Magic Leap toasts its vision for the future of personal computing

CEO of Magic Leap Rony Abovitz stands in back as opening remarks are made during Magic Leap's groundbreaking event. Magic Leap celebrated the groundbreaking of Magic Leap's new 260,000 square foot facility in Plantation, which will be home to many high-tech jobs.
CEO of Magic Leap Rony Abovitz stands in back as opening remarks are made during Magic Leap's groundbreaking event. Magic Leap celebrated the groundbreaking of Magic Leap's new 260,000 square foot facility in Plantation, which will be home to many high-tech jobs. CARL JUSTE

There were no wizards flying around, no holograms to dodge, no sense-defying technology evoking oohs and ahhs. But Magic Leap, one of South Florida’s most secretive companies, went slightly more public Tuesday.

With government and business leaders and hundreds of employees and community members packed under a big white tent, Magic Leap founder and CEO Rony Abovitz toasted to the company’s new 260,000-square-foot Plantation headquarters. Yet, nobody still seems to know exactly what Magic Leap is jumping at.

The company, currently crowded into the Design Center of the Americas in Dania Beach, will be moving its entire South Florida workforce – about 200 people now of 400 worldwide and growing rapidly – into the former Motorola campus on West Sunrise Boulevard. Magic Leap will use it for its engineering, design and pilot manufacturing operations. Build-out will begin immediately, costing “tens of millions,” and the hope is that the first 100 or so employees will move in by the end of the year.

“To me, it’s proof you can dream wildly and make things happen,” Abovitz said.

But just what is Magic Leap making happen?

Publicly, Magic Leap will only cryptically say it is developing a new “mixed reality” computing platform that will “enable people to interact with the world in ways never before possible ... defining the future of computing, entertainment, communication, education and play.” Although the technology does have elements of augmented reality – layering 3-D virtual images on the real world – that’s about where similarities end with other virtual and augmented realty technology, including Oculus Rift.

The company has been under a strict cone of silence about its technology – the employees in the crowd were told not to share with the media – but some details have emerged. In a rare public appearance at his alma mater, the University of Miami, in February, Abovitz said that the technology works seamlessly with the body – a format that, according to Abovitz, will be the future. Magic Leap’s technology, he hinted, may make the smartphone obsolete — effectively changing the world of personal computing as it is now known.

Those are big words, but Google and other high-profile Silicon Valley venture funds are believers, pumping $592 million into the company last year. That’s serious growth capital for any company and highly unusual in Florida. But beyond the big idea is a founder that has been there, done that: Abovitz co-founded Mako Surgical, a South Florida medical robotics company that grew to hundreds of employees and sold for $1.65 billion to Stryker in 2013.

One of the first articles to hint at the technology was published in February in the MIT Technology Review. Said the writer, Rachel Metz, who tried an early prototype of the technology: “It’s safe to say Magic Leap has a tiny projector that shines light onto a transparent lens, which deflects the light onto the retina. That pattern of light blends in so well with the light you’re receiving from the real world that to your visual cortex, artificial objects are nearly indistinguishable from actual objects.” Metz said then the company was aiming to fit its technology into a “glasses-like wearable device.” MIT Technology Review named it one of the 2015 breakthrough technologies of the year.

In June, at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Digital conference, more was revealed in a panel discussion by Magic Leap executives Abovitz; sci-fi novelist and Magic Leap Chief Futurist, Neal Stephenson; and Chief Creative Officer Graeme Devine, a well-known gaming developer. “That screen in your head that builds the world, I thought that would be an awesome place to do computing and that was the notion in kicking off the company – and we think it will change everything,” Abovitz said during the panel.

Through descriptions and diagrams, patent application filings – including 97 filed in August alone – give other clues into the technology’s potential uses. The technology could help consumers with the most mundane of tasks, grocery shopping, where information about products can pop off the shelves. It can also be used for fun and games, such as giving a live sports game a whole new dimension – or maybe a different ending – with fantasy gaming. Or it might be used for educational and potentially life-saving uses, such as providing doctors with key patient information while at the operating table.

Magic Leap has assembled a diverse executive team, many with film, music or video game industry experience. Rachna Bhasin, who serves on the board of the GRAMMY Foundation and previously worked as senior vice president of SiriusXM Radio and also at Dell and EMI Music, joined last month as chief business officer. More than 150 jobs were listed on the “Wizards Wanted” section of this week, including optical, systems, software and vision systems engineers, machine learning positions, designers, art directors and cinematic producers.

“After experiencing what Magic Leap is creating first-hand, I am confident that this technology will not only lead us into the next era of media and entertainment, but also more broadly how we will experience the world around us,” Bhasin said in her employment announcement.

A few years ago, Magic Leap started in the proverbial and literal garage, said Abovitz, a University of Miami biomedical engineering alum. From there, Magic Leap’s small, original team took space in a strip mall in Hollywood “where no one believed we were changing the world,” Abovitz said in June. The company moved to DCOTA, where it will stay until its new campus is built out. Magic Leap also has offices in Mountain View, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, California, Seattle, Austin, the UK, New Zealand and Israel.

Like entrepreneurs at other cutting-edge tech firms, including Google and Facebook, Abovitz has been known to turn to sources that are unconventional — at least in corporate terms — to inspire creativity. Those have included bringing rock bands, filmmakers and even Apollo astronauts to the office.

“This is what the United States is all about – the dream,” said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, at the groundbreaking on Tuesday. “I’m hoping the next time I come here, I will remember the day when I was here, and when this dream has taken over and replaced things that are so useful now with something so much more advanced ... and that not only was it started here in South Florida, but the jobs, the creators, the brainpower will stay here in South Florida.”

At the very least, noted Plantation Mayor Diane Veltri Bendekovic, Magic Leap has put Plantation on the “international map,” joking that she wished she could harness all this energy under the tent for use in her city meetings. Bob Swindell, president and CEO of Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance and a board member of Enterprise Florida, both economic development organizations, also said a few words: “The tradition of innovation on this campus will serve Magic Leap for decades to come. The state that helped put a man of the moon promises to do all it can to help [Magic Leap] stay and grow.”

Afterward, Swindell said state and local officials are “in the early stages” of discussing an incentives package for Magic Leap’s growth.

Magic Leap isn’t saying when it expects to release its first product, but Tuesday was all about toasting things to come. With champagne flutes raised, Abovitz assured the crowd that the world will see the world through Magic Leap’s eyes — sometime soon.

Nancy Dahlberg, 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg