What can we learn from Magic Leap’s latest PR trip?

Stealthy mixed reality startup Magic Leap has been having a bit of a tough time on the publicity front of late. Its head of PR departed last month, following a report by The Information suggesting it had inflated claims about its tech, and that a commercial product remained far further out than its marketing messages had suggested. And that despite investors ploughing some $1.4BN into the three year old, still productless startup.

All of which perhaps explains why CEO Rony Abovitz felt the need to leap into 2017 by penning a blog post aimed at putting some positive puff back into Magic Leap’s image.

The problem is, you can’t fight cynicism with hot air. And Abovitz’s post has Zeppelin’s worth of the stuff.

First a few sample reviews from some nameless grumpy mouse tech bloggers: “this is the dumbest thing I have ever read”… “it sounds like an ‘essay on creativity’ assignment written by an 8th grader”… “wow”.

And now a few sample lines from Abovitz’s post itself:

Our first system will be the first step towards a really cool dream. Of flying squirrels and sea monkeys and rainbow powered unicorns. Of most anything you can imagine.

We are not going for perfect, but for a feeling, a flow, a moment to high-five our inner child. Our photonics may be powered by a novel array of unique nano-structures designed by our otherworldly optics team. Our sensors and computing pack a lot of punch in a small package. But the experience you should have must feel as if it were powered by unicorns and rainbows (and we have had many of those here).

You get the idea. (You can read the blog in full here.)

The whale-sized problem in the room here is that penning some trippy PR is not going to go very far towards correcting a growing suspicion that all might not quite be as it seems at this highly financed, heavily hyped mixed reality startup.

And as my colleague Lucas Matney wrote last month: “It’s clear that the time has arrived for a shift in the way the company communicates its ambitions.

“While the process of miniaturization has advanced more slowly than the company may have expected, where the clearest failures have lied is in the cult of mystery and high expectations that Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz seems to have chased in order to inflate his company and his own premature illusions of grandeur, all of this before the company has anything to back that visionary status up with.”

Yet instead of a shift in PR strategy, Magic Leap’s New Year’s Resolution appears to be to lay on the mystique even more thickly — rainbow powered unicorns and all…

Image (1) unicorn-rainbow.jpg for post 85282

So what, if anything, can we take away from Abovitz’s post? And I don’t mean idle considerations about what all those dreamers might be smoking inside their “really big space”. What concrete things can we learn?

In truth not very much — but here’s what, to my eye, looks like a few creeping realities intruding on this fantastical dreamscape.

1 – Magic Leap does not have a coherent product roadmap or unified vision for the company yet

“I see our journey at Magic Leap extending out over many decades, over many products and technologies.”

2 – Magic Leap has not yet identified a clear use-case for its technology

“Creative and practical.”

3 – Its first product still does not have a release date (despite talk of it debuting “hopefully soon-ish” way back in July)

“Our first product is coming.”

4 – Their first product might not be quite so reality-bending as people have been led to believe

“Our first system will be the first step towards a really cool dream… We are not going for perfect, but for a feeling, a flow, a moment to high-five our inner child.”

5 – The first product might launch this year. But — equally — it might not

“2017 will be a big year for Magic Leap… We are not about building cool prototypes. We are scaling up so we can manufacture hundreds of thousands of systems, and then millions. That requires a level of perfection, testing, and attention to detail by determined professionals.”

6 – Magic Leap does have a smallish prototype. But it might not be up to “rainbow unicorn levels” of reality mixing (hence, no doubt, the delays)

“We have made something that is small, mobile, powerful, and we think pretty cool.”

Abovitz does also tell us about a personal concern of his — relating to the rise of AI and how information systems might edit out the intangible things that are really important in life.

On this he writes:

The next few decades will likely see machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) approach, and perhaps surpass, many human intellectual capabilities. Machines may become the dominant centers for intelligence and technical skill on the planet, outpacing people.

This worries me.

Creativity matters. People matter. At Magic Leap, what we are building is designed to bend technology to serve the needs of people. We are emotional beings, not information systems. We create and dream and think. We love, we laugh, we taste, we feel. We experience things that we can not explain.

This is a rather interesting thought. It’s just a shame it’s drowned out by all those banal rainbow powered unicorns.