Google has led a $US542 million investment in Magic Leap, a technology startup based in Florida, the company announced Tuesday morning.
Magic Leap is a stealth company that describes itself as being a “developer of novel human computing interfaces and software.” It just closed a $US50 million-plus Series A round in February. The company is working on a new kind of augmented reality — which it calls cinematic reality — that it believes will provide a more realistic 3D experience than anything else that’s out there today.
Google, not Google Ventures, nor Google Capital, is making this investment for Google. As such, Sundar Pichai, who runs Android, is joining the board of Magic Leap. Other investors in the round include Andreessen Horowitz, chip-maker Qualcomm, movie company Legendary Pictures, Ev Williams’ investment group Obvious, KKR, Kleiner Perkins, and Paul Allen’s Vulcan.
Not much is known about Magic Leap. The company is being intentionally vague about what it is building. However, the loose idea is that instead of creating an immersive virtual world separate from the real world, as with the Rift headset from Oculus VR (which Facebook bought for $US2 billion earlier this year), Magic Leap will weave “3-D light sculptures” into the world around us, using a combination of proprietary hardware, software, and firmware.
Thomas Tull, CEO of Legendary, tells Fast Company: “It’s so badass you can’t believe it. It’s one of the few things I’ve ever experienced in my life where I came out and said, ‘This changes everything. This is a marker of the future.'”
You can get an idea of the company’s vision on its website, where you see a video of a little elephant that looks as if it’s hovering in someone’s hands:
The company’s founder and CEO Rony Abovitz told the South Florida Business Journal that he wanted Magic Leap’s technology to be disassociated with current ideas of what virtual reality or augmented reality was like.
“It is a new way for humans to interact with computers,” he says.
Magic Leap’s technology will project high-resolution images into the world in front of you, most likely through a pair of glasses, according to details in a recent New York Times article. Abovitz says he envisions Magic Leap’s technology being used in people’s day-to-day lives, not just for gaming.
Based on its website, the company also has educational ambitions:
“The space program had Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, and we’re in our Apollo phase,” Abovitz tells Fast Company. “We know that space travel is possible. We’re in the middle of full-blown product development and commercialization.”
Abovitz says there’s no specific date for it to come out, but: “It’s very near term. But although we’re trying to deliver on certain date, we’re also trying to achieve an, ‘Oh my god, I feel like I’m a kid again’ experience.”
Magic Leap has a partnership with Weta Workshop, the special effects team behind movies like “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” The two companies are working on multiple projects together, and a Magic Leap team is even embedded with Weta in New Zealand. Weta’s founder, Richard Taylor, is on Magic Leap’s board. You can feel the pull toward the mystical on Magic Leap’s site:
One of the things Weta and Magic Leap worked on together was an app called “Hour Blue,” which let users interact with an augmented reality “speakbot.” Abovitz has since called that app “more of a red herring” in regard to what the company is working on now.
Before Abovitz founded Magic Leap, he cofounded a surgical robotics company called MAKO that sold for $US1.65 billion. He describes that company now as “like bringing ‘Star Wars’ droids to life to help people in medicine.”
Magic Leap has a bunch of patents, including one for a tactile glove for human-computer interaction, an ultra-high-resolution scanning fibre display, a 3-D display that uses a “wave guide reflector array projector,” a system that lets one or more people interact with the same augmented reality environments, and a head-mounted optical system (diagrammed below):
One of Magic Leap’s central concepts is that its technology will feel more natural than anything else on the market. No bulky goggles here.
“What is remarkable is how well the human body and mind respond when technology respects biology, so truly magical experiences become possible,” Abovitz says.
The company is currently based in Florida, and Abovitz says he plans to remain there despite the pulls of Silicon Valley or Boston, eventually growing the business into an Apple-size company. Since it launched in 2011, Magic Leap has grown to over 100 employees, including well-known tech marketer Brian Wallace, who said that seeing Magic Leap’s product in action was “one of the most profound moments I’ve ever had.”
We are a good home for wizards, ninjas, jedis, art punks, rebels, humans, robots, vegans, dreamweavers, genius misfits and pro-Gandalfians
— Magic Leap, Inc. (@magicleap) February 6, 2014
Another hire, games developer Graeme Devine, told Polygon that Magic Leap’s technology blew him away when he first saw it:
“I went to the offices and I saw something that I did not think was possible. I like to think I know technology and I am not easily impressed. I worked at Apple, but when I saw what they were doing, I just said, immediately, ‘How can I help?'”
Abovitz seems like a fascinating guy. In 2013, he gave a strange performance called The Synthesis of Imagination at TEDxSarasota:
In an eerie performance, Abovitz dressed as an astronaut and shared the stage with two furry creatures.
“A few awkward steps for me, a magic leap for mankind,” he intones.
The creatures, called “Shaggles,” were created by Travis Boatright Design, and based off the company’s comic series, called “Magic Leapers”:
Watch the whole performance here: