Going inside Magic Leap’s mysterious HQ provides some insight into what the company is developing in what they call a Mixed Reality (virtual and augmented reality) environment. Having just raised over $1B, they are continuing to develop their technology which promises to be an amazing immersive experience when they complete and release the product.
Date: April 20, 2016
Written by: Jessi Lempel
I WAS JOLTED awake by the sound of airplanes from the Fort Lauderdale Airport. The musty South Florida air hung thick; the sketchy airport Sheraton air conditioning system offered no relief. It was March 24, and I prepared to make a visit to Magic Leap. By that time, I’d signed an NDA so onerous that I can’t tell you much about the mixed-reality technology, how it works, or when it might be available.
But the story below? This is the part I can tell you.
Visiting Magic Leap was like stepping through the fictional wardrobe in Professor Kirke’s house that first landed Lucy in the colorful chaos of Narnia. The company was still working out of temporary offices on the fourth floor of the Design Center of the Americas, a sprawling complex of eerily quiet showrooms where interior designers showcase furniture, fabrics, and flooring. While WIRED videographer Patrick Farrell parked the car, I entered the building and wandered to the back of the cavernous main hall, past a security guard who didn’t look up, hung a right, walked to the elevators, rode up, walked down another hall and around an atrium. I didn’t pass a single person. Then I arrived at a tiny reception area and stepped inside. There was so much going on!
There were people everywhere. Fresh off raising $794 million in funding—likely the largest C round in startup history–Magic Leap had been hiring faster than it could find seats for its growing cadre of designers and engineers and had amped up its already packed demo schedule. Just behind me, a leaper, as Magic Leap’s employees are called, handed a visitor a clipboard to review an NDA. To the left, another leaper ushered a pair of fashionably dressed guys out of a glass-walled conference room, presumably also en route to a demo.
Farrell and I had come to film an interview Magic Leap’s enigmatic founder, Rony Abovitz, a curly-haired dreamer who sold his last company, a surgical robotics startup, for $1.65 billion, and whose primary creative influences are the Muppets, Star Wars, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory1 (the 1971 film, not the Johnny Depp1 version). As part of this we also got to try out the tech and to talk to Abovitz’s lieutenants about what it felt like to be tasked with delivering one of the most hyped, highly anticipated, least understood, and least certain new technologies.
While competitors like Microsoft’s HoloLens, Facebook’s Oculus and the scrappy startup Meta all have versions of virtual and mixed reality goggles on the market, Magic Leap is so far from being commercially available that Abovitz hasn’t even committed publicly to the year in which it might go on sale. Some people have wondered if Magic Leap is real at all.
Speculation doesn’t bother Abovitz. He has all the funding he needs for now–$1.4 billion. He has advisers like Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Alibaba Vice Chairman Joe Tsai as well as entertainment heavyweights like Weta’s Peter Jackson. And he’s managed to convince a significant cohort of tech talent that Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a geography—that the most interesting engineering problems in the world awaited them on the other side of the reception area where Farrell had just joined me.
After a brief wait, our guide arrived to collect us. He reminded us not to snap photos of anything, so I tried to memorize the array of sci-fi clutter populating the clusters of desks around me. BB-8. Gandalf. Droids. Wizards. Lanyards from past Star Trek conventions and Comic Con conferences. As grounded in the practical as Magic Leap’s engineers were, they were also tethered to fantasy—which is why they had decided to join Magic Leap.
Over the course of the day, we interviewed ten leapers, including designers, engineers, business strategists, and game designer Graeme Devine. Nearly everyone said they weren’t convinced that Magic Leap could work until they saw the demo. Afterward, everyone signed on quickly. “I could see the possibility of the company and I knew I had to come,” said chief business officer Rachna Bhasin. Because seeing is believing.
Lately, the place had been abuzz with Hollywood talent. Big names. People who you follow on Instagram or whose concerts you pay north of $300 a ticket to attend. As with other things about Magic Leap, I can’t tell you who. But somehow the place has landed on the must-see list for A-listers in Hollywood and the Valley alike.
The first time I tried Magic Leap was last December. The headset was a weighty thing tethered to a personal computer. It needed to be reset after 15 minutes so it wouldn’t crash. The development was, as my guide reminded me again and again, in very early stages.
But wow, the demos! I played a shooting game and designed a universe of stars and planets that stretched across a living room wall. I watched a boxing match on the desk in front of me, and saw a friendly droid wave up at me from beneath it. One scene in particular moved me: a firefly buzzing around the room. It looked real–there was no pixilation. Its wings were faintly translucent. I held out my hand and the bug flew down to perch on my index finger. I had injured this finger in an accident five years ago, and since then, it has had no sensation. But as the firefly perched on it, even though I *knew* it was just a hologram, I felt the slight tickle of its legs. Magic Leap had tricked my brain into telling me that my finger tingled.
I tried to tell Farrell about the firefly—about the lurch in my stomach and the emotion the sensation had roused. But I sounded like all those leapers, failing to grasp the right words to convey the experience. “You just have to see it,” I told him.
One of the many cool things that have happened to Rony Abovitz is that he met Beaker, the assistant to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew on the Muppet Show who speaks in only meeps and beeps. No, the real Beaker. Abovitz ran into a human being—someone he told me was a film director at creator Jim Henson’s studio—who looked just like the Muppet. “He’s tall, he looks just like Beaker and he acts like Beaker,” Abovitz says. “You’re like, ‘How do I know him?’ And then you find out he was the influence behind Beaker, and it all sort of makes sense,” he says. He is explaining the Beaker statue on his shelf, which he tells me Weta Workshop founder Richard Taylor had sculpted for him. “By the way, the Muppet Show plus Star Wars equals Magic Leap in my head,” Abovitz says.
Farrell and I are in Abovitz’ office, where a rubber unicorn head is perched atop a boxing bag in the corner. It’s WIRED’s style on video shoots to have interview subjects look directly into the lens while answering questions. This can feel slightly uncomfortable for people who are more at ease making eye contact with the interviewer, but so far, all the leapers have managed it. Abovitz, however, is incapable of having a conversation without making eye contact. I move my chair next to the camera tripod and position my head so close to the camera lens that my stray hairs threaten to slip into the shot.
He tells me he was a spacey kid. He wanted to be an astronaut or a fighter pilot like his dad, but he was a vegetarian who needed glasses. “So that was out,” he says. He planned to play quarterback for the Cleveland Browns (he lived in Ohio until his family moved to Florida when he was 12) or maybe pitch for the Indians, but recruiters never called. He considered becoming an animator or a cartoonist or a Jedi. “I think I got way overly influenced by Star Wars,” he says. “Because I ended up starting a droid company. We built, I think it was in Empire Strikes Back, the surgical droids that repair Luke? I ended up building a company that did that.”
In its own way, Magic Leap was always in Abovitz’s imagination, working its way to the surface. “It’s like a mashup of everything I ever loved,” he says. But it wasn’t until he had sold his robotics company, Mako Surgical, that he turned his attention to mixed reality. In 2011, he met Sam Miller, who’d built rockets at NASA and worked on the camera system for the International Space Station, at a conference. Abovitz explained his vision to Miller, who then stayed up most of the night starting a white paper detailing how it could work. Soon after, Miller came on as a cofounder.
From what I can tell, Abovitz is hard to work with. I don’t mean the Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison kind of difficult. I don’t think this guy has ever lost his temper. He can’t remember if he has either. But everything that makes Abovitz a lovable genius also makes him a difficult boss. No one will say it outright. He just indulges ideas and insists that his team is diverse. The result is a hodgepodge of artists and engineers and business people, all of whom need Abovitz to pay attention, listen up, tell them what to do, keep them on track. Instead, meetings run over and trail off into wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if’s. And when the complexity or chaos or conflict grows too intense, Rony ghosts. Look up, and he has gone. But he always returns to the issue, and, everyone tells me, problems mostly get sorted out.
Abovitz really truly believes that Magic Leap isn’t about making movies like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars cooler to watch; it’s about making our world work more like the ones in films. He believes it’s the tool that will replace your mobile phone–the next computing platform.
As grand as Abovitz’ vision for Magic Leap may be, he sees it as a temporary step on the road to an even more powerful computing breakthrough. “As I learn more about how the brain works, it’s just hundreds of thousands of tiny neural connections and each neuron is filled with tiny substructures, and those all might be incredibly powerful quantum computers themselves,” Abovitz says. “Magic Leap is just functioning as training wheels to begin to unlock that.” Someday, he says, we won’t need goggles to map digital assets to reality; we’ll be able to program our brains directly.
When I first met Abovitz, I wondered why, when Californian coder CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are building today’s most advanced technology, this eclectic Floridian fantasy lover might be the right guy to lead a mixed reality movement. But by the end of our time together, I get it. He believes the next computing platform looks a lot like people—without any type of PC or mobile device or goggles—interacting with other people in a reality of their own choosing.
Patrick Farrell: You there?
Jessi Hempel: Yes! Hey!
Patrick Farrell: Recovered from the Florida trip?
Jessi Hempel: Mostly. I still really miss the Sheraton [sarcasm]
Patrick Farrell: Ha. How are you feeling about the material?
Jessi Hempel: Good. It’s like, “Rony Abovitz has convinced 600 people to move to Florida to build the future of computing. He did it by showing it to them. So what does it look like? Well, say the leapers, you’ll just have to see it–but sorry, you can’t.”
Patrick Farrell: Everyone there seemed very smart and dedicated.
Jessi Hempel: Here’s the story’s tension: We all want to live in Rony Abovitz’s world, maybe so much so that we are willing to suspend reality. Give him our time. Our money. The endless resources of our imagination. But at the end of the day, he’s a guy on the fourth floor of the design center in a boring city in Florida. Will it be enough?
Patrick Farrell: It’s interesting. I wonder if it would work at all if it wasn’t Rony?
Jessi Hempel: Good question.
Patrick Farrell: What’s really interesting is that what he really wants to do is make the stuff of his childhood become real. A robot that can do Luke Skywalker’s surgery. A way to see day dreams all the time.