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Magic Leap’s Unreal Augmented Reality

The company’s demonstrations may have been impressive, but they also involved smoke and mirrors.
December 9, 2016

Magic Leap’s unbelievable augmented reality demonstrations may have been just that.

There’s no denying the allure of Magic Leap’s claim that it is building a dazzling new form of augmented reality. We already knew, however, that the slick marketing was hiding some caveats that would keep the technology from being imminently commercialized—for one, when our own Rachel Metz tried out their kit last year, she noted that it was only made possible by a cart stacked with hardware.

But according to a report by the Information, the company may have gone a little overboard with its bluster and simulated demonstrations, promising the public an experience that its hardware will struggle to deliver.

Take, for instance, this YouTube video, published in March 2015, which claimed to show off a game being developed by Magic Leap. It racked up 3.5 million views—clearly mesmerizing stuff. But according to ex-employees of Magic Leap, the game didn’t exist inside the company at the time, and the video was made by a special effects firm.

Still, the company needed to secure investment. Its trick, according to the Information, was to show investors a demonstration using its cartful o’ hardware, then quickly show a mock up device, akin to a pair of sunglasses connected to a small, portable box by a cable. The company promised that’s how the final thing would look. People signed checks. Large checks: Magic Leap managed to secure over $1 billion of funding, valuing it at $4.5 billion.

Fast forward to today, and Magic Leap’s still has impressive demonstrations of its technology. But they continue to rely on a large helmet, connected by several cables to a powerful computer.

The product that the company now intends to release is “spectacle-like” according to the Information, which has seen a prototype of the device. But a former employee of the company says that much of the technology in the demonstration device didn’t make it into the product that will be commercially available. The company had planned to use exotic silicon photonics in its hardware, but that was always going to be a big ask, and it appears the company has, for now at least, abandoned those plans.

It’s unlikely, then, that the version that regular folks get to purchase will offer the same awe-inspiring sense of immersion. So, with a prototype product that does less than promised, no proposed release date, and competition in the form of Microsoft’s HoloLens, Magic Leap’s reality looks rather less promising than the dream it sold to investors and the public. Maybe it can find an alternative one somewhere in its cart.

(Read more: The Information, “Ten Breakthrough Technologies: Magic Leap,” “Magic Leap Now Has Over $1 Billion in the Bank, but No Product,” “Reality Check: Comparing HoloLens and Magic Leap”)

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