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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

December 17, 2014 at 5:01 PM

Neal Stephenson joining Magic Leap but staying here

Noted Seattle author Neal Stephenson confirmed today that although he’s joining a Florida virtual-reality startup, he’s not moving to the Sunshine State.

Stephenson in a 2008 photo taken in the Seattle Times old pressroom. Photo by Chris Joseph Taylor, Times staff photographer.

Stephenson in a 2008 photo taken in the Seattle Times old pressroom. Photo by Chris Joseph Taylor, Times staff photographer.

Stephenson was recruited in style by Magic Leap, a mysterious company with A-list backers that’s developing new ways to augment reality with digital imagery.

It was probably just a matter of time before Stephenson joined one of the companies building virtual-reality systems that could become tomorrow’s computing interface and entertainment platform. Stephenson’s breakout 1992 science fiction novel — “Snow Crash” — provided an early vision of virtual reality’s potential to be transformative and inspired a generation of technologists.

Among the companies in the space, Oculus VR has the highest profile since it was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in March. It then lured away a handful of gaming pioneers working on virtual reality at Bellevue-based Valve Software, bought a Seattle design shop and set up a development office on the Eastside.

Now Magic Leap is roaring ahead after raising a breathtaking $542 million in October from Google, Qualcomm, Paul Allen and venture capitalists.

Top Google exec Sundar Pichai is now a board member, along with Sir Richard Taylor of WETA Workshop, the special-effects group known for its work on the “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movies.

“Neal is a true visionary and the very first to conceptualize a social, virtual world in a coherent way,”  Rony Abovitz, Magic Leap’s founder and chief executive, said in a release. “I am looking forward to his insights as Chief Futurist for the company, helping the team and I bring Magic Leap’s technology to the world.”

Stephenson has dabbled in video-game production, helped Jeff Bezos build rockets in Kent and consulted with Nathan Myhrvold’s invention laboratory in Bellevue. He said in a blog post that he was at first skeptical of Magic Leap’s demo but came to be fascinated by the technology.

“Magic Leap is mustering an arsenal of techniques — some tried and true, others unbelievably advanced — to produce a synthesized light field that falls upon the retina in the same way as light reflected from real objects in your environment,” he said. “Depth perception, in this system, isn’t just a trick played on the brain by showing it two slightly different images.”

As chief futurist, Stephenson hopes to help the company “in thinking about what to do with this tech once it is available to the general public.”

Reached via email, Stephenson said that he’s not going to relocate but will travel frequently to Florida. I wonder if Magic Leap will eventually join Oculus, Valve and everyone else with a satellite office in the Seattle area.

In his blog post, Stephenson — a connoisseur of swords — related how Taylor equipped Magic Leap’s recruiters for their Seattle quest. They “appeared on my doorstep with Orcrist, aka ‘Goblin-cleaver,’ the ancient sword forged during the First Age of Middle Earth by the High Elves of Gondolin, later retrieved from a troll hoard by Thorin Oakenshield.”

If Oculus or Valve had known he was available on the other side of Lake Washington, perhaps they might have showed up with Gandalf the Grey’s sword Glamdring, the Foe-hammer.

 

Comments | Topics: facebook, Google, magic leap

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