Comment It's been nearly a year since augmented reality upstart Magic Leap was called out for the fact that its revolutionary technology didn't actually exist.
Despite having put out several videos that the startup claimed showed its 3D graphics tech in action – exciting images of whales leaping out of gym floors, and killer robots bursting into your workplace – the truth was the Florida-based company, flush with millions in VC money, had simply paid a special effects studio to make the vids for it.
This week, following yet more missed deadlines, no product release, and only its founder's endless gushing to keep the company afloat, Magic Leap spent more of those millions producing yet another wonderful video that promises everything and delivers nothing.
This time, rather than faking its virtual-reality technology, Magic Leap has produced a heart-rending origin story about this extraordinary company with founder Rony Abovitz talking wistfully about the moment of inspiration that led him to create the organization and change the world forever.
In fact, it is so entrancing it's easy to forget that Magic Leap HASN'T PRODUCED ANYTHING.
No one is sure what the video, or Magic Leap's newly designed website, is supposed to achieve. Is the biz running out of funding and trying to create buzz before begging for more? Is the video the result of production staff having nothing to do? Or is it all just about Abovitz's ego?
The answer is likely all three. The upstart is reportedly looking for another $500m on top of the $1.3bn it has already set fire to.
It's incredible to imagine that in the aftermath of the Theranos disaster – where a charismatic but deluded founder built a multi-billion-dollar company out of technology that simply didn't work properly – that Magic Leap still exists at all.
In fact, we can start to identify the elements that allows this peculiar phenomenon of a technology firm with no technology to persevere:
- A super-believer founder who seeks out press attention.
- Brand-name investors (in Magic Leap's case Qualcomm, Alibaba and Google; in Theranos' Walgreens, Partner Investments).
- Big-name board members (for Magic Leap it's Google CEO Sundar Pichai, for Theranos it was former top politicians William Perry, Henry Kissinger and others).
- Industry buzz and fawning media articles.
- Periodic promises of the most amazing thing ever – just sit tight and believe.
Each of these phoney stages builds on the other: the leader and founder persuades investors who inject money and lend credibility; the credibility and cash brings in big names; and it all buys buzz and PR from credulous morons in the press. The house of cards grows taller and stronger.
The irony is that the taller the house of cards grows, the less people are willing to knock it over in case it lands on them. Investors are not going to say their investments are junk (but they will sue when the time comes); journalists don't want to be made to look stupid; and board members can rely on scooting out of there unscathed, just so long as they keep their mouths shut and don't become a focal point.
The only thing that is required to keep the game going is the Wizard of Oz at the controls: the founder must keep pressing the buttons, sending out flames, and booming into the megaphone...
Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz? You ungrateful creatures. Think yourselves lucky that I'm going to give you an audience tomorrow and not 20 years from now.
Just so we have the latest promise written down: Magic Leap says it will ship its first device to a "small group ... within six months." But of course it didn't actually say that. No, people "familiar with its plans" did. Which means, we're willing to bet, that Abovitz or one of his lieutenants told reporters on background – ie, not for attribution but for publication – and no doubt offered exclusive access to the amazing technology at the same time. Another pull of the lever, anything to keep the illusion going.
Remember that amazing video of the whale leaping out the gym floor and splashing down? Yeah, it was BSREAD MORE
When, in April 2018, there is still no product, what will Abovitz do? We already know because we have Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes' example to observe: he will present some much-smaller product that doesn't do anything that he said it would, and pretend that the previous two years of promises never happened.
Which reminds us: whatever happened to the mini-Theranos, wireless charging company uBeam?
Well, it is still going strong. It has been 18 months – six months longer of Magic Leap – since uBeam was also called out on its non-existent technology, this time by a former head engineer.
Has it been promising that its technology is just around the corner that whole time? Yes, it has. Does it have a super-believer founder who goes out of her way to get into the press? Yep. Big name investors? Check. Industry buzz and PR? Lots of it. An actual product? Nope.
Keeping it going
How has uBeam and its particular Wizard of Oz Meredith Perry managed to stay alive this long? Under fierce pressure, she gave a bad demo of her technology (just as Elizabeth Holmes did). In February, at the Upfront Summit in Los Angeles, attendees finally got to see this revolutionary new technology that will charge your phone while it is still in your pocket.
In what was a very carefully constructed setup, Perry stood close to huge white box with a phone that was itself encased in a very bulky black container, and held it in a specific way and – wow! – the phone showed it was charging.
And that was it. The real product – no release date – will, of course, be much smaller, we're told. And it's going to be a revolution. Except uBeam is running out of money funding this pipe dream, and so four months later, in June, it approached soft-target USA Today with another demo.
This time, the huge white box was smaller, as was the huge black box, and the phone showed a charging sign. But so many questions remained unanswered. For one, how about a recent peer-reviewed report by engineers that specialize in this field pointing out that while it is theoretically possible to charge a phone using the ultrasound technology uBeam is working with, the efficiency of the system is so low that it would take days or weeks to fully charge a phone.
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The charge also can’t pass through walls, or even clothing. And it can't charge multiple phones without getting the process running even slower. In short, in our view, it is not viable, especially when magnetic charging is so much cheaper and more effective.
How on earth does Perry keep getting press attention and so keep topping up the fuel in her flame-firing Wizard of Oz console? Amazingly, by drawing attention to the fact that everyone says it can't be done. Just believe. Oh, and for good measures, throw in a sexism-in-technology grenade.
"I won't comment on the sexist aspect of it," she told USA Today, while doing exactly that. "But I'll just say that as a first-time founder and as a scientist, to have people question your integrity is horrible. It was extremely painful. Yeah, it stunk."
The fact is, just like Theranos and just like Magic Leap, uBeam's technology is never going to exist in any meaningful way, in our opinion. But the founders will keep the engines turning and the news stories flowing for as long as humanly possible. And the more they tie their sense of self-worth into the company not failing, the harder they will push until it ultimately fails.
What we need is Toto: the little dog in Wizard of Oz that noticed the fluttering green screen and pulled it back to reveal the poor deluded fool at the controls. ®