Magic Leap in Georgetown

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Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, please.

I walked past Magic Leap‘s new office in Georgetown the other day and got an immediate vibe that I was under surveillance. Georgetown has long been one of my favorite places because from an urban planning perspective it is one of Seattle’s most bizarre. On paper, nobody should really want to live, shop, or work in Georgetown. It’s noisy, abutting Boeing field, which means that several times a day 777s and other aircraft come down low enough that you can see their rivets. Interstate 5 and Airport Way are loud and full of trucks. Shops and restaurants hug Airport Way, creating a long, skinny strip of commerce. And yet somehow it works. Georgetown has excellent coffee, a well-stocked musical instrument shop, and antique stores that specialize in industrial byproducts transformed into art. Artistan-run startups specializing in offset printing and product design occupy the Rainier Cold Storage building. Fantagraphics Books operates their comics-filled flagship store in the same space as a vinyl record store. There’s even a charming little “mall” in the form of a trailer park. I tend to discover something magical and unexpected every time I visit Georgetown.

So in a way, it makes sense that Magic Leap would choose this neighborhood of artists as its Seattle HQ. They occupy a building that reminds me, in terms of don’t-mess-with-us ambience, of the Skull and Bones club at Yale. When I walked past the front door and peeked into the lobby, I was treated to the sight of a big, back-lit logo on the wall behind the reception desk. It’s a cool-looking logo that immediately captured my attention, but then I noticed the receptionist glaring at me and I quickly walked away, pretending that I had business at the nearby brewery.

Look, I get it that Magic Leap is working on such ground-breaking ideas in augmented reality that they choose to be intensely secretive. What I don’t get is why a company so devoted to its NDAs would open its Fortress of Solitude office in a neighborhood that thrives on interaction, sharing, and mixing. Walk fifty feet west of Magic Leap’s office and you’ll find yourself in rough-around-the-edges cafe All City Coffee, where welders and artists shoot the shit. Georgetown’s art fairs and summer festivals stand among the city’s most beloved and creative community events. Fantagraphics launch parties and art exhibits, curated by local treasure Larry Reid, tend to spill onto the sidewalk and involve grilled hot dogs in the summer.

When I look at the gray block of secrecy that is Magic Leap in Seattle, I see a cultural conflict. On one hand, Magic Leap seems intent on protecting its patents to the nth degree, but if that was the sole motivator of the company, they could have just as easily set up shop in a windowless industrial park in Federal Way or Auburn. To attract the kind of talent they need to invent their next-generation mind-blowing tech, however, they need to be located in a place that creative tech people with lots of job prospects want to work. In other words, a neighborhood like Georgetown, with good restaurants.

I see Magic Leap’s placement in Georgetown as part of a much bigger issue in the immersive tech industry, that of the cocoon vs. the spider web. On one hand, you have established companies with resources that can afford to hire a hundred engineers and lock them inside of a room for a year. In the late nineties I occupied one such room, working on a super-secret team at Amazon that launched their Auctions program. I spent a good part of six months with the same couple dozen people, hermetically sealed from the outside world. One benefit of this arrangement was that we formed strong relationships within our team. Our camaraderie was incredibly motivating; I’ve never felt closer to a group of colleagues. The disadvantage of this arrangement was that we tended to recirculate our own propaganda. Our assumption became that Amazon would launch auctions and eBay would go out of business in a few months.

Operating within a tech cocoon means you purposely cut yourself off from your eventual customers, who will presumably hail you as a genius when you emerge triumphantly onto the stage at your glorious product launch event. Your ambitions become assumptions, and these assumptions get fed by groupthink rather than by give-and-take engagement with your market.

I’m writing this from my desk at CoMotion Labs, where I share a floor with startups working on games, 360 films, medical therapies, and mixed reality projects. I just took a break from this post to talk to Mischa Jakupcak of Mechanical Dreams about the openness that permeates Seattle’s indie VR community. While I’m over here posting on this blog, Mischa is producing immersive films. The other day I had a conversation with an ad agency that wants to get more into VR content. I immediately thought of Mechanical Dreams and was eager to tell Mischa about the meeting. It would make me happy to see Mechanical Dreams get more business so that they can make even more ambitious films that I could then write about on this blog. I’m invested in an interdependent creative economy.

Businesses that seek to cash in on immersive tech would be smart to model their strategies on the properties of the medium itself. One of the things we are beginning to understand about immersive tech is that it allows us to exercise our empathy. I think of empathy as the intersection between our imaginations and our capacity to love and suffer. It behooves companies that purport to provide the world with empathetic experiences to foster cultures of sharing, communication, and understanding themselves. Empathy starts when we converse and learn about other people, and the most moving experiences tend to be those in which we find a connection with someone who we previously considered foreign to ourselves. (This, I think, was what made last weekend’s “Black Jeopardy” sketch on SNL so hilarious and uplifting.)

Maybe whatever Mechanical Dreams is cooking up is going to be worth the wait. We’ll see. In the meantime, the rest of us will be out here making connections with our fellow dreamers in gritty places like the streets of Georgetown.