Magic Leap CEO, Rony Abovitz (By Brian Ach / Getty Images)
Despite raising more than $1 billion since its 2011 founding, augmented reality start-up Magic Leap still doesn’t have much to show for itself. What the company promises, a concept called “cinematic reality,” described by C.E.O. Rony Abovitz as a combination of “virtual reality and an acid trip,” does sound magical. But unlike Microsoft’s virtual-reality headset, the Hololens, which is already available to developers for $3,000, Magic Leap’s product is reportedly still years away from market. On Friday, Business Insider published a leaked photo of what appears to be a prototype of Magic Leap’s technology, featuring a bulky backpack computer connected to a headset. The photo seemed to confirm an earlier report that Magic Leap is having a hard time shrinking down its technology to fit into a consumer-size device.
Magic Leap C.E.O. Rony Abovitz pushed back on the report over the weekend, explaining on his company’s Web site that its technology is still in an early testing phase and promising fans that its eventual product “will enable your digital and physical worlds to come together in a very personal, social, and magical way.” The leaked photo, he claimed, did not show its prototype but rather a “test rig” used to collect spacial data for its machine learning.
Abovitz’s explanation contradicts the report by Business Insider, whose source told the publication that the bulky, poorly constructed device shown in the leaked image was, in fact, “the real wearable” prototype, a more finished version of which would be shown to the Magic Leap board this week.
Magic Leap has long faced questions about its much-hyped technology and allegations that it has misled supporters and investors about its progress. Last year, former Magic Leap employees told The Information that Magic Leap had over-promised and would likely under-deliver. According to The Information, the technology behind Magic Leap’s initial prototype—nicknamed “The Beast” and described as a “rectangular, shoulder-width box” that people could look into and see computer-generated images projected over the real world—likely wouldn’t be used in whatever product the company releases commercially.
Not everyone is concerned that Magic Leap hasn’t yet finalized its prototype, despite working on its device for about six years. Andreessen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans, who says he has seen Magic Leap’s technology, joined Abovitz on Twitter over the weekend to defend the start-up. “There are a bunch of great people at great companies working on A.R.,” he tweeted. “No one is shipping a final product yet.” Evans, whose firm invested in Magic Leap during its Series B fund raise, also dismissed critics of Magic Leap’s technology, and added that “gloating about any negative news (real or fake) about a start-up is just as bad as uncritical praise. Maybe worse.”
Andreessen Horowitz partner Kyle Russell also tweeted a picture of the iPhone’s prototype, to argue that even Apple’s flagship device appeared unsightly in the initial phases of its development process.
Unlike the iPhone, however, Magic Leap has been hyped for years by the tech press and by Magic Leap’s own marketing team, without plans to launch any time soon. In 2015, the company published a marketing video on YouTube called “Just Another Day in the Office,” offering a mind-blowing, first-person demo to show off its tech. Magic Leap, which is valued at $4.5 billion, later conceded that its too-good-to-be-true video was just a collection of special effects, created by Weta Workshop, a team based in New Zealand. The video, former employees told The Information last year, was “aspirational,” and intended to mislead the public about the company’s progress.