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Google leads $542 million funding of mysterious augmented reality firm Magic Leap

Google leads $542 million funding of mysterious augmented reality firm Magic Leap

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Google is leading a huge $542 million round of funding for the secretive startup Magic Leap, which is said to be working on augmented reality glasses that can create digital objects that appear to exist in the world around you. Though little is known about what Magic Leap is working on, Google is placing a big bet on it: in addition to the funding, Android and Chrome leader Sundar Pichai will join Magic Leap's board, as will Google's corporate development vice-president Don Harrison. The funding is also coming directly from Google itself — not from an investment arm like Google Ventures — all suggesting this is a strategic move to align the two companies and eventually partner when the tech is more mature down the road.

"You’re in the room, and there’s a dragon flying around, it’s jaw-dropping."

Magic Leap's technology currently takes the shape of something like a pair of glasses, according to The Wall Street Journal. Rather than displaying images on the glasses or projecting them out into the world, Magic Leap's glasses reportedly project their image right onto their wearer's eyes — and apparently to some stunning effects.

"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 Pictures, tells the Journal. Legendary also took part in this round of investment, alongside Qualcomm, Kleiner Perkins, Andreessen Horowitz, and Obvious Ventures, among others. Qualcomm's executive chairman, Paul Jacobs, is also joining Magic Leap's board.

The eclectic mix of companies participating in this investment round speak to how broadly Magic Leap sees its potential. Its founder says that he wants the company to become "a creative hub for gamers, game designers, writers, coders, musicians, filmmakers, and artists." Legendary, which makes films including Godzilla and The Dark Knight, is interested in its potential for movies. Google likely sees far more ways to put it to use.

The technology sounds like it could be an obvious companion to Google Glass, but for now the Journal reports that they're not being integrated. Magic Leap declined to commented on what might happen down the road. Nonetheless, the investment in Magic Leap appears to be Google betting on augmented reality as the future of computing, pitting it in a fight against virtual reality competitors. Eventually, it'll likely be facing off against Facebook's Oculus Rift — the biggest name in VR right now, and one that Facebook was willing to pay $2 billion for.

Magic Leap also says that it may "positively transform the process of education."

Magic Leap is run and was founded by Rony Abovitz, who previously founded the medical robotics company Mako Surgical, which was sold for $1.65 billion last year. The Journal reports that Abovitz has a biomedical engineering degree from the University of Miami. He previously made a bizarre, psychedelic TEDx talk involving 2001, green and purple apes, and a punk band. His new company, which has been around since 2011, is headquartered in Florida, so it isn't exactly the typical tech startup out out of Silicon Valley. Aboitz says the location allows Magic Leap to recruit globally. It currently has over 100 employees.

"When you see this, you will see that this is computing for the next 30 or 40 years."

Though Magic Leap's product sounds like a pair of augmented reality glasses, Abovitz and his company dislike the term. Magic Leap brands its effect as "Cinematic Reality," which sounds a bit cooler but doesn't really mean anything just yet. "Those are old terms – virtual reality, augmented reality. They have legacy behind them," Abovitz told the South Florida Business Journal back in February, after closing an initial round of funding. "They are associated with things that didn’t necessarily deliver on a promise or live up to expectations. We have the term cinematic reality because we are disassociated with those things. … When you see this, you will see that this is computing for the next 30 or 40 years. To go farther and deeper than we’re going, you would be changing what it means to be human."

This is all something that Google is eager to view the results of. "We are looking forward to Magic Leap's next stage of growth, and to seeing how it will shape the future of visual computing," Pichai says in a statement. What exactly Google will do with augmented reality is still unknown, but, much like how Google has managed to control a great deal of mobile computing through Android, it's been looking ahead to ensure that it doesn't miss out on the next leap either. It declined to provide further comment on the investment.

Talking to TechCrunch, Abovitz says that Magic Leap should be launching a product for consumers "relatively soon." There's no stated target date for now, though, and it sounds like it still has some development to do.