In December 2012 (12/12/12, no less), Rony Abovitz – co-founder of the pioneering robotics company, MAKO Surgical Corp, and a fledgling augmented technology company named Magic Leap – gave a TEDx Talk with a difference. After 2 minutes of introductory, atmospheric music, and another 2 minutes of two people dressed in monster suits jumping around a ‘Space Fudge’ monolith to the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Abovitz – dressed in a spacesuit – spoke just three sentences:
Greetings. A few awkward steps for me, a magic leap for mankind. Before I begin my talk today, I would like to present today’s ancient and magical keyword: phydre.
As soon as this ‘magical keyword’ had been uttered, a hardcore band in the background fired up, the monsters revealed multiple placards (a la Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video) with ‘fudge’ written on them. Song finishes, lights out.
Here it is, in all it’s WTF finery:
Fast forward a few years, and Rony Abovitz and his company Magic Leap are now the big story in technology, making the cover of the latest issue of Wired. Funders including Google, Warner Brothers, J.P. Morgan and Qualcomm have coughed up billions of dollars to become involved in Magic Leap, which is producing a ‘Mixed Reality’ device (or, as the Wikipedia article describes it, “a head-mounted virtual retinal display which superimposes 3D computer-generated imagery over real world objects, by projecting a digital light field into the user’s eye”).
The big mystery with Magic Leap has been the amount of venture capital it has raised, without ever showing off the device publicly – leading many to suggest that perhaps they might be pulling off one of the great cons in history. However, Kevin Kelly, in writing the recent cover story in Wired, was given access to the device and was left impressed – so it seems the technology is very real.
Here’s a promo video recently released by the company purportedly showing off the functionality:
Now that Abovitz is centre stage in the technology world, perhaps it’s worth revisiting that odd TEDx talk, presented just a couple of years after he formed Magic Leap. While most people have simply written it off as an eccentricity, or perhaps a piss-take on TED talks in general, Abovitz himself “swears there is a coherent message embedded in it; figure it out, he says, and he’ll give you a yo-yo.” And a commenter on the TEDx page for the talk says “I have signed a F.U.D.G.E. agreement with Magic Leap which forbids me from divulging too much, but I can assure you, pay close attention to this talk.”
And at least one person does seem to have set out to figure things out. In a post on Medium, computer scientist Devon Strawn has broken down the TED talk to try and eke out some meaning:
The TEDx “un-talk” was just one part of the imaginary world that Magic Leap built over the past few years. Magic Leap’s founders and early employees are all creatives whose need to share is a fundamental part of their DNA. But they’re also a tech company in stealth, so they must keep their work secret, lest the tech titans catch sight of their taillights.
The compromise seems to have been an artistic form of cryptography — encoding and obfuscating their vision in such a way that in hindsight it’s obvious what they were hinting at — given the right “key” to decode the message.
For instance, Strawn points out that as Abovitz takes to the stage in his astronaut outfit, in the background a screen shows a parade of 0s and 1s. Is this a message hidden in binary?
(I do wonder if Strawn is just an interested bystander, or if he knows Abovitz or is even writing on his behalf. His article seems to have deeper insights than you’d expect from someone just watching the TEDx talk – and it’s perhaps worth noting that Strawn’s LinkedIn page lists him as “Chief Rabble-Rouser” at Secret Robot, “Experimenting with cutting-edge VR, AR, and Mixed Reality technologies.”)
Check out the original TEDx talk, and Strawn’s essay about it, and see if you can make any sense of it all. I’m sure some of the code-cracking minds out there would enjoy the challenge. You might win yourself a yo-yo after all…