Monday, October 21, 2019
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A Brief History of Magic Leap, the Most Secretive AR Company on Earth

We look into the brief, but controversial history of Magic Leap, the company that has once been touted as the entity that will change AR forever.

Rich, 3D visuals that blend right into the world that we live in. That was the basic promise, and premise, of Magic Leap. As far as PR is concerned, this AR company has an impressive record combination of negative and positive headlines around the world. People either harshly criticize or sing praises to the demo videos that represent company’s core AR concepts. Various development announcements drive the hype and anticipation for the upcoming final product. The company has even received consistent funding from some of the major bigwigs of the tech industry, such as Google, Qualcomm, and the Alibaba Group.

But what is Magic Leap exactly? Brace yourselves, for we are about to take a dive back into the archives and give a summarized recap of one the most secretive AR tech startups of the last few years.

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2010-2014: A Secret Startup

Magic Leap had its beginnings in South Florida. Based on what we already know about the company, it had its official start in 2010. It was established by MAKO Surgical Corp. founder Rony Abovitz, but it was not registered as an official corporation until 2011. Nothing much was publicly disclosed during its formative years, except maybe that rather vague and bizarre presentation of the concept at TEDx 2012 by Abovitz himself.

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This all changed in 2014, when the company slowly crept out of its secret lair and at long last put itself on the tech spotlight. Acquiring the first $50 million in funding in the first quarter barely made any headlines. But when several prominent people introduced themselves as backers and supporters of this startup later that year, interest suddenly shot up. Finally, the anticipation all went to a head when news of a “mysterious startup AR company” secured $542 million in funding from a group of major investors, including one of the wearable AR pioneers itself, Google.

While news of major tech giants supporting a relatively fresh startup like Magic Leap was already a headline on its own, this was further hyped by several reports that the company was working on some revolutionary AR tech. John Markoff of The New York Times, for instance, was given an exclusive opportunity to see the technology in person, to which he pointed out Magic Leap’s technological breakthroughs in a follow-up article.

Indeed, as it was demonstrated at the time, Magic Leap was a huge leap (pun intended) from any traditional AR tech so far. The company is adamant that it does not use any of the traditional methods of building AR tech, but instead uses some brand new imaging technology. Unfortunately, this imaging technology will be the one detail that will not be elaborated further for several years…

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2015-2016: To See or Not to See

Before long, everyone was already clamoring for more of Magic Leap’s AR wizardry. Real or not, many people were curious as to whatever exactly happened to the supposed “breakthrough” AR company after several successful rounds of investor funding. At this point in time, Magic Leap had already accumulated a total of $1.39 billion, with at least $793 million fresh from its round of fund raising in the first quarter of 2016. Clearly, something big was in the works, despite Magic Leap still maintaining its stance of non-disclosure.

Meanwhile on the presentation side, the years after 2014 saw Magic Leap hop from an announcement, to a presentation, and finally to a diffusion of proposed applications. In January 2015, the company revealed through its 2014 patent application, what exactly the vision for its product was. Later in March of that year, a demo presenting a possible action game developed from its system, was demoed on YouTube. The first set of general demos also made its way via YouTube much later in October.

Despite the apparent confidence of Magic Leap investors, general public opinion maintained its place on the skeptical side. Having been shown only demos with no actual hardware in sight anytime soon, it was inevitably categorized as potential vaporware.

Source: USPTO, Magic Leap

 

As for the patent itself, aside from all the applied concepts and technical descriptions, there are three peculiarly notable details in the application, namely:

  • The introduction to the “photonic lightfield chip”, solidifying the company’s claim of it not using traditional AR technology
  • A section of the application filed under the title “multi-layer diffractive eyepiece”, which briefly explains the aforementioned tech
  • A third inertial measurement unit (IMU) placed on the user’s waist, or a positional sensor detached from the eyewear itself (later revealed to be part of the Lightpack component)

Each of these details provided supporting clues to just how different Magic Leap was to become as a wearable AR device. Predictably, this fueled both hype and suspicion for the tech even further. On one side, it was considered as the next step beyond AR. At the opposite end, it was dismissed as too fantastic to be real.

 

2017-2018: Speculation Fever Pitch

Magic Leap however, regardless of its product’s current reputation, just happily hummed along as it strolled through rumors after rumors, funding after added funding. By the end of 2017, Magic Leap conducted major updates to its official website. Now, a glimpse of a possible consumer version was finally revealed, along with an official description of the product’s major components. This was to be the one and only publicly revealed major update for that year.

Magic Leap

 

In February 2018, the possible base price point of $1,000 was hinted by Rony Abovitz himself in an interview at the Code Media Conference this year. This was then followed up by the opening of the Creator Portal, the release of its Lumin SDK, and the tightly strict, sealed distribution of developer version prototypes a month later in March.

May 2018 marked the start of the company’s update reviews via YouTube, with its Magic Leap Live segments:

  • The first video went live on May 2nd, and it discussed general project development details as well as how AR can be a complete immersive experience.
  • The second video went live on June 6th, and it focused on the operational aspects of the device. It included a short demo on a physical prototype on how it would be used.
  • The third video went live on July 11th, and it featured a very brief in-device view demonstration of the device’s surface detection capabilities.

It is quite interesting to note that the last live session still did not actually demonstrate the device, despite the promise of a real, live test. The presentation (for the device) was pre-recorded, which still does not alleviate the concerns of many skeptics. Keep your fingers crossed for episode four.

With the company’s latest round of updates in last few weeks via Magic Leap Live, we now arrive at the current stop of our historic journey. Of course, this is hardly the end point for the company, as we’ve yet to see Magic Leap give up amidst the negativity of their prolonged and delayed promise of an actual, working product.

On a rather separate note, 2017 was also the same year that this very AR company was sued by a former employee for sex discrimination. The details of this news are, needless to say, beyond the scope of our discussion, and so we recommend searching for other sources on this topic.

 

2019: Biggest Vaporware or Greatest Invention?

Even after its official public debut six years earlier, officially released details about Magic Leap’s final product are still shockingly very little. Patent designs can only provide so much, and visual demos are not considered absolute until proven accurate to what has been claimed.

Is Magic Leap’s rigid secrecy understandable as an AR company? To a degree. Should the technology be what it is supposed to be, we might actually be at the crossroads of AR’s next evolution. That, or we will bear witness to history’s most overhyped vaporware ever.

Christian Crisostomo
Christian Crisostomo is an enthusiast on all things new in tech. This makes augmented and virtual reality subjects of significant interest and fascination for him. Like all other breakthroughs in technology, he currently strives to let the world know all about its revolutionary developments.