Rony Abovitz's Magic Leap May Reshape Your Reality
Illustration by Chris Whetzel
In a small, cheery, wood-paneled office in the back of the Design Center of the Americas in Dania Beach, the young, wavy-haired receptionist was polite but firm.
"Mr. Abovitz isn't available right now."
A green cartoon dragon grinned from the wall to her right, next to a glass-walled conference room. A toy sword was propped against the wall in the hallway behind her.
"Is there a phone number I might call to speak with him?"
"I can't give out that information," the receptionist replied.
"Can you give me an email address at least?"
Although they aren't listed anywhere in the building's directory, these are the offices of Magic Leap, a secretive $4.5 billion virtual-reality company that may transform the relationship between humans and technology.
Its founder, Rony Abovitz, a bespectacled 45-year-old with a kind face and a head of unruly salt-and-pepper curls, has spent the past five years quietly raising more than $1.4 billion in investments, all without releasing a single product or divulging much about what he is creating. He aims to develop a "mixed-reality" headset that will trick users' brains into seeing unreal objects in the real world. If he's successful, Abovitz and many others in the tech community think the device could eventually replace computers, TV sets, phones, and every other expensive electronic apparatus with a screen.
"The technology he's working on has the potential to transform every single one of our lives," says Jaret Davis, a managing partner at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, who specializes in technology and startups. "If it pans out, it will be as transformative as the introduction of the PC."
Abovitz, the reclusive mad scientist atop the startup world, has been described in broad terms elsewhere. But never before has anyone told his coming-of-age story as a cartoonist, javelin thrower, and sci-fi geek growing up in South Florida. And there's a reason. Abovitz and his employees are notoriously press shy. They declined more than a dozen calls, emails, letters, and in-person entreaties for an interview. But a six-month search that stretched from a gated eight-bedroom Weston home to the eighth-floor stacks of the University of Miami archives produced this untold tale of the years before Abovitz raised his first billion.
Rony Abovitz, founder of the multibillion-dollar virtual-reality startup Magic Leap, had a slightly different look in his 1988 senior yearbook picture at Nova High School.
Handout photo courtesy of Magic Leap / Yearbook photo via Nova High School 1988 Yearbook
Isaac and Itta Abovitz arrived in Cleveland from Israel in 1962. Nine years later, Rony was born, the first of five children. Friends say he got his business acumen from his dad, who was a real-estate broker, and his creativity from his mom, who is an artist.
The years of Rony's youth were a low point in Cleveland's up-and-down history. Just two years before his birth, the Cuyahoga River infamously caught fire. The city became known in some quarters as "the mistake on the lake." Not long before Rony's eighth birthday, Cleveland became the first major city to default on its federal loans since the Great Depression. In the 12 years he lived there, the Browns, Indians, and Cavaliers combined for 24 losing seasons.
In those days, Abovitz joked to a gathering of University of Miami engineers last year, he wanted to either be a Star Wars X-wing pilot, play football for the Browns, or become a scientist. After recognizing he was about as likely to fly a sci-fi spacecraft as he was to be a star athlete, he decided to pursue science.
In 1983, the Abovitz family moved to South Florida to escape the cold. They bought a house in Hollywood and enrolled Rony at Nova High School in Davie even though he was only 13 years old. The precocious kid joined a band of bookish friends that included Leonard Rappa, a quiet Trekkie who joined the chess club with him and would grow up to be a psychopharmacology professor at Florida A&M University.
"Usually when we got together, we would talk about things like theoretical physics," Rappa says. "It was never a how's-the-weather type of conversation with Rony."
Rony was younger than most in his group, but that's not what made him stand out. At six feet, one inch, he towered over all of his older friends. He was an eccentric kid who loved Monty Python and avant-garde indie films. He regularly tried to persuade others to go with him to see movies like Heathers, a 1988 black comedy in which a snarky teen teams up with her sociopathic boyfriend to kill off the cool girls who torment her. "We had to drive up to Sunrise to see that," Rappa recalls, some incredulity left in his voice three decades later.
Each year, Rony organized a road trip to Key Largo with his friends to snorkel at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. They would rent a boat and a campsite for a few days and swim around the reefs with parrotfish, hogfish, blue tang, and black durgon. "We went to the campground without much more than a tent, but you don't think about having a comfortable bed when you're in high school," Rappa says. "We just wanted to hang out and be on the water."
He graduated from Nova in 1988, an A student and National Honor Society member. He was accepted to Northwestern, MIT, and Michigan, but his parents persuaded him to accept a scholarship to the University of Miami. He was close to his family and didn't want to move far from home.
Within a month of arriving on campus, he established a weekly comic strip in the Miami Hurricane called "Of Lice and Hens," a play on the title of John Steinbeck's famous novel. It was in turn goofy, irreverent, and completely indecipherable — so bizarre that a student named Christian Anderson wrote a letter to the editor in the October 23, 1990 edition of the paper demanding it be pulled. Editors paid no mind. In the next issue, he published a cartoon in which the dad from Family Circus agreed to let Of Lice and Hens' recurring characters have an orgy with his wife, "but only if I can videotape it!"
"His cartoons were always a little wacky," Rappa explains. "He just has a unique sense of humor that most people don't get."
Abovitz roomed with Leonard Krassner, one of his high-school buddies, for their first two years in the UM dorms. Krassner was a soft-spoken geek with a shock of brown hair and round, wire-frame glasses. After graduation, he would become a pharmacist, own a junk shop in St. Augustine, and, in his spare time, design more than 750 board games and publish them for free on his website, Warp Spawn Games.
"Rony always had a real '60s-type vibe going," Krassner recalls. "He put a sign up on his dorm door that said, 'Peace, love, and harmony.'"
Rony Abovitz (third from left), with friends Mike Walker and twins Leonard and Anthony Rappa, at Epcot in 1991.
Courtesy of Anthony Rappa
In their sophomore year, they lived down the hall from Steve Di Tirro, a troublemaking freshman from Cleveland who often hung out in their room. Di Tirro and Abovitz would compare notes about comic books, science-fiction novels, and the campus radio shows they DJed. Abovitz had a university-sanctioned music show on WVUM, while Di Tirro ran a pirate broadcast called Metal at Midnight. Once, Di Tirro gave Abovitz and Krassner a pair of Levi's 501s to decorate with a Sharpie. They handed the jeans back covered in poems and doodles, including a drawing of Mickey Mouse flipping the bird scrawled across the butt.
"[Rony] had an appreciation for counterculture and being on the edge of things," Di Tirro says. "To look at him, you wouldn't see that, but once you got to know him, you understood."
That year, the three of them ran a joke campaign for student government under what they dubbed the "Anarky" ticket. In the group's platform, published in the March 27, 1990 issue of the Miami Hurricane, Abovitz wrote, "We advocate peace, goodwill, and harmony to the rich tapestry of humans who share our fragile and modest planet."
Miami Heat vs. Atlanta Hawks
TicketsSun., Oct. 1, 6:00pm
UberTailGate: Hard Rock Stadium Dolphins v Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Dolphins vs. Tennessee Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Hornets
TicketsMon., Oct. 9, 7:30pm
Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards
TicketsWed., Oct. 11, 7:30pm
Today, Di Tirro and Krassner can't remember clearly any of the actual reasons they launched their campaign. In any case, Di Tirro says, "We lost, so nobody cared."
On top of these antics, and a full load of mechanical engineering courses, Abovitz trained obsessively to walk onto the UM track-and-field team. He had a dream one night that he was throwing a javelin, and he woke up determined to make it come true. In his sophomore year, he demanded that head coach Rodney Price give him a tryout. "[Price] just sort of ran me around until I puked over and over again," Abovitz told a crowd of UM engineers at a talk last year. "Finally, he said, 'Fine, I think you're going to die, but I'll let you on the team.'"
Price, now retired and coaching high-school track in Wilmington, Oklahoma, recalls, "He handled it well. He was one of those guys who didn't ever complain."
Michael Bang, the only other javelin thrower on the team, remembers that Abovitz would regularly tell him at practice that he had stayed up the past three nights in a row finishing an engineering project. "But he said it with a smile," says Bang, now a physician in Orange County, California. "You would look in his eyes — he had those bags under his eyes, and they were all bloodshot — and he was still smiling."
Long-jumper Gary Hobbs, a Miami native and an avid prankster, couldn't remember if Abovitz ever ranked in meets or scored any points for the team in tournaments. "He wasn't gifted with the most athletic ability," Hobbs says, "but his desire more than made up for it. You could see he just wanted to get every possible technique down to reach his full potential."
That experience on the track team, doing something he wasn't naturally good at and refusing to quit, taught Abovitz how to be an entrepreneur. It also helped him woo a girlfriend, Debra Feldman, who was three years his senior and had attended the Lincoln School, the nation's only all-girls Quaker school, in Providence, Rhode Island. He met her at a recycling club meeting. They would later marry, and she would play the drums to his guitar in a pop-rock music project called SparkyDog & Friends. (According to its Facebook page, the band is "traveling across the universe in our magic space bus.")
After Abovitz graduated with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering in 1994, he stayed at UM to get his master's degree in biomedical engineering while Feldman worked as director of student activities.
In 1997, he began laying the groundwork for his first startup, Mako Surgical, which built robots that could operate on people. In his UM talk, Abovitz said Mako secured its first big round of funding September 10, 2001. A New York firm called and promised a $15 million investment. The next day, two planes toppled the twin towers, Mako's investors barely escaped with their lives, and the investment fell apart. Mako was out of money.
Abovitz said he gathered his team and told them: "Everyone who wants to quit can quit. If you're not quitting, we're not stopping." One person left the company, and the rest worked without pay for months. Finally, a venture fund out of Princeton invested in 2002, and the company regained its footing.
Mako officially launched from its headquarters in Davie two years later, and its surgical robot performed its first knee replacement in June 2006. Abovitz and his team met their first patient — "this sweet woman, probably in her late 60s" — in a hospital in Fort Lauderdale right before her surgery. "Oh, you must be the robot boys," Abovitz remembered her saying. "Don't worry. It'll be OK."
She was right. The surgery was successful, and after two more years of trials, Mako went public in February 2008. Abovitz told the UM engineers that going public was like going to the Super Bowl for him. But it wasn't the ecstatic moment it should have been. A few weeks before Mako's IPO, Abovitz's father died. Then, just as the company went public, the economy tanked and the nation slid into the worst recession since the Great Depression.
"I was like, 'How is this happening?'" Abovitz recalled in his UM talk. "'I did the 9/11 thing. Come on, Universe, this isn't fair.'"
Again, Mako's financial backers tried to pull the plug on the company. Abovitz called them back and said, "F you, we're not stopping." He somehow wheedled enough financing to continue despite the economic downturn. He saved Mako.
Abovitz, in the space suit, and two Magic Leap employees in furry costumes deliver a TED Talk in Sarasota in 2012.
Still via YouTube
By 2011, Mako was running smoothly enough that Abovitz had an itch to start a new company. After visiting Goldeneye, the Jamaican estate where Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond novels, Abovitz began thinking about how to make computing less distracting from the real world. "I loved being out here just looking at this amazing place," Abovitz said. "And I noticed some of the people that came with us had their phone in front of their face, and all they were doing was staring at their BlackBerry or iPhone or Android phone. So I realized computing had to change."
He quietly launched Magic Leap that year to figure out how to merge computing with the physical world.
In December 2012, he and two members of the Magic Leap team gave a TED Talk in Sarasota titled "The Synthesis of Imagination." For the first minute and a half, a screen showed images of Earth from space, the sun rising, and clouds forming over a generic inspirational string soundtrack. Afterward, Abovitz's co-workers, dressed in full-body pink and green furry costumes, jumped around a giant candy bar to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Three minutes into the presentation, Abovitz walked onstage in an astronaut suit and took a few dramatic, halting, low-gravity steps toward the microphone.
"A few awkward steps for me," Abovitz deadpanned. "A magic leap for mankind." Then a live band began playing punk rock while Abovitz gazed over the crowd and his furry friends danced wildly. In an interview with the MIT Technology Review last year, Abovitz swore there was a hidden message in his performance. If you figure it out, the magazine reported, he'll give you a yo-yo.
A year after this bizarre performance, Abovitz sold Mako to Stryker Medical, a Fortune 500 medical technology company, for $1.65 billion. Abovitz and his family moved from their $350,000 home in Hollywood to an eight-bedroom, nine-bathroom, $4 million house in a gated community in Weston. That March, Abovitz's only child celebrated her bat mitzvah at Temple Sinai in Hollywood.
It's not entirely clear why Abovitz turned his nose up at Silicon Valley, launched Magic Leap in a Dania Beach shopping center, and built its new headquarters and production plant in an old Motorola factory in Plantation. He joked in an interview with Fortune this summer that he didn't know any better. His high-school friend Leonard Rappa says Abovitz just really loves home. His Twitter account, which has fewer than 7,000 followers, certainly supports this theory. Among quotes from Henry Thoreau, retweets of NASA breakthroughs, and photos of his cat Mushu, he gleefully tweets out photos of basilisk lizards, burrowing owls, and the Everglades.
But last year in a Reddit AMA, an online question-and-answer session, Abovitz said he chose Florida to tap into the same magic that Walt Disney and NASA had built upon. "There is something about being here which gets you to think different and big," he wrote.
In any case, Magic Leap's proximity to the site of the Apollo launch paid off. In May 2014, Abovitz got a call from Alan Eustace, a top engineer at Google, asking for his GPS coordinates. Eustace was in Cape Canaveral testing a homemade spacesuit he would later wear while jumping out of a weather balloon 135,000 feet above Earth, breaking the record for the highest free fall in history. He wanted to visit.
Soon, Eustace jumped out of a plane and landed near Magic Leap's Dania Beach headquarters, where he hung out all day. He must have been impressed, because that October, Google invested $542 million in the company. "I still wake up in the night going, 'Holy crap!'" Abovitz said four months after the check cleared. "I can't quite describe it."
By December 2015, Magic Leap had raised $1.4 billion from investors including Warner Bros., JP Morgan, and Chinese online retail giant Alibaba. The company also partnered with New Zealand-based Weta Workshop — which designed the costumes, props, and special effects for the Lord of the Rings movies — and Lucasfilm, to begin creating content for Magic Leap's product.
With his background in biomedical engineering, Abovitz has studied how the brain turns light signals from the eye into images in people's minds. This spring, Abovitz explained to Wired that Magic Leap's headset is designed to stream light into users' eyes in a way that "mimics how the visual part of the world really talks to your brain." He claims Magic Leap's natural design makes it more comfortable and safer than virtual-reality devices such as the Oculus Rift, which costs $600 and shows users 3D images by placing a smartphone screen inches away from each one of their eyeballs. In his Reddit AMA, Abovitz claimed this method could cause neurological damage to users' brains.
New Times first attempted to reach Abovitz in March via Magic Leap spokesman Andy Fouché, who politely declined to participate by email. "Sorry," he said, "we're not engaging with the media much at this point." So New Times scoured yearbooks and school newspapers from Nova High and UM, tracked down and interviewed old acquaintances from Seattle to Nassau, visited Magic Leap's offices, and even showed up at the gates of Abovitz's moated Weston neighborhood, where a guard — perhaps understandably — declined to grant access to the press. A note left for Abovitz at the guardhouse and subsequent letters sent to his address went unanswered.
Though Abovitz eventually told friends it was OK to speak with this newspaper, the man himself remained out of reach.
Courtesy of Magic Leap
This past July, Abovitz teased the imminent release of his product at Fortune's 2016 Brainstorm Tech conference, an annual meeting of technology entrepreneurs and investors in Aspen. When interviewer Michal Lev-Ram asked when the public would get a look at it, Abovitz said that Magic Leap was spending the summer "debugging our production line" and that consumers would see the product "hopefully soonish." Magic Leap spokesman Brian Wallace, who was onstage with him, said he expects the device to be a part of mainstream daily life in the 2020s.
In the meantime, Jaret Davis, the Miami technology and startups lawyer, says Magic Leap has put South Florida on Silicon Valley investors' radar. The company has attracted talented engineers and artists from across the nation who used to lead design teams at places such as Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and Motorola.
"He's bringing a veritable brain trust down here," Davis says. "As you bring down a critical mass of bright, talented people, they're more likely to go on to do other ventures here. That's how you create a true ecosystem."
Davis says Abovitz is also working to expand access to the tech industry locally. While speaking this past February at Black Tech Week, an annual conference celebrating Miami's technology entrepreneurs of color, Abovitz said that Magic Leap is hiring and that he hoped some of those in the crowd would apply. "I don't want my company looking like Silicon Valley companies," he said. "I want it to look like what the world looks like."
Those who knew Abovitz at Nova High and UM say they never could have predicted the stratospheric success that awaited the reserved, comic-book-reading, javelin-throwing, guitar-loving engineer. Annette Gallagher, a former opinion editor at the Miami Hurricane, found out about Magic Leap from a Wired article posted in a UM alumni Facebook group. She read about the multibillion-dollar company and its mysterious founder and thought, Wait, the cartoonist?
But in hindsight, his high-school friend Leonard Rappa says it makes sense. "That creative aspect of his personality married with his tech smarts is what made him so successful," Rappa says. "He's always had the ability to put the two sides together to make something no one else had thought of before."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.