The Magic Leap Butterfly Is Emerging, But Will It Fly?

A failure could hurt the whole industry

Willy Wonka arrives at the 40th Anniversary Screening Of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' at The Grand Gala Chocolate Awards on July 31, 2011 in Anaheim, California. Credit: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

I was so excited for the Magic Leap One to be announced--to see what more than six years and $1.9B in venture capital would produce. And I was not alone. Then we got our first glimpse...“Those are goggles,” I thought as I saw the Magic Leap One. “They’re cooler than clunky headsets, but they are still goggles.” I expected more. The let down was reminiscent of my 2013 globetrotting Glass Explorer trip. I was on a street in Mumbai when a man approached me and asked if I was wearing “Google Goggles.” He nailed the problem -- ‘goggles’ were not going to make it to mainstream consumers. They were good for grabbing attention but not for translating that interest into consumer desire.

The fates of the immersive industries of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality all hang together; we are at a critical conjuncture. We need our tremendous promise (currently a caterpillar) to metamorphose into a brilliant butterfly. And we thought that Magic Leap was the incubator.

However, Magic Leap’s CEO, Rony Abovitz is a master storyteller. He and his team have been spinning a chrysalis for years tantalizing us with the butterfly that will emerge without letting us see into the transformation processes. They drew our eyeballs and made our imaginations run wild by crashing whales onto gymnasium floors and dancing elephants on the palms of our hands.

So fascinating, so tantalizing but could they really deliver augmented reality to a broad base of consumers? Immersive industry doubters have always said “consumers are never going to wear those things.” Magic Leap touted to these naysayers that they would find the way. So, we hoped and waited. As more and more time passed with nothing from Magic Leap, many of us wondered if they would, indeed, deliver on their promise.

Two years ago, during a Reddit AMA with Abovitz, he teased that “gold tickets were coming” , with dozens of Redditors claiming that they, too, had a “golden ticket.” Reddit user, Web journalist, even claimed that “Grandpa Joe and I are ready... sign us up!”

Yet here we are: Willy Wonka looking goggles but no golden tickets. $1.9 billion dollars. Six years. Are we satisfied? Feelings, including mine, are very mixed.

Goggles are the state of where technology is today and while they’ve made advancements in “light field photonics” which eliminate the need for screens and create more convincing digital realities than on other devices, we’re left wondering “Is this all there is?”

Are they an improvement over the competition? Sure, in some ways. The only other “mixed reality” or “augmented reality” headsets on the market are both larger, helmet-like headsets with visors that look aesthetically similar to one another: The Hololens, by Microsoft, and the “Meta 2”, a second-generation device released by Meta, a startup which has raised a paltry $73M.

Meta spent “only” $73M to get to a V1 or a “developer kit” -- what other early adopters are calling the Magic Leap One. In an interview with Brian Crecente in Glixel, Abovitz argued back that One is “not just a development kit. If you’re a consumer-creator, you are going to be happy.” In my opinion, with the money they have raised, they really need to be much further along. A large percentage of people in today’s world are consumer-creators but how enthused are they with One? Sensing this type of critique, Abovitz added that what they are building (as against the competition) is a “premium computing system… a premium artisanal computer” and not just another VR/AR/MR headset.

Maybe he’s using “premium artisanal” terminology to prime us for the One price point that will be most likely be upwards of $1500, as per Lucas Matney of TechCrunch research from September 2017. Google Glass’s price point was $1500 and they got large backlash for being an unaffordable, elitist product. While Magic Leap One’s technology is significantly superior to that of Google Glass, it must be noted that Magic Leap has captivated the same audience that was once captivated by Google Glass. If wording around the marketing of this product to developers and early adopters is not made clear, the butterfly will inevitable fall alongside thousands of golden tickets.

As someone who works in the industry with my own startup, SVRF, in the immersive space, I do not want this potential reality to occur. If Magic Leap One fails, and by fails I mean cannot garner enough sales, to continue their hype train onto more billions, raises at a “down round” or gets acquired for less than $6 billion, our industry will be set back for years with blood on everyone’s hands.

Sophia Dominguez is the CEO & co-founder of SVRF, the first search and discovery engine for immersive content for VR/AR. She also founded AllThingsVR, a weekly newsletter that highlights the best immersive news and content. Previously, she was the Entrepreneur in Residence at Rothenberg Ventures and was also the first person to travel the world with Google Glass to document human reaction to the technology.