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'The Navigator's' life-size mech shows off Magic Leap's otherworldly potential

October 9, 2018 | By John-Michael Bond

October 9, 2018 | By John-Michael Bond
More: VR, Art, Design, Video, Sponsored Article, Magic Leap

Presented in partnership with Magic Leap. Tune into the L.E.A.P. keynote at 9 a.m. PT on Wednesday, October 10.

Magic Leap, the groundbreaking wearable pocket PC/augmented reality company, is holding its inaugural L.E.A.P. conference this week offering presentations and demos for industry professionals (follow Gamasutra's ongoing coverage here). Thanks to Magic Leap, we were able to attend the conference today to try some of those demos for ourselves.

Meow Wolf is a Santa Fe, New Mexico based art and entertainment collective that started in 2008. Its crew of almost 200 artists and developers specialize in creating vivid augmented reality scenarios, and The Navigator, on display at L.E.A.P. was a stunning example of how Magic Leap can be used to enhance these experiences. The demo we experienced during L.E.A.P. is a project in collaboration with developer Magnopus.

Set in a sci-fi future, The Navigator puts players in control of a space exploration mech, built to stunning life-size scale in the demo area. During the demo we were allowed to try two components of The Navigator experience; an augmented reality astronaut and a game riding atop a giant spaceship.

The Navigator's life-size mech was tough to fit in frame

Meow Wolf explained that the astronaut component of the demo was to show how Magic Leap could be used to show players cinematic quality, real figures in an augmented reality setting. They proved their point during the stunning demonstration. Upon putting the Magic Leap headset on I was greeted with a lifelike astronaut in a bulky, yet beautifully textured, suit. They moved around the space, jumped up in the air, and eventually pulled out a balloon with a heart on it to say goodbye.

"Utilized in a live game setting, this technology would make for unforgettable NPCs or haunting enemies alike."

While the astronaut wasn’t an interactive character in the experience, it was one of the most realistic and beautiful human forms we’ve seen in XR. No matter what angle we viewed the astronaut from the details were sharp, from reflections to stitches in the suit itself. Utilized in a live game setting, this technology would make for unforgettable NPCs or haunting enemies alike. It was easy to immediately get lost in the moment watching the astronaut move around.

Next up was The Navigator mech experience. Once you’ve settled into the driver’s saddle of the mech, almost like climbing on a horse, the Magic Leap headset calibrates your view. Suddenly a 3D projection of a star system appears in front of you.

You are an adventurer in a solar system living on a planet that once had three suns. When one of the suns explodes, players use the mech to help transport their people to a new solar system. The mech we played with was just one part of a massive installation that will be happening Denver in the near future. Taking up thousands of square feet, if The Navigator is any indication, Denver sci-fi fans are going to lose their minds when the exhibit opens.

In the exhibit, you’ll be asked to collaborate with other players in a two-person experience to save your people. Magic Leap will be used as an up-sale option, allowing customers willing to pay a little extra to receive an enhanced version of the overall experience.

The Navigator (simulated user experience)

During our limited mech demo, the merging of real-life art assets and bleeding edge augmented reality elevated a simple game into an immersive sci-fi experience. As someone who prefers action games, science levels have never been my cup of tea, but by utilizing the basic slider controls on the mech, I was suddenly completely invested as a player in a simple match game.

Players press buttons on the console of the mech, listening for a subtle musical cue that lets them know they’ve selected the correct path. Using a dial, players then line up their routes with stars in the system. During our adventure, we saw beautiful maps, discovered a wormhole that exploded in a sudden burst of psychedelic wonder, and got a feel for how The Navigator will put players headfirst into the experience.

The possibilities that come to mind after the experience are incredible, from educational applications to an anime nerd's dream of flying their own Gundam some day. The Navigator experience on its own is a phenomenal combination of art and technology, but when coupled with the design work found in the mixed reality astronaut, this demo showed the possibility of using augmented reality in a storytelling scenario. We didn’t get to interact with the astronaut, but the idea of seeing the character we met today sucked out of a airlock or shot in combat is harrowing. It felt like a man in a spacesuit was in the room, and creating that sense of presence is something many VR games struggle with.

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