Magic Leap is secretly building a headset that could blend computer graphics with the real world. And recently, the world lucked into a treasure trove of illustrations from Magic Leap about what that future might hold. There's just one problem: Magic Leap didn't actually create all those awesome UI concepts. It copied them.
The images speak for themselves. On the left of each of these comparison shots, you'll see an illustration plucked directly from this Magic Leap patent application. On the right, you'll find a screengrab from an awesome UI concept invented by someone else.
Remember Sight, the incredible student film where a man with bionic eyes plays Fruit Ninja with a real cucumber that becomes part of his meal? Same cucumber. Same everything:
Or how about the Ringo Holographic Interface dreamt up by then-UI-design-student Ivan Tihienko in 2008?
Here's a augmented reality concept from interaction designer Joesph Juhnke called
"The Future of Firefighting":
And below, one from designer Michaël Harboun and his team called The Aeon Project. "What if you could travel to exotic, far-away destinations while being stuck in traffic?"
Lastly, two images from "Meditating Mediums - The Digital 3D," which was the graduating thesis for Greg Tran at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He now designs for Samsung.
This might also look familiar:
I can't take credit for discovering these: we were tipped off to this Imgur post by one DoctorCosmos, who appears to be Metaio head of biz dev Brendan Scully. Metaio builds augmented reality technology, so that could explain how DoctorCosmos caught on.
But I did reach out to the designers who created the original UI concepts, and three of them told us they'd never been contacted by Magic Leap about using their work. (In fact, one of them hadn't heard of Magic Leap at all.)
When I spoke to John Ferrell, a prominent Silicon Valley patent attorney, he told me the situation was highly unusual: patent attorneys generally insist that all images included in a patent filing are original work. It's risky to copy an image because the Patent Office might throw out your application.
"If you're copying a picture of someone else's and including it in your patent, it's probably not patentable," Ferrell explained to me. The picture could count as prior art that could invalidate Magic Leap's claim. "The figure is used to describe and explain the invention, so if you're using someone else's figure, what you're describing is likely not an invention," says Ferrell.
But Magic Leap isn't trying to patent what's in the pictures—only the mechanism that creates those user interfaces.
Which is exactly what Magic Leap told me when I asked them:
"Images like some of those we used were taken from entertainment, medical, education, commerce, and a variety of others areas. Images such as these are setting consumer expectations of VR and AR today. We wanted to use the same images to demonstrate what our technology will enable. Our patents are around the technology, not the images."
"We were thinking Star Wars chess could have been used too, and think how cool that would have been."
And even if Magic Leap blatently copied these images, it might be hard to sue the company for copyright infringement. For one thing, Ferrell says that the pictures could fall under the fair use exemption if they're merely commenting on the original work. For another, says Farrell, it'd be pretty hard to prove that copying these images is doing any harm.
It's possible that the UI designers won't be angry, even might be flattered, now that a company with £360 million in funding is actually building a way to realise their dreams.
"On one hand I feel a little concerned about how they literally copy/pasted this without even reaching out," Michaël Harboun tells me, without prompting. "But on the other hand, I'm extremely excited about this upcoming medium and all the opportunities it'll create for designers and developers."
"Aeon was a far-fetched student project imagined in 2010, and five years later it's sitting in a patent application. That I think is pretty mind blowing."