CEO touts benefits of AR as ‘next level’ technology

Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson
By Michael R. Malone

Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson

CEO touts benefits of AR as ‘next level’ technology

By Michael R. Malone
Peggy Johnson, a veteran tech executive who joined Magic Leap last July, shared industry insights during a recent Knight Venture Leaders Lecture at the Miami Herbert Business School.

Peggy Johnson, CEO of Magic Leap, the spatial technology company partnered with the University of Miami, told a Miami Herbert Business School virtual audience on March 11 that the pandemic has proved to be a “tipping point” to catalyze its augmented reality (AR) technology.

Johnson, whose 35-year technology career includes extensive stints with Qualcomm and Microsoft, shared her experiences and insights with Dean John Quelch and some 300 virtual viewers as part of the school’s Knight Venture Leaders Lecture series.

“The pandemic has been a catalyst and tipping point for us,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you need an outward influence that highlights what a technology can do. Now, our job is to develop the uses to get the most out of it.”

Jeffrey L. Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, an engineer by profession who holds about 40 engineering patents, welcomed Johnson and noted the “strong collaborative effort” that has characterized the University’s partnership launched two years ago with Magic Leap.

“We’re happy to report that we now have about 40 projects in our strategic plan to enhance learning experiences, faculty research and scholarship, as well as faculty artistic endeavors through the use of spatial computing and the XR initiative,” Duerk said. “We’re committed to continue to expand this work with them.”

Johnson, who took over leadership of the firm last August, recognized that the company’s consumer-driven approach for its principal product—a head-mounted sensor-driven computer—had stalled and was further impacted by the economic downturn.

“We made several forays into the computer market, but people were looking for uses, and the technology, amazing as it is, suffered from lack of content,” she said, comparing the scenario to that of the cell phone that was, when first introduced, large, expensive, and with limited use.

The company used the interruption caused by the pandemic to shift its focus to enterprise driven, where a sales team locates lead users who help to develop and adopt the technology, prove its value, and convince leadership to invest.

Johnson offered two examples to highlight its revised approach. The first, a surgeon team at UC Davis Children’s Hospital who used the headset to prepare for a complex surgery to separate conjoined twins. CAT or CT scans of the brain were converted to 3D images and then integrated into the headsets. The operating team trained for months visualizing the surgical pathways that they eventually traced to perform the actual surgery.

Secondly, front-line workers, such as those new to a factory, donned the headsets to practice and train in their new jobs before being placed on the factory line itself.

She noted that the pandemic has caused an acceleration in demand for remote working solutions.

“While 2D video conferencing is fine in many instances, other companies need their teams to be together physically,” she said. “The idea of 3D meetings has really risen to the top, and we’re helping to take it to that next level, building a first-party app with a technology that’s just short of a physical meeting.”

Describing herself as a “people” person, Johnson did not underestimate the value, in business and elsewhere, of in-person meetings, yet noted that she has begun using the 3D technology app for board and team meetings.

“We’re going to continue to expand on these connections that make you feel like you’re in a room full of people and maybe tap into the talent on campus to help us understand what resonates with people, what makes them feel joyful again when they’re in a room full of people—whether physical or virtual,” Johnson said.

Quelch asked what she viewed as the most viable use for the AR technology.

“I used to focus on gaming, it’s fun and exciting and AR can take it to the next level,” she said. “But now it’s the 3D meetings, both for enterprise and consumer use—there’s quite a bit of tailwind behind that.”

Johnson said that her perspective on South Florida as a tech hub has changed completely and that pandemic has revealed that the tech world can thrive outside of the Silicon Valley.

“When I first visited Magic Leap in 2018 and toured the factory, I thought how little technology there was here, but it’s unbelievable how much has changed,” she said.

“It proves that technology and innovation can happen anywhere,” Johnson added. “I’m proud to be here, and that we’re going to stay.”