Rony Abovitz is still coy about what Magic Leap will actually look like. But he’s clear about one thing: his company’s technology won’t make you sick like all those virtual and augmented reality goggles. “The worst thing going on right now is stereoscopic 3-D systems,” he said in a phone conversation last week. “It causes the whole eye-brain system to malfunction…You are actually creating a number of neurological conflicts.” The result, of course, can be nausea.
It’s a little easy for Abovitz to take potshots at hardware that’s already been unveiled while Magic Leap still won’t reveal how its own will work. And with nearly $600 million in financing, expectations are high. His trash talk speaks to how quickly competition in the space is heating up, even as basic questions are still being contested, such as, “Will this make me feel sick?”
Abovitz says the issue isn’t limited to immersive virtual reality headsets like Oculus, which readily acknowledge the challenge with motion sickness and are trying to figure out how to eliminate it. Headsets like the upcoming Microsoft HoloLens that layer hologram-like images atop the real world, he says, will also make you queasy.
According to Abovitz, who is trained as a biomedical engineer, “People think ‘if I can see through it, I’m ok.’” But you still won’t feel okay, he contends, because both virtual headsets like the Oculus Rift and augmented reality headsets like the HoloLens ultimately use the same technique to create the illusion of three dimensions.
While each uses significantly different technology, both create their images by projecting them into the back of your eye at an angle. This tricks your brain into seeing three dimensions.
Microsoft takes issue with Abovitz’s critique. “Microsoft products are designed and manufactured to meet or exceed all applicable regulatory and industry safety standards,” according to Microsoft spokesperson Andy Lutzky.
But it’s hard to compare the HoloLens to Magic Leap because we know so little about how Abovitz’s technology will work. Abovitz won’t say much, except that glasses won’t be necessary to use it. “If you actually saw the underlying tech,” he says. “it’s almost hairlike. It’s going to be super thin and super small.” The ultimate version of the product, which he says the company already has running, will be something no one’s expecting.
He calls the technology behind Magic Leap a “dynamic digital light field signal” and “the closest replication to what the real world is doing as it interacts with your eye brain system.” But he won’t elaborate. A few prominent backers who have vetted it have faith in its potential. Most notably, Google led a $542 million investment in the company last fall, and Larry Page’s deputy, Sundar Pichai, joined the board.
Abovitz appears to be enjoying the suspense has has created around the unveiling of his future product. A whimsical character who is passionate about both his art and his entrepreneurialism, he said he used to play music for a good part of the night at a South Florida music joint and then roll into customer meetings with doctors for his surgical robotics startup, Mako Surgical, which he sold for $1.65 billion in 2013.
He describes Magic Leap’s culture as “a mashup between the early days of Pixar, the early days of Apple, and some kind of Willy Wonka science fiction movie.” Lately he has appeared in public a bit more, speaking at his alma mater, the University of Miami, as well as in a public forum on Reddit. He’ll also address the 2015 TED Conference, which kicks off March 16 in Vancouver Canada, though audience members shouldn’t expect to see a full demo. And he’s planning a future event, for which they’ll be a surprise invitation element, rather like the golden ticket that let a young Charlie Bucket visit Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Meanwhile, the company is on a hiring tear. It opened an office in Mountain View, California, and satellite offices in Los Angeles and in Wellington, New Zealand, embedded with the design studio Weta Workshop. Abovitz also has a couple of folks based in London and Seattle (home to Magic Leap Chief Futurist and sci fi writer Neal Stephenson). But about 80 percent of its employees are in South Florida, where the company plans to set up a pilot manufacturing plant not far from the Fort Lauderdale airport. “I love being out here,” Abovitz says, “because here is where people went to Space, where Walt Disney showed up in the middle of nowhere and built Disney in a swamp.”