#989: Former Magic Leap Employees Give Retrospective on “No BS Realities” Cluhouse Chat

On April 22, 2020, Magic Leap announced layoffs of somewhere between 600 to 1000 employees, which amounted to around 1/3 to 1/2 of their total staff. On December 2019, The Information reported that Magic Leap had only sold 6,000 AR headsets against their target goal of over 100,000. The full story as to what exactly happened and why has yet to be fully told, and it’s stories like these that reinforce dominant media narratives around the hype around Magic Leap.

After listening to the stories of a number of Magic Leap employees, then there are alternative stories about what the experience of working there meant to them and what the company has to contribute to the overall XR industry. Portions of the $2.6 billion raised through Magic Leap were spent on salaries and helping to bootstrap an entire cohort of XR professionals who are now working at a number of Big Tech companies. The Protocol reported in June of 2020 that there were a number of laid Magic Leap employees who ended up at Apple (~40%), Facebook (~20%), Google (~20%), Microsoft (~15%), and Amazon (~5%). [Note that these are rough estimates based upon the proportions of the pie graph].

Andre Elijah hosts a bi-weekly discussion on Clubhouse called the “No BS Realities of AR/VR” along with co-moderators Daliso Ngoma & Azad Balabanian. There were seven former Magic Leap employees who participated in a retrospective discussion reflecting on their time working on a lot of creative and difficult challenges of trying to shape the emerging spatial computing medium of AR. Elijah got consent from each of the speakers and shared the recording with me to air as a special edition of the Voices of VR podcast since there’s a lot of oral history perspectives of their time working there, what went wrong from their perspective, and why some of them still see the overall experience as one of the most exalted times of their career.

Here’s the list of seven former Magic Leap employees who were a part of the conversation:

  • Anastasia Devana – Audio Director (until April 2020)
  • Steve Lukas – Head of Developer Relations Engineering at Magic Leap (until April 2021)
  • Paul Reynolds – Senior Director, SDK & Applications (until May 2016)
  • Dave Shumway – Lead Audio Designer/Composer (until April 2020)
  • Jeremy Vanhoozer – VP, Creative Content (until October 2020)
  • Tim Stutts – Lead Interaction Designer (until June 2020 April 2020 [Updated: April 29, 2021])
  • Joe Gabriel – Developer Relations Community & Program Manager (until April 2020)

They also share more details on the drama of trying to get The Last Light released onto the store after it’s premiere at SXSW was cancelled, but also after Magic Leap’s pivot from entertainment to enterprise applications. There’s some reflections about the unique challenges of working on an emergent medium, what their content strategy way, what it was like to work with their co-founder and former CEO Rony Abovitz, as well as some of their final thoughts and reflections of their time at Magic Leap.

There were a lot of new insights and perspectives that I hadn’t heard before, and while this conversation won’t fully answer all of the questions of what exactly happened at Magic Leap and why. But I do think it add a lot of valuable testimony about the early days of consumer AR from the lens of what it was like to be a part of a company that will ultimately be a part of historical evolution of the augmented reality medium.


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Music: Fatality