So what is Magic Leap?
The company hasn’t even released a product – let alone reached profitability – in five full years of existence, yet Magic Leap is about to become one of the highest-valued startups the world has ever seen. 2016 could be the year it starts to pay off.
Way back in 2010, Magic Leap Studios was working on a graphic novel and a related film; as an entertainment company, they weren’t raising any eyebrows or inordinate amounts of interest. Then they incorporated and released a somewhat paltry (though ahead of its time) augmented reality app in 2011, got super secretive, and didn’t make much noise until 2014. At that point, they started to rake in huge amounts of VC cash and some of the tech press started to notice.
In early 2015 came a video that showed an augmented reality first-person shooter video game, but we didn’t know if we were watching a concept video or actually seeing the technology in action. A video released by the company in October 2015 purports to be the real deal, and shows movie-quality images effortlessly superimposed over a live environment.
The full extent of Magic Leap’s capabilities remains to be seen, and several signs suggest that 2016 will be the year we see it.
What We Know
Though there have been a few official statements, some prototypes have been seen and tested by press, and a video has been released of their augmented reality technology in action, Magic Leap still isn’t exactly forthcoming. Here’s what we actually know so far:
- Magic Leap’s founder, Rony Abovitz, was also a co-founder of medical robotics maker MAKO Surgical, which sold in 2013 for $1.7 billion (to get an idea of Magic Leap’s secretive personality, take a look at Abovitz’s Wikipedia page)
- The company has already raised close to $600 million from high profile investors like Google (before it became ABC), Andreessen Horowitz, and others, as well as some more hush-hush investors (Alibaba, the “Amazon of China,” is rumored to hold a major stake)
- Magic Leap is currently seeking an additional $827 million in a Series C funding round, according to a filing in Delaware obtained by Forbes
- Abovitz says Magic Leap creates a “digital light field” capable of producing images of “cinematic reality” that don’t result in the nausea, headaches, and dizziness that have been reported with other 3D and virtual/augmented reality devices; a dramatic departure from stereoscopic-type VR systems like Oculus Rift and the Microsoft Hololens
What We Think We Know
There’s a fair amount about Magic Leap that the company hasn’t confirmed. That being said, much has been deduced by unaffiliated experts looking at patents, tech investigators following the money trail, and people analyzing other circumstantial but relatively compelling evidence:
- The technology works by projecting images directly onto your retina, rather than onto a screen or lens – it takes care of placement and focus for you, which (supposedly) eliminates the “brain footprints” that lead to the negative symptoms observed with other VR technologies
- The company has already worked to pair the device with cameras and other forms of input to enable real-time augmented reality interactions as well as immersive virtual reality experiences for non-location specific games, etc.
- A full software development kit was promised in the middle of last year, and Magic Leap is currently inviting developers to contact them; they’ll share some secrets after a non-disclosure agreement is signed (whether or not those secrets include the full SDK is, well, a secret)
- Magic Leap’s latest funding round is likely the final push to move into mass production following prototype tests and provide enough runway for third party developers to create consumer-ready applications (and, yes, games)
What We’re Waiting to Find Out
We still don’t know for certain that we’ll be seeing Magic Leap on the open market in 2016, but the year won’t pass without a few full applications being announced and demoed. What we’ll see first and where the technology will go from there are the big questions, and there are plenty of guesses:
- Gaming is an obvious segment of interest; not only is it a huge industry that enlists many tech-forward individuals in its army of consumers, it’s also where VR was focused when it flopped in the 1990s. The graphics and real-time responsiveness lacking then are here now, and that will be a literal game-changer
- Medicine could change dramatically. Combine Magic Leap with nano-cameras and non-invasive imaging techniques, and surgeons, before making a single cut, will be able to see layers of tissue, damaged organs, and more, in real time – and with accurate placement
- Smartphones could quickly become relics as we gain the ability to have a virtual screen pop up anywhere, anytime. Connect an earpiece, a camera, and a watch-sized computer, and you can do everything a smartphone can do without the need for the droppable, breakable hardware
- We might truly be able to see things through another’s eyes; two sets of Magic Leap hardware in communication with each other (and a front facing camera) could give you a cinematic-quality view of someone else’s perspective – useful (and mind blowing) in all sorts of ways
No doubt Magic Leap and its partners have plenty of world-changing innovations in the works. For now, we’re all just eagerly waiting for the day their augmented reality becomes ours.
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Daniel A. Guttenberg is an Atlanta-based writer who fell into the startup world by accident and has been gleefully treading water ever since. He will be survived by his beard and his legacy of procrastination.
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