Meadows Alum Savannah Niles to Join Magic Leap, Groundbreaking “Cinematic Reality” Startup

Google invests $542 million into new venture

Tech websites and forums are ablaze with talk about Magic Leap, a new startup close to realizing “cinematic-reality,” a technological advance that would make it possible for virtual objects to appear in real life surroundings. Interest in the Florida-based Magic Leap, Inc. escalated after Google invested over a half-billion dollars into the venture in fall 2014. Magic Leap has also attracted heavy hitters from the tech, entertainment, gaming and film industries.

The buzz centers around whether Magic Leap will be able to rise above the current capabilities of augmented and virtual reality devices such as the Oculus Rift headset and Google Glass. According to Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz, Magic Leap aims to go “beyond the current perception of mobile computing, augmented reality and virtual reality … and revolutionize the way people communicate, purchase, learn, share and play.” One media outlet described Magic Leap’s early iterations of such a device as “a Google Glass on steroids that can seamlessly blend computer-generated graphics with the real world.”

Seven months prior to Google’s investment, Facebook paid $2 billion for virtual reality company Oculus, maker of the Oculus Rift.

Game on.

Savannah Niles: “Across the board strengths” propelled her from Meadows to MIT to Magic Leap

In the middle of all the excitement is Meadows alumna Savannah Niles. Niles received her B.F.A. in art and B.A. in creative computing from SMU Meadows School of the Arts in 2013; immediately after graduating, she entered MIT’s Media Lab graduate program, where she will receive her Master of Science degree this spring. Before graduating from MIT, Magic Leap hired her as a member of its interaction design team.

While at Meadows, Niles embraced the wide variety of classes. “Being at Meadows and working with Ira Greenberg [director of the Center of Creative Computation], Jay Sullivan [professor of sculpture], Brittany Ransom [assistant professor of digital/hybrid media and video art], and all my classmates taught me to have a kind of scattered curiosity,” says Niles.

Niles’ “scattered curiosity” is a definite plus, according to Greenberg. “While she was a student here she was able to work across multiple disciplines and challenging domains with a complete lack of bias,” he says. “Some students define and confine themselves to one area or another, but with Savannah, she never hesitated to enter any realm. We could talk mathematically, computationally, aesthetically, theoretically.

“She has across-the-board strengths.”

Niles says her time at Meadows was an important part of her career path. “The focus was on building thoughtful work in response to your own curiosities,” she says. “I really don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now if I’d gone to any other program.”

At MIT, Niles worked on a wide array of projects that happened to dovetail nicely into Magic Leap’s wheelhouse. “The work I’ve been able to do at the MIT Media Lab has been very ‘anti-disciplinary’ in the sense that I’ve been able to do research that is beyond and between fields,” she says. “I’ve worked on projects related to media technology, human-computer interaction, optical diagnostics and maternal health.”

At the time of this writing, Niles was preparing her thesis on how video can be optimized for “ambient and wearable displays,” small displays increasingly found in living, work and recreation environments and on devices carried or worn, such as mobile phones and smart watches. Because videos can be too distracting and too high-bandwidth for these kinds of devices, Niles developed technology to automatically turn video into “glyphs”—animated GIFs that are short, seamlessly looping and cinematic.

“Glyphs can preserve the richness or some affective quality of a video but reduce its cognitive load,” she says. “I’m really excited about the work, because it’s resulted in this incredibly expressive tool that I’ve now been able to give to artists, journalists, and activists to quickly create evocative, transmissible GIFs and video clips.”

In addition to glyphs, Niles has worked on medical and health technology projects such as augmenting breastfeeding pumps and creating a smartphone app that monitors blood pressure. Also, she and her Media Lab classmates created a system called “Glue,” which can extract data from audio, video and photographs. A trip through Niles’ personal website shows clear examples of her work to date. With a glance and a click, one can see her method of meshing art with technology and understand how the results can make the move from the lab into the world at large.

Niles feels right at home “in work that sometimes looks undecided,” she says. “I enjoy doing meaningful research in video processing, loop detection, segmentation, etc., but ultimately I’m concerned with a particular type of moving image, and its particular relationship to human feelings and attention.”

Niles will join Magic Leap in summer 2015.

Learn more about Savannah Niles and see samples of her projects.

Learn more about SMU Meadows Division of Art and the Center of Creative Computing.

Read more about Magic Leap or visit the Magic Leap website.