Does Magic Leap matter?

Developers, developers, developers.
Developers, developers, developers.
Image: Magic Leap
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Everyone in Silicon Valley is trying to emulate the iPhone: A singular product so sensible and well-designed it forces a shift in how we imagine a computer.

But lightning has proven tough to rebottle. Oculus’ Palmer Luckey promised virtual reality and, despite the efforts of Facebook, which bought the startup in 2014, his virtual escape hatch from the real world hasn’t hit the mainstream. Google’s 2012 effort to put a computer on our faces —Glass—flopped.

Now, the much-hyped-and-rather-mysterious Magic Leap is taking its shot. The Magic Leap One augmented reality headset, launched this week for developers, promises to analyze the real world and insert digital items into it. Your computer screen is digitized and projected into your eyes, as are video games, works of art, and anything you don’t need to touch.

Since its founding in 2010, Magic Leap has raised $2.6 billion in venture capital, but this will mark its first product release. The question isn’t whether the device will be good, but, rather, will Magic Leap even matter after Apple, Google, and Microsoft inevitably build similar offerings?

It’s hard to see the answer as yes. No matter how good Magic Leap’s goggles might be, Apple, Google, and Microsoft—and even Facebook—are years ahead on what matters most in Silicon Valley: a platform.

Magic Leap’s announcement this week wasn’t a device for the average consumer. It’s a $2,300 proposition to developers that if they build an app compatible with this technology, they’ll reach an audience of potentially paying customers when the final product launches. Magic Leap is also giving developers a kit containing the software necessary to start coding for the device.

Microsoft, Google, and Apple all have similar developer kits, but there’s one big difference—the augmented reality that you build for those platforms can be used in products immediately, with the implication of integration into any future platforms. In 2017, both Apple and Google announced developer tools for augmented reality that could be used on their smartphones. Both Google and Apple are reportedly developing AR devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens.

Microsoft opened up the HoloLens to developers in 2016, and the 3D models developed for it can be used today in Windows programs like PowerPoint.

Since the iPhone and its subsequent App Store, devices rarely succeed without access to popular apps like Facebook, YouTube, and Uber. RIM’s Blackberry died when it didn’t have access to the Android app store. The Windows phone withered without access to premium apps. The main criticism of the Oculus Rift when it launched as a consumer product in 2015 was the limited content—there is still no “killer app” for the device. (Google Glass is a notable exception—it had all sorts of apps, but it just looked really weird, was expensive, and most people couldn’t buy one.)

When it comes to platforms and their reliance on support from developers, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem: developers are wary of a product without a user base and users are wary of product without robust offerings.

The obvious counterpoint to this idea of platform supremacy is Amazon’s Alexa voice speaker. The applications available on the device called Skills are minimal, and most of the functions like setting alarms, creating shopping lists, and listening to music are powered by Amazon. But the device does connect to services like Spotify, and Amazon launched the product after building a fully-functional streaming service the speaker could draw from. In addition, revenue from the sale of the devices isn’t the important thing to Amazon; it simply wants to put another point of sale and data collection throughout your home. (Though reports suggest voice shopping might not be catching on as much as Amazon might have hoped.)

Developers will decide Magic Leap’s fate, and it’s possible that they could flock to the device—though in the short term, it still seems as though the money lies with the existing tech giants.