Augmented Reality took a shot in the arm this week with the new that Google is at the forefront of some US$542 million investment in technology company Magic Leap. What’s more, not only is the coming putting the money forward directly, rather than through their investment arm, Google Ventures (which has previously put money into things like Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity, alongside of investment house True Ventures), but two senior executives from Google will be joining the Magic Leap board. These are Sundar Pichai, Android and Chrome leader, and Don Harrison, Google’s corporate development vice-president.
The funding round comes on top of an initial round of investment in February 2014, which drew some US$50 million to the company.
But who or what is Magic Leap? According to the company’s website, it is essentially an augmented reality system which uses a “Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal”, although they note we can call it “Digital Lightfield™”, capable of merging realistic computer graphics with everything the user sees in the real world. This appears to be something of a merging of both VR and AR (with the emphasis on the latter), to create an immersive whole. The system doesn’t use the Oculus Rift, but apparently uses a headset system possibly akin to, say, the castAR system or perhaps Google Glass; the latter of which might explain Google’s interest – or it might not.
However, no-one knows precisely what Magic Leap is or how it works, because there haven’t been any public demonstrations of the system, nor have any images of the hardware been released. And while trendy terms like “Digital Lightfield™” are used on the equally trendy website, there is little to tell what is going on.
So far all that has been released are a series of pretty stunning images and videos – witness the video above, or the images top and centre in this article. However, that’s not so say the company don’t have something to get investors excited.
“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,” Thomas Tull, CEO of Legendary Entertainment (aka Legendary Pictures) told the Wall Street Journal. Images, projected into the wearer’s eyes, can even be made to appear to pass in front of or behind real-world objects. Tull was so impressed by what he saw, he not only had Legendary Pictures to invest in Magic Leap, he also made a personal investment as well.
Nor are Legendary Pictures and Google alone. Other investors in the funding round include Qualcomm, Kleiner Perkins, Andreessen Horowitz, Vulcan Capital, Obvious Ventures and Caufield & Byers. Qualcomm’s executive chairman, Paul Jacobs, is also joining Magic Leap’s board, and will sit alongside Google’s Don Harrison and an observer.
Such a broad spread of investment potential speaks to the vision held by Magic Leap’s CEO, Rony Abovitz, who wants the company to become “a creative hub for gamers, game designers, writers, coders, musicians, filmmakers, and artists.”
The potential for something like Magic Leap in films is clear; imagine sitting down in a movie theatre, donning a pair of glasses perhaps not too dissimilar to the current 3D glasses provided at theatres, and then seeing a film where events can become a shared experience as they extend into the audience…
That may well be why co-founder of Weta Workshop, the SFx company behind the visual effects for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies (among others), Richard Taylor, was also drawn to the project. He participated in the first round of funding for Magic Leap, and now sits on the company’s board of directors.
“What Rony and the Magic Leap team have created is nothing short of remarkable and will forever change the way we interact with images and information,” Taylor said at the time of his investment.
“The wearable technology they have developed is revolutionary in its ability to create amazingly immersive and fantastical experiences. This goal alone would be a Herculean endeavor for any development group, but the fact that the Magic Leap team is driven by the mantra of also delivering devices that complement human physiology is extraordinary,”
Bing Gordon, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and a former executive at EA Games sees a huge the potential for Magic Leap. Commenting on how the system is better coordinated with how the human eye and brain process images, making the computer graphics feel, and move, more naturally, he told the New York Times that Magic Leap could help drive augmented reality to outstrip mobile devices in terms of popularity in its possible range of uses.
It would seem that Google is looking more broadly at the potential of the technology as well, rather than button-holing it for any particular use or in combination with any particular product (Glass itself has been somewhat low-key this year, and was all but absent at the corporation’s Google i/o in July). Many commentators believe that Google’s investment, coming as it does from the company, rather than its investment arm, is a strategic move, with Google willing to see how the Magic Leap technology matures. Abovitz has gone a little further on matters, stating that Glass and Magic Leap use different approaches and will not be merged.
Abovitz himself cuts something of an unusual figure – as anyone who witnesses his appearance at the TEDx Sarasota’s inaugural conference is liable to agree. The Magic Leap website is equally somewhat offbeat, indicating that the Magic Leap team comprises (among others) “rocket scientists”, “software ninjas”, “computing hobbits”, and “psychedelic physicists”. however, it might not be wise to underestimate him. Abovitz also founded MAKO Surgical, producing surgical robotic arm assistance platforms, a company he took from start-up in 2004 to being named, in 2011, the fastest growing technology company on Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500.. In 2013, he orchestrated the sale of MAKO to Stryker Medical in a US$1.65 billion deal.
“Magic Leap is going beyond the current perception of mobile computing, augmented reality and virtual reality,” Abovitz said in a company statement following the funding round. “We are transcending all three, and will revolutionize the way people communicate, purchase, learn, share and play.”
- Magic Leap website
- Magic Leap press release on Series “B” round of funding
- Google Invests Heavily in Magic Leap’s Effort to Blend Illusion and Reality – New York Times
- Google leads $542 million funding of mysterious augmented reality firm Magic Leap – The Verge
- Google Leads $542 Million Deal in Secretive Startup Magic Leap – Wall Street Journal