $2,300) actually launched in beta mode on the sly around four weeks ago, as spotted by Variety. It reports that users can select virtual screens from a grid-like carousel allowing up to four simultaneous live streams overlaid in an AR experience, with audio automatically switched based on which virtual screen is being viewed.

Conceptually, the experience sounds striking. Unfortunately, concepts are the story of Magic Leap’s entire timeline and what finished products the company has delivered – eight years after promising a revolution – have been ripped to shreds in reviews. A recent write up from The Register slammed inaccurate and slow tracking as the elephant in the room, as well as limitations in depth perception. Magic Leap needs to address these issues immediately and extensively if its MR headsets ever hope to crack the gaming market, let alone video streaming.

Of course, AT&T is a key investor in Magic Leap and one day the never-ending financial backing – guzzling $2.6 billion to date – might result in the vendor striking gold. Not only that, at the end of March, Magic Leap bagged an exclusive deal with AT&T to offer the $2,295 One headset in-store and online, in tandem with a marketing campaign allowing footfall to experience an in-store Game of Thrones VR demo involving fighting White Walkers. Interest in the latter might have trailed off in the past week.

AT&T’s VP of video products, Vikash Sharma, admitted that Magic Leap was not about to attract swathes of new subscribers to DirecTV Now, which lost 83,000 subs in Q1, instead describing the project as a learning curve for how people want to interact with immersive content. The answer for AR has been staring us in the face for years – sports. The case for applying AR experiences to live matches is more compelling than any other we have seen or heard.

Director of video innovation at AT&T, Barry Smith, agrees. “You can have a whole wall full of sports. It gives you the ability to stretch the boundaries of depth and space in your viewing experience,” he said. Variety gives the example of watching four games of NCAA March Madness simultaneously, moving between matches simply by shifting your head. Similarly, soccer fans would absolutely lap this up, and tapping into the lucrative European soccer scene must be considered a goal for Magic Leap. Live sports is the crown jewel the poster boy of AR has long sought.

It’s worth remembering the consensus on Magic Leap’s reputation is not without good reason. The company has been caught up in a deluge of leaks, missed deadlines and rollbacks. Hype mixed with misdirection has ravaged Magic Leap – and only in September last year looked to be abandoning the entertainment industry for lucrative military contracts. We wouldn’t go to the extent of saying good riddance, as some might, yet support is diminishing fast and the industry is growing tired of banking on an unlikely Magic Leap resurgence.