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Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes Finally Faces Criminal Charges

It's been some time coming, but the CEO of Theranos is finally facing criminal charges for fraud, as the WSJ's Carreyrou repor...

Monday, September 3, 2018

Magic Leap - Product Delivered and Oculus Founder Reaction


In late 2016 I wrote a post on Magic Leap, the company that had raised billions of dollars for its Augmented Reality (AR) product, which they promised would be so far beyond anything else it would be like magic. Journalists fawned over them, willingly signing NDAs just to get a peak and then allow the company to decide what they can say (hint: if a journalist admits they signed an NDA with the company they are covering, they are simply, IMO, a stenographer and mouthpiece for PR whitewashing). It was amazing, and we had wonderful insights into the amazing character of the founder Rony Abovitz, and learned that he met Beaker from the Muppets, a factoid so compelling it could be used 18 months later to fill column inches and avoid talking about the technology and failure to deliver.

By the end of 2016 a lot of questions were starting to be raised about the extent of their promises, and that videos they had claimed were actual AR turned out to be more a rendered version and not truly representative of what would be seen by a user. The company got very defensive, understandably, and the CEO put out a statement that users would get an experience "powered by unicorns and rainbows" (It looks like that blog post has been taken down, but excerpts are here).

The usual cohort of big-company defenders sprang into life, proclaiming that hardware is hard (Is it? Really? Thanks for that, never would have guessed), those criticizing don't understand, to have faith (Faith? This isn't a sports team or deity, it's a technical product and business) etc. I'm sure the oft-quoted "Man in the Arena" speech was used to silence those who dared question. I've never quite understood why individuals leap to the defense of multi-billion dollar companies (yes, I did it here with Verily, my point being not to defend the company but to try and point out the difference between doomed "Mars Shots" held up as fait-accompli and difficult but achievable "Moon Shots" that are honestly explained) As usual, they focused on the "they are trying, you shouldn't be mean, what are you doing?" As an example:

"I don't get why we live to shoot down people who try something new and ambitious. Why we get this urge to say 'No.  Stop. You can't be good.' Why we jump on them as soon as we see a chink in their armour and are proud of ourselves for it...

We should be praising companies and people that try. Especially new companies that want to break the Google/Apple/Microsoft mold we are currently trapped in. We should celebrate their success and encourage them when they struggle. We should acknowledge that ambitious things are hard and not expect too much of them (something I am certainly guilty of)."

Yeah - it would be nice if they acknowledged these things are hard to the point of being decades away upfront and not lie about what they have already achieved. That's the thing about lying to people, they tend not to like or trust you when they find out. It's a natural reaction...

Anyway - it's nearly two years later and Magic Leap are finally releasing a product, their Magic Leap Creator One, and for $2300 you can get the package with the eyewear (Lightwear), the portable/wearable computer/GPU that drives it (Lightpack), and the handheld controller. Along with the $500 "professional development package" this is broadly the same price range as the Microsoft Hololens, their AR offering, which came out 2 years ago. Various tech media have reviewed it and given it a resounding shoulder-shrug, and mostly "Meh, nice start, might be awesome in the next version though". I'd love to review it myself, with a more technical eye, but quite frankly I'm not going to pony up $3k for the privilege. Fortunately, someone with a lot more understanding of the in-and-outs of VR and AR has already done this.

Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR (now Facebook's VR company), has weighed in with his review, and it's hardly full of praise. Now as the founder of a rival company, there is room for skepticism, but read the review for yourself, it's pretty clear about the concerns, where it succeeds, and where it doesn't. To briefly summarize his views:

  • Motion tracking method is a poor technical choice that causes issues, worse than competition
  • Controllers are hefty and not ergonomic, depart from industry norms
  • Lightpack is well designed and built
  • Lightwear visual quality does not live up to the PR expectations
  • OS is on a par with an Android watch, no more
  • The only rainbows are artifacts in the visual field

There's an explanation for each of his points, it's well reasoned. He praises them where they deserve, and it seems at the end had it not been for the ridiculous PR and billion dollar funding the response might have been "Nice first shot, a little better than the Hololens, great to see some competition".

Luckey makes points beyond the technical though, and that's really the bit I want to concentrate on as it's part of the larger picture of tech funding and tech media coverage. He shows this image that was used by Magic Leap in promotion of their tech, and comments on it.


"Above is a telling picture from a piece Magic Leap did with Wired magazine a couple years ago, back when they were still hyping up scanning fiber displays.  See the fancy-looking, high-tech light up  strands?  They don’t do anything.  It is just electro-luminescent wire.  It looks great to casual observers, but does not hold up to any kind of scrutiny from people who are in the know."

Basically, you're being lied to. Shiny things and glitter are supposed to make you say "ooh" and "aah" and think it looks cool. But there is a more insidious side to this, as once you are invested in liking it, thinking it's awesome, when an expert comes along and rubbishes it, you take it personally. Like the victim of a con, rather than admitting you were duped, you double down and take the side of the conman. From then on, you are a member of a "tribe" and it becomes "us against them", the "believers vs the heretics" and it's no longer about the tech or the business, but about belief. You're far enough in the hole you're just going to keep digging. Once you're there, there is no amount of data or evidence that will budge some of these people. Look at Tim Draper even after Theranos has been proved to be a fraud, he's still claiming it was just because a journalist and the government were out to get the CEO.

There are other, invisible, costs to this type of hyped startup. To quote from Luckey's post:

"Their current offering is a tragedy in the classical sense, even more so when you consider how their massive funding and carefully crafted hype sucked all the air out of the room in the AR space... It does not deliver on almost any of the promises that allowed them to monopolize funding in the AR investment community."

This echoes a point I have been making in this blog over the last couple of years - certain companies like Theranos or Magic Leap come to the table with bold claims of advancements vastly beyond what anyone else offers, with "Star Trek" levels of capability. Their charismatic founder gets puff-pieces in the tech press, with little scrutiny of the actual technology - which, of course, is a closely guarded secret you can't be allowed to see. They get huge amounts of funding, and the common wisdom quickly becomes "They've already won, how could you compete with them?" Theranos are clearly in the realm of fraud, Magic Leap perhaps is more "extreme exaggeration", but the chilling effect on entrepreneur funding is the same at the outset.

To quote from my last Magic Leap post:

"It creates the standard by which all other companies now must be compared. Imagine you've a small company with solid VR technology that actually works and can be delivered as a product, but when you present it to a VC you're told "Magic Leap already beats that - I won't invest, there's no market". Because you are honest, you don't get funding and your company never takes off, we as the public don't get the benefit of that technology, and the VC's investors (like pension funds) don't get the benefit of the profits. Worse, it encourages the less-than-honest founder to "exaggerate" capabilities and exacerbates the problem. As a society we all lose from this."

And this is the key for me - on the one hand you can't blame a company for putting the best spin they can on what they have, it helps with fundraising and recruitment, and harms potential competition - however there is no excuse for the tech media (at least the ones who claim to be reporters and not in it for page clicks alone) to enable this, nor for institutional investors to fund in a way that encourages the less-than-honest (or above-average delusional).

Perhaps a worse outcome is that when the over-promised thing under-delivers (or delivers fraud), it taints the entire sector for investors and potential employees alike Sure, Magic Leap finally got a product out, but it's was a resounding "meh" and with $2 billion in funding, you really have to work to screw up one delivering something. But what if that something is a negative for the industry overall? As Luckey says "That is not good for the XR industry."

How many advances have we lost because media and investors allowed the PR departments of companies to bamboozle both us and them into ignoring a small but capable and honest company? If you're in engineering, you know of many people working on great technologies that struggle to raise because they just don't lie, or are better at the tech than the pitching. It still confuses me that professional investors heavily bias their selection towards the well-connected, gifted presenters and fundraisers, rather than those with the actual capability to deliver a realistic if bold vision.

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