Magic Leap’s $2.6 billion bait and switch

Comment

Image Credits: PxFuel (opens in a new window) under a CC0 (opens in a new window) license.

Jon Evans

Contributor

Jon Evans is the CTO of the engineering consultancy HappyFunCorp; the award-winning author of six novels, one graphic novel, and a book of travel writing; and TechCrunch’s weekend columnist since 2010.

More posts from Jon Evans

Two years ago I attended an “Innovation in Immersive Storytelling” event at Industrial Light & Magic, featuring the Chief Game Wizard of Magic Leap. I should have known then, from all the strained corporate sorcery in that sentence, that their demise was inevitable. But in fact I went into that talk a Magic Leap skeptic, and came out … less so.

Magic Leap drew in a lot of true believers over the years; $2.6 billion worth. Investors included Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, Google (not Google Ventures — Google itself) and many many more. Sundar Pichai joined Magic Leap’s board. And did they rave. I mean, it’s a VC’s job to rave about their portfolio companies, but this was different:

Now there is something new. Not just an order-of-magnitude more pixels or a faster frame rate, but – thanks to sensors and optics and mobile phone volumes and breakthroughs in computer vision – something I always dreamed of … The product is amazing … this is different

Bing Gordon of Kleiner Perkins.

It was incredibly natural and almost jarring — you’re in the room, and there’s a dragon flying around, it’s jaw-dropping and I couldn’t get the smile off of my face

Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull

https://twitter.com/benedictevans/status/830470285274996736

Legendary and a16z had previously invested in Oculus Rift. Tull even told TechCrunch “Magic Leap takes a completely different approach.” This is especially interesting because when Magic Leap finally — finally, after 5 years and $1.6 billion — released a product, Oculus’s Palmer Luckey wrote a truly scathing teardown of the Magic Leap One. Again, yes he would do so … but the details are quite striking …

They call it the “Lightwear”. This is the part that has gotten the most hype over the years, with endless talk of “Photonic Lightfield Chips”, “Fiber Scanning Laser Displays”, “projecting a digital light field into the user’s eye”, and the holy-grail promise of solving vergence-accommodation conflict, an issue that has plagued HMDs for decades … TL;DR: The supposed “Photonic Lightfield Chips” are just waveguides paired with reflective sequential-color LCOS displays and LED illumination, the same technology everyone else has been using for years, including Microsoft in their last-gen HoloLens. The ML1 is a not a “lightfield projector” or display by any broadly accepted definition

What happened to that “completely different approach?”

It’s worth noting there was some spin-that-more-than-verged-on-deception going on. Magic Leap sent an email to press with a video and the claim “This is a game we’re playing around the office right now”; subsequently, The Information revealed that entire video was F/X, created by Weta Workshop.

ML then released another video “shot directly through Magic Leap technology on 10/14/15, without the use of special effects or compositing.” Was that true? Definitely a question worth asking, in light of what had happened with the previous video. But all things considered, the answer seems to be: “probably.” See also Kevin Kelly’s sparsely detailed megafeature on ML for Wired in 2016:

All three major MR headsets rely on images that are projected edgeways onto a semitransparent material—usually glass with a coating of nanoscale ridges. The user sees the outside world through the glass, while the virtual elements are projected from a light source at the edge of the glass and then reflected into the user’s eyes by the beam-splitting nano-ridges. Magic Leap claims that its device is unique in the way it beams light into the eye, though the company declines to explain it further at this time.

How to square this with Luckey’s — so far as I know, undisputed — report that Magic Leap’s mega-hyped “Lightwear” technology is nothing even remotely special? To say nothing of their compete failure to release a product which sparked anything remotely like the same joy or enthusiasm that its internal demos sparked in investors and journalists?

The answer is straightforward: “The Beast.”

As The Information’s Reed Albergotti revealed more than three years ago, “The Beast” was Magic Leap’s original demo box. It was everything people said. It was stunning, dreamlike, breakthrough technology. And it weighed “several hundred pounds.”

“The Beast” was followed by “The Cheesehead,” which fit on a human head, and “showed they could miniaturize the light field signal generator they’d invented” … but still weighed “tens of pounds,” obviously far too heavy for any real-world applications. (There are pictures of both in the linked CNET piece.)

“The Beast” and “The Cheesehead” help explain the multiple rounds of massive venture investment. But then — could Magic Leap miniaturize their breakthrough technology further, to anything actually releasable?

Clearly they could not, and that’s the crux of the matter, the answer to how and why Magic Leap raised $2.6 billion dollars, then laid off half its employees, while hardly releasing anything at all in seven years. To quote Vanity Fair quoting The Information quoting CEO Rony Abovitz:

The technology behind The Beast is “not really what we’re ultimately going to be shipping,” Abovitz told The Information, adding that prototypes were merely good for showing investors and others “what was good about it, what was not.”

Intended or not–I assume it wasn’t–Magic Leap became a $2.6 billion bait-and-switch, the consequences of which are now all too apparent.

Why are people still giving Magic Leap money?” our own Lucas Matney asked a year ago. Their device sales were terrible. Last month they sought an acquisition for a $10B price tag Josh Constine rightly called “crazy.” Then they laid off half the company and pivoted to enterprise. Now the question we’re asking is “What happens if Magic Leap shuts down?

Will “The Beast”‘s technology eventually make its way into living rooms and dorm rooms and offices? Maybe. Was that a notion worth betting $2.6 billion on over six years starting in 2014? Another maybe. But it was a bet that did not pay off. Ultimately, Magic Leap’s story isn’t one that should feed outrage, or anger, as much as sheer sadness that hardware is so hard, and that human senses — especially sight — make for such a challenging development platform.

More TechCrunch

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

1 hour ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more