Magic Leap: Reimagining Virtual Vision (and more)
One of the most secretive startups in the world is using biology as inspiration to build mixed reality. It is building what it calls a photonic lightfield chip. What might Magic Leap really be up to?
Magic Leap is reimagining virtual vision. The company’s hallmark innovation, the photonic lightfield chip, creates a digital signal that mimics how the physical world naturally interacts with our eyes. Why is this important? To date, virtual reality (VR) hardware has relied on existing mobile phone screen technology to power the vision component of the VR experience, and has co-opted off-the-shelf components for motion tracking. Magic Leap, on the other hand, is making a bid for a new defining way to enable mixed reality. Their photonic component would be the answer to how we can emulate human vision, without retrofitting 2-D lenses for the job.
The company is backed by some of the biggest names in the industry, including Google, Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins and Alibaba. It has attracted a whopping $1.4 billion in investments since its inception in 2011. How can Magic Leap deliver value, and more importantly how might the value creation story evolve?
Magic Leap might be considered an emergent component supplier. Its chip is responsible for what industry observers are hailing as the highest quality, most visually believable mixed reality (MR) experience ever. In other words, the company has been able to heighten the R in MR. This is currently its widely-cited value create.
Magic Leap could sell the chip as a device-agnostic component to the Oculuses, Samsungs and Microsofts of the world. A logical value capture model is a unit price higher than cost. This model requires an operation optimized in a few core competencies. They’d include an enterprise sales organization to sell into the giant VR hardware makers. It’d also need an enviable R&D machine, to keep pace with the desire to mimic human processing.
If Magic Leap chooses to play as a component supplier, it would be the first and only supplier of its kind and could wield tremendous pricing power. However, because all-in cost of hardware is one of the hurdles to gaining mass adoption of VR, it’s in the interest of all players to drive down the learning curve toward affordability to grow the whole pie. A long-term risk, then, for a component provider is in new entrants, commoditization, and increasing buyer power.
So is a component supplier all that Magic Leap can grow up to be? Founder Rony Abovitz and his team have grander dreams. They want to go beyond generating virtual visuals, to completely changing computing in real space.
Though it hasn’t debuted anything yet, Magic Leap is developing its own wearable MR end-product (e.g. a visor or spectacles). We may expect a simple profit model (p > c). It would compete on its superior visual quality, and an intuitive interface. The move takes advantage of a mass B2C opportunity, and requires operations different from a component supplier. Magic Leap would need supply chain partnerships to enable speed-to-market as well as flexible supply that meets the difficult-to-forecast uptake of VR products. It needs a consumer-centric sales and marketing motion and distribution. It requires understanding of consumer, which it can’t currently do as well as competitors can (Facebook, Google).
However, having its own wearable offering might impede its ability to sell its chips into others’ wearables. Also, long-term it runs into the risk that users won’t care what wearable they’re using and care more about what they’re experiencing through it. It might leave Magic Leap at the mercy of content creators, even if it generates some of the content in-house.
So a third option is to move from product to platform. Below are two ideas:
1) The company can pursue an entertainment or social media play, such that Magic Leap becomes the platform for sharing all virtual experiences. Magic Leap could give the hardware for free, and charge a subscription fee for consumers to access a massive “Wikipedia of experiences”.
2) The platform could target collaboration and communication, offering a MR communication platform for enterprises. It would replace all screens and phones in the workplace. Value capture can be licensing fees.
The move to a platform entails a decision around speed with which to move. Microsoft HoloLens has already shipped developer kits, preempting developer multi-homing. In a space that is likely to have tremendous network effects, moving fast locks in market share so Magic Leap needs to catch up. It could open its platform to other MR hardware suppliers, allowing product iterations and customer engagement to create insights for the platform and speed up learning.
 Wired article
 Wearable article
 Forbes article
 Fortune article
Student comments on Magic Leap: Reimagining Virtual Vision (and more)
Thanks for the post Afaf! I think it would be premature for Magic Leap to go straight to the commoditized product route. For one, I’m not sure that AR is at the place where anyone is ready to start commoditizing their hardware and software development since it is still so new and they’re all trying to figure out what actually works. Even though the platform route will take a lot more work it seems like it’s worth the risk since this is a play for future viability as well. I worry that if they just sell the hardware someone else will enter the market and in a few years they’ll just be a low cost component supplier with no pricing power.
Agreed, no one wants to commoditize their offering, nor is AR/VR at that stage of its life where products have surpassed the performance threshold to even qualify for commodity risk in my opinion. I guess it’s a question of time. Right now it might not be a bad idea to be a component or product supplier, but just for how long will that be valuable. I think Magic Leap is experimenting in all the above (component, end-product, platform), I’m excited to see their story unfold.