Like fusion power or jet-packs, virtual reality has always been 20 years away. Matrix-inspired dreams of being transported via headset to another realm have been held back by poor graphics, high costs and, most damagingly, nausea. Virtual reality has had an unfortunate habit of making the users really sick. Products have been announced with fanfare, come and then slipped away.
Now it seems that something more substantial might be afoot. Last week it was announced that Magic Leap, a mysterious startup, had raised $542m in funding, a gargantuan figure even by the standards of Silicon Valley, valuing the company at around $2bn. The investors are also of an unusually high calibre, including Google and the semiconductor magnate, Qualcomm. More impressive still is that nobody has a clear idea about what exactly Magic Leap does.
In the funding announcement, CEO Rony Abovitz explained that the company was building a “hardware, software, firmware and development platform” that promises to be the next generation of interfaces. Getting rid of dependence on screens, in other words. He has not specified what exactly the format will be, but promised that it would not be a clunky headset.
Thomas Cull, another investor, said: “I’m not sure exactly what the category will be called but it augments and brings you into a world in a completely realistic, immersive way without taxing your eyes or brain.”
There is not much in the way of detail. Google (and it is Google Inc, the core business, rather than its investment arms, that has invested in Magic Leap) can afford to throw money at things that turn out not to work. Still, the investors must have been shown something to excite them: investing in a product that’s not yet profitable is par for the course, but ploughing so much into something that doesn’t exist yet is another matter.
“The thorny problem in this area has always been the user interface,” says Mike Butcher, of TechCrunch. “You could argue that it fell at the first hurdle in the form of Google Glass, which everyone thought would revolutionise things but which hasn’t. But if the new device is capable of projecting objects in this fashion, that would be an entirely new platform – for creative content, and also, surprise surprise, advertising.”
Patents filed in the US suggest that the new display will be able to create “light fields” or 3D patterns of light rays. This would let your eyes focus on depth as they do in the real world, rather than remaining focused on the flat screen immediately in front of them. Other descriptions mention infra-red sensors and eye-tracking cameras to help the device react to the external environment. Its publicity shots show a flying elephant and a yellow submarine on a town street, hints that augmented reality will play a big part.
Magic Leap is not the only virtual reality game in town. In July, Facebook completed a $2bn purchase of Oculus Rift, a more traditional headset system. Oculus Rift has so far been aimed at the sophisticated video games market, a long way from the low-fi FarmVille-style titles usually associated with Facebook. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he saw his new company’s social media potential, but then he would. Some commentators suggested that he bought the firm only because he thought it was cool, rather than seeing a business case for it.
There are cautionary tales in similar fields. Digital Domain Media Group was a successful digital effects company, best known for its work on Titanic. It went public in 2011 with a high-profile hologram performance of Tupac at Coachella music and arts festival in April 2012. Five months later it filed for bankruptcy.
“There is always a risk in this kind of investment,” adds Butcher. “But for a company like Google, they specialise in these kinds of moonshots. We saw it with advertising, and now with their driverless cars. For them, the much greater risk is of missing out on the next big thing.”