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這家公司想打造一場難以成真的夢,創始人深陷其中

這家公司想打造一場難以成真的夢,創始人深陷其中

JOSHUA BRUSTEIN, IAN KING, 彭博社 2020年10月10日
阿博維茨自比神話中火焰重生的神鳥,不過這團火焰已將Magic Leap燒為灰燼。

5月,羅尼·阿博維茨終于迎接了現實。他領導的公司Magic Leap開發了9年之久的增強現實頭盔宣告慘敗。阿博維茨含淚在一場視頻會議上宣布辭職。

阿博維茨向來以頗具感染力的樂觀精神知名,還成功為Magic Leap募資約35億美元,所以這場傷心并未持續多久。就在接任者佩吉·約翰遜上任之際,他發布推文稱,“新計劃秘密進行中:)”。發布神秘消息的同時,阿博維茨在Twitter的個人簡介也做了修改,提到了鳳凰計劃之類??梢圆聹y,也許阿博維茨在自比神話中火焰重生的神鳥。不過這團火焰已將Magic Leap燒為灰燼。

Magic Leap一度紅得耀眼。當年很多知名投資人朝圣般地奔赴到邁阿密沼澤遍布、人跡罕至的郊區,深信阿博維茨往用戶臉上綁上電腦就能開創新領域的蘋果。該項技術只做私人展示,讓用戶感覺通過頭盔看到的數字虛擬物體似乎存在于現實世界中。后來這項技術順利從中國阿里巴巴集團、美國電話電報公司、谷歌和芯片制造商高通獲得投資。Magic Leap的計劃是將這種技術運用到消費級設備中,建造一座工廠用來大規模生產,設計操作系統、視頻游戲和電影,并催生一個龐大的新內容產業。

在阿博維茨看來,要超越那些同樣希望占據未來的巨頭們唯一的途徑就是全力以赴?!斑@就好比我們是咖啡公司,收購一座山和一塊地,在特定氣候下種植咖啡豆,然后制造烘焙機,方便控制所有參數,”2018年,阿博維茨在位于佛羅里達州普蘭泰申的Magic Leap總部對彭博社說?!坝^察最成功的計算機產品,研究相關歷史就會發現,掌控硬件和軟件集成并深入了解消費者整體體驗的公司,才能打造出最好的產品?!彼诹硪淮尾稍L中表示,“就像1978年的蘋果?!?/p>

在Magic Leap的巔峰時期,也就是公開推出實際產品之前,技術專家對其潛力贊不絕口。桑達?皮查伊被任命為谷歌首席執行官之前不久,曾于2014年加入Magic Leap董事會,宣稱該產品將“徹底改變人們溝通、購買、學習、分享和游戲的方式?!?018年皮查伊于悄然退出董事會,原有崗位被安排給了谷歌一名下屬。

Magic Leap價值2300美元的頭盔慘敗后,收窄業務重心主要關注專業應用領域,試圖出售公司但未成功,后來解雇了超過一半員工。追蹤機構投資者的研究公司Zanbato收集數據顯示,截至6月的一年里,投資人平均減持了約94%持股,降幅比共享辦公空間WeWork還大。

新任首席執行官約翰遜想辦法通過合作重振業務。據三位知情人士透露,Magic Leap正與亞馬遜網站商談,將頭盔與亞馬遜的云服務打包。商談還處于早期階段,可能無法達成協議。Magic Leap的發言人拒絕置評,亞馬遜也沒有回應置評請求。

阿博維茨回復采訪請求時,還附有一份研究報告鏈接,報告中預期了增強現實市場的長遠增長前景。后來他的發言人明確表示不會接受采訪,并將其他問題轉給Magic Leap,公司拒絕置評。熟悉阿博維茨新項目的人表示,項目的重點是為智能手機和增強現實設備提供娛樂內容,服務對象也包括Magic Leap。

這位聯合創始人的離職對曾經共事的人們來說并不意外。我們采訪了20多位熟悉Magic Leap運營的人士,包括在職和已離職員工、投資人和商業伙伴,發現阿博維茨打造新世界的愿望與公司的現實越來越脫節。當員工發現無法實現阿博維茨的愿景時,Magic Leap也從除硅谷以外最吸引人的科技創業公司之一,淪落為篤信自身炒作的寓言。從公司失敗的經歷,能看到行業如何努力將前景廣闊的技術實現商業化。具體到Magic Leap,問題在于阿博維茨的夢想中哪些還有救。

Magic Leap跟羅尼·阿博維茨很難分開。阿博維茨氣質天真無邪,一頭卷發,容易讓人聯想到蘋果公司的史蒂夫·沃茲尼亞克,還有電影《查理與巧克力工廠》的吉恩·懷爾德。他小時候在克利夫蘭東郊,少年時期大家庭集體搬到佛羅里達州。他在邁阿密大學學習生物醫學工程,熱愛畫漫畫,也喜歡擲標槍。

2004年,大學畢業的阿博維茨聯合創立了醫療機器人公司Mako Surgical Corp,2008年公司上市。兩年后,他辭去首席技術官一職,轉而擔任含義比較模糊的首席前瞻性官。用阿博維茨自己的話說,那段時間他有些恍惚,晚上經常做白日夢,想做點別的事。為了做思想實驗,他開始構建名叫Hour Blue的虛擬宇宙,并認為其中孕育了商業機會。起初,阿博維茨想從事某種媒體領域風險投資,也許是電影,或者是游戲。后來,他開始努力為人們打造他幻想中的一片天地,即增強現實頭盔。

2011年,也是Magic Leap成立后的幾年里,科技行業的興趣不斷蔓延。阿博維茨喜歡保持怪異風格:2012年一場題為“綜合想象力”的TEDx演講上,阿博維茨身穿太空服,跟幾個穿著毛茸茸怪物服裝的人一起跳舞。另一段視頻顯示一條真人大小的鯨魚在學校體育館里跳水。投資人紛紛從灣區飛抵佛羅里達州,簽署嚴格的保密協議后才能戴上綁上笨重的原型機體驗,然后開出大額支票,并大談特談他們對計算機未來的理解。

阿博維茨的同事表示,他最吸引人特質的是書呆子魅力和赤裸裸野心結合。他時而靈感迸發,甚至深入剖析醫學研究,時而來一段科幻電影里很多人難以理解的獨角戲。Magic Leap在技術論壇上分發“巫師通緝令”的卡片招徠員工,團隊里不乏物理學家、游戲開發者,供應鏈專家,還有一位傳奇科幻小說家尼爾·斯蒂芬森?!霸妇昂芎甏?,”加州眼科專家和企業家凱澤爾·卡代利說,2014年阿博維茨招他當顧問。

不過,身為領導者方面阿博維茨有些分裂。好幾位前同事介紹,他經常讓Magic Leap內部劃分不同團隊相互競爭,開發出創意類似的版本,導致項目陷入停滯而不是選出贏家。接受采訪的這幾位都要求匿名,避免影響他們與阿博維茨的關系,也避免吃上官司。Magic Leap向來喜歡打官司,已就商業機密盜竊提起數起訴訟。他們表示,阿博維茨對所有事都有最終決定權,卻對細節缺乏耐心。后來公司陷入癱態,既無法實現愿景,又不甘降低野心。

斯賓塞·林賽是早期加入的員工,他形容自己在Magic Leap工作期間完全一片混亂,但很欣賞阿博維茨的遠見?!八麑O客很好,相信魔法,”他說。2017年林賽被解雇,原因就是他說的指令與工作內容相矛盾。說到底,林賽認為阿博維茨沒有能力經營類似Magic Leap規模的公司?!傲_尼真心相信這份事業,也盡了最大努力,”林賽說?!翱上б獙ΜF實做出讓步時,他能力不夠?!?/p>

2018年9月,阿博維茨邀請兩位彭博社記者前往佛羅里達州參觀Magic Leap工廠。公司在普蘭泰申大沼澤地排水溝建造了巨大的建筑,小鎮的名字普蘭泰申(英文原意為種植園——譯者注)源自20世紀初一次失敗的稻田種植嘗試。記者參觀第一站是阿博維茨的辦公室,二層一間玻璃墻的房間。室內風格偏向潮流愛好咖??Х茸郎蠑[著宇宙飛船的模型,白板上是射線槍草圖,架子上堆放著動作人物、科幻書籍和其他小玩意兒,有半打《星球大戰》里的R2D2機器人、威利旺卡午餐盒,還有史蒂夫·喬布斯親筆簽名的蘋果I型電腦照片。

阿博維茨描述自己的管理風格時,也很快陷入幻想?!昂芏嗫萍紕摌I公司,就像蜘蛛俠電影里一樣,大家都在談論蜘蛛俠。公司里的每個人都知道我的目標是推廣Magic Leap,更像復仇者聯盟團隊,”問起阿博維茨是否成功時,他聳了聳肩?!拔抑挥X得把自己變成蜘蛛俠挺酷的,”他說。

本次參觀主要目的是Magic Leap制造工廠,就位于阿博維茨辦公室下面一層,他稱之為“小深圳”。產品每塊都由一系列制造商出產的許多零部件組成。舉例來說,Magic Leap 1頭盔主處理器由英偉達生產,管理攝像頭的芯片則來自英特爾公司。

阿博維茨堅稱有一個零部件由Magic Leap自行生產,即用于實現頭盔增強現實功能的透鏡。每塊所謂“衍射光波導”的透鏡上都刻有微小凹槽,凹槽引導光線進入佩戴者的眼睛之前,可將光線重新引導至鏡片表面。由于鏡片透明,用戶可以既看到物理世界,又看到頭盔里的數字圖像?,F有的技術有局限性,阿博維茨認為Magic Leap可以悄悄地獲得一些突破。

阿博維茨還一心想建廠。他以前的公司Mako就有自建廠,他認為實體工廠對于他理解如何盡可能推動技術進步至關重要。(他還發現,帶外科醫生參觀滿是機器人的工廠可有效爭取業務。)不過在消費電子領域,零部件通常要找專業制造商,其中很多家都在亞洲。據兩位知情人士透露,Magic Leap一些高管和投資人都對搭建昂貴的工廠提出質疑,因為零部件都能在別處購買。

不管怎樣,阿博維茨還是做了。他從北卡羅來納州一家光學公司Tessera挖走員工搭建制造團隊。第一位關鍵新員工是工程師保羅·格雷科,他說話溫和,卻喜歡花里胡哨的夏威夷襯衫。格雷科曾在摩托羅拉工作16年,在普蘭泰申負責一家智能手機制造廠。在格雷科的建議下,Magic Leap搬進了摩托羅拉的老大樓。然后,他開始清理和翻新一層建立工廠,工廠建得非常實用,辦公室其他部分則充滿異想天開的氣氛。

格雷科帶著參觀了生產線,工人們穿著潔凈室兔子服操作機器。他說,當時他滿腦子都想著增加第二條接近全自動的裝配線?!傲_尼很喜歡,因為會有很多像小型R2D2一樣的機器人,可以四處運送材料,”格雷科說。

Magic Leap還設計了跨國公司級別的供應鏈。鏡片和其他材料在佛羅里達州制造,然后運到墨西哥的瓜達拉哈拉,由當地合作方組裝頭盔,然后運回美國。

阿博維茨經營Magic Leap的方式就好像已經變成蘋果之類巨頭的重要競爭對手,這種思路下的做事方式往往并不便宜也不夠高效?!安幻靼诪槭裁礇]人指出不能建工廠,這種發展階段并不能樣樣業務都上馬,”一位Magic Leap早期投資人說。

跟很多投資人一樣,這位投資人入局也是因為當初看了一場令人眼花繚亂的演示,結果只能眼睜睜地看著出問題,不僅是技術問題,還有文化問題。對于內部人士來說,阿博維茨的愿景蒙蔽了商業常識?!懊總€人都信了,然后同引Kool Aid飲料。沒人停下來說,‘產品很爛,’”這位投資人指出?!拔业谝淮握嬲魃项^盔時,感覺只想說‘該死。跟你們之前說的根本不一樣?!?/p>

阿博維茨一面公開宣稱將顛覆各大科技巨頭,另一面又跟幾乎各家巨頭暗通款曲以備不測。據科技新聞網站the Information報道,2016年蘋果、Facebook和谷歌首席執行官都曾前往佛羅里達,討論收購的可能性。據一位知情人士透露,跟蘋果的談判進展非常順利,后來阿博維茨還飛往加利福尼亞州庫比蒂諾見了蘋果高層。阿博維茨將出售談判項目命名為蝙蝠俠。

長期以來硅谷一直被增強現實理念誘惑,也一直努力讓該技術發揮作用。谷歌眼鏡失敗后,將產品轉向了醫療專業人士。微軟的HoloLens是相當不錯的游戲機,但大多數人買不起,現在主要面對企業。至少從2015年開始,蘋果就在研發代號為N301的增強和虛擬現實結合產品,投入了1000多名工程師,然而停滯不前。

針對多年來公司揮霍的報道,Magic Leap的高管不斷表示憤怒。他們表示,競爭對手實際上支出更高,只不過資產負債表太龐大,項目深深藏在其中不夠明顯。不過,阿博維茨從未想出如何將原型機產生的魔力轉變為能自給自足的產品,前員工說。

兩年前發布的頭戴式頭盔Magic Leap基于不同的技術,局限性很快顯現。狹窄的視場意味著數字圖像必須很小,要么就有可能被切斷,而且頭盔在戶外無法穩定使用。公司找到了補救方法。在宣傳為“巨型恐龍在辦公室徘徊”演示中,恐龍出現在開放走廊最遠端,如此才能出現在顯示屏上。

以蒸汽朋克為靈感設計的Magic Leap 1確實讓人看到一些潛力。通過一款應用,用戶可以把數字小動物扔在房間里,小動物會萌萌地撞到咖啡桌腿,還會從椅子上摔下。(如果不直視,動物會完全消失,回頭看的時候又突然出現。)不過,這種雕蟲小技帶來的新鮮感很快消失。盡管在內容上花了很多錢,還跟美國有線電視新聞網、美職籃和迪士尼旗下的盧卡斯電影公司進行了大量內容宣傳,還是沒法帶動設備。

增強現實硬件領域的專家對設備評價也不高。Facebook虛擬現實頭盔Oculus VR的聯合創始人帕爾默·盧基拆解了Magic Leap頭盔,確認采用的技術“與多年來其他公司的技術并無二致”。

即便曾經在Magic Leap工作的工程師也質疑,號稱拳頭產品的鏡片到底適不適合消費類設備,因為鏡片在受控環境之外工作時耗電過多,吸收光線也太多。

Magic Leap陷入困境后,開始重新審視各種選擇。據知情人士透露,去年年底公司高層認真考慮了多項收購要約,最后決定募集更多資金。

Magic Leap成立至今,曾嘩嘩流向初創公司的現金在今年的疫情里已縮為涓涓細流。一位了解Magic Leap想法的人士透露,投資人對Magic Leap要求增加投資的要求猶豫不決,激怒了阿博維茨。之前他曾私下表示,去年之所以沒有出售公司,就是因為投資者保證會繼續支持。今年春天,Magic Leap又一次嘗試出售,隨后宣布裁員。一位與會人士透露,5月阿博維茨在離職講話中將困境原因主要歸咎于疫情,但在場一些人并不認同。

不知為何,現在根本不賣頭盔的蘋果也宣布最早2022年發布頭盔產品,變成最有可能占領大眾市場的公司。企業領域,微軟無疑是領導者。

如此一來,Magic Leap及新任首席執行官陷入尷尬境地。如果說阿博維茨很有遠見只是難落到實處,約翰遜更偏向執行。憑借在高通20年的工作經驗,2014年薩蒂亞·納德拉被任命為微軟首席執行官后首批招聘的高層之一就包括約翰遜。約翰遜協助微軟修復了與Salesforce.com網站和三星電子的關系,之前在史蒂夫·鮑爾默時代曾出現問題。

上個月約翰遜加入Magic Leap,受疫情影響不得不等了幾個星期才進入辦公室。她拒絕采訪,Magic Leap也并未面試其他候選人。她可能將重點轉到醫療和工業應用領域,也是近期唯一實際的增強現實設備市場。

她還希望提升Magic Leap相比HoloLens的競爭力,微軟的HoloLens頭盔售價3500美元,主要面向制造業和醫療機構,評論人士稱其技術比Magic Leap強。據知情人士透露,Magic Leap已與少數幾家公司簽約,約翰遜的首要任務是完成其他進行中的交易,包括跟亞馬遜的商談。

一些今年離職或被Magic Leap解雇的員工去了蘋果和Facebook。就連一些在職員工也承認,Magic Leap永遠無法實現阿博維茨信誓旦旦承諾的目標。阿博維茨辭職當天則傳達了不同的信息,他說:“我們開創了全新領域。一種新媒介,我們共同定義了計算機的未來?!敝徊贿^,要實現這一愿景只能靠別人了。(財富中文網)

譯者:馮豐

審校:夏林

5月,羅尼·阿博維茨終于迎接了現實。他領導的公司Magic Leap開發了9年之久的增強現實頭盔宣告慘敗。阿博維茨含淚在一場視頻會議上宣布辭職。

阿博維茨向來以頗具感染力的樂觀精神知名,還成功為Magic Leap募資約35億美元,所以這場傷心并未持續多久。就在接任者佩吉·約翰遜上任之際,他發布推文稱,“新計劃秘密進行中:)”。發布神秘消息的同時,阿博維茨在Twitter的個人簡介也做了修改,提到了鳳凰計劃之類??梢圆聹y,也許阿博維茨在自比神話中火焰重生的神鳥。不過這團火焰已將Magic Leap燒為灰燼。

Magic Leap一度紅得耀眼。當年很多知名投資人朝圣般地奔赴到邁阿密沼澤遍布、人跡罕至的郊區,深信阿博維茨往用戶臉上綁上電腦就能開創新領域的蘋果。該項技術只做私人展示,讓用戶感覺通過頭盔看到的數字虛擬物體似乎存在于現實世界中。后來這項技術順利從中國阿里巴巴集團、美國電話電報公司、谷歌和芯片制造商高通獲得投資。Magic Leap的計劃是將這種技術運用到消費級設備中,建造一座工廠用來大規模生產,設計操作系統、視頻游戲和電影,并催生一個龐大的新內容產業。

在阿博維茨看來,要超越那些同樣希望占據未來的巨頭們唯一的途徑就是全力以赴?!斑@就好比我們是咖啡公司,收購一座山和一塊地,在特定氣候下種植咖啡豆,然后制造烘焙機,方便控制所有參數,”2018年,阿博維茨在位于佛羅里達州普蘭泰申的Magic Leap總部對彭博社說?!坝^察最成功的計算機產品,研究相關歷史就會發現,掌控硬件和軟件集成并深入了解消費者整體體驗的公司,才能打造出最好的產品?!彼诹硪淮尾稍L中表示,“就像1978年的蘋果?!?/p>

在Magic Leap的巔峰時期,也就是公開推出實際產品之前,技術專家對其潛力贊不絕口。桑達?皮查伊被任命為谷歌首席執行官之前不久,曾于2014年加入Magic Leap董事會,宣稱該產品將“徹底改變人們溝通、購買、學習、分享和游戲的方式?!?018年皮查伊于悄然退出董事會,原有崗位被安排給了谷歌一名下屬。

Magic Leap價值2300美元的頭盔慘敗后,收窄業務重心主要關注專業應用領域,試圖出售公司但未成功,后來解雇了超過一半員工。追蹤機構投資者的研究公司Zanbato收集數據顯示,截至6月的一年里,投資人平均減持了約94%持股,降幅比共享辦公空間WeWork還大。

新任首席執行官約翰遜想辦法通過合作重振業務。據三位知情人士透露,Magic Leap正與亞馬遜網站商談,將頭盔與亞馬遜的云服務打包。商談還處于早期階段,可能無法達成協議。Magic Leap的發言人拒絕置評,亞馬遜也沒有回應置評請求。

阿博維茨回復采訪請求時,還附有一份研究報告鏈接,報告中預期了增強現實市場的長遠增長前景。后來他的發言人明確表示不會接受采訪,并將其他問題轉給Magic Leap,公司拒絕置評。熟悉阿博維茨新項目的人表示,項目的重點是為智能手機和增強現實設備提供娛樂內容,服務對象也包括Magic Leap。

這位聯合創始人的離職對曾經共事的人們來說并不意外。我們采訪了20多位熟悉Magic Leap運營的人士,包括在職和已離職員工、投資人和商業伙伴,發現阿博維茨打造新世界的愿望與公司的現實越來越脫節。當員工發現無法實現阿博維茨的愿景時,Magic Leap也從除硅谷以外最吸引人的科技創業公司之一,淪落為篤信自身炒作的寓言。從公司失敗的經歷,能看到行業如何努力將前景廣闊的技術實現商業化。具體到Magic Leap,問題在于阿博維茨的夢想中哪些還有救。

Magic Leap跟羅尼·阿博維茨很難分開。阿博維茨氣質天真無邪,一頭卷發,容易讓人聯想到蘋果公司的史蒂夫·沃茲尼亞克,還有電影《查理與巧克力工廠》的吉恩·懷爾德。他小時候在克利夫蘭東郊,少年時期大家庭集體搬到佛羅里達州。他在邁阿密大學學習生物醫學工程,熱愛畫漫畫,也喜歡擲標槍。

2004年,大學畢業的阿博維茨聯合創立了醫療機器人公司Mako Surgical Corp,2008年公司上市。兩年后,他辭去首席技術官一職,轉而擔任含義比較模糊的首席前瞻性官。用阿博維茨自己的話說,那段時間他有些恍惚,晚上經常做白日夢,想做點別的事。為了做思想實驗,他開始構建名叫Hour Blue的虛擬宇宙,并認為其中孕育了商業機會。起初,阿博維茨想從事某種媒體領域風險投資,也許是電影,或者是游戲。后來,他開始努力為人們打造他幻想中的一片天地,即增強現實頭盔。

2011年,也是Magic Leap成立后的幾年里,科技行業的興趣不斷蔓延。阿博維茨喜歡保持怪異風格:2012年一場題為“綜合想象力”的TEDx演講上,阿博維茨身穿太空服,跟幾個穿著毛茸茸怪物服裝的人一起跳舞。另一段視頻顯示一條真人大小的鯨魚在學校體育館里跳水。投資人紛紛從灣區飛抵佛羅里達州,簽署嚴格的保密協議后才能戴上綁上笨重的原型機體驗,然后開出大額支票,并大談特談他們對計算機未來的理解。

阿博維茨的同事表示,他最吸引人特質的是書呆子魅力和赤裸裸野心結合。他時而靈感迸發,甚至深入剖析醫學研究,時而來一段科幻電影里很多人難以理解的獨角戲。Magic Leap在技術論壇上分發“巫師通緝令”的卡片招徠員工,團隊里不乏物理學家、游戲開發者,供應鏈專家,還有一位傳奇科幻小說家尼爾·斯蒂芬森?!霸妇昂芎甏?,”加州眼科專家和企業家凱澤爾·卡代利說,2014年阿博維茨招他當顧問。

不過,身為領導者方面阿博維茨有些分裂。好幾位前同事介紹,他經常讓Magic Leap內部劃分不同團隊相互競爭,開發出創意類似的版本,導致項目陷入停滯而不是選出贏家。接受采訪的這幾位都要求匿名,避免影響他們與阿博維茨的關系,也避免吃上官司。Magic Leap向來喜歡打官司,已就商業機密盜竊提起數起訴訟。他們表示,阿博維茨對所有事都有最終決定權,卻對細節缺乏耐心。后來公司陷入癱態,既無法實現愿景,又不甘降低野心。

斯賓塞·林賽是早期加入的員工,他形容自己在Magic Leap工作期間完全一片混亂,但很欣賞阿博維茨的遠見?!八麑O客很好,相信魔法,”他說。2017年林賽被解雇,原因就是他說的指令與工作內容相矛盾。說到底,林賽認為阿博維茨沒有能力經營類似Magic Leap規模的公司?!傲_尼真心相信這份事業,也盡了最大努力,”林賽說?!翱上б獙ΜF實做出讓步時,他能力不夠?!?/p>

2018年9月,阿博維茨邀請兩位彭博社記者前往佛羅里達州參觀Magic Leap工廠。公司在普蘭泰申大沼澤地排水溝建造了巨大的建筑,小鎮的名字普蘭泰申(英文原意為種植園——譯者注)源自20世紀初一次失敗的稻田種植嘗試。記者參觀第一站是阿博維茨的辦公室,二層一間玻璃墻的房間。室內風格偏向潮流愛好咖??Х茸郎蠑[著宇宙飛船的模型,白板上是射線槍草圖,架子上堆放著動作人物、科幻書籍和其他小玩意兒,有半打《星球大戰》里的R2D2機器人、威利旺卡午餐盒,還有史蒂夫·喬布斯親筆簽名的蘋果I型電腦照片。

阿博維茨描述自己的管理風格時,也很快陷入幻想?!昂芏嗫萍紕摌I公司,就像蜘蛛俠電影里一樣,大家都在談論蜘蛛俠。公司里的每個人都知道我的目標是推廣Magic Leap,更像復仇者聯盟團隊,”問起阿博維茨是否成功時,他聳了聳肩?!拔抑挥X得把自己變成蜘蛛俠挺酷的,”他說。

本次參觀主要目的是Magic Leap制造工廠,就位于阿博維茨辦公室下面一層,他稱之為“小深圳”。產品每塊都由一系列制造商出產的許多零部件組成。舉例來說,Magic Leap 1頭盔主處理器由英偉達生產,管理攝像頭的芯片則來自英特爾公司。

阿博維茨堅稱有一個零部件由Magic Leap自行生產,即用于實現頭盔增強現實功能的透鏡。每塊所謂“衍射光波導”的透鏡上都刻有微小凹槽,凹槽引導光線進入佩戴者的眼睛之前,可將光線重新引導至鏡片表面。由于鏡片透明,用戶可以既看到物理世界,又看到頭盔里的數字圖像?,F有的技術有局限性,阿博維茨認為Magic Leap可以悄悄地獲得一些突破。

阿博維茨還一心想建廠。他以前的公司Mako就有自建廠,他認為實體工廠對于他理解如何盡可能推動技術進步至關重要。(他還發現,帶外科醫生參觀滿是機器人的工廠可有效爭取業務。)不過在消費電子領域,零部件通常要找專業制造商,其中很多家都在亞洲。據兩位知情人士透露,Magic Leap一些高管和投資人都對搭建昂貴的工廠提出質疑,因為零部件都能在別處購買。

不管怎樣,阿博維茨還是做了。他從北卡羅來納州一家光學公司Tessera挖走員工搭建制造團隊。第一位關鍵新員工是工程師保羅·格雷科,他說話溫和,卻喜歡花里胡哨的夏威夷襯衫。格雷科曾在摩托羅拉工作16年,在普蘭泰申負責一家智能手機制造廠。在格雷科的建議下,Magic Leap搬進了摩托羅拉的老大樓。然后,他開始清理和翻新一層建立工廠,工廠建得非常實用,辦公室其他部分則充滿異想天開的氣氛。

格雷科帶著參觀了生產線,工人們穿著潔凈室兔子服操作機器。他說,當時他滿腦子都想著增加第二條接近全自動的裝配線?!傲_尼很喜歡,因為會有很多像小型R2D2一樣的機器人,可以四處運送材料,”格雷科說。

Magic Leap還設計了跨國公司級別的供應鏈。鏡片和其他材料在佛羅里達州制造,然后運到墨西哥的瓜達拉哈拉,由當地合作方組裝頭盔,然后運回美國。

阿博維茨經營Magic Leap的方式就好像已經變成蘋果之類巨頭的重要競爭對手,這種思路下的做事方式往往并不便宜也不夠高效?!安幻靼诪槭裁礇]人指出不能建工廠,這種發展階段并不能樣樣業務都上馬,”一位Magic Leap早期投資人說。

跟很多投資人一樣,這位投資人入局也是因為當初看了一場令人眼花繚亂的演示,結果只能眼睜睜地看著出問題,不僅是技術問題,還有文化問題。對于內部人士來說,阿博維茨的愿景蒙蔽了商業常識?!懊總€人都信了,然后同引Kool Aid飲料。沒人停下來說,‘產品很爛,’”這位投資人指出?!拔业谝淮握嬲魃项^盔時,感覺只想說‘該死。跟你們之前說的根本不一樣?!?/p>

阿博維茨一面公開宣稱將顛覆各大科技巨頭,另一面又跟幾乎各家巨頭暗通款曲以備不測。據科技新聞網站the Information報道,2016年蘋果、Facebook和谷歌首席執行官都曾前往佛羅里達,討論收購的可能性。據一位知情人士透露,跟蘋果的談判進展非常順利,后來阿博維茨還飛往加利福尼亞州庫比蒂諾見了蘋果高層。阿博維茨將出售談判項目命名為蝙蝠俠。

長期以來硅谷一直被增強現實理念誘惑,也一直努力讓該技術發揮作用。谷歌眼鏡失敗后,將產品轉向了醫療專業人士。微軟的HoloLens是相當不錯的游戲機,但大多數人買不起,現在主要面對企業。至少從2015年開始,蘋果就在研發代號為N301的增強和虛擬現實結合產品,投入了1000多名工程師,然而停滯不前。

針對多年來公司揮霍的報道,Magic Leap的高管不斷表示憤怒。他們表示,競爭對手實際上支出更高,只不過資產負債表太龐大,項目深深藏在其中不夠明顯。不過,阿博維茨從未想出如何將原型機產生的魔力轉變為能自給自足的產品,前員工說。

兩年前發布的頭戴式頭盔Magic Leap基于不同的技術,局限性很快顯現。狹窄的視場意味著數字圖像必須很小,要么就有可能被切斷,而且頭盔在戶外無法穩定使用。公司找到了補救方法。在宣傳為“巨型恐龍在辦公室徘徊”演示中,恐龍出現在開放走廊最遠端,如此才能出現在顯示屏上。

以蒸汽朋克為靈感設計的Magic Leap 1確實讓人看到一些潛力。通過一款應用,用戶可以把數字小動物扔在房間里,小動物會萌萌地撞到咖啡桌腿,還會從椅子上摔下。(如果不直視,動物會完全消失,回頭看的時候又突然出現。)不過,這種雕蟲小技帶來的新鮮感很快消失。盡管在內容上花了很多錢,還跟美國有線電視新聞網、美職籃和迪士尼旗下的盧卡斯電影公司進行了大量內容宣傳,還是沒法帶動設備。

增強現實硬件領域的專家對設備評價也不高。Facebook虛擬現實頭盔Oculus VR的聯合創始人帕爾默·盧基拆解了Magic Leap頭盔,確認采用的技術“與多年來其他公司的技術并無二致”。

即便曾經在Magic Leap工作的工程師也質疑,號稱拳頭產品的鏡片到底適不適合消費類設備,因為鏡片在受控環境之外工作時耗電過多,吸收光線也太多。

Magic Leap陷入困境后,開始重新審視各種選擇。據知情人士透露,去年年底公司高層認真考慮了多項收購要約,最后決定募集更多資金。

Magic Leap成立至今,曾嘩嘩流向初創公司的現金在今年的疫情里已縮為涓涓細流。一位了解Magic Leap想法的人士透露,投資人對Magic Leap要求增加投資的要求猶豫不決,激怒了阿博維茨。之前他曾私下表示,去年之所以沒有出售公司,就是因為投資者保證會繼續支持。今年春天,Magic Leap又一次嘗試出售,隨后宣布裁員。一位與會人士透露,5月阿博維茨在離職講話中將困境原因主要歸咎于疫情,但在場一些人并不認同。

不知為何,現在根本不賣頭盔的蘋果也宣布最早2022年發布頭盔產品,變成最有可能占領大眾市場的公司。企業領域,微軟無疑是領導者。

如此一來,Magic Leap及新任首席執行官陷入尷尬境地。如果說阿博維茨很有遠見只是難落到實處,約翰遜更偏向執行。憑借在高通20年的工作經驗,2014年薩蒂亞·納德拉被任命為微軟首席執行官后首批招聘的高層之一就包括約翰遜。約翰遜協助微軟修復了與Salesforce.com網站和三星電子的關系,之前在史蒂夫·鮑爾默時代曾出現問題。

上個月約翰遜加入Magic Leap,受疫情影響不得不等了幾個星期才進入辦公室。她拒絕采訪,Magic Leap也并未面試其他候選人。她可能將重點轉到醫療和工業應用領域,也是近期唯一實際的增強現實設備市場。

她還希望提升Magic Leap相比HoloLens的競爭力,微軟的HoloLens頭盔售價3500美元,主要面向制造業和醫療機構,評論人士稱其技術比Magic Leap強。據知情人士透露,Magic Leap已與少數幾家公司簽約,約翰遜的首要任務是完成其他進行中的交易,包括跟亞馬遜的商談。

一些今年離職或被Magic Leap解雇的員工去了蘋果和Facebook。就連一些在職員工也承認,Magic Leap永遠無法實現阿博維茨信誓旦旦承諾的目標。阿博維茨辭職當天則傳達了不同的信息,他說:“我們開創了全新領域。一種新媒介,我們共同定義了計算機的未來?!敝徊贿^,要實現這一愿景只能靠別人了。(財富中文網)

譯者:馮豐

審校: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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