Magic Leap: “The Information” Article

The Information: The Reality Behind Magic Leap

the-information-magic-leap-dec-8-2016-coverThe online news magazine “The Information” released the article “The Reality Behind Magic Leap” on Dec. 8th, 2016, by Reed Albergotti and in the story gave a link to this blog. So you may be a new reader.  The article appears to be well researched and I understand that “The Information” has a reputation as a reliable news source. The article also dovetails nicely on the business side with what I have been discussing with this blog on the technical side. The magazine is a paid publication but there is a summary on The Verge along with their added commentary and a lot of the text from the article has shown up in discussion forums about Magic Leap (ML).

For this blog post, I am going to try put 2+2 together between what I have figured out on the technical side and what Mr. Albergotti reported on the business side. Note, I have not seen what he as seen so I am reading between the lines somewhat but hopefully it will give a more complete picture.

The Magic Leap Prototypes

The article states “Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz acknowledged that the prototypes used different technology.” This blog has identified that the early prototypes as:

  1. ml-495-applicationA DLP based prototype that uses a variable focus lens to produce “focus planes” by generating different images for different distances and changing the focus between images and supported maybe 3 to 6 focus planes. This is probably their earliest one and is what the article calls “The Beast” and described as the “size of a refrigerator.”
  2. One or more OLED base variations once again using an electrically controlled focus element where ML made a smaller helmet version. The article discussed only one version, dubbed “WD3” but I suspect that they had variations of this one with different capabilities (as in maybe a WD1, WD2, WD3 and maybe more). I believe based on the video evidence a version that could only change focus was used for their Oct. 14, 2015 through the technology” video.  Their later “A New Morning” and “Lost Droids” videos appear to use an Mico-OLED based optics that supported at least two simultaneous focus planes by running the OLED at 120hz to generate two 60hz sequential “focus plane” images and changing the focus be each one.
  3. ml-slm-beam-splitter-lcos-type-optics-colorThe LCOS version that is using their “Photonic Chip” and supports about 2 focus planes with no moving focusing optics (according to the article); what the article dubbed the “PEQ” prototype.

If you want to get more into the gory technical details on how the above work, I would suggest one of my earlier articles titled “Magic Leap – Separating Magic and Reality“. And if you really want to get dirty, read the ML patent applications they reference but be prepared for a long read as they they cover a lot of totally different concepts.

As this blog has been reporting (and for which I have gotten criticism on some of the on-line discussion forms), the must discussed “fiber scanning display” (FSD) has not been perfected and with it any chance of making the “light field display” ML has talked so much about. Quoting the article,”Magic Leap relegated the fiber scanning display to a long-term research project in hopes that it might one day work, and significantly pared back on its light field display idea.

Possible Scenario – A Little Story

Based on my startup and big company experiences, I think I understand roughly how it went down. Please take the rest of this section as reasonable speculation and reading between the lines of known information. So I am going to play Columbo (old TV series reference) below to give my theory of how it went down.

Startups have sometimes been described as “Jumping out of a plane and sewing a parachute on the way down.” This appears to be the case with Magic Leap. They had a rough idea of what they wanted to do and were able to build an impressive demo system and with some good hand waving convince investors they could reduce it to a consumer headset.

They found Brian Schowengerdt, co-founder and Chief Scientist, who worked on the fiber scanning display (FSD) technology and the issue of vergence and accomodation at the University of Washington to join. Mr. Schowengerdt is clearly a smart person that added a lot of credibility to Rony Abovitz’s dreams. The problem with “university types” is that they often don’t appreciate what it takes to go from R&D to a real high volume product.

The “new optical people” built “The Beast” prototype using DLP’s and electrical controlled focusing lenses to support multiple focus plane, to address the vergence and accommodation issue. They then used the “Jedi Hand Wave Mind Trick” (ordinary hand waving may not be enough) to show the DLP engine, the crude low resolution FSD display from the U of W, some non-functional waveguides, and a mock-up of how wonderful it would be someday with a simple application of money and people (if you can dream it you can build it, right?).

This got them their “big fish,” Google who was attuned to the future of near eye displays with their investment in Google Glass and all the big noise with Oculus Rift. There is phenomenal FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) going on with AR/VR/MR  The fact they got a lot of money from a big name company became it own publicity and fund raising engine. ML then got showered with money and that they hoped could cover the bet. Have Google invest publicly also became its own shield against any question of whether it would work.

All the money gave them a lot of altitude to try and build the proverbial parachute on the way down. But sometimes the problem is harder than all the smart people and money can solve. As I have pointed out on this blog, making the fiber scan display work at high resolution is no small task if not impossible. They came to realize this at some point, probably early on, that FSD were not going to happen in a meaningful time frame.

So “plan B” became to use an existing working display technology to give a similar visual effect, even if much reduced in resolution. The beast is way to big and expensive to cost reduce and then need to have more demo systems that are easier to make.

So then they make the WDx based on OLEDs. But there is fatal flaw with using OLEDs (and it tripped me up at first when looking at the videos). While OLED make the design much easier and smaller the don’t work due to the nature of the they put out with the wonderfully flat waveguides (what ML calls their “Photonics Chip”) that ML has convince investors are part of their secret sauce.

So if they couldn’t use the Photonics Chip with OLEDs and the FSD is a no-go, what do you tell investors, both of your secret sauces are a bust? So in parallel they are working on plan “C” which is to use LCOS panels with LED light sources that will work with some type of waveguide which they will dub the “Photonics Chip”.

But then there is a fly in the ointment. Microsoft starts going public with their Hololens system making Magic Leap look like they are way behind the giant Microsoft that can spend even more money than ML can raise. They need to show something to stay relevant. They start with totally fake videos and get called on the carpet for being obviously fake. So they need a “Magic Leap Technology” (but not the optics they are actually planning on using) demo.

The “Beast System” with it DLP’s and field sequential color will not video well. The camera will reveal to any knowledgeable expert what they are using. So for the video they press into service the WDx OLED systems that will video better. By cleaver editing and only showing short clips, they can demonstrate some focus effects while not showing the limitations of the WDx prototypes. These videos then make ML seem more “real” and keep people from asking too many embarrassing questions.

A problem jhere is that LCOS is much slower than DLP’s and thus they may only be able to support about 2 focus planes. I also believe from 16 years working with LCOS that this likely to look like crap to the eye due to color field breakup; but reapplying the Jedi Mind Trick, maybe two focus planes will work and people won’t notice the color field breakup. And thus you have the PEQ which still does not work well or would be demoing with it rather than the helmet sized WD3.

I suspect that Reed Albergotti from “The Information” had gotten the drop on ML by doing some good investigative journalism work. He told them he was going to run with the story and ML decided to try see if they could do damage control and invited him in. But apparently he was prepared and still saw the holes in their story.

Epilogue: It sounds like Mr. Schowengerdt has been put off to the side having served is usefulness in raising money. They used the money to hire other optical experts who knew how to design the optics they would actually be using. He may be still playing around the FSD to keep the dream alive of a super high resolution display someday and maybe the the next to impossible high resolution light fields (I would suggest reading “The Horse Will Talk Fable” to gain insight into why they would keep doing this as an “R&D” program).

I’m probably a little off in the details, but it probably went down something like the above. If not, hopefully you found it an amusing story. BTW, if you want to make a book and or movie out of this original story please consider it my copyrighted work (c) 2016 (my father was and two brothers are Patent Lawyers and I learned about copyright as a small child at my fathers knee).

Lessons Learned

In my experience startups that succeed in building their product have more than a vague idea of what they want to do and HOW they are going to do it. They realize that money and smart people can’t cure all ills. Most importantly they understand where they have risk and then only have at most A SINGLE serious risk. They then focus on making sure they covering that risk. In the case of Magic Leap, they had multiple major risks in many different areas. You can’t focus on the key risk because there so many and it is a prescription for product failure no matter how much money is applied.

Its even possible the “smart money” that invested realized that ML realized that they were unlikely to totally succeed but thought with money and smart people they might spin out some valuable technology and/or patents. The “equation works” if they multiply a hoped by $100B/year market by even a small chance of success. If a big name places what is for them a small bet, it is surprising how much money will follow along assuming the big name investor had done all the hard work of due diligence.

Even if they get paste the basic technology risk get the PEQ running. We they will then have the problem of building a high volume product, worse yet they are building their own factory. And then we have the 90/90 rule which states, “it takes 90% of the effort to get 90% of the way there and then another 90% to solve the last 10%.” When you have a fully working prototype that behaves well (which by the reports in ML has NOT achieved yet) you have just made it to the starting line; then you have to make it manufacturable at a reasonable cost and yield. Other have said it is really 90/90/90 where there is a third 90%. This is where many a Kickstarter company has spun their wheels.

One comment

  1. ArnF says:

    A lot of this seems reasonable, however you are ignoring one major point:

    – Microsoft announced the Hololens in January 2015.
    – Magic leap announced $800 million Series C in January 2016.

    I think it’s a safe bet that Alibaba, Google, and others didn’t hand over $800 million additional dollars without doing deep due diligence of the state of ML’s tech at the end of 2015, by which point the hope for FSDs must have been long gone, and after full knowledge of the existence and state of the Hololens.

    To me there is a more logical explanation, one which I am seeing come up more and more on reddit and in blogs, etc: that the investors are perfectly fine seeing Magic Leap poised to compete with the Hololens. Reception the Hololens has been very positive, and no one wants to sit around while Microsoft claims a monopoly on the AR market. And regardless of display tech there is a lot of infrastructure needed for an AR device that Magic Leap already had a head start on, which would still be valuable in spite of a “display pivot”.

    Yes, the Magic Leap hype machine might have wanted people to believe otherwise. I’m just saying that I don’t think there’s any evidence here that Magic Leap’s investors aren’t perfectly aware of what Magic Leap are going to be able to realistically produce. There is a lot of room to improve on and compete with the Hololens.