Metaverse. Metaverse. Metaverse.

Say it three times fast, and you’ll still be confused about the promise of this much-hyped digital world where we’ll apparently work, hang out and more.

Yet Peggy Johnson, chief executive of Magic Leap, can see it clearly. She doesn’t even have to put on the company’s high-tech headset.

Ms….

Metaverse. Metaverse. Metaverse.

Say it three times fast, and you’ll still be confused about the promise of this much-hyped digital world where we’ll apparently work, hang out and more.

Yet Peggy Johnson, chief executive of Magic Leap, can see it clearly. She doesn’t even have to put on the company’s high-tech headset.

Ms. Johnson, who took over the reins of the embattled startup in 2020, sees a future where we put on augmented-reality glasses and view digital information projected within our real world. No more would we be constantly sucked out of the world to stare at a screen in our hand or on our desk or wall.

(Reminder: While a virtual-reality headset blocks out the world so you can escape, augmented-reality goggles add a layer onto it. Think of the windshield heads-up display found in many cars today.)

The Magic Leap 2 headset and computer is expected to ship later this year.
Photo: Magic Leap

After 25 years at
Qualcomm,
Inc. and then six more at Microsoft Corp. as its chief deal maker, the 60-year-old CEO redirected Magic Leap to focus on enterprise customers and business-use customers for its still nascent technology. The Magic Leap 2 headset, expected to ship later this year, is designed to be lighter than its predecessor, with better optics and audio.

The Wall Street Journal spoke to Ms. Johnson about the industries already making AR a reality and what it will take to get glasses that don’t look like a total nerd helmet.

Our lives are dominated by screens. Why do we need augmented-reality glasses?

Right now, we sit in a stationary spot, and we interact through a keyboard with a PC. Augmented reality is going to change that whole paradigm. You’ll be able to look at your physical world and interact with digital content that sits in your physical world. The opportunity is to have a heads-up view and be able to have useful tools embedded in your physical world that will help you get your job done. It’ll help you do things in shorter amounts of time because you’ll have these digital cues helping you.

Magic Leap glasses were used in a demonstration of Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire electric motorcycle during the CES trade show in 2019.
Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Magic Leap headsets are already being used on the job. What industries are benefiting from AR?

We have a number of healthcare companies using it because it very precisely and accurately can place digital content in front of their eyes.

For instance, we have a company named Brainlab who’s using it. They scan an image of your brain, and a 3-D image of your brain is now in front of your eyes and it can be used as a pre-surgical planning tool. You can draw the surgical pathway that you want to take.

Another company called SentiAR creates live, interactive 3-D visuals of patient’s hearts during cardiac-ablation procedures, which are performed to correct heart-rhythm problems. Typically, that’s done with a surgeon feeding the tube in but looking at a 2-D screen. Now, they have the ability to map your heart—the actual live heart—in front of your eyes while they’re inserting the catheter, and that just improves accuracy, navigation abilities.

Beyond that, we have a variety of manufacturing scenarios. We think it’s going to be a real tool for the factory worker. You can almost think of it as a computer on their eyes. Their hands are still free to do their job but, for instance, the worker can walk up to a physical machine. Above it can be displayed digitally the statistics of the machine: The up time, the down time, there can be a red flag that says it’s time for maintenance.

‘This idea of 3-D collaboration with others who may be in the room or maybe a continent away is going to be an application that drives consumer use,’ Ms. Johnson says.
Photo: Alfonoso Duran for The Wall Street Journal

With Magic Leap 2, you’ve made hardware improvements but it still requires you to wear a headset that’s attached to a mini-computer on your waist. What are the biggest roadblocks to getting to sleek-looking glasses?

To some degree, we think of this as an advantage. We’ve taken the heat and the weight and put it down on your waistband or your pocket. That has allowed us to make the headset only about 250 grams, about 20% lighter than our Magic Leap 1.

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You can draw an analogy between AR and mobile phones. When they first came out, they were big and they got smaller over time. A lot of that was component reduction and silicon integration. So those two things have to happen. It’ll be a few years before we can get to an eyeglasses format. But clearly, that’ll open up a consumer market in a big way and that’s definitely what we’re focused on.

Speaking of consumers, what will be the killer app that gets us all wanting to put these types of devices on our faces?

Enterprise customers were really the first users of mobile phones. I was in that industry back then, and they wanted longer battery life, smaller, lighter, all of those things. So we’ll take all that feedback in and use it as we begin to design Magic Leap 3.

I do think—and particularly because we’re coming out of a pandemic and we’re living in a hybrid world—this idea of 3-D collaboration with others who may be in the room or maybe a continent away is going to be an application that drives consumer use. It could be talking to your grandma on the other coast or it could be talking to your co-workers. To make meetings come to life seems to be the thing that will really drive usage into a consumer format.

A detail view of the Magic Leap 2 headset.
Photo: Magic Leap

We’re hearing a lot about the promise of the metaverse. What’s your outlook on it all?

There are great use cases for virtual reality. A lot of them are around entertainment, training, that sort of thing. It’s somewhat limited because when you’re fully occluded, you’re limited and you can’t move around as easily.

When you can see your physical world and interact with the digital content, that’s the true promise of the metaverse. The technology should just blend in. I think the pandemic will push us more toward that because we have been heads-down for two years and on these little screens.

It’s 2030. What do your job and industry look like?

Maybe I don’t come to work. Maybe I put on my glasses and have meetings. We’re all sort of doing that now since the pandemic but the experience would just be a lot more natural, as if I’m actually in the room with people. The technology is headed there.

Hopefully that is the world we’ll be in in 2030 and we will be back to a heads-up world and not looking down at a little screen in our hands. Our hands will be free to interact with that digital content in our physical world.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com