The latest immersive production from Magic Leap Studios finally got its debut on Monday at Siggraph, during which the company also released the app to the general public, so we took it for a spin.
It's called Undersea, and its goal is to submerge you in a virtual environment that makes it seem as though your surroundings have been suddenly sunken to the bottom of the ocean.
Before we get into the app itself, it's worth mentioning a potential hurdle you might encounter that stopped me from immediately downloading it. When I first saw the announcement, I fired up my Magic Leap One and went to the Magic Leap World app section to download it but couldn't find it.
After trying a bunch of tricks, including the most simple — multiple restarts — I hopped online to see if anyone else was having trouble. It turns out I'm not the only early Magic Leap One user who couldn't find the app.
Thankfully, a Magic Leap team member offered a fix via Twitter. If you don't see the Undersea app as available on your device, go to https://id.magicleap.com and enter your home country and billing address. I gave Magic Leap those details long ago, so I'm not sure why this glitch came up. Nevertheless, after I entered that information, the Undersea app appeared and was available as a free download.
Magic Leap is promoting the app as a room-scale experience, and while that's certainly true, I've tested it in several environments, and it doesn't seem to need as much space (read: massive space) as, for example, Dr. Grordbort's Invaders. Still, to get the full effect, you'll want to be in a fairly spacious room of at least 15-20 square feet.
Getting up and running is simple, as you're guided to scan the room (including floor and ceiling) by following underwater-style prompts that mimic the gamification set-up process of Create.
When you're finished scanning, you get three underwater environments to choose from: Trench, Shipwreck, and Plane Wreck. Each environment is slightly different, but they all appear to deliver the same kind of experience.
Once you've selected your environment, a portal, framed as though it naturally emerged from the nearest wall, opens up and shows you a vast undersea world of sea life. But time is also part of the experience, because the longer you allow the experience to run, the more it begins to seep through the portal and gradually make your real world a part of its underwater habitat.
The first visitor in one experience is a clownfish, and the second it penetrates the invisible barrier between its world and yours the ambient (and quite soothing) music score hits a quick high note to let you know something has changed.
Those changes increase with every minute. Soon, full coral growth is situated next to you, and a wide variety of fish enter your space (again, through the portal) to begin populating your area.
One particularly neat feature is how the app uses hand tracking to trick your mind into believing that you now exist in an undersea environment. For example, at one point, while wearing the Magic Leap One with the experience running, I decided to type a note and noticed that bubbles were flowing from my hands as I typed.
Similarly, if I just waved my hand in mid-air, I was treated to the same kind of motion bubbles you'd see if you were actually underwater.
The next surprise is a spoiler of sorts, so skip to the next section if you already have a Magic Leap One and want to try this for yourself. It turns out that the app also uses hand tracking to allow you to interact with the fish. So when I'd reach out to touch one, it flitted away, startled, just like a normal fish.
I wasn't expecting that, so I jumped a bit when it happened, thus bolstering the overall realism. And, because not all fish are terrified of humans, I even found one fish that followed my hand and was either trying to make friends or looking for virtual food.
Although many seemed to enjoy Tónandi, and I think I understood the intent of the producers, it's never been one of my favorite apps. On the contrary, for me, Undersea delivers more of the meditative, otherworldly interactive AR experience I've been hoping to see more of.
The Magic Leap Studios team did a great job with this title, but I still have a few things I'd like to see in a future update. First, the fact that there are only three experiences, all which seem to be fairly similar, was a slight letdown. I want to see more of the variety of the undersea universe.
Also, while it was great to see hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles swimming in the distance through the portal, it would be very cool to allow some of those creatures to swim up next to me, just like the smaller fish. (If that is indeed a feature, and I just needed to let the app run for another couple of hours, then my apologies in advance.)
Finally, I noticed that I could jump to other apps and then return to Undersea from where I left off, no need to set everything back up. That's pretty cool, but it would be cooler if I could stay in my Undersea world while using other apps. (I assume this is due to processor limitations, but, again, if there's a way to do this that I've overlooked, I welcome an update from Magic Leap with more information.)
Undersea isn't the type of app that will immediately blow everyone away, I think that's more up to gaming and media apps. But for experienced AR users, there's a lot of value here. I've spent many, many hours in AR and VR apps that promise to transport you to another world. Usually, VR delivers, and AR falls a bit short in that department.
But the less is more approach the Undersea team took with this title works. The experience really remakes your reality into something peaceful and serene — effectively marrying cutting-edge technology with a sensory experience that feels like a bit of a disconnect from the information-packed real world.
Ultimately, Undersea allows you to get lost many leagues under its virtual ocean, without losing your breath, or your grip on the real world around you.