Wacom and Magic Leap are creating an optimistic vision of the future of productivity

You’ve most likely seen some iteration of the image above before, in overreaching tech concept videos preaching the possibilities of the collaborative workspace of the future. It’s easy to brush off these imaginings because they’re still just photoshopped images depicting what seemed like a distant reality. But after having tried Wacom and Magic Leap’s prototype collaborative design tools, I can say that these renderings are a pretty accurate representation of what I experienced.

The Wacom and Magic Leap partnership was first announced at the inaugural L.E.A.P. developers’ conference held last October, at which the two companies showed a prototype workflow experience that had been in development for two years. Wearing a Magic Leap One headset connected to a Wacom Intuos Pro pen tablet, designers can use the separate three-button Pro Pen 3D stylus to control their content on a platform called Spacebridge, which streams 3D data into a spatial computing environment. The program allows multiple people in a room to interact with the content, with the ability to view, scale, move, and sketch in the same environment. The goal is to provide an intuitive design sharing process for designers working with 3D models across a variety of industries, from automotive and industrial design, to film and video games.

At CES, I got to try on a Magic Leap headset and experience a mock design review session guided by Amber Goelst, who oversees user experience and innovation strategy at Wacom. This being my first time trying on an augmented reality headset, I had downplayed my expectations based on previews from colleagues who had deemed the headset underwhelming, at least for a Google-backed company that raised $2.3 billion during development.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the images seemed to be integrated into the physical space, and how natural the experience felt. I could understand how the Magic Leap One’s 50-degree diagonal field of view might feel small or constrained for immersive games or full-room experiences like Tonandi, since you can only see a certain amount of the digital additions to the real world. But seeing the same sort of defined canvas in these glasses that you’d normally see on the screen of a Wacom display or within computer monitors in a physical space, makes the work feel less overwhelming and more approachable. You’re basically looking at a computer screen in AR, so the expectations aren’t as high for an immersive experience.

 CG rendering by Transparent House

Standing on the other side of the room, Goelst pulled up a 3D design of a rocket ship in the space between us, and had me use the Intuos tablet and stylus to interact with it. Pressing the middle button on the stylus pulled up the menu, which featured basic functions like move, color, and pen tools. Pressing the forward button repeatedly swapped through my move tools, giving me access to tools like rotate and scale. It felt more manageable to control my environment using a tool I was used to, rather than a standard VR controller that comes with a learning curve. It took a few tries to grab onto the spaceship, and some of my actions were sometimes unresponsive (the program is still in beta), but I could instantly understand how this could be used in real-world applications.

The headset creates the digital objects you’re looking at using a polygonal mesh, which allows the pen stylus to scale and move them seamlessly. It also allows for inking on real and digital objects, so we practiced rotating and disassembling the spaceship, as well as drawing on it and each others’ faces. Here’s a glimpse of what that looked like, recorded through Goelst’s headset:

 Wacom/Magic Leap
CG model by Jeff Smith, Autodesk

Off to the side of the spaceship was a virtual whiteboard which both of us could write on with our styluses. It’s a small part of a digital environment Goelst calls “persistent content,” which refers to the notes and annotations made, as well as the 3D content viewed during a team brainstorming session that can be pulled up again when you put the headset back on. “It’s almost like you’re relaunching that room, and how it was from your perspective at that session,” Goelst says. Spacebridge’s purpose is to create an immersive studio for teammates to collaborate within. In the future, Magic Leap imagines it being used for collaboration across global teams, even if they’re not in the same room.

At $2,295 for a single Magic Leap One headset though, it’s not exactly within reach for most consumers. Magic Leap and Wacom say they’re currently working with design agencies and other firms to test out creative software capabilities, and one of Magic Leap’s biggest supporters is Weta Workshop, a design and manufacturing studio that’s created props for movies like Lord of the Rings and Mad Max, as well as AR games like Magic Leap’s early Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders demo. The studio has been one of the first to try out Spacebridge. Not coincidentally, Richard Taylor, CEO of Weta Workshop, has been on the Magic Leap board of directors since the company was founded in 2010.

I’ve always found today’s VR headsets to be kind of isolating, and I’ve never been particularly excited by demos of people playing interactive AR games while holding up their iPads. Maybe all of Magic Leap’s grandiose promises might be underwhelming to some who expected to use it for completely immersive entertainment experiences. That’s fair — but the company’s partnership with Wacom signals it may be serious about creating collaborative environments that are actually useful for professionals. At the very least, it could bring some practicality to the hype.