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Rony Abovitz: Unraveling Magic Leap's Enigmatic Founder

Rony Abovitz presenting Magic Leap at a 2013 TEDx event in Florida
Rony Abovitz presenting Magic Leap at a 2013 TEDx event in Florida
Tali Shamir

DANIA BEACH — On the stage are two large furry creatures — one pink, one green — examining, then admiring, a human-sized box that reads "Thwaxo's strangely demented space fudge." In the background is the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. An astronaut then enters and approaches a microphone. "Before I begin my talk I'd like to present today's ancient and magical keyword," he says. A band starts playing loud music behind and the two creatures throw papers with the word "fudge" written on them and then start dancing madly around the astronaut.

If you haven't understood anything from this scene, that's fine. That was exactly the intention of the man in the astronaut suit. His name is Rony Abovitz, and besides being a fan of unusual costumes and imaginary creatures he is also one of the most talked about and secretive people in the high-tech world.

His company, Magic Leap, is no less cryptic. Its website welcomes users with hands that open to reveal an elephant or a girl sitting with a dog. The elephant trumpets, the girl waves hello. Browsing the website to understand what the company actually does would probably lead you nowhere.

Although mainstream media has been chasing him, 44-year-old Abovitz rarely gives interviews. When he does, it's mostly esoteric outlets, and the interviews are particularly vague and eccentric — just like in the event above, where Abovitz presented his company at a TEDx event in Sarasota, Florida, two years ago.

In 2011 he said he intended to create a virtual reality app for Apple devices. Later he admitted it was a gimmick to ensure that Magic Leap's real products are not revealed.

"There is a lot of mystery around what Magic Leap does, and I hope half of you did not come to find out what, because I don't really intend to tell," he said in February in a rare public appearance, for a lecture at the University of Miami where he used to study.

In an interview he gave last year to the publication of the South Florida Chamber of Commerce he made general statements. "When you see this, you will see that this is computing for the next 30 or 40 years." The story also described the company's product as "a proprietary wearable technology that will enable humans to interact with computers in a completely new way."

In fact, Magic Leap is one of the leading firms in the field called "augmented reality" or "layered reality" and which Abovitz has dubbed "cinematic reality" — all of these are the new generation of what used to be called virtual reality.

In practice, this is about visual devices that "plant" objects that appear in reality as if they were an integral part of it. For example, tanks breaking into the office where you're sitting, or whales that appear as if they were floating just above you.

This field could revolutionize computer games and technology as a whole. "Imagine you are now in China and all the signs are in English," Abovitz recently explained. "In restaurants, when people talk to you (in Chinese) you would have live subtitles."

What hardware does this technology use? Is it glasses, or something more sophisticated? Nobody really knows but the mystery that Magic Leap has been surrounding itself with has not prevented some of the world's largest companies from bettting on it.

Full funding

Last October, the company mobilized no less than $542 million in a huge funding drive led by Google that also included chip company Qualcomm, Legendary film studios and big venture funds such as Kleiner Perkins and Andreessen Horowitz. Overall, Magic Leap raised nearly $600 million in 2014, and is valued at an estimated $2 billion — even though it still has no product and only a handful of people know what it actually does.

"Logically, I know there isn't a hulking four-armed, twisty-horned blue monster clomping in circles in front of me, but it sure as hell looks like it," wrote MIT Technology Review's Rachel Metz, one of the few to try out a preliminary prototype of the cryptic technology. "Google Goggles on steroids," said Gizmodo's Sean Hollister in an investigation that tried to put together all the puzzle pieces and understand what Magic Leap builds. Abovitz himself calls it "everyday magic," claiming his technology would "turn cynics into 10-year-olds again."

Many in the industry interpreted Google's investment in Magic Leap as an attempt to resurrect the Google Goggles project, and as a response to Facebook"s $2 billion investment in the virtual reality firm Oculus. One of the problems with Google Goggles was the difficulty to integrate virtual objects in reality in a convincing manner. Magic Leap claims to have solved this problem by developing a photonic technology that transmits the images directly to the retina, unlike glasses which function as a screen in front of the human eye.

Founded in 2011, Magic Leap already has several hundred employees. Until recently it operated only in Dania Beach, Florida, but recently opened offices in California, Seattle, New Zealand and it will soon establish a new development center in Israel, not far from where Facebook's former development center was located.

Landing in Israel is no coincidence: Abovitz was brought up in Florida but his parents are Israelis. His late father, Isaac Abovitz served in the Israeli Air Force and moved to the U.S. in 1962, where he married Ita Goldenholtz, a Jerusalemite rabbi's daughter who became an artist. The parents gave Rony and his brother a Jewish education, they visited Israel and in 1990 Rony even volunteered for the Israeli Defence Forces for a month.

Those close to him describe Abovitz as a warm family man who keeps his life very much centered in Florida, despite his many business travels. He has been a vegetarian since the age of 11, and is a nature lover who likes assisting injured animals. He and his wife Debb have a number of dogs, cats, birds and rabbits.

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Rony Abovitz at San Diego's Comic Con 2011 — Photo: DiceOutLoud/YouTube screenshot

Magic Leap is not Abovitz's first successful business venture. While studying he founded — with his father's financial support — Z-Kat, a company for surgical robotics that over time turned into Mako Surgical and became known for developing the first robotic arm for knee operations. His father died in 2008 without getting to witness his son's first big success being sold to medical technology corporation Striker for $1.65 billion. Abovitz's inspiration for Mako, he once said, came from Star Wars.


He was brought up with airplane models and Atari games and got his first computer, a Macintosh, at the age of eight. "He's weird. Really weird," his sister Mindy Sigal Abovitz told online magazine Business Insider in January, explaining "weird" as in a genius, creative geek. "I think Rony is going to surprise me for the rest of my life."

Abovitz studied for bachelor and masters in the University of Miami, the latter in biomedical engineering. He recalled once: "My parents convinced me to study biomedical engineering, saying astronauts going to Mars would need life support systems in space."

But he had interests in a number of areas. Between 2005 and 2010 he had a blog named "Fix the World" where he wrote about topics like religion, politics, ethics, and vegetarianism. In one of the blog posts he suggested moving wars to the Internet where they would not involve bloodshed, so that "grandmas, kids and even smart cats" can take part.

But as bizarre and eccentric as he might seem, Abovitz is first and foremost a gifted inventor and a skilled businessman who managed to convince some of the world's largest companies to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in his vision.

William Tapia, a former partner of Abovitz at Mako Surgical, told Business Insider: "He has a natural talent to be able to convince people of his vision, of what he has in mind for solving a particular problem."

Abovitz says he would like to turn Magic Leap into a company "the size of Apple." And evidently, he doesn't fear thinking far and wide, including ideas that would sound bizarre to most of us. His enthusiasm has helped attract trailblazers from various fields.

It is still unclear when Magic Leap's technology will be publicly available, but in his Florida talk Abovitz promised that "when we launch it, it will be simply huge." For a dreamer of his proportions, this sounds perfectly reasonable.

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