It’s easy to pinpoint where it all went wrong for Magic Leap. It wasn’t the dazzling demo videos or the ILM and Weta partnerships or even when Beyoncé was reportedly bored by an augmented reality mermaid. It was when we started to see the thing, what would become the Magic Leap One headset.
The startup’s idiosyncratic founder Rony Abovitz just announced he’s stepping down as Magic Leap pivots to enterprise, healthcare and defence. This comes after Abovitz announced he was looking to be bought out in March then raised a $350 million investment round, to add to the staggering $2.6 billion raised to date, saving 1,000 jobs. But whatever potential a Magic Leap Two might hold for industry, it’s not quite the accessory we were promised back in 2015.
Magic Leap made the error of taking its ‘lightfield’ waveguide display technology and working backwards. With Glass, its long-rumoured augmented reality eyewear, Apple’s recent track record shows that it’s likely to do the precise opposite.
You only get one shot at a first impression and when it comes to wearable tech, it cannot be overstated just how make-or-break design is. With the first Apple Watch in 2015, and the first AirPods, in December 2016, it was clear that Apple’s Industrial Design team had triumphed over the engineers. In both cases, the first iteration was smaller, lighter, more polished and, for want of a better word, more iconic than any other product in the respective categories of smartwatches and wireless earbuds.
“Magic Leap is the latest example of what happens when technology is prioritised over design,” says Neil Cybart, an Apple analyst at Above Avalon. “Magic Leap lacks a design culture, which is crucial for succeeding in wearables.”
Neither of these devices were actually ahead in terms of technology and capabilities at launch and Apple, despite its keynote fanfare, steered clear of hype and overpromising what it couldn’t yet deliver. The Apple Watch lacked the key features of GPS and standalone cellular connectivity; the AirPods trailed on sound quality with the series holding off until late 2019 for noise cancelling with the AirPods Pro. Both, though, were designed first and foremost to be worn, and secondly, to work seamlessly with your iPhone. They got the basics right. The Watch and particularly the AirPods quickly outsold the rest of the competition, from Samsung and Google to sports, Swiss watch and audio brands.
The original design principles have adapted over the years – the Watch’s size and display bezels altered, the AirPods’ stem has been squashed – but in both instances, they are probably the most consistent element of the wearables. With Cupertino building towards launching its Apple Glass, augmented reality eyeglasses, at the end of this year or early next, it’s a natural fit for the next instalment of this anti-Magic Leap strateΩxzxxzgy.
YouTubee Jon Prosser, who has posted Apple bonafide leaks in the past, states that he has seen Apple Glass prototypes with plastic frames, though this may not be the final material. The smartglasses are likely to forego a camera, which would bring up unwelcome Google Glass-style privacy concerns, in favour of an integrated LiDAR scanner on the right temple to take care of depth sensing to measure the distance of surrounding objects. (There’s a LiDAR scanner in the 2020 iPad Pro’s camera array and data from this will reportedly feed into the team working on Glass).
The glasses will display heads-up information, with gesture controls and all the actual processing taking place on the iPhone. He says that Apple Glass will cost $499, a price point which suggests more of a Google Glass-style simple second screen accessory than a bulky, standalone device akin to the Magic Leap One.
Prosser and his Apple sources haven’t confirmed it but the smartglasses could feasibly integrate with AirPods for audio and even the Apple Watch, building out the iOS wearable tech ecosystem around the iPhone. “One way of thinking about Apple’s wearables business is that it’s a train gaining momentum. Competitors face declining odds of being able to stop the train,” says Cybart. “Offer a compelling experience that adds context to our surroundings via smart glasses, and Apple will continue leading the paradigm shift in computing that has been ushered in by the Apple Watch.”
Apple does share a couple of significant similarities with Magic Leap, namely its ability to find the cash for, in its case, acquisitions such as AR startups Metaio and Vrvana and most recently VR event startup NextVR, as well as its network of big-name entertainment partners. Now Magic Leap is turning away from everyday consumer experiences, Peter Jackson and C-3PO may jump ship to Apple Glass.
The sheer amount of investment required does also explain why we’ve seen so few legitimate competitors with some of the recent attention away from VR gaming poured into audio rather than AR smartglasses such as Amazon’s limited edition, Alexa-powered Echo Frames, which have remained relatively under the radar since launch, and the stylish Bose Frames sunglasses.
If Apple is able to launch a desirable, if imperfect, first pair of smartglasses – or a series of styles with different use cases, as speculated – it could well define what augmented reality glasses are. It’s inconceivable that Jony Ive, now working on his own design agency with Apple as a client, didn’t have a stab at the design before he left Apple last year. With the Watch and AirPods’ influence secured, it wouldn’t be the first time Apple has legitimised a whole market, and the silence from other quarters of the tech world suggests that everyone else is waiting for Apple to show them how to succeed.
You might speculate that Apple itself could find some use for Magic Leap if it weren’t for the fact that Apple, alongside Google and Facebook, reportedly visited its Florida HQ in 2016 to discuss a buy-out. That and the detail that Magic Leap is allegedly looking for $10bn.
Sophie Charara edits WIRED Recommends. She tweets from @sophiecharara
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