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Much of the excitement and cool factor around Magic Leap is now gone

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I had grown accustomed to those periodic, breathless tweets about the wonder and promise of Magic Leap’s mixed reality glasses. These tweets, which started showing up in 2014 or 2015, came from people who had been invited into Magic Leap’s offices in Florida to see the technology. Often they were some form of stakeholder in the company, and always they had signed NDAs prohibiting them from saying much about their experience beyond “it was amazing.”

We heard lots of superlatives about Magic Leap’s “mixed reality light field” technology, which is said to employ a unique way of superimposing digital imagery on top of the user’s real-world view. But few details about the specs or the user experience.  “We don’t want to say something in public and then change it,” Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz explained to Fast Company’s David Lidsky in an early 2016 interview.

Then there was the fiasco later that same year around a demo Magic Leap created that apparently was done using special effects software rather than recorded from behind the company’s mixed reality goggles. By this point, some of us were wondering if Magic Leap was even for real.

We now know that there is indeed a product, and that it’s headed for market. But even with Magic Leap having announced this week that it would release a developer version of its product (the One Creator Edition) “this summer” (it’s already summer!), the whole thing remains a little blurry. We know the rough outlines: It’s a steampunkish-looking set of goggles powered by a disk thingy that sits at your waist, and is controlled by a handheld device. The whole thing is powered by an Nvidia Tegra X2 system-on-a-chip (which, as Engadget points out, is high-end componentry, so don’t expect a low price tag on Magic Leap’s eventual consumer product).

But the demo shown by the company yesterday, like similar demo videos in 2014 and 2016, didn’t really betray much at all about the eventual user experience. In fact, some people (including me) thought it was kinda boring.

Microsoft, by contrast, has been fairly transparent during the development and launch of its Hololens mixed reality product.

The tech world can put up with quite a bit of hype and secrecy if there’s a good reason to believe there’s fire somewhere underneath the layers of smoke. Much of the belief that Magic Leap is for real comes from the fact that Google invested, along with some other savvy backers such as Sun cofounder Andy Bechtolsheim and special-effects wizard Richard Taylor from Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s effects shop. (The Magic Leap investor deck describes the company’s offering as “a hardware, software, firmware, and development platform.” Sexier words can hardly be spoken to VC people, who love the “we control everything” approach.) Magic Leap has now raised $2.3 billion in venture capital and carries a valuation of $6.3 billion.

But that credibility by association only goes so far for so long. The Google investment is old news. Had Magic Leap announced a re-upped investment from Google yesterday, or new money from somebody like, I don’t know, DARPA, it might have extended Magic Leap’s spell a little further.

What we got was the announcement of a new investment from AT&T, along with the news that AT&T would be the exclusive distribution channel for the Magic Leap technology, supported by the wireless giant’s broadband network.

So much for the cool factor.

You might say that the iPhone’s credibility wasn’t hurt much by its original exclusive availability through AT&T a decade ago. True, but as Above Avalon analyst Neil Cybart points out, Apple’s relationship with AT&T back then was very different than Magic Leap’s current one with the telco. Apple was very much the shot-caller in its deal with AT&T. The carrier needed the iPhone exclusive far more than Apple needed AT&T’s network.

The main difference is that AT&T didn’t invest in Apple in 2007 as it did in Magic Leap in 2018. The telecom didn’t invest enough in the company to win a seat on the board, but, as Cybart points out, it did invest enough to have its own people in the room during Magic Leap board meetings. AT&T won’t have voting power, but its presence strongly implies that it will have some say in the startup’s business decisions.

So, when we look back at Magic Leap in 2018 from some point in the near future, we will see that the company’s pre-product marketing and PR efforts were either brilliant or very stupid. It all depends on the product that Magic Leap eventually puts in the hands of consumers. As it stands now, the drumroll leading up to the big moment has lasted so long that the Magic Leap experience, when we finally see it, has to be, well, damn near transcendent.

If it’s anything short of that, the tech media and consumers will not be kind.

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