The last time I visited Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz at the company’s secretive Florida offices, he told me about the time he met Beaker, the meeping beeping scientist on the Muppet Show. Not the character Beaker, but the real Beaker. The guy was a film director at creator Jim Henson’s studio, Abovitz explained enthusiastically. “He’s tall, he looks just like Beaker and he acts like Beaker! You’re like, ‘How do I know him?’ And then you find out he was the influence behind Beaker, and it all sort of makes sense,” he said. Of the many celebrities Abovitz has met, Beaker was clearly a highlight.
“By the way,” he said. “The Muppet Show plus Star Wars equals Magic Leap in my head.”
In the absence of a product or even a prototype, this is the kind of wacky description we’ve had to work with in our efforts to understand Magic Leap over the last few years. The heavy dose of whimsy makes it almost too easy to write off the startup’s boastful promise to be a leading contender in the race to dominate augmented reality. After all, Microsoft began shipping its HoloLens headset to developers nearly two years ago, in March of 2016. By this point, tech’s big five all have their own version of an augmented reality Manhattan Project on the hunch that the next big computing platform will emerge from the fusion of physical and digital assets through a set of goggles. Why bet on this Florida startup with its quixotic founder when Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and their peers are pouring resources into figuring it out?
The answer becomes apparent in this week’s announcement that, at long last, Magic Leap has unveiled a prototype and will make its headset available with developer tools in 2018. The goggles, dubbed the Magic Leap One, come with a controller and battery pack the size of my palm, and have a steampunk vibe. They’re sleek, with bug-eyed lenses, and a Rolling Stone preview suggests they’ll be expensive. Truthfully, there’s not much more information available. Developers haven’t tried them, so it’s impossible to compare them directly to other available prototypes. But what’s distinctive about these glasses is that they exist at all—that Magic Leap has finally come forth with evidence that its technology, which until now has only been seen by those of us who have signed lengthy and complicated nondisclosure agreements, will have form.
Right now, this is enough. As important as this next computing platform will be—Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe has even called artificial reality the final platform—to the way we conduct business, entertain ourselves, and generally communicate, it is many years out. Today’s version of augmented reality is restricted to Snap lenses and Pokemon Go or factory workers reading manuals through Google Glass. For AR goggles to take off, computing power must advance, batteries must shrink, and we must design the new applications that will give us reason to want to purchase a pair for ourselves. Only then will we have a market—or more likely, many types of markets—for this technology.
Magic Leap is among a small group of companies that have the resources and backing to develop products for this future. It has raised $1.9 billion so far, having closed its most recent round earlier this fall. Board members include Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Alibaba executive chairman Joe Tsai. The company has strong ties to Hollywood, and Steven Spielberg is reportedly an investor. It has inked entertainment-focused partnerships like one with Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB (Magic Leap hired ILM cofounder John Gaeta in October). At the company’s helm is a proven entrepreneur; Abovitz sold a medical robotics company in 2013 for $1.65 billion.
Which brings us back to Abovitz’s office. In addition to a sculpture of Beaker, the room is cluttered with all sorts of toys and games and prizes, like the unicorn head propped atop a punching bag or the many lanyards from past Star Trek conventions. Each memento has a story, which Abovitz tends to recount in Star Wars metaphors and with regular references to Charlie Bucket’s golden ticket. Abovitz is a very different type of leader than the set of California CEOs rushing headlong toward tech’s future. He is gentle—a life-long vegetarian who showed me photos of one of his dogs the first time I met him, and who can always make room for a discarded pet in need of a home. His friends and colleagues describe him as a person with a heart that is big and soft and full. (Sometimes, too much so. As a manager, he shies away from conflict.) The science fiction he’s always spinning has happy endings.
Abovitz pairs this empathy with a grand vision for Magic Leap that extends well beyond the gaming device we saw this week. This prototype is a mere step on the road to an even more powerful computing breakthrough. “As I learn more about how the brain works, it’s just hundreds of thousands of tiny neural connections and each neuron is filled with tiny substructures, and those all might be incredibly powerful quantum computers themselves,” Abovitz told me last year. “Magic Leap is just functioning as training wheels to begin to unlock that.” Someday, he explained, we won’t need goggles to map digital assets to reality; we’ll be able to program our brains directly.
It’s possible that augmented reality will be the most important computing shift of our lifetime. Magic Leap’s position as the kooky outsider ensures that the first iterations of this technology won’t only reflect the limited perspective of already-anointed West Coast oligarchs. Yes, the company’s a little weird. Sure, it’s following an unconventional path. But given what’s at stake—the future of how we interact with our environments and each other—infusing a little Florida and stirring in a dose of Hollywood means we’ll get a technology that stretches beyond the prevailing tech groupthink. With this week’s prototype, it’s clear the company is on track to be a serious contender, en route to one possible version of the future: a Muppets-plus-Star Wars version that sounds damn appealing.