Even the office equipment is abnormal. The high-definition television hanging on the wall seems perfectly normal. Until it vanishes. A moment later it reappears in the middle of the room. Incredibly, it is now levitating in mid-air. The TV looks real, but it is not. All these wonders are illusions, conjured into being through the lenses of a “mixed reality” headset, the invention of the startup called Magic Leap.
Like any good magician, Rony Abovitz keeps his cards close to his chest. Magic Leap has operated in extreme secrecy since it was founded in 2011. Only a few people got to see its technology, even fewer know how it works, and all are bound by such extreme nondisclosure agreements that they probably would not even admit that the company exists.
Why so much interest? Magic Leap is doing “something with holograms, or with lasers, or has invented some reality-warping machine the size of a building that would change everything”. The lack of hard information further fuels the whispers. Magic Leap, after all, has never released a product. It has never given a public demonstration of a product, never announced a product, never explained the proprietary “lightfield” technology that powers its product.
But now the company is coming out of the shadows.
In a rare interview Abovitz says Magic Leap has spent a billion dollars perfecting a prototype and has begun constructing manufacturing lines in Florida, ahead of a release of a consumer version of its technology. When it arrives, probably within the next 18 months, it could usher in a new era of computing, a next-generation interface we’ll use for decades to come. “We are building a new kind of contextual computer,” Abovitz says. “We’re doing something really, really different.”
It looks like a glass lens, but don’t call it that. Abovitz calls it a “photonic lightfield chip.”
Magic Leap’s innovation isn’t just a high-tech display … it’s a disruption machine. This technology could affect every business that uses screens or computers, and many others that don’t. It could kill the $120 billion flat-panel display market, and shake the $1 trillion global consumer-electronics business to its core. The applications are profound. Throw out your PC, your laptop and your mobile phone, because the computing power you need will be in your glasses, and they can make a display appear anywhere, at any size you like.
For that matter, they can make anything appear, like directions to your next meeting, drawn in bright yellow arrows along the roads of your town. You’ll be able to see what that new couch you’re thinking of buying looks like in your living room, from every conceivable angle, under every lighting condition, without leaving your home. Even the least mechanically inclined will be able to repair their cars, with an interactive program highlighting exactly which part needs to be replaced and alerting you if you’re doing it wrong. And Magic Leap is ready to profit from every interaction – not just from the hardware and software it will sell but also, one imagines, from the torrent of data it could collect, analyse and resell. “It’s hard to think of an area that doesn’t completely change,” Abovitz says.
Neither a VR game nor Pokémon Go can do what Magic Leap’s “mixed reality” does. VR takes you to another place. AR can make a Pikachu appear in your living room. Mixed reality keeps you where you are, and makes that Pikachu come to life.
How does it do it? The centerpiece of Magic Leap’s technology is a head-mounted display, but the final product should fit into a pair of spectacles. When you’re wearing the device, it doesn’t block your view of the world; the hardware projects an image directly onto your retina through an optics system built into a piece of semitransparent glass (the product replicates the way we naturally observe the world instead of forcing you to stare at a screen). The hardware also constantly gathers information, scanning the room for obstacles, listening for voices, tracking eye movements and watching hands.
As a result, mixed-reality objects are aware of their environment and have the ability to interact with the real world. On Magic Leap’s hardware a Pokémon might escape capture by ducking behind your couch or, assuming you live in a “smart” home, turning off your lights and hiding in the dark.
In one of its demos the Magic Leap team shows off a computer-generated “virtual interactive human” – life-size and surprisingly realistic. Abovitz and his team imagine virtual people (or animals or anything else) as digital assistants. Think Siri on steroids, except with a physical presence that makes her easier to work with and harder to ignore. Ask your virtual assistant to deliver a message to a coworker and it might walk out of your office, reappear beside your colleague’s desk via his or her own MR headset and deliver the message in person.
In a mixed reality world, computing power isn’t confined to a gadget on your desk. It’s something that you can link to any object, real or virtual, giving it awareness of its location, intelligence about its purpose and insight on how you might want to use it. “Think of it as the future state of computing,” Abovitz says, “where the world is your desktop.” First we had mainframes, then PCs, then mobile devices. If Magic Leap has its way, the next generation will be virtual.
“This is not about entertainment or just playing videogames,” says Thomas Tull, the billionaire founder of Legendary Entertainment. “This is a different way of interacting with the world, a new generation of computers. I think Magic Leap will end up being a very, very important company.”