This is part of our expanded coverage of Magic Leap and its new mixed-reality system being released today.
Rony Abovitz's office at Magic Leap's headquarters is filled with stuff that gives off a playful vibe.
There's a Willy Wonka lunch box (Gene Wilder edition), a 3D stereoscope from 1901, a shiny ray gun crafted by Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop and collectibles that pay homage to Star Trek and Star Wars, including a lightsaber and a Porg plushie. There are comics and books, including Art of Atari and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
And in the bottom corner of a whiteboard against one wall, there's a sketch of a jellyfish-shaped spacecraft labeled "Mothership," signed by Steven Spielberg.
But the thing that really stands out is the big unicorn head. It's impossible to ignore. I'm talking to the head of one of tech's most notable unicorns -- defined as a rare startup valued at over $1 billion -- and there's a giant mask of the mythical creature staring at me from a few feet away. It feels like a scene out of HBO's Silicon Valley, except we're on the other side of the country in Plantation, Florida.
Magic Leap, if you're not up to speed on who's trying to invent the future, is an eight-year-old company that's been working on an "experiential and spatial computer" that hopes to break new ground in what it means to be a "person plus computer." We're talking sci-fi, next-level, let's-change-the-world thinking. Its ambitious vision, set out by co-founder and CEO Abovitz, is centered around a slick, lightweight, mixed-reality system that promises to immerse you in "experiences" that meld computer-generated imagery with the physical world in a way that's designed to convince you those 3D objects and characters are there. In the room with you.
That's the pitch anyway. And it's been compelling enough to convince Google, Alibaba, Warner Bros., AT&T, the top Silicon Valley venture capital firms and about a dozen other big name investors to hand over $2.3 billion so that Magic Leap can turn that MR vision into a sellable product. That makes it one of the top-funded startups in the US, earning that unicorn status, with a $6.3 billion valuation as of June.
Besides cash, the company's also drawn lots of scrutiny -- and scorn -- from tech watchers, who called BS after Magic Leap shared amazing teasers that turned out to be canned demos.
Case in point: A March 2015 video billed as "Just another day in the office at Magic Leap" showed a mind-blowing MR game that was actually a "concept video" created by the special effects wizards at Weta. And last month, the company promised to "share a demo of an upcoming developer sample," but that turned out to be a prerecorded demo. People weren't happy -- prompting Abovitz to post a tweetstorm arguing that it's impossible to show what this new "medium" is like and saying all will be revealed when we see it for ourselves.
Which is why today is a big day for Magic Leap.
After earning the moniker "tech's most secretive startup" from Wired and telling Forbes in 2016 it was going to ship its system "soon-ish," the company is finally releasing the $2,295 Magic Leap One. It includes a high-powered, moon-pie-shaped computer called Lightpack, a handheld remote called Control and a steampunk-inspired headset with round lenses and patented optics. That's called Lightwear.
There's just one thing: Regular folks like us aren't the intended audience. At least not yet. This "Creator Edition," says Abovitz, is part of a "controlled market release" in just a handful of cities in the United States -- Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle -- for the developers and creative types Magic Leap will woo this year and next. The goal: for those makers to dream up the experiences (aka content) that's needed to convince us to become Leapers. The company is already showing investors and partners prototypes of its smaller (and hopefully less expensive) Magic Leap Two and Magic Leap Three, but won't say when they'll be released.
For now, Magic Leap just needs to get out from under the pile of hype it helped create and show the world that it's not a hoax.
"We know we have to prove to everybody why we have a reason for being," Abovitz says, sitting behind his desk, where a MacBook, a yellow legal pad and a four-color Bic pen lie within easy reach. "We've got to get out there and prove it."
Abovitz, an affable biomedical engineer reared in Florida, is candid about the skepticism surrounding his efforts in the fledgling market for MR, augmented reality and virtual reality. Tech heavyweights including Apple, Facebook and Microsoft also have big ambitions in this space. And he agrees that some people have been a "bit mean" in calling Magic Leap the next Theranos, the $10 billion health-tech startup whose founder was charged with massive fraud after making false claims about its product.
The hype, he claims, helped get the likes of Google, the NBA, Lucasfilm, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Spielberg, motion-capture actor Andy Serkis and famed TV puppeteer Sid Krofft interested in what Magic Leap is working on. The secrecy is because Magic Leap "might be five years or 10 years ahead of other people," and Abovitz wants to keep it that way.
"No one's ever done what we're doing," he says. "In terms of what we're actually shipping, no one's even close in terms of the size, weight, graphics, computational power."
It's "completely ridiculous" that Magic Leap has been called a hoax by those who haven't seen it yet, he adds, noting the tech has been demoed to more than 10,000 people, all sworn to secrecy.
"I kind of think of our company as like Rocky in the first movie, where he's just getting punched in the face for a long time," Abovitz says with a mischievous smile. "But then we actually get to shift and hopefully we get to punch back a little bit, metaphorically, in a nice way."
Game on, then.
Which is why CNET senior reviews editor Scott Stein and I were invited to the mothership on July 18 ahead of Wednesday's big reveal. We got to see and play with the Magic Leap One, tour the campus and speak with more than a dozen executives to suss out if the whole premise is really, as touted on the company's website, "magic in the making."
Long story short:, but not a leap.
From the outside, Magic Leap is easy to overlook. It's headquartered in an unremarkable two-story building in a nondescript office park dotted with palm trees about a 20-minute drive from Fort Lauderdale.
Inside, it's a different story. Magic Leap took over a former Motorola Mobility factory, retrofitting the 260,000-square-foot facility in 2015 to house its R&D and design labs, testing centers, in-house entertainment studio and factory. With the bespoke machinery it invented, the place churns out prototypes and will one day produce "tens of millions" of wafers containing its proprietary light field technology (more on that later).
It pretty much looks like what you'd imagine a well-funded tech startup should look like -- lots of light, colorful art on the walls, open concept work spaces with conversation pits and glass-encased conference rooms tagged with interesting names like Deimos and Spica. The white astronaut suit that Abovitz wore for a "surrealist" December 2012 TEDx talk called "The Synthesis of Imagination" stands in the hallway near his office. (Abovitz offered a yo-yo to anyone who could figure out what the six-minute performance, highlighting the word "fudge," was all about. I have no clue. He tells me, "It's really simple." Even so, no one's claimed the yo-yo. It's on his desk.)
You're going to have to take my word for what the place looks like, including that Spielberg sketch. Magic Leap sequestered our video and photo crew in a conference room, with snacks, during our five-hour visit and only let them out to take images in a few approved areas.
We were able, though, to capture the nod to Magic Leap's origin story as we walked in the door.
Abovitz started Magic Leap Studios to indulge his passion for comic books. He funded it using the money he earned after selling his medical robotics company, Mako Surgical in 2013 for $1.7 billion. Right next to a floor-to-ceiling wall of preserved plants that look like bunches of broccoli, the lobby desk displays scenes from a graphic novel Abovitz wrote with British comic book writer Andy Lanning, who helped create Guardians of the Galaxy.
The comic imagined kids in a strange Willy Wonka-esque factory called Magic Leap, which makes biomechanical creatures called Leapers that attach to people through a bio-tether proboscis and induce hallucinatory visions of an imaginary world. I'm not making this up. Lanning, now executive creative director of Magic Leap Studios, gave us a copy.
"If you look at the device now, the shape of the lenses are a beautiful echo of the Leapers' eyes," he says, laughing. "We are now saying, that's what we were pointing to and alluding to back in the comic. We didn't have a clue, but now we can say, 'Yes, of course, it was all part of a wonderful masterplan.'"
The story was going to be the basis for a computer-generated feature film series. Abovitz even went to New Zealand and met with Jackson's Weta Workshop to talk about it. But the project turned into something more. And that was making what the Leapers can do -- transport you to what Lanning calls the magicverse -- a real thing.
Unlike virtual reality -- which hides the real world from you by replacing it with a digital one -- and augmented reality --which overlays objects on top of those you see in the physical word -- MR aims to combine the physical and virtual worlds so they feel like they exist together. That's according to Microsoft, anyway. Microsoft is Magic Leap's biggest competitor with its HoloLens headset that, at first blush, does essentially the same thing as the Magic Leap One.
Think Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Jumanji. Except instead of just watching CGI characters mix it up with reality on a fixed screen, Abovitz and his 1,500 employees around the world have been working to create 3D characters and objects you can interact with in real time.
They know where you are so they can follow you and keep eye contact. They know about your surroundings so they can walk around a couch or table rather than through it. And they have enough fidelity -- volume, substance -- that you think they're there. Magic Leap describes that as "presence."
And in its world, there are no more screens. The world becomes the screen -- or multiple screens -- with none of the nausea or motion sickness that VR sometimes causes. That's because Magic Leap claims its magical leap was figuring out how to use digital and natural light to render those 3D objects in real time, and to beam them into your eyes in a way that lets you process what you're seeing as you would the natural world.
The possibilities of what you can do with that kind of tech are amazing, with the potential to rethink games, movies, immersive theater, e-commerce and sports. The NBA wants you to enjoy MR basketball games. The Royal Shakespeare Company imagines you watching a live performance of an actor reciting Hamlet's soliloquies -- just for you.
Working with Wayfair, Magic Leap showed a shopping app that lets you pull furniture out of a virtual catalog (complete with real-world height, weight, width, fabric texture and color) and place it in your living room. You can walk around and see whether that red armchair fits in with everything else.
Magic Leap has already thought through other future applications. In one of its over 2,000 patents, it describes being able to display and modify medical records in MR. Or having you look at 3D spreadsheets that highlight the peaks and valleys of the numbers almost like a topographical map. Another patent describes its system as sensory eyewear that "can recognize and interpret sign language, and present the translated information to a user of the mixed reality device."
Jeremy Bailenson, a professor at Stanford University studying the psychology of VR, AR and MR, remembers his first aha! moment with augmented reality. It was a demo of someone talking to a photorealistic AR character. The avatar interacted naturally, maintained eye contact, kept an appropriate distance and gestured so you couldn't tell the difference between who was real and who wasn't.
"My jaw dropped," says Bailenson, who hasn't yet seen Magic Leap's system. "It was the first time I said, 'Wow.' Beaming in people is what's going to make AR special."
Magic Leap thinks so too. Virtual assistants you can see and talk to -- Hello Alexa? -- are just the starting point as artificial intelligence comes into play.
"See what you see, hear what you hear, know where you are -- for us, that's the beginning of human-centered AI," Abovitz says.
"You need a computer that can hang out with you in space and not be contained in a rectangle. It's really designed for the messiness and the chaos that's actual life, and we think experiential computing is really what it's all about," he says. "Person plus computer is Magic Leap's philosophy."
But that's still off in the future, as is that fully realized magicverse.
Like Microsoft's Hololens, which is being sold primarily to developers and businesses right now, Magic Leap One suffers from a limited field of view, according to my colleague Scott. That means what you see through the headset isn't as large as the space you're in. Abovitz says to think of the viewing window as a cone that widens as it moves away from you. That also means that getting too close to an object might cause it to sort of disappear.
"Not being able to see a fuller view of the room's virtual objects is a serious drawback," Scott says. "Sometimes I lose track of things I can't see, and require sound to help me track where the augmented things are hiding, and where to turn."
And those 3D characters and objects? "Ghostly is a term that echoes in my mind," says Scott. "Images floated and displayed well, creating a sense of impressive depth, but their sense of reality always bordered on the video game side, like a Disney cartoon."
Abovitz says Magic Leap is coming "closer and closer and closer" to meeting the Schowengerdt Test, named after company co-founder Brian Schowengerdt. The test measures the "neurologic truth" the system is able to create, with objects at the top of the scale being indistinguishable from reality. Magic Leap isn't there yet, except in a few cases with metallic objects. Even so, "ML1 gives you, I'd say, the beginning of real usability," Abovitz says.
At the same time, Abovitz questions how realistic images need to be anyway. Maybe it will be enough for characters and objects to be physiologically correct but always distinctly digital. "It's a little more bright, it's a little more solid, it looks like it came out of kind of a special computing world that lives with us."
He's not the only one who questions how far hyperreality should take us. "How does conversation and social interaction function when we have all this augmentation?" wonders Stanford's Bailenson. "What I want AR companies to do is think forward and try to design around these aspects."
The journey to the Magic Leap One involved understanding evolutionary biology, theoretical physics, biomedical engineering, digital signal processing, photonics and hardware engineering, the company says.
Abovitz explained the science behind Magic Leap in detail in a December 2017 story by Variety. We hear the same recap as he takes us through a presentation that he's given to investors as well. The aim was to get away from design think that's been reused for the past 200 years, starting in the 1830s with the stereoscope. Stereoscopes take two images of the same thing from slightly different angles to create what Abovitz describes as an "unnatural" 3D image. The same "awful" approach was co-opted in today's VR headsets.
"It actually breaks how your brain functions," Abovitz argues. "It doesn't allow your eye-brain system to function properly."
So he and a friend who studied theoretical physics at CalTech looked at how much information our eyes take in and how our brain processes what we're seeing to make sense of it. This turned out to be the study of light fields, which is basically how we see everything. When light hits an object, it bounces off in various colors and wavelengths and our brains then interpret that to make sense of the world.
The breakthrough for Magic Leap was in figuring out that the brain is a variable-load computer. Our visual system already filters the overwhelming amount of data we're bombarded with and feeds just a "tiny stream of light to our visual cortex," Abovitz says. About 40 percent of our brain power is devoted to visual processing, he adds, but it can go up or down depending on the intensity of the situation because our brains fill in details based on our preconceived models of the physical world.
"A tiger at 500 yards looks like a 2D cutout," he explains. But a tiger close up, "I've got my whole brain rendering that tiger and every rich detail. So as you move objects farther and farther away and closer and closer up, they kind of inflate with detail and deflate."
Bottom line: When something's closer to you, you need more detail for it to be believable. When it's farther away, you need less.
Magic Leap's challenge was in figuring out how to capture just enough of the light field, render it in real time as you move around and feed it to the visual cortex through your eye to make those near-, mid- and far-field interactions believable.
They set out to create the technology to do that.
"We've actually made a digital light field component. No one's even close to that," Abovitz says. "People have taken stuff from military heads-up displays," he says, referring to instrument readings superimposed on a plane's windshield. "That's not what we're doing. Or they'll take cell phone technology and put it up to your eye. That's the quick and dirty hit. We went down the harder road."
The first Magic Leap prototype was a large machine weighing several hundred pounds and nicknamed the Beast. When we get a chance to see it, along with later prototypes, I'm reminded of an eye-testing machine from my optometrist's office. You'd put your chin in a white cup and gaze through a pair of rectangular prisms while the system, playing with light fields, tries to trick your brain into seeing something that isn't there.
After crashing "8-, 9-, 10,000 times" -- as in nothing happened or an image appeared that was wrong or skewed -- the team in fall 2014 rendered a green dot, made up of a single pixel, that could be moved around with a joystick. Abovitz describes it as a "Pong" moment, recalling the excitement many felt playing Atari's early arcade game in 1972.
It was also a Google moment. In October 2014, Google led a $542 million investment round in what the Wall Street Journal then called "one of the largest venture-capital deals on record." Google CEO Sundar Pichai took a seat on Magic Leap's board. He declined to comment for this story.
After the dot, they created a cube and then a character called Gerald, who looks a little like Shrek.
"Looking at Gerald, you really felt there was a presence. And as he got closer, detail got better and he inflated," Abovitz recalls. "So the inflationing was really interesting, which is that real objects, as they get closer, you absorb more of the signal and your brain renders more information. And as you move to midfield and far-field, your brain removes detail. It doesn't need as much light field signal. It doesn't use as much computational energy."
The next prototype -- the Cheesehead -- took what the team had learned from the Beast and made it portable, kind of. That headset resembles Napoleon Bonaparte's bicorn hat, except for all the wires and the fact it weighs tens of pounds. But the Cheesehead showed they could miniaturize the light field signal generator they'd invented and put it on a wafer as part of the projection system that sends light into our eyes and then to the visual cortex.
Magic Leap also understood it needed computer vision in its system, with sensors such as those in self-driving cars and drones that know where they are in the world. As the team built its next wearable demo prototypes -- WD1, WD2 and WD3 -- the company says it also pushed forward with its software. Developers worked on the operating system and started writing apps to showcase the potential for "spatial creating," while the hardware team refined the photonics and devised the machinery it needed to build the tech.
The dust-free assembly lines, located on the ground floor right below Abovitz's office, are staffed by a few employees in white bunny suits who oversee the cleanrooms and robotic arms. Hardware engineering chief Paul Greco, who worked at Motorola Mobility for 16 years, says they're already creating a fully automated line designed to produce millions and then tens of millions of the wafers -- which are part of the lenses -- for its headsets. Greco says the production yield for the wafers is "very high" but won't elaborate. While Magic Leap has built its own prototypes at its headquarters, the company is sending the wafers to a contract manufacturer that can handle high-volume production for the ML1.
"We've been on a really fast trajectory of massive miniaturization, inventing machinery and inventing techniques," adds Abovitz, who joined our tour of the factory. "Thank God we had some early investors who believe in us."
Which brings us to today's Magic Leap One.
We're in the all-white design showroom, where the two sizes of the ML1 headset are displayed on pedestals. The Control and Lightpack are on the table nearby. Large glossy photos of men and women wearing the Lightwear headset adorn the walls, while the stylish packaging -- a costly white cardboard box with foam cutouts stamped with the Magic Leap Leaper logo -- is on another table. It feels very Apple.
The headset sizes are based on the distance between people's pupils, and there are five replaceable nose pieces to accommodate different head sizes and nose shapes, so the whole device can be customized for comfort and fit, says Gary Natsume, a Frog Design alumnus who's been in charge of industrial and human factors design at Magic Leap for five years. Since you can't wear glasses with the headset, Magic Leap will custom create lenses based on your prescription as long as your eyesight isn't too far out of whack. (I was OK, but Scott had to wear contact lenses.)
The Lightwear, with its gender-neutral round lenses, weighs in at less than a pound and uses what Natsume calls a "crown temple" -- a wide headband that opens and closes to fit snugly. It's designed to distribute the weight around your head. After 20 minutes of wearing it, I can say it's more comfortable than VR headsets, which resemble old stereoscopes and whose front-loaded weight pulls your head forward.
The Lightpack computer, designed to mimic the shapes of the lenses, is made of up two rounded pods connected on one end so there's a gap in the middle. Magic Leap will sell customized straps that let you wear the Lightpack across your body. That gap is so the computer can partially slide into your pants pocket.
The design, though, is really all about allowing air to circulate around what's essentially a high-powered PC, Natsume says. One pod contains the rechargeable battery that lasts up to three hours, and the other contains the computer, graphics processors, onboard 3D speakers and solid-state memory. It's also got built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
The silvery color of the magnesium and plastic is called "moon dust." Magic Leap will also offer a special edition in red that's still being worked on.
The inspiration for the curved edges and inflated look of the goggles, computer, remote control and even the charger were inspired by Speed Racer, Japanese anime and Anish Kapoor, who designed Chicago's silvery, bean-shaped Cloud Gate sculpture. Magic Leap refers to its design language as "playfully premium," Natsume and Abovitz tell us.
"It's a high-tech instrument. This is loaded with technology, but it's not intimidating technology. We wanted it to be approachable," Natsume says. "We're very conscious of how the product looks on your face. We want to make sure that it looks comfortable in proportion to a human's head."
All that customization means you can't just walk into a store to pick up a Magic Leap One. Buyers will be treated to "white glove" service, which means they'll be outfitted by someone trained to personalize the system. Magic Leap is working with Enjoy, an e-commerce shopping service founded by Apple's ex-retail chief Ron Johnson, to provide that white-glove staff. They will come to your home, office or someplace else you choose in a few hours or few days, depending on the city.
The success of any MR, AR or VR device is getting developers and creatives to make apps and content that will give us a reason to buy their devices.
Microsoft, which first showed off its HoloLens in 2014, has been working with developers and businesses to build a suite of apps, mostly to help doctors, construction workers and service technicians. It starts at $3,000 for developers, and $5,000 for businesses, making it a tough sell to consumers. (That may partly be why rumors suggest Microsoft is working to cut down on cost and bulk before the HoloLens' wider release).
Facebook's Oculus $399 Rift VR system has fared slightly better with developers. More than 1,500 apps are available for the Rift, including games that put you in the pilot's seat of an epic space battle and drawing apps that let you doodle in the air.
"What I've learned is that content drives hardware, always," says James Iliff, co-founder and chief creative officer at VR game maker Survios, who worked in the University of Southern California lab that was the birthplace of modern VR. "All that matters for Magic Leap is they get their hardware into the hands of developers and start getting stuff made."
That's the plan we hear from executives tasked with creating content and convincing outside developers to join in. Magic Leap shared a preview of its software developers kit and launched a Creator Portal in March, with a simulator so developers could preview what their apps might look like on the ML1. Today, it's releasing tools for developers on its Creator Portal, including Magic Kit and Interaction Kit, to offer best practices, code snippets and other guidelines for creating apps and immersive experiences with the popular Unreal and Unity gaming engines, as well as with Magic Leap's own software.
The company also launched Magic Leap World, an online store for sharing the apps and immersive experiences it's building at its own studio as well as from third-party developers and creators. About 100 developers have been playing with the system and working on apps for the past year. Magic Leap says it's following Apple's App Store model by being choosy about which content it distributes on the store. It's also hosting its first Leap conference in October in Los Angeles, followed by developer roadshows around the country and "consumer experiential roadshows" where regular folks like you and me can try out the ML1 and see what the fuss is all about.
The focus now is on showing "developers and creators how easy it is to come on our platform and create," says Aleissia Laidacker, a longtime games programmer and designer who leads interaction design at Magic Leap. "We're ready for developers."
Jeremy Vanhoozer, the senior creative director who oversees content development, says the release of ML1 means, "Now we have kind of permission to get out and talk to developers and kind of break through some of the wall that's formed."
It's hard to say what Magic Leap's chances are for success. Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner who once worked for a VR company, says it's an open question. But the company has done the right thing by following Apple, Microsoft and Facebook in working to build an ecosystem.
"They're not just a device maker," Blau says. "They're a software provider and an app platform. That's likely the reason Magic Leap got so much money. That's the winning strategy."
Before our visit ends, we're back in Abovitz's office, where the unicorn head continues to stare ahead. We ask if Magic Leap might release a second controller. "We're working furiously to be able to have another control and other components," he says.
We ask what else to expect and he tells us hundreds of people are already at work on ML2.
"We know we have to make it really small. We want to make a near-perfect light field signal. We want it to have incredibly strong computing because if you don't sense the world and sense the person, you don't have a lot of utility."
We ask what kind of personal information about users Magic Leap and its developers will collect. He's adamant the business model isn't based on harvesting users' surfing habits and preferences for profit.
"There are other companies, like the information-age companies, which are built on harvesting data from people like they're corn and selling that in the marketplace. We don't want to harvest you," he says. "And hey, if you're a developer, and you've made your money harvesting data, that's not what going to happen here. So let's help you figure out a model where you just make something really cool. We're giving you a ton of compute space and power. You can make cool things. How does someone just buy that from you?"
And we ask about the lawsuit by former marketing executive Tannen Campbell, who suit was settled out of court in May. Abovitz says he can't talk about it, but suggests it was a disgruntled employee unhappy with management changes. We press him about the culture and he pulls out a deck of seven brightly colored cards that list the company's values. Every employee has a copy of the deck and is taught what the values mean, he says.in February for sex discrimination, a hostile work environment and retaliation. The
Own Your Superpower
Together With Love
Move With the Speed Of Light
Magic in the Details
Get it Done
He points to the second one, about love, and says it's the company's No. 1 cultural value. We ask him what that means to him.
"It's the one that separates people from wanting to work here or not," he says. "It's our all-embracing inclusion, diversity, everything. We have such a diverse group from all over the world in many different places. This is the most important thing and in the environment outside the building -- like in our political environment, so divisive and full of problems to me -- we antidoted that with this."
That's the end of our interview. As we leave, I notice a framed copy of a "Magical Manifesto" tucked in the shelves behind Abovitz's shoulder. It reads, "Our shared vision is to make creative magic real."
Now that the Magic Leap One is finally out in the wild, we'll see.
CNET's Scott Stein and Ian Sherr contributed to this article.
First published Aug. 8 at 5:08 a.m. PT.
Update, 1:43 p.m. PT: Adds cities where the Magic Leap One is now available.
Correction, Aug. 9 at 7:39 a.m. PT: Fixes the first name of Tannen Campbell.