Is Magic Leap Falling Too Far Behind the Competition?
By Rob Stott
There’s something to be said for technology companies taking their time when developing a product or concept. You don’t want to release something that’s so new and so far ahead of it’s time that it ends up being a complete flop. (See: Google Glass.) But there’s also something to be said about creating so much hype around a particular product while shrouding it in complete mystery, with limited details and updates that are few and far between, so much so that it fails to ultimately live up to the hype. (See: Also, Google Glass.)
That’s the position that I feel we’re in with Magic Leap, a company and product created by Florida-based inventor Rony Abovitz and backed by some major tech companies like Google and Alibaba. Magic Leap the company was founded by Abovitz in 2010, but details about the super secretive project didn’t begin leaking out until late 2014 when Gizmodo did some serious digging into Magic Leap’s hirings, job listings, patent applications, trademarks, and more.
Of late, the company has been a little more open about what it’s working on—some sort of mixed reality device that resembles a cross between Microsoft’s Hololens and Google’s Glass. Just this week, Magic Leap announced the launch of its first actual product, the Magic Leap One, Creator Edition. But even with that announcement Magic Leap is essentially pulling consumers along for this fairy tale kind of ride about a product that they might someday own.
Sure, the Creator Edition would be made available to super-early adopter types. But the intent of the product is to get it in the hands of developers who can play around with the technology, discover different ways and use cases for the product, and finally dive into its now-available SDK and Creator Portal (which were teased all the way back in 2015), and begin working on apps for the Magic Leap platform.
Magic Leap does have some interesting partnerships in the works—including one with the NBA that was announced earlier this year—and the early preview of what this augmented/mixed reality platform can do are impressive. But it would be more than fair to wonder if Magic Leap is falling way too far behind other AR/MR companies out there who have product in the field and have been testing for a number of years now. Microsoft, for example, has had its Hololens product available to commercial enterprises and developers for real-world use since 2016, a solid two years ahead of Magic Leap. And we certainly saw a number of near-ready products at CES 2018 this year that could get to market ahead of Magic Leap if those companies play their cards right.
Is it a Bigger Problem with AR?
For all of the touting I feel that I’ve done on the future of augmented reality and the opportunity it has to some day replace the smartphone as our go-to platform, the story of Magic Leap has me worried that there could be a much larger set of issues with this technology that we’re all afraid to face.
For one, Abovitz himself has said at the time of the Creator Edition’s launch that the price of the thing, which still hasn’t been officially announced, will be similar to that of a high-end smartphone. And, if that’s the case, I think manufacturers are going to have an incredibly hard time convincing consumers to invest several pretty pennies in a technology that they have to strap onto their heads and connect to external computer hardware. That’s not to say there aren’t commercial and industrial applications for those kinds of platforms—Microsoft has found a nice home in that arena for the Hololens—but if Google couldn’t convince consumer to drop $1,500 for their Glass product (which didn’t have any wires dangling from it), good luck getting them to spend nearly as much for something that’s going to turn them into a walking, breathing humanoid.
It’s worrisome that the AR space is settling in around that $1,000 price point with the hopes of attracting the everyday consumer. The only way I see that being a viable option is if these products can become standalone platforms (no smartphone required) that are sold in a similar fashion to how smartphones are sold today—on contract through a carrier that finds ways to subsidize the cost for the consumer. Short of launching smart glasses contract plans, I don’t think these companies are going to be very successful trying to pawn off these smartphone extensions at prices that double or triple the average price consumers are willing to drop on their handheld computers. Especially when they’re asking them to walk around out in the real world looking like this:
Abovitz has alluded to the Creator Edition being a first-gem type of product with Magic Leap aiming to develop more consumer-friendly headsets down the line. So, all of this waiting around has really just led to even more waiting around.