It looked like an illusionist’s elaborate trick.
As a small group of people stood inside the lobby area of the University of Miami Lakeside Village’s Expo Center, a raging wildfire began to engulf the hilly terrain that suddenly appeared on a small table in front of them.
A chart showing barometric pressure, wind speed, and other environmental data then materialized along with a map that revealed the locations of wildfires that have raged across the world during the past two years.
This was no magician’s trick, but rather a demonstration of Magic Leap’s second-generation augmented reality (AR) headset, which the Plantation, Florida-based company recently unveiled.
Dozens of guests, University President Julio Frenk among them, sampled the device on Friday, experiencing a digital demo of how a Southern California wildfire rapidly spreads, then listening to Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson explain how AR technology can help train workers in every field imaginable—from first responders who battle infernos to surgeons who perform delicate operations.
“A surgeon will [perform] a knee surgery, and there’ll be the incision with a digital line right in front of the actual physical patient,” Johnson said. “At some point, we’ll look back and say, remember when we used to do surgeries without augmentation?’ ”
Her visit to the Coral Gables Campus was organized by the Miami-Dade Beacon Council’s Opportunity Miami and the Academic Leaders Council (ALC), a group that consists of the presidents of the largest colleges and universities in Miami-Dade and the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Frenk, who chairs the ALC, described the startup Johnson leads as “a combination of high-tech, creativity, and plasticity.”
“I have made two visits to their headquarters in Plantation, and both times I came out saying, ‘I just came back from a trip to the future,’ ” he said. “This is really what the future looks like.”
Frenk noted that the University of Miami was the first higher education institution to partner with Magic Leap. Four years ago, the startup and the University forged a partnership in which students and faculty and staff members develop new uses for the company’s devices.
During Johnson’s Friday fireside chat “Augmented Reality: The Future of Work and Education,” she said AR technology, in which computer-generated content is integrated with the user’s real-world environment, is already being put to good use. A manufacturing plant in the Midwest, for example, now outfits new workers with AR headsets, training them to repair and maintain factory equipment in just three days. “It used to take them three weeks,” Johnson said.
And last year, in preparation for the complex surgery to separate conjoined twins Abigail and Micaela Bachinskiy, who were born fused at the head, surgeons at the University of California Davis Children’s Hospital used AR goggles to explore inside the twins’ heads, getting an augmented view of the intricate network of blood vessels that had to be disentangled.
AR technology will eventually become as ubiquitous as cellphones, Johnson predicted during her talk, which was moderated by Matt Haggman, executive director of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, where he leads Opportunity Miami.
“It’s very similar to the early days of the mobile phone. Back then, the phone was big, and it was expensive, but there was a return on that investment if you were, for example, a salesperson, and you had to check in with your office throughout the day,” Johnson said. “That’s the stage we’re at right now with augmented reality. There’s a lot of solutions that can be built right now in the enterprise space. And we’ve made the device smaller and lighter, but it probably still isn’t something you’ll see people walking the streets with. Eventually, we will get there.”
In the future, AR goggles will need to become very similar in weight and appearance to eyeglasses, with the electronics integrated right into the glasses, Johnson said. “That’s coming, but to get the fully immersive effect, we’re going to need more integration of parts. But it will be here.”
Just imagine a digital line drawn in front of a user, directing the person to the location to which they are walking. “[AR] won’t take the place of your physical world, but it will be a tool to augment your physical world,” Johnson said.
Demonstrations of the latest version of Magic Leap’s AR headset proved to be a highlight of her visit.
College of Engineering sophomore Marcos Morales, a programmer on the Innovate team that uses the Magic Leap 1 to work on AR projects initiated by University professors and others, was most impressed with Magic Leap 2’s improved horizontal and vertical field, billed as the largest in the industry. “The new headset’s awesome, much lighter and more comfortable to wear,” Morales said.
Frenk said Johnson has positioned Magic Leap to play an instrumental role in AR. “With Peggy at the helm and with her vast experience leading and growing businesses, I think Magic Leap is on a trajectory to continue to be an exciting, transformational leader in what will be the future of work, of education, of everything we do in our lives,” he said.
Johnson started her career as an engineer at General Electric. She later joined the global semiconductor and telecommunications company Qualcomm as an engineer and then eventually transitioned to a business role in which she worked on cutting-edge technologies, including mobile connectivity and app stores.
Now, as the CEO of Magic Leap, she leads a company of about 1,100 employees. “We’re tiny, so everyone has to wear a lot of hats, and I love that environment, to tell you the truth,” said Johnson, who became CEO in 2020, succeeding the company’s founder, University of Miami alumnus Rony Abovitz. “On any given day, everybody’s doing a little bit of everything, and that’s okay. Some folks thrive in that environment, some don’t. It’s just a choice. But I love it.”
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