Google and other investors are planning a huge investment in Magic Leap, a secretive but boastful company building hardware and software it says will deliver “cinematic reality.”
Sources say Google is leading what could be a $500 million funding round for the Florida-based company; Andreessen Horowitz may be one of the other investors in the consortium. Magic Leap already announced $50 million in funding earlier this year.
Google, Andreessen Horowitz and Magic Leap reps declined to comment. (UPDATE: The final total is $542 million. Google SVP Sundar Pichai will join the Magic Leap board.)
Aside from a few cryptic interviews and press releases, Magic Leap has kept a low profile until recently, but it has drawn increasing interest from Hollywood and Silicon Valley. CEO Rony Abovitz, who previously co-founded a surgical robotics company that sold for $1.65 billion, has said the company is working on “what we believe will be the most natural and human-friendly wearable computing interface in the world,” but has kept it mostly behind wraps.
Abovitz and Magic Leap have given some hints about what they’re working on, though: They say they can deliver a more realistic 3-D experience than the kind offered by current technologies, including Oculus Rift, the 3-D headset; Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion earlier this year.
On Oculus Rift and pretty much every other virtual and augmented reality experience, what the viewer sees is flat and floating in space at a set distance. What Magic Leap purports to do is make you think you’re seeing a real 3-D object on top of the real world.
“Those are old terms — virtual reality, augmented reality. They have legacy behind them. They are associated with things that didn’t necessarily deliver on a promise or live up to expectations,” Abovitz told the South Florida Business Journal earlier this year. “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.”
Talking to industry sources and parsing what’s been said publicly, here’s what we think we know: Magic Leap will show you super-high-resolution images right in front of your face, probably by projecting them onto your eye from some sort of glasses. There will be different angles and depths that you can see when you adjust your focus — kind of like a Lytro camera.
The benefits of this approach seem to be that Magic Leap could combine virtual objects with the real world so they are more immersive, possibly less sickness-inducing, and maybe even possible to be shared with other people.
Magic Leap calls this “a 3-D light sculpture” and “a rocketship for the mind.”
Magic Leap isn’t the only one working on this “digital light field” tech. It has also been demonstrated by Nvidia and the MIT Media Lab. Startups like Avegant are also working on vivid high resolution displays via a projector worn on the face — though for the purpose of watching movies, not augmenting reality.
When the New York Times’ John Markoff wrote about Magic Leap in July, he didn’t describe what form factor they were currently using, but said the company hoped it could be “downsized into a pair of glasses.” If you want to make a speculative leap, you could imagine Google trying to integrate some version of this tech into its Google Glass wearables.
Magic Leap has been around since 2011, and is headquartered in Hollywood, Fla. In addition to Abovitz, its team of more than 100 includes an in-house games studio as well as experts in machine learning and computer vision, industrial designers and mechanical engineers, and the woman who made the Old Spice ads where the guy responded to people’s social media posts.
In April, the company hired Brian Wallace, who helped Samsung develop its “Next Big Thing” campaign and then joined Google’s Motorola unit in 2012 as its chief marketing officer. At the time, Wallace said seeing a Magic Leap demo was “one of the most profound moments I’ve ever had.”
That’s the kind of quote that comes up with some frequency when people discuss Magic Leap.
Here’s games developer Graeme Devine telling Polygon about his first encounter with the company: “I went out there and had lunch with the CEO. He was drawing pictures of black holes and deep physics on the paper napkins. I thought, this has been a waste of my time. Then I went to the offices and I saw something that I did not think was possible. I like to think I know technology and I am not easily impressed. I worked at Apple, but when I saw what they were doing, I just said, immediately, ‘how can I help?'”
The company also has a relationship with Weta Workshop, the New Zealand special effects company behind the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and other movies; Weta co-founder Richard Taylor is on Magic Leap’s board.
Magic Leap patent applications cover topics like 3-D virtual and augmented reality, head-mounted displays, a tactile glove, compact imaging systems and a “massive simultaneous remote digital presence world” where users would interact with each other.
Here’s a short interview with Abovitz from 2011, when he was promoting an iPhone augmented reality app called “The Hour Blue,” which he now says was a “red herring.”
And here’s a completely baffling video of the beginning of a TEDx Talk, featuring Abovitz in a space suit, and two … well, you can see for yourself:
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.