Magic Leap: augmented-reality startup catches Google's eye

Magic Leap, a company focused on blending digital and real world imagery, raised $542 million in funding from Google and other investors. But Magic Leap doesn't have a product yet -- so why is Google interested?

Magic Leap, an augmented-reality startup, promises to add 'magical' visuals with the real world. Here, a screenshot from the company's web page shows a tiny elephant in the user's hands.

Tiny elephants frolic in people’s palms. Submarines cruise metropolitan streets, ten feet above the pavement. Seahorses float through a classroom. These are the visions of Magic Leap, an augmented-reality startup from Florida that landed $542 million in funding on Tuesday from Google, Qualcomm, and other investors.

“Most of us know that a world with dragons and unicorns, elves and fairies, is just a better world,” says Magic Leap’s website. But what exactly is Magic Leap? Augmented reality refers to technology that combines views of the real world with supplemental computer-generated imagery – in this case, convincing visions of elephants and other creatures galloping through your morning commute. The company says it creates these illusions by means of a “Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal,” and Liz Gannes and Peter Kafka at Re/Code add that Magic Leap will use an infrared camera similar to the Xbox Kinect to allow digital objects to go in front of and behind objects in the real world, a capability that current augmented-reality devices don’t have.

Beyond that, though, details are thin. No one’s sure if Magic Leap is planning a pair of contact lenses that would lay images right onto a user’s vision, a wearable device similar to Google Glass, or some other piece of hardware.

So why did the secretive startup catch Google’s eye? The answer may have to do with Google Glass, which promised to revolutionize the way we interact with our computers by making our information immediately accessible, but which hasn’t really caught on yet with ordinary customers. It’s possible that Google wants to apply Magic Leap’s technology to Google Glass – the ability to convincingly smear the line between digital images and the real world would allow Glass to become “more than just a smartphone on your face,” in the words of Wired’s Izzie Lapowsky.

But it’s not yet clear what the Magic Leap’s purpose is – is it for education? Entertainment? Does it have business applications? The company website mentions that Magic Leap is reaching out to app and game developers, but the company doesn’t have any developer kits that we know of, and it has declined requests for interviews. All we’ve got to go on are the rich visuals shown on Magic Leap’s website and the company’s promise that it will “shar[e] … more information in the weeks and months ahead.”

There are a lot of questions (to put it lightly) still surrounding Magic Leap, but it’s worth mentioning that much of Tuesday’s investment came from Google itself, rather than from Google Ventures or another of the company’s more speculative arms. Google’s senior VP of Android, Chrome, and apps, Sundar Pichai, has also been appointed to Magic Leap’s board of directors. Clearly, Google sees real value in augmented reality – and if Magic Leap can deliver on its promise, perhaps we’ll all soon be able to hold tiny elephants in our hands.

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