Magic Leap and the Curse of the Overpromise

on July 20, 2018

Magic Leap may well be the best known augmented reality company in the world that has yet to ship a product. Well-funded by a long list of backers, the company has often very publicly suggested that its technology is better than other AR market competitors with currently shipping products. Early on, the company famously showed a video on its Web site of a full-sized whale breaching out of the floor of a school gymnasium in front of dozens of spectators. This video-and others like it-set a very high bar in terms of expectations.

As the company slowly moves toward shipping its first actual product-it says the Magic Leap One Creator Edition (for developers) will ship this summer-it has been showing more real-world demonstrations of its technology to the world via Twitch-hosted live streams. Those demonstrations, it’s safe to say, have not lived up to those sky-high expectations.

Tech Demos vs. Product Creation
Part of the mystique around Magic Leap, which has survived the company’s share of negative press over the years, is that the small number of people who’ve seen the top-secret demonstration of the technology say its amazing. And it likely is. But because so few have seen it, and because those who do must sign nondisclosure agreements, we don’t know much about the setup of those demonstrations. It’s entirely possible that behind closed doors, Magic Leap can make lifelike whales appear. But does it take a roomful of hardware to make it happen? Can do they so with a consumer-friendly, shippable product? Out of the gate, the early answer certainly seems to be no.

In the most recent live stream, company representatives talked about the process of building out the first Magic Leap experiences and showed a simple animation of a golem that appears out of the horizontal plane to hurl rocks at you. Many on the live stream, and in the days since, have expressed frustration about the quality of this demonstration, and the company’s continued unwillingness to share details about the hardware’s supported field of view, pricing, and other specifications (although we do now know it will use an nVidia Tegra X2).

The reality is, what Magic Leap is doing in these live streams is showing the early building blocks of a new way of computing. Sometimes they call it spatial computing, other times, like Microsoft, they call it mixed reality. I consider it all augmented reality, but whatever you call it, it’s new, and it was never going to spring fully formed from Magic Leap’s labs. This process was always going to take time and the work of outside developers, too. But because the company came out of the gate with such brash claims, the world is finding its early reveals more than a little disappointing. And the company has no one to blame for this but itself.

That said, I find the live streams filled with interesting information. About how the device sees the room, and how it collects input from the user. In the golem demo, we watch a rock float past the user and crash into the ceiling. Think about that: A demo where the room becomes an aspect of the gameplay itself. It’s all very exciting and important. Unfortunately, the broader reaction is one of disappointment. It’s the curse of overpromising and underdelivering.

Impact on Broader AR Industry
Over the years I’ve been alternately skeptical and optimistic about what Magic Leap will ultimately ship. While the current demonstrations may not wow people the way its early videos did, what they show me is a company that is attempting to reset expectations, and that’s putting in the work to potentially build something very interesting.

And while Magic Leap and its executives have often been willing to make jabs at competition in the space, I’ve found most of those competitors are quietly hoping that the company eventually delivers a viable product. At present, the AR industry is relatively small, and most of the people inside the industry all know each other. A common theme among them is that they all see the technology as hugely important. And while each would like to be the ultimate winner, most think it’s good for the entire industry if a big, well-funded firm such as Magic Leap succeeds.

It also goes without saying that most AR headset competitors are eager to see the company ship an actual product, so they know what they are up against in the market. In some regards, it seems the rest of the industry has been holding off on launching new versions of their own products until the Magic Leap One ships. One example: Microsoft’s long-anticipated HoloLens 2.

Questions about Commercial
It’s pretty clear that those early Magic Leap videos promised more than the company can deliver, at least with its first product. My other big criticism of Magic Leap’s early strategy is that in addition to building an entirely new hardware and software platform, it also seems intent upon creating a fair amount of content, too. And that early content seems focused primarily on consumer, and not commercial users.

Anyone who follows the tech industry understands the allure of the consumer market and the scale it offers. But there are several reasons most AR technology companies are currently more focused on the commercial side of things. First, enterprise has already identified a long list of killer applications for AR, which include but aren’t limited to see-what-I see service-focused use cases, training and knowledge transfer, design and manufacturing, and sales and marketing. Second, forward-thinking companies are willing to spend real money on AR hardware and software if it drives a clear return on investment (and AR typically does). Finally, getting people to wear a goofy-looking headset is easier if their jobs requires it.

So while I can’t help but feel that Magic Leap has been too aggressive in trying to launch a hardware platform, a software platform, and a content studio all at once, I do wish the company was paying more attention to the commercial AR opportunities in the world. I can tell you that commercial-focused AR software vendorsI’ve talked to would love to have Magic Leap as an option for their products to run on down the road.

On the same day that Magic Leap announced it would ship the first developer kits this summer, the company also unveiled a partnership with AT&T, which will sell the headset in its retail storefronts. It’s an interesting arrangement in that there’s no indication that the product itself will have an LTE connection. But like many before it, AT&T clearly sees potential in Magic Leap. In addition to an investment from AT&T, the partnership means that later this year consumers will be able to go into an AT&T store to test out the Magic Leap One for themselves. I look forward to testing out the headset myself and finally getting a better answer to whether the technology has the potential to eventually deliver upon those early promises.