Magic Leap's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed

Magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat
Magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat

A secretive tech startup called Magic Leap has been funded to the tune of $1.4 billion by the global financial elite. These historical investments have sparked a lot of curiosity among the public, but answers aren't readily available. I'm a computer geek with a PhD in this field and a hankering for truth sans hype. So I'm going to give it to you straight.

The list of backers for this thing is like a who's-who of investment giants. Even China's killer Alibaba is on the list. And Fidelity, one of America's largest financial services firms. Surely whatever Magic Leap is working on must be really amazing, right? That's the narrative surrounding this company. Unfortunately, the reality of Magic Leap doesn't live up to the marvelous story they spin.

The promise of Magic Leap is seen in science fiction movies, such as Minority Report and Iron Man 2, where the protagonists interact with holographic, floating digital objects. Indeed Magic Leap tried to capitalize on our collective fantasy with their first video promising such an interface in action. The problem is that this video isn't real. It was faked using exactly the same special effects Hollywood used to make Tony Stark appear to interact with a holographic computer.

Magic Leap, responding adroitly to criticism, released a new video in October showing their actual technology. And the results are impressive -- a digital image quite convincingly inserted into a real-life scene. But does a realistic looking solar system floating above the head of oblivious coworkers warrant $1.4 billion in funding? Probably not.

The videos released by Magic Leap show what the tech world calls Augmented Reality (AR) -- the mixing of digital imagery with real-world images to create the illusion that digital objects are right with us in everyday life. Those who follow tech news know that Microsoft has their own AR product called the Hololens. Hololens has matched Magic Leap with fake videos that use Hollywood-style special effects to show people playing video games and watching football. Unlike Magic Leap, the Hololens actually exists -- a $3,000 developer edition is scheduled to ship later this month. And we see smaller companies, such as Meta, releasing a kit for $949. These are two of the dozens of AR headsets being developed today.

All of these companies are vying to lead the imagined AR revolution. What makes Magic Leap special? What is their magic ingredient? It turns out that, thanks to a series of patent filings and articles by the MIT Technology Review (here and here), we can pull back the curtain. Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, Magic Leap's biggest secret finally revealed: adaptive focus.

VR headsets like the Oculus, and AR competitors like the Hololens are fixed focus. Even though the virtual world appears large, your eye is physically focusing on a screen that is an inch away. Magic Leap's adaptive focus technology uses complex optics to trick your eye into focusing far away (even though the "screen" is still near your eye). This feels more natural to the eye, and also appears more realistic. This, in essence, is the magic of Magic Leap - a "near eye" screen that tricks your eye into focusing on things far away. While sensational, there's nothing to suggest this uniquely enables Augmented Reality experiences.

Outsize investment does not always lead to outsize success. The history books of Silicon Valley are paved with failures. For example Webvan, a web-based grocery delivery service which raised $1.2 billion in funding in 1999 before failing spectacularly. Unlike Magic Leap, however, Webvan had a product and millions of likely customers (everyone buys groceries). Given the fact that the success of Magic Leap depends on the creation of a new product category that adds value to people's lives, and several other high-risk variables, they're clearly on thin ice.

Augmented reality faces multiple challenges. First and foremost is the failure it's had to date. One cannot move forward blindly dismissing the mega-hype of Google Glass. The only thing that got more media attention than the actual product is how hard it failed. Google isn't alone either, there was a gigantic wave of augmented reality apps for the iPhone, apps that promised to bring magazines to life, guide you to your favorite restaurants, and effortlessly teach human anatomy. As sensational as these AR experiences were, they didn't deliver, so people quickly abandoned them. Today we can look at a top 40 list of augmented reality apps and not find a single hit. If AR can't succeed in a format that is essentially free we cannot simply expect it to create billions of dollars of value in a format that is expensive and impractical. At least not without a miracle or two along the way.

Even if app developers were cranking out valuable AR apps for iPhones, there are a ton of technical problems that need to be solved for the $1.4b Magic Leap investment to deliver the dream it sells to investors. Even Magic Leap's special sauce, their approach to adaptive focus, may ultimately be worth nothing. Similar solutions being developed by nVidia, Stanford, and others may outperform for a myriad of reasons. Adaptive focus might not be as important as field of view, brightness, frame rate, weight, size and cost -- areas where competing technologies currently have a big lead.

The more I look at Magic Leap, the more astonishing the situation is. Even more astonishing is the spell they seem to have cast on people I speak with. Magic Leap is a world where secrets live. They have something they won't show us, but they maintain that it will change the world. I'm looking for the emperor's clothes and simply can't find them. Rather than technology, Magic Leap has sold a powerful narrative of the future that, even if it happens, may easily be owned by the multitude of extremely talented, equally well-funded players currently competing for this hypothetical pie in the sky.