CALCALIST

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 â€" On the stage are two large furry creatures â€" one pink, one green â€" 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 â€" 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" â€" 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 â€" 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.

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

Magic Leap is not Abovitz's first successful business venture. While studying he founded â€" with his father's financial support â€" 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.

Apple-sized

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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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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