Magic Leap’s allegedly revolutionary augmented reality technology may in fact be years away from completion and, as it stands now, is noticeably inferior to Microsoft’s HoloLens headset, according to a report from The Information. The report, which incorporates an interview with Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz, reveals that the company posted a misleading product demo last year showcasing its technology. The company has also had trouble miniaturizing its AR tech from a bulky helmet-sized device into a pair of everyday glasses, as Abovitz has repeatedly claimed the finished product will accomplish.
The revelations undermine one of the most secretive firms in the technology industry, casting Magic Leap as a fast-growing startup that has overhyped its product with wild marketing stunts and unrealized ambition. The company has raked in $1.4 billion in funding at a valuation of $4.5 billion. Investors include Google, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Silicon Valley juggernaut Andreessen Horowitz. It has done so by convincing prominent tech and entertainment figures that it has a cutting-edge, never-before-seen technology that can realistically create virtual objects and blend them with the real world. Magic Leap did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The company has repeatedly used YouTube videos to demonstrate its version of AR, showing tiny elephants in the palms of people’s hands and a life-sized whale jumping out of a virtual ocean on a gymnasium floor. But at least one of these videos — showing an alien invader video game that let the wearer of the supposed headset or glasses make use of real-world objects — was created by visual effects studio Weta Workshop. Prior to today, it was believed Weta had simply created the visual assets for the game. However, The Information reveals the entire video was created by the studio. Magic Leap nonetheless used it to recruit employees to work at its South Florida headquarters. “This is a game we’re playing around the office right now,” reads the video’s description — an assertion that could not have been true.
The Information received a rare product demonstration at Magic Leap, describing the device as a large helmet that connects to a desktop computer using multiple cables. The demo is described as having elements similar to the HoloLens, but with images that are in some cases blurrier and more jittery than Microsoft’s prototype. The HoloLens is now available in a developer kit form for $3,000, and it can be worn completely untethered from a computer.
The crux of the problem appears to be Magic Leap’s gamble on a so-called fiber scanning display, which shines a laser through a fiber optic cable that moves rapidly back and forth to draw images out of light. The company thought the fiber scanning display could be Magic Leap’s breakthrough tech, allowing it to shrink down the extremely expensive hardware used on a previous prototype — a refrigerator-sized device known internally as the “Beast.”
According to The Information, Magic Leap still has not been able to get the fiber scanning display to work. It has since demoted it to a long-term research project. “You ultimately in engineering have to make tradeoffs,” Abovitz said in the interview. Still, the company’s latest prototype appears to be the size of a standard pair of glasses. It’s known internally as the PEQ, for product equivalent, and yet Magic Leap declined to demonstrate it for The Information. Abovitz claims it is only slightly less capable than the earlier, tethered prototypes, but denied that it now uses technology similar to the HoloLens.