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这家公司想打造一场难以成真的梦,创始人深陷其中

这家公司想打造一场难以成真的梦,创始人深陷其中

JOSHUA BRUSTEIN, IAN KING, 彭博社 2020年10月10日
阿博维茨自比神话中火焰重生的神鸟,不过这团火焰已将Magic Leap烧为灰烬。

5月,罗尼·阿博维茨终于迎接了现实。他领导的公司Magic Leap开发了9年之久的增强现实头盔宣告惨败。阿博维茨含泪在一场视频会议上宣布辞职。

阿博维茨向来以颇具感染力的乐观精神知名,还成功为Magic Leap募资约35亿美元,所以这场伤心并未持续多久。就在接任者佩吉·约翰逊上任之际,他发布推文称,“新计划秘密进行中:)”。发布神秘消息的同时,阿博维茨在Twitter的个人简介也做了修改,提到了凤凰计划之类。可以猜测,也许阿博维茨在自比神话中火焰重生的神鸟。不过这团火焰已将Magic Leap烧为灰烬。

Magic Leap一度红得耀眼。当年很多知名投资人朝圣般地奔赴到迈阿密沼泽遍布、人迹罕至的郊区,深信阿博维茨往用户脸上绑上电脑就能开创新领域的苹果。该项技术只做私人展示,让用户感觉通过头盔看到的数字虚拟物体似乎存在于现实世界中。后来这项技术顺利从中国阿里巴巴集团、美国电话电报公司、谷歌和芯片制造商高通获得投资。Magic Leap的计划是将这种技术运用到消费级设备中,建造一座工厂用来大规模生产,设计操作系统、视频游戏和电影,并催生一个庞大的新内容产业。

在阿博维茨看来,要超越那些同样希望占据未来的巨头们唯一的途径就是全力以赴。“这就好比我们是咖啡公司,收购一座山和一块地,在特定气候下种植咖啡豆,然后制造烘焙机,方便控制所有参数,”2018年,阿博维茨在位于佛罗里达州普兰泰申的Magic Leap总部对彭博社说。“观察最成功的计算机产品,研究相关历史就会发现,掌控硬件和软件集成并深入了解消费者整体体验的公司,才能打造出最好的产品。”他在另一次采访中表示,“就像1978年的苹果。”

在Magic Leap的巅峰时期,也就是公开推出实际产品之前,技术专家对其潜力赞不绝口。桑达•皮查伊被任命为谷歌首席执行官之前不久,曾于2014年加入Magic Leap董事会,宣称该产品将“彻底改变人们沟通、购买、学习、分享和游戏的方式。”2018年皮查伊于悄然退出董事会,原有岗位被安排给了谷歌一名下属。

Magic Leap价值2300美元的头盔惨败后,收窄业务重心主要关注专业应用领域,试图出售公司但未成功,后来解雇了超过一半员工。追踪机构投资者的研究公司Zanbato收集数据显示,截至6月的一年里,投资人平均减持了约94%持股,降幅比共享办公空间WeWork还大。

新任首席执行官约翰逊想办法通过合作重振业务。据三位知情人士透露,Magic Leap正与亚马逊网站商谈,将头盔与亚马逊的云服务打包。商谈还处于早期阶段,可能无法达成协议。Magic Leap的发言人拒绝置评,亚马逊也没有回应置评请求。

阿博维茨回复采访请求时,还附有一份研究报告链接,报告中预期了增强现实市场的长远增长前景。后来他的发言人明确表示不会接受采访,并将其他问题转给Magic Leap,公司拒绝置评。熟悉阿博维茨新项目的人表示,项目的重点是为智能手机和增强现实设备提供娱乐内容,服务对象也包括Magic Leap。

这位联合创始人的离职对曾经共事的人们来说并不意外。我们采访了20多位熟悉Magic Leap运营的人士,包括在职和已离职员工、投资人和商业伙伴,发现阿博维茨打造新世界的愿望与公司的现实越来越脱节。当员工发现无法实现阿博维茨的愿景时,Magic Leap也从除硅谷以外最吸引人的科技创业公司之一,沦落为笃信自身炒作的寓言。从公司失败的经历,能看到行业如何努力将前景广阔的技术实现商业化。具体到Magic Leap,问题在于阿博维茨的梦想中哪些还有救。

Magic Leap跟罗尼·阿博维茨很难分开。阿博维茨气质天真无邪,一头卷发,容易让人联想到苹果公司的史蒂夫·沃兹尼亚克,还有电影《查理与巧克力工厂》的吉恩·怀尔德。他小时候在克利夫兰东郊,少年时期大家庭集体搬到佛罗里达州。他在迈阿密大学学习生物医学工程,热爱画漫画,也喜欢掷标枪。

2004年,大学毕业的阿博维茨联合创立了医疗机器人公司Mako Surgical Corp,2008年公司上市。两年后,他辞去首席技术官一职,转而担任含义比较模糊的首席前瞻性官。用阿博维茨自己的话说,那段时间他有些恍惚,晚上经常做白日梦,想做点别的事。为了做思想实验,他开始构建名叫Hour Blue的虚拟宇宙,并认为其中孕育了商业机会。起初,阿博维茨想从事某种媒体领域风险投资,也许是电影,或者是游戏。后来,他开始努力为人们打造他幻想中的一片天地,即增强现实头盔。

2011年,也是Magic Leap成立后的几年里,科技行业的兴趣不断蔓延。阿博维茨喜欢保持怪异风格:2012年一场题为“综合想象力”的TEDx演讲上,阿博维茨身穿太空服,跟几个穿着毛茸茸怪物服装的人一起跳舞。另一段视频显示一条真人大小的鲸鱼在学校体育馆里跳水。投资人纷纷从湾区飞抵佛罗里达州,签署严格的保密协议后才能戴上绑上笨重的原型机体验,然后开出大额支票,并大谈特谈他们对计算机未来的理解。

阿博维茨的同事表示,他最吸引人特质的是书呆子魅力和赤裸裸野心结合。他时而灵感迸发,甚至深入剖析医学研究,时而来一段科幻电影里很多人难以理解的独角戏。Magic Leap在技术论坛上分发“巫师通缉令”的卡片招徕员工,团队里不乏物理学家、游戏开发者,供应链专家,还有一位传奇科幻小说家尼尔·斯蒂芬森。“愿景很宏大,”加州眼科专家和企业家凯泽尔·卡代利说,2014年阿博维茨招他当顾问。

不过,身为领导者方面阿博维茨有些分裂。好几位前同事介绍,他经常让Magic Leap内部划分不同团队相互竞争,开发出创意类似的版本,导致项目陷入停滞而不是选出赢家。接受采访的这几位都要求匿名,避免影响他们与阿博维茨的关系,也避免吃上官司。Magic Leap向来喜欢打官司,已就商业机密盗窃提起数起诉讼。他们表示,阿博维茨对所有事都有最终决定权,却对细节缺乏耐心。后来公司陷入瘫态,既无法实现愿景,又不甘降低野心。

斯宾塞·林赛是早期加入的员工,他形容自己在Magic Leap工作期间完全一片混乱,但很欣赏阿博维茨的远见。“他对极客很好,相信魔法,”他说。2017年林赛被解雇,原因就是他说的指令与工作内容相矛盾。说到底,林赛认为阿博维茨没有能力经营类似Magic Leap规模的公司。“罗尼真心相信这份事业,也尽了最大努力,”林赛说。“可惜要对现实做出让步时,他能力不够。”

2018年9月,阿博维茨邀请两位彭博社记者前往佛罗里达州参观Magic Leap工厂。公司在普兰泰申大沼泽地排水沟建造了巨大的建筑,小镇的名字普兰泰申(英文原意为种植园——译者注)源自20世纪初一次失败的稻田种植尝试。记者参观第一站是阿博维茨的办公室,二层一间玻璃墙的房间。室内风格偏向潮流爱好咖。咖啡桌上摆着宇宙飞船的模型,白板上是射线枪草图,架子上堆放着动作人物、科幻书籍和其他小玩意儿,有半打《星球大战》里的R2D2机器人、威利旺卡午餐盒,还有史蒂夫·乔布斯亲笔签名的苹果I型电脑照片。

阿博维茨描述自己的管理风格时,也很快陷入幻想。“很多科技创业公司,就像蜘蛛侠电影里一样,大家都在谈论蜘蛛侠。公司里的每个人都知道我的目标是推广Magic Leap,更像复仇者联盟团队,”问起阿博维茨是否成功时,他耸了耸肩。“我只觉得把自己变成蜘蛛侠挺酷的,”他说。

本次参观主要目的是Magic Leap制造工厂,就位于阿博维茨办公室下面一层,他称之为“小深圳”。产品每块都由一系列制造商出产的许多零部件组成。举例来说,Magic Leap 1头盔主处理器由英伟达生产,管理摄像头的芯片则来自英特尔公司。

阿博维茨坚称有一个零部件由Magic Leap自行生产,即用于实现头盔增强现实功能的透镜。每块所谓“衍射光波导”的透镜上都刻有微小凹槽,凹槽引导光线进入佩戴者的眼睛之前,可将光线重新引导至镜片表面。由于镜片透明,用户可以既看到物理世界,又看到头盔里的数字图像。现有的技术有局限性,阿博维茨认为Magic Leap可以悄悄地获得一些突破。

阿博维茨还一心想建厂。他以前的公司Mako就有自建厂,他认为实体工厂对于他理解如何尽可能推动技术进步至关重要。(他还发现,带外科医生参观满是机器人的工厂可有效争取业务。)不过在消费电子领域,零部件通常要找专业制造商,其中很多家都在亚洲。据两位知情人士透露,Magic Leap一些高管和投资人都对搭建昂贵的工厂提出质疑,因为零部件都能在别处购买。

不管怎样,阿博维茨还是做了。他从北卡罗来纳州一家光学公司Tessera挖走员工搭建制造团队。第一位关键新员工是工程师保罗·格雷科,他说话温和,却喜欢花里胡哨的夏威夷衬衫。格雷科曾在摩托罗拉工作16年,在普兰泰申负责一家智能手机制造厂。在格雷科的建议下,Magic Leap搬进了摩托罗拉的老大楼。然后,他开始清理和翻新一层建立工厂,工厂建得非常实用,办公室其他部分则充满异想天开的气氛。

格雷科带着参观了生产线,工人们穿着洁净室兔子服操作机器。他说,当时他满脑子都想着增加第二条接近全自动的装配线。“罗尼很喜欢,因为会有很多像小型R2D2一样的机器人,可以四处运送材料,”格雷科说。

Magic Leap还设计了跨国公司级别的供应链。镜片和其他材料在佛罗里达州制造,然后运到墨西哥的瓜达拉哈拉,由当地合作方组装头盔,然后运回美国。

阿博维茨经营Magic Leap的方式就好像已经变成苹果之类巨头的重要竞争对手,这种思路下的做事方式往往并不便宜也不够高效。“不明白为什么没人指出不能建工厂,这种发展阶段并不能样样业务都上马,”一位Magic Leap早期投资人说。

跟很多投资人一样,这位投资人入局也是因为当初看了一场令人眼花缭乱的演示,结果只能眼睁睁地看着出问题,不仅是技术问题,还有文化问题。对于内部人士来说,阿博维茨的愿景蒙蔽了商业常识。“每个人都信了,然后同引Kool Aid饮料。没人停下来说,‘产品很烂,’”这位投资人指出。“我第一次真正戴上头盔时,感觉只想说‘该死。跟你们之前说的根本不一样。’”

阿博维茨一面公开宣称将颠覆各大科技巨头,另一面又跟几乎各家巨头暗通款曲以备不测。据科技新闻网站the Information报道,2016年苹果、Facebook和谷歌首席执行官都曾前往佛罗里达,讨论收购的可能性。据一位知情人士透露,跟苹果的谈判进展非常顺利,后来阿博维茨还飞往加利福尼亚州库比蒂诺见了苹果高层。阿博维茨将出售谈判项目命名为蝙蝠侠。

长期以来硅谷一直被增强现实理念诱惑,也一直努力让该技术发挥作用。谷歌眼镜失败后,将产品转向了医疗专业人士。微软的HoloLens是相当不错的游戏机,但大多数人买不起,现在主要面对企业。至少从2015年开始,苹果就在研发代号为N301的增强和虚拟现实结合产品,投入了1000多名工程师,然而停滞不前。

针对多年来公司挥霍的报道,Magic Leap的高管不断表示愤怒。他们表示,竞争对手实际上支出更高,只不过资产负债表太庞大,项目深深藏在其中不够明显。不过,阿博维茨从未想出如何将原型机产生的魔力转变为能自给自足的产品,前员工说。

两年前发布的头戴式头盔Magic Leap基于不同的技术,局限性很快显现。狭窄的视场意味着数字图像必须很小,要么就有可能被切断,而且头盔在户外无法稳定使用。公司找到了补救方法。在宣传为“巨型恐龙在办公室徘徊”演示中,恐龙出现在开放走廊最远端,如此才能出现在显示屏上。

以蒸汽朋克为灵感设计的Magic Leap 1确实让人看到一些潜力。通过一款应用,用户可以把数字小动物扔在房间里,小动物会萌萌地撞到咖啡桌腿,还会从椅子上摔下。(如果不直视,动物会完全消失,回头看的时候又突然出现。)不过,这种雕虫小技带来的新鲜感很快消失。尽管在内容上花了很多钱,还跟美国有线电视新闻网、美职篮和迪士尼旗下的卢卡斯电影公司进行了大量内容宣传,还是没法带动设备。

增强现实硬件领域的专家对设备评价也不高。Facebook虚拟现实头盔Oculus VR的联合创始人帕尔默·卢基拆解了Magic Leap头盔,确认采用的技术“与多年来其他公司的技术并无二致”。

即便曾经在Magic Leap工作的工程师也质疑,号称拳头产品的镜片到底适不适合消费类设备,因为镜片在受控环境之外工作时耗电过多,吸收光线也太多。

Magic Leap陷入困境后,开始重新审视各种选择。据知情人士透露,去年年底公司高层认真考虑了多项收购要约,最后决定募集更多资金。

Magic Leap成立至今,曾哗哗流向初创公司的现金在今年的疫情里已缩为涓涓细流。一位了解Magic Leap想法的人士透露,投资人对Magic Leap要求增加投资的要求犹豫不决,激怒了阿博维茨。之前他曾私下表示,去年之所以没有出售公司,就是因为投资者保证会继续支持。今年春天,Magic Leap又一次尝试出售,随后宣布裁员。一位与会人士透露,5月阿博维茨在离职讲话中将困境原因主要归咎于疫情,但在场一些人并不认同。

不知为何,现在根本不卖头盔的苹果也宣布最早2022年发布头盔产品,变成最有可能占领大众市场的公司。企业领域,微软无疑是领导者。

如此一来,Magic Leap及新任首席执行官陷入尴尬境地。如果说阿博维茨很有远见只是难落到实处,约翰逊更偏向执行。凭借在高通20年的工作经验,2014年萨蒂亚·纳德拉被任命为微软首席执行官后首批招聘的高层之一就包括约翰逊。约翰逊协助微软修复了与Salesforce.com网站和三星电子的关系,之前在史蒂夫·鲍尔默时代曾出现问题。

上个月约翰逊加入Magic Leap,受疫情影响不得不等了几个星期才进入办公室。她拒绝采访,Magic Leap也并未面试其他候选人。她可能将重点转到医疗和工业应用领域,也是近期唯一实际的增强现实设备市场。

她还希望提升Magic Leap相比HoloLens的竞争力,微软的HoloLens头盔售价3500美元,主要面向制造业和医疗机构,评论人士称其技术比Magic Leap强。据知情人士透露,Magic Leap已与少数几家公司签约,约翰逊的首要任务是完成其他进行中的交易,包括跟亚马逊的商谈。

一些今年离职或被Magic Leap解雇的员工去了苹果和Facebook。就连一些在职员工也承认,Magic Leap永远无法实现阿博维茨信誓旦旦承诺的目标。阿博维茨辞职当天则传达了不同的信息,他说:“我们开创了全新领域。一种新媒介,我们共同定义了计算机的未来。”只不过,要实现这一愿景只能靠别人了。(yabo88ios)

译者:冯丰

审校:夏林

5月,罗尼·阿博维茨终于迎接了现实。他领导的公司Magic Leap开发了9年之久的增强现实头盔宣告惨败。阿博维茨含泪在一场视频会议上宣布辞职。

阿博维茨向来以颇具感染力的乐观精神知名,还成功为Magic Leap募资约35亿美元,所以这场伤心并未持续多久。就在接任者佩吉·约翰逊上任之际,他发布推文称,“新计划秘密进行中:)”。发布神秘消息的同时,阿博维茨在Twitter的个人简介也做了修改,提到了凤凰计划之类。可以猜测,也许阿博维茨在自比神话中火焰重生的神鸟。不过这团火焰已将Magic Leap烧为灰烬。

Magic Leap一度红得耀眼。当年很多知名投资人朝圣般地奔赴到迈阿密沼泽遍布、人迹罕至的郊区,深信阿博维茨往用户脸上绑上电脑就能开创新领域的苹果。该项技术只做私人展示,让用户感觉通过头盔看到的数字虚拟物体似乎存在于现实世界中。后来这项技术顺利从中国阿里巴巴集团、美国电话电报公司、谷歌和芯片制造商高通获得投资。Magic Leap的计划是将这种技术运用到消费级设备中,建造一座工厂用来大规模生产,设计操作系统、视频游戏和电影,并催生一个庞大的新内容产业。

在阿博维茨看来,要超越那些同样希望占据未来的巨头们唯一的途径就是全力以赴。“这就好比我们是咖啡公司,收购一座山和一块地,在特定气候下种植咖啡豆,然后制造烘焙机,方便控制所有参数,”2018年,阿博维茨在位于佛罗里达州普兰泰申的Magic Leap总部对彭博社说。“观察最成功的计算机产品,研究相关历史就会发现,掌控硬件和软件集成并深入了解消费者整体体验的公司,才能打造出最好的产品。”他在另一次采访中表示,“就像1978年的苹果。”

在Magic Leap的巅峰时期,也就是公开推出实际产品之前,技术专家对其潜力赞不绝口。桑达•皮查伊被任命为谷歌首席执行官之前不久,曾于2014年加入Magic Leap董事会,宣称该产品将“彻底改变人们沟通、购买、学习、分享和游戏的方式。”2018年皮查伊于悄然退出董事会,原有岗位被安排给了谷歌一名下属。

Magic Leap价值2300美元的头盔惨败后,收窄业务重心主要关注专业应用领域,试图出售公司但未成功,后来解雇了超过一半员工。追踪机构投资者的研究公司Zanbato收集数据显示,截至6月的一年里,投资人平均减持了约94%持股,降幅比共享办公空间WeWork还大。

新任首席执行官约翰逊想办法通过合作重振业务。据三位知情人士透露,Magic Leap正与亚马逊网站商谈,将头盔与亚马逊的云服务打包。商谈还处于早期阶段,可能无法达成协议。Magic Leap的发言人拒绝置评,亚马逊也没有回应置评请求。

阿博维茨回复采访请求时,还附有一份研究报告链接,报告中预期了增强现实市场的长远增长前景。后来他的发言人明确表示不会接受采访,并将其他问题转给Magic Leap,公司拒绝置评。熟悉阿博维茨新项目的人表示,项目的重点是为智能手机和增强现实设备提供娱乐内容,服务对象也包括Magic Leap。

这位联合创始人的离职对曾经共事的人们来说并不意外。我们采访了20多位熟悉Magic Leap运营的人士,包括在职和已离职员工、投资人和商业伙伴,发现阿博维茨打造新世界的愿望与公司的现实越来越脱节。当员工发现无法实现阿博维茨的愿景时,Magic Leap也从除硅谷以外最吸引人的科技创业公司之一,沦落为笃信自身炒作的寓言。从公司失败的经历,能看到行业如何努力将前景广阔的技术实现商业化。具体到Magic Leap,问题在于阿博维茨的梦想中哪些还有救。

Magic Leap跟罗尼·阿博维茨很难分开。阿博维茨气质天真无邪,一头卷发,容易让人联想到苹果公司的史蒂夫·沃兹尼亚克,还有电影《查理与巧克力工厂》的吉恩·怀尔德。他小时候在克利夫兰东郊,少年时期大家庭集体搬到佛罗里达州。他在迈阿密大学学习生物医学工程,热爱画漫画,也喜欢掷标枪。

2004年,大学毕业的阿博维茨联合创立了医疗机器人公司Mako Surgical Corp,2008年公司上市。两年后,他辞去首席技术官一职,转而担任含义比较模糊的首席前瞻性官。用阿博维茨自己的话说,那段时间他有些恍惚,晚上经常做白日梦,想做点别的事。为了做思想实验,他开始构建名叫Hour Blue的虚拟宇宙,并认为其中孕育了商业机会。起初,阿博维茨想从事某种媒体领域风险投资,也许是电影,或者是游戏。后来,他开始努力为人们打造他幻想中的一片天地,即增强现实头盔。

2011年,也是Magic Leap成立后的几年里,科技行业的兴趣不断蔓延。阿博维茨喜欢保持怪异风格:2012年一场题为“综合想象力”的TEDx演讲上,阿博维茨身穿太空服,跟几个穿着毛茸茸怪物服装的人一起跳舞。另一段视频显示一条真人大小的鲸鱼在学校体育馆里跳水。投资人纷纷从湾区飞抵佛罗里达州,签署严格的保密协议后才能戴上绑上笨重的原型机体验,然后开出大额支票,并大谈特谈他们对计算机未来的理解。

阿博维茨的同事表示,他最吸引人特质的是书呆子魅力和赤裸裸野心结合。他时而灵感迸发,甚至深入剖析医学研究,时而来一段科幻电影里很多人难以理解的独角戏。Magic Leap在技术论坛上分发“巫师通缉令”的卡片招徕员工,团队里不乏物理学家、游戏开发者,供应链专家,还有一位传奇科幻小说家尼尔·斯蒂芬森。“愿景很宏大,”加州眼科专家和企业家凯泽尔·卡代利说,2014年阿博维茨招他当顾问。

不过,身为领导者方面阿博维茨有些分裂。好几位前同事介绍,他经常让Magic Leap内部划分不同团队相互竞争,开发出创意类似的版本,导致项目陷入停滞而不是选出赢家。接受采访的这几位都要求匿名,避免影响他们与阿博维茨的关系,也避免吃上官司。Magic Leap向来喜欢打官司,已就商业机密盗窃提起数起诉讼。他们表示,阿博维茨对所有事都有最终决定权,却对细节缺乏耐心。后来公司陷入瘫态,既无法实现愿景,又不甘降低野心。

斯宾塞·林赛是早期加入的员工,他形容自己在Magic Leap工作期间完全一片混乱,但很欣赏阿博维茨的远见。“他对极客很好,相信魔法,”他说。2017年林赛被解雇,原因就是他说的指令与工作内容相矛盾。说到底,林赛认为阿博维茨没有能力经营类似Magic Leap规模的公司。“罗尼真心相信这份事业,也尽了最大努力,”林赛说。“可惜要对现实做出让步时,他能力不够。”

2018年9月,阿博维茨邀请两位彭博社记者前往佛罗里达州参观Magic Leap工厂。公司在普兰泰申大沼泽地排水沟建造了巨大的建筑,小镇的名字普兰泰申(英文原意为种植园——译者注)源自20世纪初一次失败的稻田种植尝试。记者参观第一站是阿博维茨的办公室,二层一间玻璃墙的房间。室内风格偏向潮流爱好咖。咖啡桌上摆着宇宙飞船的模型,白板上是射线枪草图,架子上堆放着动作人物、科幻书籍和其他小玩意儿,有半打《星球大战》里的R2D2机器人、威利旺卡午餐盒,还有史蒂夫·乔布斯亲笔签名的苹果I型电脑照片。

阿博维茨描述自己的管理风格时,也很快陷入幻想。“很多科技创业公司,就像蜘蛛侠电影里一样,大家都在谈论蜘蛛侠。公司里的每个人都知道我的目标是推广Magic Leap,更像复仇者联盟团队,”问起阿博维茨是否成功时,他耸了耸肩。“我只觉得把自己变成蜘蛛侠挺酷的,”他说。

本次参观主要目的是Magic Leap制造工厂,就位于阿博维茨办公室下面一层,他称之为“小深圳”。产品每块都由一系列制造商出产的许多零部件组成。举例来说,Magic Leap 1头盔主处理器由英伟达生产,管理摄像头的芯片则来自英特尔公司。

阿博维茨坚称有一个零部件由Magic Leap自行生产,即用于实现头盔增强现实功能的透镜。每块所谓“衍射光波导”的透镜上都刻有微小凹槽,凹槽引导光线进入佩戴者的眼睛之前,可将光线重新引导至镜片表面。由于镜片透明,用户可以既看到物理世界,又看到头盔里的数字图像。现有的技术有局限性,阿博维茨认为Magic Leap可以悄悄地获得一些突破。

阿博维茨还一心想建厂。他以前的公司Mako就有自建厂,他认为实体工厂对于他理解如何尽可能推动技术进步至关重要。(他还发现,带外科医生参观满是机器人的工厂可有效争取业务。)不过在消费电子领域,零部件通常要找专业制造商,其中很多家都在亚洲。据两位知情人士透露,Magic Leap一些高管和投资人都对搭建昂贵的工厂提出质疑,因为零部件都能在别处购买。

不管怎样,阿博维茨还是做了。他从北卡罗来纳州一家光学公司Tessera挖走员工搭建制造团队。第一位关键新员工是工程师保罗·格雷科,他说话温和,却喜欢花里胡哨的夏威夷衬衫。格雷科曾在摩托罗拉工作16年,在普兰泰申负责一家智能手机制造厂。在格雷科的建议下,Magic Leap搬进了摩托罗拉的老大楼。然后,他开始清理和翻新一层建立工厂,工厂建得非常实用,办公室其他部分则充满异想天开的气氛。

格雷科带着参观了生产线,工人们穿着洁净室兔子服操作机器。他说,当时他满脑子都想着增加第二条接近全自动的装配线。“罗尼很喜欢,因为会有很多像小型R2D2一样的机器人,可以四处运送材料,”格雷科说。

Magic Leap还设计了跨国公司级别的供应链。镜片和其他材料在佛罗里达州制造,然后运到墨西哥的瓜达拉哈拉,由当地合作方组装头盔,然后运回美国。

阿博维茨经营Magic Leap的方式就好像已经变成苹果之类巨头的重要竞争对手,这种思路下的做事方式往往并不便宜也不够高效。“不明白为什么没人指出不能建工厂,这种发展阶段并不能样样业务都上马,”一位Magic Leap早期投资人说。

跟很多投资人一样,这位投资人入局也是因为当初看了一场令人眼花缭乱的演示,结果只能眼睁睁地看着出问题,不仅是技术问题,还有文化问题。对于内部人士来说,阿博维茨的愿景蒙蔽了商业常识。“每个人都信了,然后同引Kool Aid饮料。没人停下来说,‘产品很烂,’”这位投资人指出。“我第一次真正戴上头盔时,感觉只想说‘该死。跟你们之前说的根本不一样。’”

阿博维茨一面公开宣称将颠覆各大科技巨头,另一面又跟几乎各家巨头暗通款曲以备不测。据科技新闻网站the Information报道,2016年苹果、Facebook和谷歌首席执行官都曾前往佛罗里达,讨论收购的可能性。据一位知情人士透露,跟苹果的谈判进展非常顺利,后来阿博维茨还飞往加利福尼亚州库比蒂诺见了苹果高层。阿博维茨将出售谈判项目命名为蝙蝠侠。

长期以来硅谷一直被增强现实理念诱惑,也一直努力让该技术发挥作用。谷歌眼镜失败后,将产品转向了医疗专业人士。微软的HoloLens是相当不错的游戏机,但大多数人买不起,现在主要面对企业。至少从2015年开始,苹果就在研发代号为N301的增强和虚拟现实结合产品,投入了1000多名工程师,然而停滞不前。

针对多年来公司挥霍的报道,Magic Leap的高管不断表示愤怒。他们表示,竞争对手实际上支出更高,只不过资产负债表太庞大,项目深深藏在其中不够明显。不过,阿博维茨从未想出如何将原型机产生的魔力转变为能自给自足的产品,前员工说。

两年前发布的头戴式头盔Magic Leap基于不同的技术,局限性很快显现。狭窄的视场意味着数字图像必须很小,要么就有可能被切断,而且头盔在户外无法稳定使用。公司找到了补救方法。在宣传为“巨型恐龙在办公室徘徊”演示中,恐龙出现在开放走廊最远端,如此才能出现在显示屏上。

以蒸汽朋克为灵感设计的Magic Leap 1确实让人看到一些潜力。通过一款应用,用户可以把数字小动物扔在房间里,小动物会萌萌地撞到咖啡桌腿,还会从椅子上摔下。(如果不直视,动物会完全消失,回头看的时候又突然出现。)不过,这种雕虫小技带来的新鲜感很快消失。尽管在内容上花了很多钱,还跟美国有线电视新闻网、美职篮和迪士尼旗下的卢卡斯电影公司进行了大量内容宣传,还是没法带动设备。

增强现实硬件领域的专家对设备评价也不高。Facebook虚拟现实头盔Oculus VR的联合创始人帕尔默·卢基拆解了Magic Leap头盔,确认采用的技术“与多年来其他公司的技术并无二致”。

即便曾经在Magic Leap工作的工程师也质疑,号称拳头产品的镜片到底适不适合消费类设备,因为镜片在受控环境之外工作时耗电过多,吸收光线也太多。

Magic Leap陷入困境后,开始重新审视各种选择。据知情人士透露,去年年底公司高层认真考虑了多项收购要约,最后决定募集更多资金。

Magic Leap成立至今,曾哗哗流向初创公司的现金在今年的疫情里已缩为涓涓细流。一位了解Magic Leap想法的人士透露,投资人对Magic Leap要求增加投资的要求犹豫不决,激怒了阿博维茨。之前他曾私下表示,去年之所以没有出售公司,就是因为投资者保证会继续支持。今年春天,Magic Leap又一次尝试出售,随后宣布裁员。一位与会人士透露,5月阿博维茨在离职讲话中将困境原因主要归咎于疫情,但在场一些人并不认同。

不知为何,现在根本不卖头盔的苹果也宣布最早2022年发布头盔产品,变成最有可能占领大众市场的公司。企业领域,微软无疑是领导者。

如此一来,Magic Leap及新任首席执行官陷入尴尬境地。如果说阿博维茨很有远见只是难落到实处,约翰逊更偏向执行。凭借在高通20年的工作经验,2014年萨蒂亚·纳德拉被任命为微软首席执行官后首批招聘的高层之一就包括约翰逊。约翰逊协助微软修复了与Salesforce.com网站和三星电子的关系,之前在史蒂夫·鲍尔默时代曾出现问题。

上个月约翰逊加入Magic Leap,受疫情影响不得不等了几个星期才进入办公室。她拒绝采访,Magic Leap也并未面试其他候选人。她可能将重点转到医疗和工业应用领域,也是近期唯一实际的增强现实设备市场。

她还希望提升Magic Leap相比HoloLens的竞争力,微软的HoloLens头盔售价3500美元,主要面向制造业和医疗机构,评论人士称其技术比Magic Leap强。据知情人士透露,Magic Leap已与少数几家公司签约,约翰逊的首要任务是完成其他进行中的交易,包括跟亚马逊的商谈。

一些今年离职或被Magic Leap解雇的员工去了苹果和Facebook。就连一些在职员工也承认,Magic Leap永远无法实现阿博维茨信誓旦旦承诺的目标。阿博维茨辞职当天则传达了不同的信息,他说:“我们开创了全新领域。一种新媒介,我们共同定义了计算机的未来。”只不过,要实现这一愿景只能靠别人了。(yabo88ios)

译者:冯丰

审校:夏林

Reality finally set in for Rony Abovitz in May. The augmented reality headset that had been under development for nine years inside his company, Magic Leap, had been a colossal flop. In a tearful address over video conference, Abovitz told employees that he would resign.

Abovitz, whose infectious optimism helped Magic Leap secure total investments of about $3.5 billion, didn’t stay down long. Just as his replacement, Peggy Johnson, was taking over, he tweeted that he was “working in stealth mode on something new:-).” The cryptic message was accompanied by a change to Abovitz’s Twitter bio referencing something called Project Phoenix. Abovitz, one could assume, is the mythical bird. That makes Magic Leap the ashes.

Magic Leap once burned bright. Many high-profile investors made the pilgrimage to a swampy, downtrodden suburb of Miami, where they became convinced Abovitz was building a kind of Apple for computers strapped to people’s faces. Private demonstrations of the technology, which made it appear as though digital objects viewed through the headset existed in the physical world, helped procure capital from China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., AT&T Inc., Google and the chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. Magic Leap’s plan was to squeeze the technology down into a consumer device, construct a factory to manufacture it at scale, design an operating system, video games and films and spark the creation of a vast new content industry.

Doing it all, in Abovitz’s eyes, was the only way to outrun the corporate giants who also wanted to own the future. “It’s like if we were a coffee company, and we would have acquired a mountain and the soil and created the coffee bean in the particular climate and then made the roaster and controlled all the parameters,” Abovitz told Bloomberg at Magic Leap’s headquarters in Plantation, Florida, in 2018. “If you look at the best computing products, at the history of them, people that had hardware and software integration and understand the entire consumer experience, they built the best overall products.” He elaborated in a separate interview: “This is like Apple in 1978.”

At its peak—a peak that predated any public evidence of an actual product—technologists raved about Magic Leap’s potential. Shortly before he was appointed CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai joined Magic Leap’s board in 2014 and declared the product would “revolutionize the way people communicate, purchase, learn, share and play.” Pichai quietly withdrew from the board in 2018 and installed a Google subordinate in his place.

After Magic Leap’s $2,300 headset bombed, the startup narrowed its focus to professional applications, tried unsuccessfully to sell the company and fired more than half of its staff. Investors wrote down their stakes by an average of about 94% over a 12-month period ending in June, a steeper decline than WeWork, according to data collected by Zanbato, a research firm that tracks institutional investors.

The new CEO, Johnson, is trying to revive the business through partnerships. Magic Leap is engaged in discussions with Amazon.com about packaging the headsets with Amazon’s cloud services, according to three people familiar with the talks. The conversations are at an early stage and may not result in a deal. A spokeswoman for Magic Leap declined to comment, and Amazon didn’t respond to request for comment.

Abovitz responded to an interview request with a message consisting entirely of link to a research report, which estimates long-term growth in the augmented reality market. His spokesman later clarified that there would be no interview and referred subsequent questions to Magic Leap, which declined to comment. People familiar with Abovitz’s next project said it centers on building entertainment content for smartphones and augmented reality devices, including Magic Leap.

The co-founder’s departure came as little surprise to those who worked with him. Interviews with over two dozen people familiar with Magic Leap’s operations, including current and former employees, investors and business partners, suggest Abovitz’s world-building aspirations had become increasingly disconnected from the company’s reality. When employees found they would be unable to deliver on Abovitz’s vision, Magic Leap went from being one of the most intriguing tech startups outside of Silicon Valley to a parable about believing one’s own hype. The company’s failings reflect a broader struggle within the industry to commercialize a technology with so much promise. The question for Magic Leap is what parts of Abovitz’s dream, if any, can be salvaged.

Magic Leap was always Rony Abovitz. Cherubic and curly haired, Abovitz evokes a mix of Apple’s Steve Wozniak and Gene Wilder from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He spent his early childhood in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland before his extended family moved en masse to Florida in his adolescence. Abovitz studied biomedical engineering, drew cartoons and threw javelin at the University of Miami.

After college, Abovitz co-founded a medical robotics company named Mako Surgical Corp. in 2004 and helped take the company public in 2008. Two years later, he stepped down as chief technical officer and into the amorphous role of chief visionary officer. By Abovitz’s own account, he was drifting, daydreaming in the evenings and looking for something else to do. As a thought experiment, he began building a fictional universe called Hour Blue and soon saw it as a business opportunity. At first, Abovitz envisioned some sort of media venture, a film, perhaps, or a game. Then he became fixated on building one aspect of his fantasy world—augmented reality headsets—for people back on Earth.

Intrigue spread through the tech industry in the years after Magic Leap’s founding in 2011. Abovitz liked to keep it weird: A TEDx Talk in 2012 titled “the synthesis of imagination” consisted entirely of Abovitz wordlessly dancing around in a spacesuit alongside several people in furry monster outfits. Another video showed a life-size whale splashing through a school gymnasium. Investors flew from the Bay Area to Florida and signed strict non-disclosure agreements so they could strap on unwieldy prototypes. Then they wrote big checks and raved coyly about how they now understood the future of computing.

Abovitz drew people in with a nerdy charm and naked ambition, said people who worked with him. He alternates between bursts of inspiration and intense dissections of medical research or sci-fi movie plots in hard-to-follow monologues that many people find captivating.Magic Leap recruited at technical conferences by handing out cards that read, “Wizards Wanted,” and the staff was peppered with physicists, game developers, supply chain experts and at least one legendary science fiction novelist, Neal Stephenson. “It was a grand vision,” said Khizer Khaderi, a California-based ophthalmologist and entrepreneur who Abovitz recruited in 2014 as an adviser.

As a leader, though, Abovitz was divisive. He often pitted Magic Leap teams against one another, sending them to develop competing versions of similar ideas and then let the projects fall into stasis instead of choosing a winner, according to the accounts of over a half-dozen former colleagues, who requested anonymity to avoid alienating Abovitz or the historically litigious Magic Leap, which has filed several suits alleging trade secret theft. Abovitz had the final say on all matters but had little patience for details, they said. The company settled into a kind of paralysis, unable to either deliver on or dial back its ambitions.

Spencer Lindsay, an early employee, described his time at Magic Leap as complete chaos but expressed appreciation for Abovitz’s vision. “He was so kind to geeks and a believer in magic,” he said. Lindsay was fired in 2017 due to what he said were conflicting instructions about what his job was supposed to be. In the end, Lindsay felt Abovitz wasn’t equipped to run a company the size of Magic Leap. “Rony really believes in this and tried his hardest,” Lindsay said. “When it came to making concessions to reality, he didn't have that ability.”

In September 2018, Abovitz invited two Bloomberg reporters to Florida to see the Magic Leap factory. The companycommands a massive building in a drained stretch of the Everglades in Plantation, a town that gets its name from a failed attempt to plant rice fields in the early 20th century. The first stop was Abovitz’s office, a glass-walled room on the second floor. His interior design style could be defined as hobby-shop chic. There were models of spaceships on the coffee table, sketches of ray guns on white boards and shelves stacked high with action figures, sci-fi books and other knickknacks, including a half-dozen R2D2s from Star Wars, a Willy Wonka lunchbox and a photograph of an Apple I computer signed by Steve Jobs.

Abovitz, as he does, quickly slipped into fantasy when describing his management style. “A lot of tech startups, it’s like the Spider-Man movie, and everyone talks about Spider-Man. Everyone in my company knows that my goal is to distribute Magic Leap, to be more like an Avengers team.” When asked whether he had succeeded, Abovitz shrugged. “I actually think turning yourself into Spider-Man is kind of cool,” he said.

The primary purpose of the tour was to show off Magic Leap’s manufacturing facility, located a floor below Abovitz’s office in the part of the building he referred to as “little Shenzhen.” Any piece of consumer gadgetry is made up of many components from an array of manufacturers. The main processor in the Magic Leap 1 headset, for instance, is made by Nvidia Corp., and the chip that manages the device’s cameras comes from Intel Corp.

Abovitz insisted that Magic Leap make one component itself: the lenses used to enable the headset’s augmented reality features. Each lens, known as a diffractive waveguide, is etched with tiny grooves that redirect light across the surface before being steered into a wearer’s eye. Because the lenses are transparent, users can see both the physical world and the digital images the headset creates. Existing technology had limitations, and Abovitz thought Magic Leap could make some breakthroughs in secret.

He also really wanted to build a factory. His previous company, Mako, had its own production facility, and Abovitz saw it as critical to helping him understand how best to push the technology forward. (He’d also discovered that showing surgeons around a factory floor bustling with robots was an effective way to win their business.) In consumer electronics, though, components are typically the domain of specialty manufacturers, many of which are in Asia. Some of Magic Leap’s executives and investors questioned the wisdom of an expensive undertaking to make parts that could be purchased elsewhere, according to two people with knowledge of those discussions.

Abovitz went ahead anyway. He mined the staff of Tessera, an optics business in North Carolina, to build a manufacturing team. The first key recruit was Paul Greco, a soft-spoken engineer with a taste for loud Hawaiian shirts. Greco had spent 16 years at Motorola, where he helped run a smartphone production facility in Plantation. At Greco’s suggestion, Magic Leap moved into the old Motorola building. He then set out to gut and renovate the ground floor to establish an operation every bit as utilitarian as the rest of the office was whimsical.

Greco led a tour of the production lines, where workers in clean-room bunny suits operated machinery. At the time, he was preoccupied with adding a second assembly line that would be nearly autonomous, he said. “Rony loves it, because essentially we’re going to have the robots, like little R2D2s, that are literally going to move the materials around,” Greco said.

Magic Leap designed a supply chain fit for a multinational corporation. The lenses and other materials were built in Florida and shipped to Guadalajara, Mexico, where a partner assembled the headsets and sent them back to the U.S.

Abovitz ran Magic Leap as though it was already a serious rival to companies like Apple, which wasn’t always the cheapest or most effective approach. “I’m not sure why there wasn’t anybody who said you can’t build this out, and you can’t turn all this stuff on at this stage,” said an early Magic Leap investor.

Like many investors, this one had initially been won over by a dazzling demo, only to watch things go wrong, not just technically but culturally. For those on the inside, Abovitz’s vision had become a sort of blindfold to common business sense. “Everyone was so bought in, they’d drunk the Kool-Aid together. Nobody stopped to say, ‘This product sucks,’” the investor said. “The first time I put on the real one, it was just like, ‘Oh shit. You guys did not deliver on your promise.’”

As Abovitz was publicly declaring he would crush the Big Tech companies, he maintained a backchannel with nearly all of them, just in case. The CEOs of Apple, Facebook Inc. and Google each journeyed to Florida for discussions about a potential acquisition in 2016, according to the technology news site the Information. The talks with Apple progressed far enough that Abovitz flew to Cupertino, California, to meet with the company’s senior leadership, said a person familiar with the trip. Abovitz named the sale talks Project Batman.

Silicon Valley has long been seduced by the idea of augmented reality and has struggled nearly as long to make the technology useful. When Google’s attempt, Glass, flopped, it steered the product toward medical professionals. Microsoft Corp.’s HoloLens was an impressive gaming machine but unaffordable to most. Now it’s mostly targeted at businesses. Apple’s work on a product that combines augmented and virtual reality, code-named N301, has been ongoing since at least 2015, with more than 1,000 engineers dedicated to the project. Progress has been halting.

Magic Leap executives consistently bristled at reports of the company’s profligacy over the years, saying rivals were actually spending more but obscuring their projects deep within massive balance sheets. Still, Abovitz never figured out how to distill the magic produced by the enormous prototypes into a viable product, former employees said.

The headset Magic Leap released two years ago was based on a different technique, and its limitations were evident immediately. A narrow field of view meant that digital images had to be small or risk appearing cut off, and the headsets couldn’t be used reliably outdoors.The company found tricks to compensate. In one demo billed as a huge dinosaur wandering around an office, it created the effect by situating the creature at the far end of an open hallway so it would fit in the display.

The Magic Leap 1, with its steampunk-inspired design, did offer glimpses of potential. One app allowed people to drop small digital creatures around a room, where they’d adorably bump into the legs of coffee tables and fall off chairs. (They disappeared completely if you weren’t looking directly at them, then suddenly reappeared when turning your head back.) These gimmicks wore off quickly, though. Despite having spent heavily on content and touting collaborations with CNN, the National Basketball Association and Walt Disney Co.’s Lucasfilm, there wasn’t much to do with the device.

Experts in augmented reality hardware were underwhelmed, too. Palmer Luckey, the co-founder of Facebook’s virtual reality headset Oculus VR, dissected Magic Leap’s device and determined it was “the same technology everyone else has been using for years.”

Even engineers who used to work at Magic Leap questioned whether the company’s signature lenses will ever be fit for a consumer device because they use too much power and absorb too much light to operate outside of controlled environments.

As Magic Leap floundered, it began to re-examine its options. The company’s senior leadership seriously considered multiple acquisition offers late last year, according to people with knowledge of the deliberations. It decided to raise more capital instead.

The cash spigot that had been flowing to startups throughout Magic Leap’s lifetime slowed to a trickle this year when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Investors balked at Magic Leap’s requests for more money, angering Abovitz, who had said privately that he didn’t sell the company last year because investors assured him of their support, according to a person familiar with his thinking at the time. Magic Leap made another attempt to sell itself this spring and then resorted to layoffs. In his departing address to employees in May, Abovitz largely blamed the coronavirus, an assertion that rang false to some people in the audience, according to a person in attendance.

Somehow Apple, which doesn’t even sell a headset today, has emerged as the company most likely to own the mass market when it releases one as soon as 2022. For businesses, Microsoft is the clear leader.

That leaves Magic Leap and its new CEO in an awkward spot. If Abovitz was a visionary with trouble staying grounded, Johnson was there to execute. With two decades of experience at Qualcomm, Johnson was one of Satya Nadella’s first big hires after he was named Microsoft CEO in 2014. Johnson helped Microsoft repair relationships with companies like Salesforce.com Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co., which had frayed in the Steve Ballmer era.

Johnson started her job at Magic Leap last month and had to wait weeks before getting into the office due to the pandemic. She declined an interview request, and Magic Leap didn’t provide anyone else for an interview. She will likely focus on medical and industrial applications for the product, which have proven to be the only realistic near-term markets for augmented reality.

She’s also focused on making Magic Leap more competitive with the HoloLens, a $3,500 headset that Microsoft sells to manufacturing and medical institutions and that critics say is technically superior to what Magic Leap offers. The startup has a handful of corporate customers signed on, and Johnson’s first task is to close other deals in the works, including the one with Amazon, according to people familiar with the plans.

Some of the people who left or were dismissed by Magic Leap this year have landed at Apple and Facebook. Even several current employees acknowledge Magic Leap will never fulfill the goals Abovitz so convincingly pitched. Abovitz offered a different message on the day he resigned: “We have created a new field. A new medium,” he said. “And together we have defined the future of computing.” It’ll be up to someone else to make that future a reality.

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