The world’s hottest startup isn’t located in Silicon Valley—it’s in suburban Florida.
KEVIN KELLY explores what Magic Leap’s mind-bending technology tells us about the future of virtual reality.
THERE IS SOMETHING special happening in a generic office park in an uninspiring suburb near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Inside, amid the low gray cubicles, clustered desks, and empty swivel chairs, an impossible 8-inch robot drone from an alien planet hovers chest-high in front of a row of potted plants. It is steampunk-cute, minutely detailed. I can walk around it and examine it from any angle. I can squat to look at its ornate underside. Bending closer, I bring my face to within inches of it to inspect its tiny pipes and protruding armatures. I can see polishing swirls where the metallic surface was “milled.” When I raise a hand, it approaches and extends a glowing appendage to touch my fingertip. I reach out and move it around. I step back across the room to view it from afar. All the while it hums and slowly rotates above a desk. It looks as real as the lamps and computer monitors around it. It’s not. I’m seeing all this through a synthetic-reality headset. Intellectually, I know this drone is an elaborate simulation, but as far as my eyes are concerned it’s really there, in that ordinary office. It is a virtual object, but there is no evidence of pixels or digital artifacts in its three-dimensional fullness. If I reposition my head just so, I can get the virtual drone to line up in front of a bright office lamp and perceive that it is faintly transparent, but that hint does not impede the strong sense of it being present. This, of course, is one of the great promises of artificial reality—either you get teleported to magical places or magical things get teleported to you. And in this prototype headset, created by the much speculated about, ultrasecretive company called Magic Leap, this alien drone certainly does seem to be transported to this office in Florida—and its reality is stronger than I thought possible.
I saw other things with these magical goggles. I saw human-sized robots walk through the actual walls of the room. I could shoot them with power blasts from a prop gun I really held in my hands. I watched miniature humans wrestle each other on a real tabletop, almost like a Star Wars holographic chess game. These tiny people were obviously not real, despite their photographic realism, but they were really present—in a way that didn’t seem to reside in my eyes alone; I almost felt their presence.
Virtual reality overlaid on the real world in this manner is called mixed reality, or MR. (The goggles are semitransparent, allowing you to see your actual surroundings.) It is more difficult to achieve than the classic fully immersive virtual reality, or VR, where all you see are synthetic images, and in many ways MR is the more powerful of the two technologies.
Magic Leap is not the only company creating mixed-reality technology, but right now the quality of its virtual visions exceeds all others. Because of this lead, money is pouring into this Florida office park. Google was one of the first to invest. Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, and others followed. In the past year, executives from most major media and tech companies have made the pilgrimage to Magic Leap’s office park to experience for themselves its futuristic synthetic reality. At the beginning of this year, the company completed what may be the largest C-round of financing in history: $793.5 million. To date, investors have funneled $1.4 billion into it.
That astounding sum is especially noteworthy because Magic Leap has not released a beta version of its product, not even to developers. Aside from potential investors and advisers, few people have been allowed to see the gear in action, and the combination of funding and mystery has fueled rampant curiosity. But to really understand what’s happening at Magic Leap, you need to also understand the tidal wave surging through the entire tech industry. All the major players—Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, Samsung—have whole groups dedicated to artificial reality, and they’re hiring more engineers daily. Facebook alone has over 400 people working on VR. Then there are some 230 other companies, such as Meta, the Void, Atheer, Lytro, and 8i, working furiously on hardware and content for this new platform. To fully appreciate Magic Leap’s gravitational pull, you really must see this emerging industry—every virtual-reality and mixed-reality headset, every VR camera technique, all the novel VR applications, beta-version VR games, every prototype VR social world.
Like I did—over the past five months.
Then you will understand just how fundamental virtual reality technology will be, and why businesses like Magic Leap have an opportunity to become some of the largest companies ever created....MORE