There’s a crate in the corner of Magic Leap founder and CEO Rony Abovitz’s office. “Inside that box is Hiro’s samurai sword from Snow Crash.” [Snow Crash is the seminal 1992 novel by Neal Stephenson which introduced the idea of the “metaverse” into popular culture.] “That is the one of one, actual sword, officially spec’d out by Neal,” said Abovitz, 48. Stephenson is now Magic Leap’s resident futurist. Abovitz promised to make him the sword when he joined the company in 2014, and it’s finally arrived. The gifting ceremony is pending. “That’s the nerdiest thing I think I’ve ever done,” Abovitz proudly says.
“It’s taken almost five years for a master swordsman to make this sword.” Abovitz continued. “It’s not a prop. It’s been folded over 20,000 times. You could go to war with that thing. Isn’t that awesome?” Abovitz beams beneath a mop of thinning, curly gray hair and a yarmulke. Behind him are other props, drawings, and a full-size ray gun model created for the first seminal Magic Leap experience, “Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders,” made by Magic Leap and Weta Workshop in New Zealand.
The Beginning of The Beginning
According to his college classmates, Abovitz was a combination of semi-serious alternative artist (he was a cartoonist for the U. Miami paper, “The Hurricane”), and part serious engineer. He got his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and his M.S. in Biomedical Engineering. Abovitz left the Ph.D. program at U. Miami (he continues to have a close relationship with the school) to start Z-Kat, an R&D think tank he created in his now-wife’s grad student apartment. Perhaps most unexpectedly, Abovitz was also a college athlete at Miami, which is a highly competitive Division I school. He walked onto the track team as a freshman and eventually was invited to join the team as a javelin thrower, one of his proudest accomplishments. In many ways, Abovitz is a prototypical nerd, but in other ways, not. There is always an unexpected twist.
“I used to haunt [computer graphics convention] SIGGRAPH when I was a grad student in the early 90s,” he says. VR was a hot topic then. Jaron Lanier, creator of VPL, famous for creating the “data glove,” and Bran Ferren, Disney’s then-VR guru, were pushing the edge of what could be accomplished with the bulky technology of the time, and they showed it off at SIGGRAPH. “The Imagineers were a huge inspiration. I was super inspired by books like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and movies like The Matrix.” Years later, both Stephenson and John Gaeta, who won an Oscar for the mind-bending visuals of The Matrix, would join Magic Leap’s staff.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, Abovitz explored every VR system he could as a possible robotic surgery visualization solution. Doctors have long complained of “screen pollution,” where needed information requires them to look away from the patient to check a monitor. Surgical visualization of robotic instruments on another two-dimensional screen aggravated an existing problem. “Magic Leap would have been an amazing solution to have then and through the work of our amazing partners in the medical field it soon will be.”
One of the things I find most interesting about Abovitz is that he’s never worked for anyone else, other than his board of directors. He did odd jobs as a kid. He worked for his dad. He had an internship, but never a boss. Mako’s rise to a public company, and its subsequent acquisition by Stryker Surgical for $1.65 BN in 2013, was a sixteen-year marathon, punctuated by moments of terror when things were almost derailed, first by the terrorist attack of 9/11, then by the financial crisis in fall of 2008.
For Abovitz, Stryker’s acquisition of Mako was a watershed event in many ways. First, it gave him long-awaited financial security, because CEOs of public companies like Mako can only sell shares slowly and in certain windows. Following the acquisition, Abovitz was liquid. He used the money to pay off student loans and to buy a comfortable house, where he built a music studio. Abovitz spent long hours there, playing music, and thinking about what he really wanted to do. He painted Magic Leap on the wall when it was nothing more than a compelling idea.
“When I was at Mako, we did robotic surgery, really serious stuff. FDA-level. But to me, it was like I was doing Star Wars droids. So my mindset was really different from all the other people in the field,” Abovitz explained. “I’m making Star Wars droids, and I’m inside the med-tech world, trying to mentally integrate where I’m coming from. I would go from SIGGRAPH, to bone and joint meetings, and neuroscience meetings. But my brain wasn’t there, it was in the movie world… the medical device world doesn’t really blend creativity and technology in the same way.”
[Author’s note: in 2010, Dr. Arthur Kobrine used Mako’s robotic microsurgery tools at Sibley Hospital in Washington, DC, to save my life when three discs in my neck collapsed. I never thought to ask Dr. Kobrine about the tools he used until I heard of Mako.]
Abovitz characterizes the period of 2011–2013 as “serious garage days,” but emphasized he was not alone in his explorations. He had contacted Weta Workshop in 2011, which he describes as “adopting him.” With Richard Taylor (who later became a Magic Leap board member) and Greg Broadmore, Abovitz began to develop what would become “Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders,” which had a great influence on the development of the Magic Leap One on the other side of the world.
After the acquisition of Mako, things began to happen quickly. “No matter who you are, when you start something, including Z-Kat, you can’t do it alone. Entrepreneurs have to have partners. They have teams of people. The early people are so important.” Even though the company is made in his image, Abovitz insists the credit for creating Magic Leap lies with his collaborators more than himself.
As the Magic Leap idea began to coalesce, Abovitz undertook a quixotic journey, iterating his ideas about spatial computing with artists, filmmakers, authors, engineers, and geeky friends who spent hours with him on the phone and in the divey restaurants he prefers for their anonymity. As he refined his vision, Abovitz carefully broke the problems into pieces, and looked for solutions and workarounds, and the people who could help figure it out. When pressed about this… well, magic leap… to a broader conception of AR, Abovitz demurs. “I just wanted to make something really cool, and thought it would be awesome to really do it.”
The Four Wise Men
Abovitz credits four people for helping him refine the Magic Leap vision into reality in those early days: Richard Taylor of Weta Workshop, Sam Miller, formerly of NASA, his friend Graham Macnamara, a physicist who went to Caltech and Scott Hassan, who has been characterized as “Google’s unknown third creator.” He introduced the companies in 2014.
“I got to give credit to my cynical friend [Graham Macnamara],” said Abovitz. “We’d get into these eight-hour debates about things… And he’s like, well, you got to do the real thing if you’re going to do it.” Macnamara, now Magic Leap’s Chief Creative Scientist, has been friends with Abovitz since ninth grade. He went on to study theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Miami but became disillusioned with academia. He wanted to do something more practical than physics but resisted Abovitz’s entreaties to join Mako. Macnamara was exploring an alternative career in architecture when Abovitz started to puzzle through how Magic Leap might work with him.
“The brilliant thing with Graham was, at some point, we stopped arguing about, is it physics or biology? We decided it was somehow both. Which I don’t think our industry still understands. And that’s probably the most important thing about Magic Leap… our number one science obsession in the company,” Abovitz says.
Macnamara and Abovitz set out to “to properly fool the brain” in order to create multi-planar spatial computing. To do this they broke down problems to be solved. “We tackled every problem, laid them all out,” Macnamara told me. Unsurprisingly, hardware presents a number of challenges. “Optics are the last hurdle. Only a true multi-planar light field display can merge information and abstraction with the real world convincingly,” said Macnamara. At the time their ideas seemed strange to him, almost psychedelic. “Rony’s brain defaults to the future and then he works backward.”
Macnamara was already working on Magic Leap’s first patents when Abovitz connected with a NASA scientist, Sam Miller. There emerged a white paper that “pulled together all the ideas about spatial computing that have been science fiction stuff for years and turned it into a product,” said Macnamara. After a year of working on the initial technical patents as a contractor, he became one of Magic Leap’s first twenty-five employees.
Abovitz describes an apocryphal visit to a friend in Hollywood who ran a music label and guided him to meet “the right kind of people, who wouldn’t eat me alive,” not those would smell his fanboy enthusiasm and pick his pocket. Abovitz bemusedly relates how he prepared for the trip by binging Entourage and watching Swimming with Sharks. Storytelling and movies are deeply embedded in Abovitz’ psyche, even though his own system is not yet fully capable of telling the kinds of stories that inspire him. In addition to John Gaeta, a lot of the senior creative people at Magic Leap have a background in entertainment and movies.
No one compares to the relationship with and influence of Richard Taylor of Weta. “I had found kindred souls on the other side of the world,” Abovitz told me. Weta is the design and special effects shop founded by director Peter Jackson to create the award-winning special effects in movies like The Hobbit. Based in Auckland, New Zealand, Weta now hosts a team of embedded Magic Leap employees, mostly technical, who work shoulder to shoulder with the creatives there. “Here at Magic Leap, we have a lot of ultra high-end tech and software people,” said Abovitz. “But they need to be combined with creative minds. They are in New Zealand, far away — off the grid in a way — and we want that. They don’t limit what they are attempting for financial reasons, necessarily. When they go for things, they do it because they want the best,” he said.
Abovitz met Sam Miller at the Conference on the Future of Engineering Software, which is presented by Miller’s grandfather, the legendary software designer Joel Orr. Miller was a ten-year NASA veteran, having started as an intern and worked his way up to Creative Scientist. A Ph.D. with a knack for hacking the government from the inside, Miller worked on a range of projects, from cybersecurity to rockets and robots, which made him a perfect collaborator for Abovitz, who seems to have a talent for finding talent exactly when he needs it. When I talked to Miller in December 2018, he told me our conversation was taking place exactly seven years to the date he met Abovitz and found a mission big enough, hard enough, and compelling enough to entice him away from NASA.
Miller was dragged into the Hollywood phase of ideation as well. “Some of those people are crazy. I mean really crazy. Crazier than we are,” said Miller, describing his conversations with Abovitz’s non-technical creative advisors.
Like Macnamara, like Abovitz, Miller has a romantic side and a practical, engineering side. It took a year of talking about spatial computing with Abovitz, of breaking it down into can I do this? “Talking is exciting, but you don’t leave the best job in the world, drag your family to Florida, literally change your life for an idea. You have to get there technologically. It’s world-class talent, inspired by vision, and execution. There are hundreds of difficult little pieces, but by breaking it down we make impossible merely complicated,” he said. I hear that the phrase, “make the impossible merely difficult,” from a lot of Leapers.
Magic Leap’s vision of how devices will work and interact with the world around them is far beyond the capabilities of the company’s current developer version, the Magic Leap One Creator Edition. It’s beyond even what most forward-looking reviewers could imagine. To understand Magic Leap, you have to look past the device to the coming convergence of technologies that will make wearable invisible computing commonplace.
The device is the least important part. It’s an AR enabler. Abovitz prefers the term “spatial computing” to “augmented” or “mixed” reality, because AR is associated with smartphones, and MR has been appropriated by Microsoft, obfuscating its original meaning. The company says the Magic Leap headset is a “location-based” device, because it is constantly scanning the world around it, partly to map it, but also to detect an invisible, digital “layer,” sometimes called “the spatial web,” or “AR Cloud,” and “register” (or “anchor,” in the parlance of mobile AR) the content of the layer onto the real world. The vision consists of three distinct elements: ubiquitous 5G networks, layers, or geolocated cloud content, and more advanced AI-enabled devices, which would access the layers when needed. The company calls this promised land “The Magicverse,” which is part tech and part Abovitz’s meticulous yet fantastical vision of the future.
Much has been said about Magic Leap’s years of secrecy, always catnip to the press, especially after securing half a billion dollars of investment from Google and attracting elite tech, financial and entertainment investors. In a 2014 profile, The South Florida Business Journal quoted Abovitz as saying “In our industry, there are so many competing companies and games, and they have people constantly out spying on the competition.” Abovitz says that entire story is bull. Not what he said, and not what he meant.
“We wanted to create the kind of anticipation that special event movies like Star Wars or Game of Thrones have, where people wait in line overnight to be the first to see it. I thought that would be really cool,” he said. Unfortunately, this was taken another way by the press, which even now doesn’t seem to fully comprehend Abovitz and Magic Leap. I’m not going to lie. I’ve talked to him and John Gaeta for hours. What they are doing and thinking is not as obvious to the rest of us as they think.
For the next four and a half years, only an eclectic group of people were offered the opportunity to taste spatial computing using a bulky machine that Leapers call “The Beast,” at Magic Leap HQ in Plantation, Florida. Guests included celebrities, filmmakers, pop stars, athletes, investors, potential investors, politicians, and strategic partners like AT&T. To this day, an invitation to Plantation confers great status on the recipient. Abovitz is surprised to hear me say this. I am not surprised he is surprised.
I have always been sympathetic to Magic Leap. Building a new operating system, a new optical system, and a custom chipset in four years is unbelievable. Hardware is hard, complicated, and mad expensive. Pulling that off for even $2.3 B seems remarkable, given the time and money Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Google have spent solving similar problems. I said so in several columns in Forbes. That, probably more than anything, is why I was sitting with Abovitz and Gaeta in Plantation, FL, in November of 2018, interviewing them for this book.
Companies like Apple and Microsoft are also good at keeping secrets. Apple’s secret plans for its AR glasses are the subject of relentless rumors. Apple and Microsoft are massive organizations with tens of thousands of employees in locations distributed around the world. Projects are broken into pieces and one group often doesn’t know another. Projects can be more easily hidden this way, even from the people working on them.
However, these giants are not simultaneously raising $2.3 billion dollars, which requires the company to put on a show. The press, which had been kept at arm’s length, was quick to pounce when it was revealed a Magic Leap promotional video was made by Weta. At the same time, Microsoft was releasing cinematic science fiction shorts about future use cases for the HoloLens, featuring an intelligent digital assistant embodied as a flying eyeball and latency-free 3D telepresence with remote participants on different continents. No one cared much about that. When Magic Leap showed a special effects-laden concept video made by Weta they were buried in a tidal wave of snark and derision that took the company by surprise. The tech press has not been kind to Magic Leap.
The Midas Touch
“Who else would do this? No one would do this,” Abovitz said of Magic Leap’s first three years, which he funded mostly with his own money. “More than I probably should have,” he said. A $20 million Series A round, led by Hassan and several other angels, took the onus off him personally. Even before the first prototype was fully functional, Abovitz was preparing to raise venture capital, just as he had done with Mako. On the strength of his vision and the success of his robotics company, Abovitz has been wildly successful at fundraising, assembling a world-class roster of investors and strategic partners rarely aligned behind the same startup.
Hassan introduced Magic Leap to Google. In May 2014, Abovitz got a call from Alan Eustace, one of Google’s most senior engineers, asking for his GPS coordinates. Eustace was in Florida testing a homemade space suit he would later wear to jump out of a weather balloon 135,000 feet above Earth, breaking the record for the highest free fall in history. He wanted to stop by.
Soon thereafter, Eustace jumped out of a plane and landed near Magic Leap’s headquarters. He must have been as impressed as he was impressive, because, in October 2014, Google invested $542 M in the company. “I still wake up in the night going, ‘Holy crap!’?” Abovitz told The South Florida Business Journal.
By the end of 2018, Magic Leap had raised $2.3 billion dollars at a $6 billion valuation from the biggest technology companies (Google and Qualcomm), media companies (Warner Bros., Disney), venture capital (Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins), finance (JP Morgan and Fidelity), advanced telecom (AT&T), and e-commerce (Alibaba) companies. According to Crunchbase, of the nearly $6.3 billion raised by all Augmented Reality startups in the past ten years, 37% was for Magic Leap. Though $2.3 billion is an astonishing amount of money, Google and Facebook both raised billions more before going public. Uber, which like Magic Leap is a private company, has raised more than $24 billion.
In May 2016, Abovitz appeared on the cover of Wired Magazine, with an accompanying feature. The story was sparse on detail but full of Abovitz’s soaring poetry about spatial computing. “Ours is a journey of inner space. We are building the internet of presence and experience,” he said cryptically.
Magic Leap gave its first preview of a working lightweight prototype to Brian Crecente of Rolling Stone Magazine in December 2017. He remarked the headset had a “steampunk aesthetic,” and the description stuck. It was comfortable, light and can accommodate prescription lens inserts.
Crecente described the experience favorably. The field of view seemed bigger than the HoloLens. The Magic Leap One has a pocket size “Lightpack,” while the HoloLens is self-contained. The HoloLens leaves lots of room for the physical world. Magic Leap occludes it. Abovitz called the Magic Leap One “an artisanal computer,” a poetic way to describe a developer version of a computer for which there is little content.
Right before its launch of Magic Leap One in August 2018, Magic Leap announced a strategic alliance and a new investor, AT&T, which also owns Warner Bros and HBO. Magic Leap’s spatial computing devices will be optimized to show off the telecom’s new latency-free 5G networks. Magic Leap announced plans to demo the device at select AT&T stores in Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in 2019. But in the fall of 2018, AT&T ran a “Crimes of Grindelwald” movie promotion that used the Magic Leap One in Chicago. Other locations may feature the Fantastic Beastsmovie tie-in. AT&T had a similar exclusive deal with Apple from 2007–2009. At CES, in January 2019, AT&T and Magic Leap announced they were expanding their partnership to target the enterprise market together.
The Magic Leap One was released on August 8, 2018, priced at $2,295, and only available in select areas at first. People who did not understand the meaning of “developer version” were inevitably disappointed. However, developers, the primary audience for this first edition, were for the most part enthusiastic.
Magic Leap’s AR glasses are similar to the HoloLens, but much more fun and fashionable, in a cartoony, steampunk-like way. Unlike the HoloLens, which has enough room around the eyes to permit users to retain their regular eyewear and their peripheral vision, the Magic Leap One hugs the face and requires a prescription insert. At 40 degrees the field of view of the Magic Leap One is noticeably larger than the 30 degrees of the HoloLens. Magic Leap One seems even larger because much of your peripheral vision is occluded by the design of the HMD, so the AR images rarely leave the field of view. This greatly enhances the suspension of disbelief.
A developer version of a device like the Magic Leap One, with only a few games and demos in its app store, isn’t easy to review. It’s not fair to the product or the reviewer. There’s no infrastructure to support it. The headset shipped with “Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders,” a robot wave shooter, “Tonandi”, an interactive sound experience made in collaboration with composer Sigur Rós, “Helio,” their web browser, and “Project Create,” Magic Leap’s answer to Tilt Brush. A spatial version of Rovio’s popular “Angry Birds” was added in October. Launch experiences also included a dramatic demo of what the Magic Leap One could do for volumetric and live sports, which allows the Magic Leap One user to shift between a courtside seat and a God-eye view. In late 2018, Avatar Chat was launched, along with “Seedling”, which allows users to grow a persistent alien plant in their personal space. More mundane activities like streaming video are also on the roadmap for the first half of 2019.
Two months after the release of the Magic Leap One, on October 9–10, 2018, Magic Leap’s first developer’s conference, the L.E.A.P. Conference (aka LeapCon), took place in downtown Los Angeles. I described it as a nerd Woodstock. When I met Rony Abovitz I told him it was like meeting Jimi Hendrix. I did not know at the time that Abovitz plays guitar, and loves Hendrix, and Woodstock. As I said, Abovitz is full of surprises. In person, he is unassuming, friendly, and clearly excited to have the shackles of secrecy removed from Magic Leap so he can talk freely about AR glasses and his vision of the future.
On stage at the press event, Abovitz was joined by Dr. Grordbort’s designer Greg Broadmore and Weta co-founder Richard Taylor to introduce “Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders” to the world. Abovitz said he’s most excited by the way the game integrates with its surroundings, the same way theater, carnivals, and other live entertainment makes space for themselves in the real world. “This is a ‘tip of the spear’ for us,” he said, “The needs of the Weta team constantly pushed the engineering team forward.”
This conference is critical for Magic Leap. To be successful, the device needs apps. To encourage app development, Magic Leap needs to nurture a robust, creative, and innovative developer community. Magic Leap rolled out the proverbial red carpet for them, beginning with a lavish welcome reception under the space shuttle at the LA Science Museum. When the consumer version of Magic Leap’s device is available through AT&T, hundreds of apps will be needed to please a broad palette of consumer tastes and interests. The conference had a distinctly indie feel to it, though almost all the demos I saw were from well-known companies like Weta, Wayfair, and Rovio.
Magic Leap’s Chief Content Officer, Rio Caraeff, told me that Magic Leap is “a company on the road to market.” His goal is “to superserve developers today. Look for missionaries of the future, that cohort of missionary developers that can’t help themselves. At the same time, we want to blur the line between developer and creator — create an environment where both artists and big companies can thrive.” To support these independent creators, Magic Leap officially launched the Independent Creator Program in November 2018, inviting developers to apply for grants between $20,000 and $500,000. Along with the grant, those selected will receive tech, marketing, and hardware support. No exclusivity is required. Creators retain the rights to their IP and were encouraged to submit multiple proposals. Magic Leap received over 6,000 submissions.
At the same time, said Caraeff, the company is working on larger scale experiences with the world’s leading game developers.
A Coveted Invitation
Not long after the developer’s conference, Abovitz tweeted out a retouched image of Ken Kesey’s Pranksters on their bus in the 1960s. He romanticizes the power they represent to those who grew up in that era. Abovitz wants Magic Leap to embody open, free, democratic, and personal values. He finds inspiration in the convergence of music, technology, and civic engagement the period represents.
The day of the Kesey tweet, I sat in Abovitz’s office, hearing the story of Hiro’s sword from Snow Crash. Now that they’ve launched Magic Leap One, the company wants to build an ecosystem like the ones that support app stores for Apple and Google. Magic Leap needs outsiders. They need nerds to come inside and drink the Kool-Aid. To see what they see. Like Abovitz, the Leapers take a long view. But make no mistake. They are in a rush to get to the future. And they want to tell their story.
Magic Leap’s SVP, Creative Strategy, John Gaeta, joined my interview with Abovitz via Beam, a rolling telepresence device, which is to say an elevated monitor on wheels which he remotely controls from his office on the west coast. It’s about five feet tall. Sort of the height of people at a table. Somehow, it does not seem out of place. As I walked the halls of their Plantation HQ, I noticed there were Beam robots parked all over.
Abovitz takes his inspiration from many places: movies, beat writers, musicians, like the Beatles and the Grateful Dead, entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs and, especially, Walt Disney. Epcot, near where Abovitz grew up in South Florida, made the deepest impression on him. “It blew my mind when I was a kid. I was like, here’s a guy making animated movies and art, and music, but now he’s doing NASA-scale engineering. There’s like monorails, and like — so you can almost think, who else was doing that? He can hang out with the guys at NASA and animators, and Mary Poppins, and all of that. There are no more companies like that.”
Abovitz and Gaeta want to keep that vision of Epcot as the city of the future alive. In fact, it’s one of their north stars. “Not the Epcot the Walt Disney Company ultimately made, which is a theme park,” said Abovitz, “but the Epcot the man Walt Disney never got to make. I would call it the unfinished business of Walt Disney. [Similar to] the unfinished business of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo teams — that spirit.”
“As time goes by, that spirit seemed to dissipate,” Abovitz lamented. “It seemed to lose its vibe. If Walt Disney was hanging around with us, and we were having a conversation, I think he would totally get what we’re doing, and probably yell at us for not doing it faster.”
Into The Magicverse
As SVP of Creative Strategy, John Gaeta is one of Abovitz’s most-trusted lieutenants. Known for his work as visual effects supervisor on the Matrix trilogy, for which he received an Oscar, Gaeta also co-founded and was the Executive Creative Director of Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB where he helped develop numerous future-generation immersive entertainment projects. Both Gaeta and Abovitz are given to soaring rhetoric when describing Magic Leap’s vision.
“I don’t think we’re going to be in a world where we’re going to be in a room all the time. Pokémon Go was interesting because you could run around in the world. That was a very good first experiment, as simple as it was,” said Gaeta. “What I’ve been interested in my first year at Magic Leap is how do we get into city-scale experiences? What would be needed from a tech infrastructure? Not just by Magic Leap, but by a lot of companies that have different parts of a solution that will eventually lead to the ability to register.” Registering is making sense of the AR layered on top of the real world.
“For example, I’m on a street corner in Turin, and on this street corner are a thousand experiences, applications, that have been put here by different kinds of groups. Some could be from the public, some could be from the city of Turin, some could be part of a game universe. Every possible sector you can think of — not just entertainment, transportation, health, government, education, arts, science, every sector you can imagine could create a spatial application. It could be local to one spot, or it could spread across a very large destination and eventually the whole world. The question is how are we going to align, register, and verify that these are applications that we trust and want to be part of… It’s going to take a lot for people to figure out what the system of systems is,” Gaeta told developer and blogger, Tony Vitullo, in a November 2018 interview at the View Conference in Turin, Italy.
“5G is very city-scale. The Magicverse is city-scale, and is growing on top of 5G cities, which are starting to roll out in ‘19,” Abovitz predicted. “They start to roll out more intensely in ’20, not only in the U.S. but all kinds of modern countries around the world. 2020 is a really big year for 5G. So it’d say ’19, ’20, ’21, ’22, in that four years, you’re going to see a lot of crazy stuff happening because the companies putting tens of billions of dollars into 5G need reasons why people are using 5G,” he said.
“That’s why we think cities will be the Magicverse,” he continued, “because it’ll be like going to Oz. You enter that thing and it’ll be like walking into a different time-space bubble, and when you leave, and you might feel like you stepped 100 years in the past again.”
The 100-Year Plan
Abovitz and Gaeta say that Magic Leap is committed to making what they call “market meaningful releases” on an annual basis. To supervise the production of the next version of the Magic Leap headset, the company has recently hired Omar Khan as its Chief Product Officer. Years earlier, Khan worked at the same Plantation, FL, building as a Motorola executive. Among other leadership roles in the mobile industry, Khan led Samsung’s smartphone business as Chief Product and Technology Officer. When I met Khan in November 2018, he was relatively new to the company but had already embraced the expansive vision of its founder. “Rony exists in the future,” he said. “Our job is to get the rest of the world there, ” he said.
Caraeff agreed with Khan’s characterization of Abovitz. “Rony lives in multiple worlds simultaneously. The present, five years from now, and ten or even twenty years from now. There are all these threads running through it, and he weaves them together into this roadmap that makes the impossible merely difficult.”
Hovering menacingly over everyone working in AR is Apple’s plans for wearables. Apple CEO Tim Cook has declared AR is Apple’s most promising new technology and admits they are working on AR glasses. The company is remarkably tight-lipped about specifics. No one knows if they’re taking the approach of North or Vuzix, two new companies introducing AR glasses that connect with smartphones by Bluetooth — or if they’re reaching for a true combiner, like HoloLens and Magic Leap, that blend the digital and physical with precise registration.
“No sane person wouldn’t be worried about Apple,” said Miller. “We have vision. Big companies don’t have vision. But they have cash. They have time. But do they have the vision to transform society? The iPod was the 53rd digital music player. They make the canonical product for the market because they understand the customer so well. It takes them several product cycles, but then they make a product which crushes everyone,” he said.
Abovitz isn’t deterred. “When we grow up, ten years from now, we’re not a single-device company,” he explained. “We definitely see an interlocking set of ecosystems. Amazon’s a great model. What they did, if you look back over the last 20 years, they grew up into this Kindle, e-commerce, Amazon Video, and AWS. So our strategy is not to copy that, but it is to say you don’t want to be one component of this whole ecosystem, you want to be a few different interlocking components that propagate each other. And that’s something that’ll become more obvious next year, in two years and five years. You’ll start to see that come together.”
“We’re not a hardware company,” Gaeta emphasized. “We’re a spatial computing company.”
“There’s a cadence you have to be at,” Abovitz continued. “If you look at mobile phones in the last ten years, the change between the first one and this one, our changes are so much bigger each jump. So our architectural jumps have to be leaps.” The demands on AR systems — to work indoors and outdoors, provide a natural field of view and have killer resolution — are manyfold and complex, he said.
“All of our investors are like 10 to 20-year investors. Some are 100-year investors,” said Abovitz. He pointed out that there are no hedge funds among his investors. Like Amazon, it could take more than a decade for Magic Leap to be consistently profitable.
“Before Magic Leap, light field optics, everything we’re talking about, was a pretty obscure topic,” said Macnamara, reflecting on the legacy of Magic Leap’s achievements so far. “Magic Leap took AR out of the journals into the physical world. It’s not every day you get to make an obscure scientific concept something real and important in popular culture,” he said.
“The Secrets of Magic Leap” is adapted from my upcoming book, Convergence, which will be released March 12, 2019. You can pre-order the book on our website, Convergencear.com. As Convergence prepped for print in January 2019, Abovitz and I traded messages on Twitter. “You’ve only got 20% of the story,” he said. To really tell the Magic Leap story with the depth and nuance he would like, I’d need to write a whole book.
Originally published at www.forbes.com on March 6, 2019.