The future is augmented reality, says Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson

South Florida can become an AR hub, with enterprises the top users initially, she says

By Doreen Hemlock

In our daily lives, we already use a mix of digital and physical reality when we follow a blue line on satellite maps on our cellphones to drive or walk to a destination.

In the future, we will likely replace the phone with a headset that overlays that blue line on our physical reality, keeping our hands free for other tasks. Eventually, the headset will likely be replaced by contact lenses, making augmented reality (AR) even more convenient and ubiquitous for myriad tasks.

Peggy Johnson, CEO of Magic Leap

That was the vision sketched Friday by Peggy Johnson, CEO of Magic Leap, the Plantation-based company that makes AR headsets, geared mainly to the enterprise market of corporations, hospitals, universities and government. She spoke at a luncheon organized by Opportunity Miami, the Miami-Dade Beacon Council’s program looking to enhance the long-term development of Miami-Dade County.

“It’s very sci-fi, but it’s coming,” Johnson told an audience of nearly 100 people at the University of Miami, spearheaded by Opportunity Miami’s Academic Leaders Council. “Everything will get smaller and lighter and will have more computing power packed into it.”

Magic Leap just unveiled its second-generation AR headset, Magic Leap 2, which is more compact, offers a wider field of vision and now has dimming features to better adjust in brightly lit settings. Among its many uses: overlaying digital images when a mechanic looks at a broken machine, so a worker can fix the machine more rapidly; or showing a 3D computer-generated map of the brain, heart or other organs, so a medical team can map out surgical pathways before an operation, Johnson said.

“I do think at some point we’ll look back and say, “Remember when we used to get surgeries without augmentation,” she said, liking that future shift to the way we look back now and wonder how we used to meet friends at a concert before cellphones.

Still, widespread consumer use of AR headsets remains a way off, partly because of the high price of the units, Johnson concedes. The Magic Leap 2 sells for nearly $3,300, for instance. Yet as the technology matures and prices drop, consumers might use it regularly maybe in five years, with contact lenses coming on strong maybe 10 years out – perhaps longer, Johnson said.

Yet opportunities abound now for computer programmers to develop applications for AR technology, and local schools can help in that regard by training needed talent, said Johnson. Indeed, Magic Leap, started by University of Miami alum Rony Abovitz, has an agreement with the university to help the company develop new uses. Students already use Magic Leap headsets in class, for example, for training simulations.

“This is the beginning of a new medium,” said Johnson, noting Apple, Amazon, Meta (formerly Facebook) and others are all pursuing AR and related fields. “We can make South Florida a center for mixed reality, augmented reality, virtual reality… We need content builders. We need more people to work on the next generation products too, so we have hardware and software needs.”

Trying on Magic Leap 2 headsets

The luncheon offered participants a chance to try on the new Magic Leap 2 headset, and venture capitalist Kat Wilson, for one, was impressed. “The visuals felt like a video game,” said the managing director of Miami Angels. “You could get a lot of data to use to make a decision quickly.”

UM sophomore Marcos Morales, a computer engineering student, liked how the colors are more vibrant and the peripheral vision much wider than the Magic Leap 1 seen he now uses at school. He works on campus, helping develop new applications for the AR product, such as visualizing vectors to help civil engineers figure out the direction and strength of forces that can affect buildings. “It’s really cool that I actually have a job coding,” said the 20-year-old from Tampa, thrilled he’s already working with AR.

Matt Haggman, the former journalist and Knight Foundation leader who now heads Opportunity Miami, led the conversation with Johnson and opened the floor for questions. In her responses, Johnson said Magic Leap now employs some 1,100 people, with headquarters and manufacturing in South Florida and offices in such US sites as Boulder and Austin and overseas in Israel. With more than $2 billion in funding to date, the 12-year-old company has money to operate for two years without raising extra capital, she added.

One attendee asked about Johnson’s personal transition to CEO of a smaller venture after having headed business development at Microsoft and working 24 years at Qualcomm, beginning as an engineer. She took the helm at Magic Leap in 2020 after the company had layoffs and began pivoting from a consumer focus.

Her answer brought applause: “There are so few female CEOs. It was very meaningful for me that I showed my daughter, you can be a CEO, and you can be a CEO in a tech field.”

READ MORE ON REFRESH MIAMI: Magic Leap 2 hits the market, and the UM community got a first look

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