In 2014 Tamir Berliner was sitting at home in what he called his ‘retirement”. Not too long before that, he along with 3 other co-founders sold their company PrimeSense to none other than Apple for a comfortable $350 million. However, then came a phone call from Rony Abovitz, CEO and founder of Magic Leap, cutting his vacation short. Abovitz asked Berliner to come to Florida and see “pixels flying through the air”. After that moment, Berliner was sold, taking charge of the company’s R&D center in Israel, which under his guidance rapidly grew into a key bread-maker for the company.
Though all good things come to an end, and on Tuesday Berliner officially stepped down from his position. In an exclusive interview with Geektime, Tamir sheds light on, what it was like working for one of the most intriguing tech companies of the past years, the billions of dollars invested in the company, as well as what led to the surprising resignation.
“It’s not what I planned”
Berliner’s previous company, PrimeSense was responsible for the Kinect camera for Xbox, one of the coolest innovations to come out of Israel over the last decade. He explains that the whole team felt that the future of Spatial Computing will change our reality. Although, the technology wasn’t perfect: “I knew that the presentation was missing.”
Just a few months after his big Apple deal, Berliner was in Florida, where he had first laid eyes on Magic Leap’s original prototype called “The Beast”. Berliner excitedly explains about his first time watching “pixels fly through the air”, a spectacle he describes as magical, even to this day. “It was essentially Magic Leap’s first-generation, and it convinced me that it was possible, which was exactly what I needed.” Berliner was appointed as the leader of the Israeli R&D department, which would go on to develop the company’s mysterious product. The mystery behind the development created a lot of hype and buzz among investor circles, who stood in line for a chance to get a piece of the company. Within no time at all, they raised over a billion dollars. The whispering and rumors surrounding the product grew more and more, even the NDA signed employees described the development as impressive. Up to date, the company has raised about $3.5 billion from a long list of the who’s who of the investor world, including AT&T, NTT DoCoMo, JPMorgan, Axel Springer SE, Temasek, Alibaba Group, Google, Andreessen Horowitz, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, and Qualcomm.
“Those 5 years were insane. Never in my wildest dreams could I have predicted that we’d get to where we got,” says Berliner. At the beginning Berliner thought he was going to manage a small team, thinking this gig would last 6 months to a year at most: “I thought I was putting together a small elite team, then back to my beach house vacation and margaritas…” Though 6 months quickly turned into a year, then 2 years, then 3 and so on. In the meantime, Berliner’s team grew 10 times its original size, until its peak of 150 employees at the R&D center in Israel.
Berliner claims that the Israeli team was working mostly on NextGen technology for Magic Leap, however, the team’s rapid progress led to incorporating some of the features already in the product’s first generation. From there, very quickly, the Israeli team took charge of the product and began working with the global Magic Leap team. Berliner is the first to admit that “it’s not what I had planned”, “it was a surprising vote of confidence… the Israeli team was suddenly leading the attack, as they still do today.”
But then came the launch
At the end of 2017, following a long development period and a few intriguing teasers, Magic Leap revealed its first finished product, Lightwear. An AR goggle set that includes sensors, built-in speakers, microphones and cameras, that all connect to one processing unit and battery. The device could track and follow head and eye movements as well as other users’ gestures, projecting virtual objects on the goggles as if they were right there next to you.
The hype behind the launch promised an accurate and revolutionary experience, however then came 2018, and the first headsets were sent out to testers and tech writers. The reviewers praised the product, though they weren’t impressed enough to label it revolutionary. A few of the writers complained that the screening panel was too limited, some also claimed that the virtual objects were too blurry, transparent, and had glowing edges, which all interfered with the user experience. My first experience with the first generation device was complex as well, as it was both impressive and disappointing at the same time. On one hand, I was walking around a real room “hiding” visual sounds behind sofas and underneath tables, which actually stayed in place as I continued to wander around. On the other hand, my limited view added with the semi-translucent screening didn’t really allow me to sink myself into the experience for more than a couple of minutes. Even though the device was decked out with the latest tech and accurate workmanship, it still felt like a classic first-generation product. A good idea to build on for future generations.
Did they launch too early? And maybe it wasn’t managed correctly? “I can’t really say that I could have done a tenth of what Rony did. A little modesty: we’re building a product and there were other people whose job it was to handle the launch… we definitely weren’t the marketing front for the company,” claims Berliner. Time and again, I try to get Berliner to tell me if it was the Israeli team that felt frustration from the hype and enormous pressure that formed around the product launch. However, I’m still not sure if his diplomatic responses stem from his corporate loyalty or maybe he truly believes that the launched product actually met expectations, but rather suffered from unfair review and judgment.
“I told the team, no matter what you read in the paper, remember it’s just a newspaper, and sometimes journalists have personal interests to push.” According to Berliner, even today, people’s jaws drop when they see the product. “For something big to succeed the stars need to align exactly. And I think it’s there”, he claims. “I believe that Magic Leap 1 is an incredible product… I understand that some people were disappointed, but I really don’t understand what they were promised beforehand.”
“Are you gonna fire me?”
Towards the end of 2019, TheInformation reported that despite Abovitz presenting investors with a forecast of a million units in sales, in reality, only an embarrassing 6,000 units were sold, which obviously, led to firings. Berliner tells that he was caught off guard by the article, mostly because the Israeli R&D center was in full recruiting mode at that time. He continues to claim that the article’s sole purpose was to tarnish Magic Leap without fact-checking. The shocked sentiment came also from the employees’ side, who saw the report floating around Israeli news media.
“I took it personally, I was hurt by the Israeli reporters that chose to publish the article without even a heads up. They published stuff that led to my employees coming and desperately telling me, ‘look my family is seeing all these reports about layoffs. Are you gonna fire me?’. In order to ease the tension I would tell them, not only am I not gonna fire you but look there are still open positions on your team.” Berliner claims as evidence that the company kept recruiting for the Israeli R&D team throughout the first quarter of 2020.
However, then came the COVID-19 crisis, and shuffled the deck. Bringing Magic Leap to announce layoffs at all ranks, coming right after the company decided to pivot its focus from a consumer-entertainment product to an organizational one. About two weeks ago, the company announced a further $350 million funding round. Nevertheless, despite the company claiming it would then cancel the termination notice sent to employees, still, 70 employees from the Israeli office were eventually let go.
Berliner explains that the pandemic crisis is what caused the massive change at Magic Leap, informing that the new-market-investors want immediate returns. “Investment in more futuristic products is starting to take place right now. There’s a need to recalibrate. For better or worse, the world we knew a year ago is not the same one we know today. With each company feeling the effects differently, there’s a need to do what’s right for the good of the company.”
With that in mind, according to Berliner, the whole termination process is being managed smoothly, considering. The company is actively trying to help, literally sending emails to the industry powerhouses trying to find laid-off workers a new job that matches their expertise. “I can tell you this, the executives at the time, really didn’t sleep”, Berliner imagines. As a result of those same layoffs, Berliner himself was one of the casualties, but notes that it was the rational move: “There’s no need for me now... the company has enough well-qualified team leaders.
How are you leaving the company? Satisfied? Disappointed maybe?
Berliner: “The last 5 years have been amazing. The opportunity to manage such innovative operations, recruit wonderful people, and work on the latest technology while managing a global atmosphere, was truly astonishing. From research to sitting on the assembly line making sure everything is working properly, the position offered a variety of different challenges. It’s a rare moment to be part of such a big operation that grew in such a short time. On a personal level it was exhilarating, especially what I was working on. The beginning of a revolution, one that we’ll see take over in 10 years... this was just the beginning.”
“It’s easy to be smart in retrospect,” claims Berliner. “In technology you must start with something. Begin strong and slowly pack on more weight. You can’t come into the game saying ‘I’ll make something mediocre’.” Berliner completely disclaims the criticism which was heard throughout the development and launch process, adding “the people who tell you that you have no shot at success, are people that are gambling on the expected outcome in the high-tech arena. Because in high-tech, the odds are stacked against you to make it… you can’t be at the top if you’re afraid of a little criticism. There will always be people who have different opinions.”
In 2015, you said that you were involved in forums at the highest levels of the company, that you had final say regarding the finished product and that you couldn’t point out any mistakes done along the process. Do you still stand behind this statement?
Berliner: “As the company grew, my influence got smaller. When I joined Magic Leap, there were only 200 employees working for the company. Fast forward to 2020, and suddenly there are over 1,500 employees. My responsibility was the Israeli branch. During the first stages I was very involved with the developing process, so I could better navigate the Israeli branch. Later on, my exposure to the whole process naturally dropped, it only made sense. I didn’t have any control over the Marketing department, or even any input on how to define the product. As far as we were considered, we were doing amazing things. The proof is in my employees, those who leave the company are heavily sought after by major international corporations.”
Do you still think the company accomplished its goals?
No matter how much I push him, Berliner continues to describe Abovitz’s dream as nothing short of “amazing”, adding that the same vision led all major companies to develop a competitor for Magic Leap, claiming that the company definitely achieved their goal: “To show that the tech works well enough, and that it is possible to produce… I haven't seen anyone go through that experience and then say ‘it’s just not right’.”
It seems that his Magic Leap experience hasn’t damaged Berliner’s belief in Spatial Computing, as more than once he explains that this product is nothing short of revolutionary, and in 10 years time we won’t understand how we ever lived without it, just like the smartphone. “When and how it will happen, that I don’t know”, he says, “but the magic does exist and it is ingrained in all of us.”
Maybe there’s no need for special goggles? Maybe the AR apps on our phones are enough?
“I don’t believe in that use-case. For some elements that may be enough. If I wanna take a picture of you with a parrot on your shoulder, then that’s cute and simple. However, in the productivity world, that simple use-case just won’t fly, it doesn’t really bring you closer to something of value. I want to look at something that’s far from me, not something that’s close, and then have to figure out where its virtual location is. It doesn’t feel natural, I don’t like it and therefore I won’t want it.”
Let’s talk about competition. You didn’t feel that Apple was just waiting at the gate, taking notes of every mistake, allowing you to burn through capital, only to cash in whenever they want?
“You can’t be at the top if you’re afraid of criticism. There will always be people with different opinions. Most of the time, it’s beneficial for people to declare you a failure, because then they have a better chance of being right.”
In the end, what do you take from your Magic Leap experience?
“People are amazing, and I always knew that, but the Israeli people are above and beyond. A melting pot of cultures becomes one of your biggest assets. The more cultures you have in the company, the better performance is. I saw the advantage in people coming from different cultures and backgrounds, I learned what they care about, what makes them tick, and what they get excited about… I think this is something I learned over and over again during my 5 years at the company.”
Next stop Apple? Maybe Microsoft? Or maybe go the startup path?
It’s hard not to be impressed from Berliner’s natural optimism. He speaks about his employees as a proud father figure, one that is certain that his kids will find a way to integrate into major global companies. He notes that the tech and startup scene in Israel is a “miracle”, continuing to add that there is no place on earth that even comes close to the Israeli high-tech scene. It’s really hard to judge if besides optimism, naivety is what leads his thought process, or maybe it’s just an uncompromising belief in the Spatial Computing industry. Anyways, it seems as if Berliner hasn’t played his last note in the industry, that he claims will revolutionize our lives in the next 10 years.
When I ask Berliner about his next step, he explains that currently he has 3 options in front of him: the first is to go back to his “retirement” on the beach with margarita in hand. “It’s a calm state of mind, that’s for sure.”; the second option is to start his own enterprise. “Revolutions come from people who decide to act… I believe that it’s about time for this revolution to happen and hopefully it will awaken the motivation to introduce something new to the game.”; the third option, would be to take a leap in something he has never done before, which is to join a major corporation. “To see how it’s done big.”