There aren’t many things in the digital sphere that have created as much anticipation as Magic Leap, a company that has raised over $1 billion in venture funding for what it calls “mixed reality” technology—a technology only a few people have actually seen in action.
To hear co-founder and CEO Rony Abovitz tell it, in an interview with Fortune‘s Michal Lev-Ram at the Brainstorm Tech conference on Tuesday, what Magic Leap is building will be as far beyond Google Glass as the Apollo moon landing was from the original Mercury space program.
“I give Google a huge amount of credit for jumping in, but we’re doing things that are fundamentally different,” Abovitz told attendees at the Fortune conference in Aspen, Colo. “But we did learn a lot from them, and they’ve been very helpful in sharing both the good and the bad from that with us.”
While companies like Facebook-owned Oculus Rift and Samsung’s GearVR create virtual or augmented reality using a headset, Abovitz says that Magic Leap’s “light-field” technology essentially mimics the brain’s visual-perception mechanisms to create objects and even people who look and behave just the way they would in the real world, and interact with that world seamlessly.
“Our system basically replicates how your eyes and brain work, how our neuro-visual system is designed to work, and it turns your brain into this kind of display,” Abovitz said. “So the idea is not to have a display that you look at, but to use the display that nature gave us and talk directly to it.”
So while VR generates a virtual world that you look at on a head-mounted display, and augmented reality creates a kind of “Terminator-style heads-up display,” the Magic Leap founder said his technology “creates a neurologically-true light-field that simulates actual reality.”
Using this technology, Abovitz said Magic Leap can not merely create realistic-looking objects that users can interact with in the real world, but it can also allow for other kinds of behavior. While the early applications are all games or entertainment, he said the company is also looking at business applications and commerce-related features as well.
“So my system could recognize that I’m looking at your sweater, and then an alert pops up from Amazon or Alibaba, and it says if you buy it now you can get 10% off,” said chief marketing officer Brian Wallace. Or a user could see at a glance how a new couch might look in their living room, and then buy it.
Abovitz, who also co-founded and sold a bio-medical device company called Mako Surgical for $1.65 billion, said that he and his investors are also excited about the possible medical applications that such a technology could offer, from diagnosis to actual treatment. Abovitz said he has been thinking about and working on ideas related to Magic Leap since he was a child.
Magic Leap now has over 600 people working for the company, many of whom are building and developing the technology in a former Motorola complex in Florida, where the company is based. Abovitz said that the hardware and software are “not a decade out—this is happening,” and that the public would get a glimpse of what they will actually look like “soon-ish.”