Little is publicly known about Magic Leap — or, rather, publicly disclosed, thanks to a long trail of NDAs — except that its tech claims to merge the physical and digital worlds with hardware and software that surpasses existing virtual and augmented reality solutions. This week the Florida-based company reached peak hype after it announced a $542 million Series B led by Google, and including KPCB, Andreessen Horowitz, Obvious Ventures, chip maker Qualcomm, and Legendary Entertainment — valuing the startup north of $1 billion and gaining entry into the unicorn club, all without a commercial product or even a public prototype.
That’s somewhat mind boggling and leaves a ton of questions related to Magic Leap’s technology and eventual product. Co-founder and CEO Rony Abovitz has characterised the product up to now as a “lightweight wearable” but the company has not said when it will actually ship. On the latter point, Abovitz recently told TechCrunch to expect a consumer launch “relatively soon”, leaving plenty of wriggle-room for the now deep-pocketed company.
However, a recent job listings page for Magic Leap shows the company is amidst an aggressive hiring spree, with a plethora of openings in hardware and software engineering — 62 in total — along with a bunch of administration roles.
The job descriptions also tell us a little more about the technology behind Magic Leap and, on the software side, point to developing an entire software/hardware stack, albeit one that is almost certainly based on Google’s Android Open Source Project. A large number of openings make mention of Android, including specific job titles “Android developer” and “Android core software engineering”.
The platform also appears to rely heavily on the Unity3D gaming engine to render 3D virtual objects. In one example, the position of “Game Tool Developer” references what the company is calling “Cinematic Reality”, described as a “beautifully realistic 3D environment visible in the real world”, and requiring the development of “tooling and infrastructure which operates both inside and outside of the Unity3d Editor.”
The fact that two key planks to Magic Leap appear to leverage well-known (and, in some ways, unremarkable) technologies is noteworthy, given the hype and valuation of the company. But it’s actually the startup’s “hardware engineering” and “perception/machine vision” openings that provide more insight into where the ‘magic’ in Magic Leap may come from.
Specifically there are a number of job descriptions relating to optical, lens and laser technology, including eye tracking, as well as positions in computer vision and machine learning. These appear to shed a little more light on the claims Magic Leap and some of its investors have hinted at regarding how the startup’s technology ensures virtual objects actually feel like they are sitting in the real world, which, as my colleague Darrel Etherington noted, are almost certainly projected directly onto a user’s retina to achieve this effect.
After seeing the job listings, one industry source with a background in hardware and embedded systems told me they think the device will take care of computer vision and environment modelling primarily in hardware not in software, as has been the case for previous augmented reality apps.
“The difficult part is finding out how to transform a 3D object before rendering on the screen so that it feels like it’s really there,” he noted. “In the past, people have used markers to compute that easily but it doesn’t scale on real life applications. That’s what they probably use lasers for, to scan the environment a bit like what a Kinect would but much more precise.”
Another veteran of the mobile hardware and software industry I spoke to, echoed those thoughts. He says that in a lot of ways the software side of augmented and virtual reality is already “well understood”, citing technology used in products like the Oculus Rift, the VR headset and technology company recently acquired by Facebook, and products like Amazon’s Fire Phone, for head tracking and eye tracking. Instead, it’s Magic Leap’s hardware display — based on what little publicly available information there is — that sounds “unbelievable”.
“Whatever you think about the novelty of Google Glass and stuff, that’s all really technology that’s been used for twenty+ years in heads up displays for warplane and apache helicopter pilots. What Magic Leap are claiming however seems to be something mostly new that hasn’t just trickled down from military applications,” he said.
Of course, until we get to experience the Magic Leap for ourselves, it’s wise to file this as mostly conjecture, aided by good old fashioned hype, which has no doubt been flamed to help the company with recruitment. Meanwhile, the sheer number of openings, not least in hardware which always requires a much greater lead time than software alone, point to a public unveiling — specifically, a full commercial launch — as a long way off yet.
As one industry expert observed, “the job listings suggest they are mostly looking for people who can help them produce reliably high yields of the parts they need, as these roles talk a lot about manufacturing quality management tools. So I might suggest they think they have a working prototype, but they are not anywhere near able to mass produce it in a repeatable way, before they can even think about taking it to a factory for real production.”
But, with over half a billion dollars in the bank, investors clearly feel that it is a leap of faith worth taking.