Parsing the Magic Leap Schadenfreude

Ms. Knowles-Carter was here.

I’ve noticed that a significant number of VR pioneers react to bad PR from Oculus and Magic Leap with glee. The Germans came up with a word for taking pleasure in another person’s suffering, schadenfreude. Most of us indulge in it from time to time, as when we revel in the career stumbles of various celebrities, make jokes about politicians’ gaffes, or chuckle when someone slips on a banana peel. It’s part of human nature.

Yesterday, The Verge ran a story with the provocative title, Beyoncé reportedly tried Magic Leap, and thought it was boring. Eva Hoerth posted the link on Facebook and the comments filled up with digs at the secretive company. (Incidentally, I have learned that  Beyoncé tried the device at the Georgetown Magic Leap offices during a recent Seattle tour stop.)

I started wondering what was really at the root of these digs as well as the digs at Oculus, which has endured its own string of bad PR in recent months. I have my theories, but I wanted to know why people take pleasure hating on these particular big VR hardware companies. So I posed a question to those following Eva’s post: “I’m really curious about the root cause of the schadenfreude here. It seems that whenever negative news comes out about Magic Leap or Oculus, the reactions are some form of gloating or ridicule. I’m quite guilty of that myself, and I admit I had that same feeling reading this article. But why exactly? Maybe because I see Magic Leap and Oculus as hoarding influence, and this runs counter to my belief that the indie ecosystem, with broadly distributed influence, is what’s necessary for this medium’s growth. Thoughts?

Jeremy Diamond responded, “I’m crediting the obscene amount of money they’ve raised, especially with no public proof of a product.

Michael Hazani added, “In my book, it’s the exclusivist secrecy that they clearly enjoy ramping up even as much bigger companies are way more transparent and forthcoming. ML’s PR strategy has been, for years, ‘we can’t tell you anything but TRUST US IT’S MORE AMAZEBALLS THAN ANYTHING ELSE.’ That kind of hubris comes with a cost, esp. when met with underdelivering.”

I think Gavin Higham got closest to the root of the schadenfreude, writing, “We just keep hearing all these glowing reports about Magic Leap, ‘tech investors LOVE Magic Leap!’, ‘X-celebrity thinks Magic Leap is the NEXT BIG THING’, etc. We’re supposed to take these endorsements at face value rather than judging the technology and company on their objective merits. They’ve been so secretive about what it is, but seemingly for no reason, because we still hear news about it every week. It’s like they’re trying to stroke investor’s egos by making it this exclusive experience everyone wants in on, but only the elite get to see. It reeks of oversold marketing, in my opinion.”

Magic Leap is alienating the very same first adopters who it will need for a successful product roll-out. They’re managing early access to their technology like Studio 54, vigilantly policing who is hot enough to step behind the velvet rope. If you’re Neal Stephenson, Kevin Kelly, or happen to be married to Jay Z, you get the privilege of experiencing their version of augmented reality. If you’re a VR pioneer who quit your job to launch a VR/AR startup from your basement, you’re out of luck.

This reminds me of an epiphany I had in high school when I was running for Student Body President. I ran against a popular girl who campaigned by trotting out all her popular friends at assemblies. I campaigned by going table to table in the cafeteria, talking to the migrant kids and the kids who received free and reduced lunch. I realized that there were a hell of a lot more “uncool” kids than cool kids, and just by treating the “uncool” kids with kindness, I could get more votes. Winning the election on that strategy was one of the most valuable and humbling experiences of my life.

The resentment against Magic Leap seems to come from a feeling from the VR/AR community that we’re being passed over as not cool and sexy enough to play with their toys. This is coming across as snobbery. Magic Leap doesn’t even have to give away any secrets to fix this problem. Their long-term strategy would be well served by simply acknowledging the vibrant ecosystem of indie developers who they’re very much going to depend on when their device one day miraculously hits the market. How about fronting a few thousand dollars and buying some pizzas for a hackathon, or sponsoring a scholarship at places like AIE, Chronos Global Academy, or Digipen Institute, which are going to supply your company with trained talent?

The affection within the VR/AR community for HTC and Valve isn’t just a result of an exceptionally promising product. It’s because HTC and Valve have engaged with the community, most recently offering to provide 1000 free trackers to indie developers. Beware the arrogance and group-think of cloistered environments. If you believe you’re going to succeed just because your company makes superior technology, I have a used Betamax player from the ’80s to sell you.