Florida-based Magic Leap is a very mysterious company, by any standard. Founded in 2010 by Rony Abowitz. it has raised between $1.4 billion and $2 billion (depending on who you believe) in several rounds of financing. And all this without releasing a product. But in 2017 they did finally announce the forthcoming release a developer’s model and SDK, along with documentation and “learning resources” in 2018. Could this be one more to be added to our best VR list.
What they have developed is a display that projects light into the user’s eyes. This display is something between a full Head Mounted Display, of the kind that one sees with Virtual Reality, and a pair of glasses with attachments of the kind one sees on Augmented Reality hardware.
The company has raised $1.9 billion dollars in several funding rounds based on its R&D, the track record of its personnel and whatever technology it has demonstrated in private to its investors. And while we’re on the subject of investors, they include Google parent Alphabet, Alibaba and Qualcomm. And although not yet out there in the market with a product, they have been busy on several other fronts.
For example, on February 11, 2016, they joined the Entertainment Software Association and a week later they acquired the 3D division of Dacuda, a Swiss computer vision company. Then, in April of that year, they acquired Israeli cybersecurity company Northbit. Two months later, they announced a partnership with the R&D unit of Lucasfilm (a Disney subsidiary).
Although a highly secretive company, some of their known activities suggest that they are also a highly enterprising venture. For example, as far back as December 2014, they had appointed science fiction author Neal Stephenson as “Chief Futurist”. (How many companies have one of those.)
The company’s history is also quite unusual, if their Wikipedia entry is anything to go by:
According to past versions of its website, the startup evolved from a company named “Magic Leap Studios” which around 2010 was working on a graphic novel and a feature film series, and in 2011 became a corporation, releasing an augmented reality app at Comic-Con that year.
However, by late 2014, their publicly available patent and trademark applications suggested that they were aiming to create, not content but actual hardware – specifically augmented reality glasses. Moreover, the design of the product they have now released, suggests that they are aiming for a product that can superimpose a virtual image over a real-world view (i.e. augmented reality) whilst being able to block out the outside world when desired (i.e. virtual reality).
Magic Leap remains highly secretive about the technology, but analysts who have examined their patents have concluded that they use stacked silicon waveguides to project an image directly onto the retinas of the user’s eyes.
Early videos showing not the hardware but input through the device, suggested that it required further development. Overlaid “reflections” were not always where they were supposed to be and overlaid objects did not appear to be fully opaque and were therefore incapable of blocking out light from the real-world objects that they were in front of. This would prevent the Magic Leap from being fully immersive or even as versatile as augmented reality glasses ought to be.
But that was two years ago, and a lot of R&D has gone into this hardware since then.
Unfortunately, Magic Leap has still not given out any information on the price or release date. We know that it will need to be connected not to a computer, but to a dedicated device called a Lightpack. But we know very little else. The company says that the hardware will have sensors, but just what type and what they will “sense” remains a mystery. Visual sensors? Real-space location? Motion?
Magic Leap has hinted that the device will actually be able to “remember” an environment and recreate it later, or at least know how the environment is laid out. They also claim that the full caboodle will respond to voice and gestures and be able to track head and even eye positions. They also say it will have a handheld remote – although why it would need one if it can track gestures is not clear.
Evidently, then, this is a company that prefers to “get it right” behind closed-doors rather than release a kludgy, unfinished product. They have spent a lot of time getting it right and managed to raise a lot of money from companies that understand technology. If I were placing a bet on the breakthrough consumer technology company of 2018, Magic Leap would be a good candidate for my money.