Magic Leap bets on ex-Microsoft exec to turn mixed reality tide

Magic Leap has found itself a new CEO, with the beleaguered augmented reality company looking to a former Microsoft exec to help turn itself around. Long the darling of Silicon Valley investors, Magic Leap promised a mesmeric world that blended reality with digital graphics, but its first hardware fell well short on the delivery.

Magic Leap One combined a head-mounted display that resembled pseudo-Steampunk goggles with a belt-worn computer responsible for the processing of mixed-reality experiences. The company raised $2.6 billion from investors, with AT&T stepping in as exclusive US sales partner in mid-2018.

When the headset launched that year, however, the initial feedback wasn't as positive as many expected. Limited field of view for the digital graphics echoed the shortcomings of other AR headsets, while the combination of price and limited applications also tamped down enthusiasm. Come April of this year, Magic Leap opted to restructure, focusing on enterprise sales and shedding half of its staff.

In May 2020, founder Rony Abovitz announced he would be stepping down as Magic Leap CEO. "I discussed this with the Board," he wrote at the time, "and we have agreed that now is the time to bring in a new CEO who can help us to commercialize our focused plan for spatial computing in enterprise. We have been actively recruiting candidates for this role and I look forward to sharing more soon."

Now, we know who that new chief executive will be. Peggy Johnson is taking over the virtual reins, having been Executive Vice President of Business Development at Microsoft. An electrical engineer by training, she will step in at Magic Leap from August 1.

"Ms. Johnson brings to Magic Leap a proven track record of leading and growing businesses, building strategic partnerships and executing successful transactions," the company says of the hiring. "In her recent role at Microsoft, Ms. Johnson oversaw the development, collaboration, and growth of Microsoft's relationships with external partners and enterprises of all sizes around the world. She also led Microsoft's corporate venture fund, M12, where she identified compelling strategic investment opportunities and worked closely with companies to unlock value and drive growth."

Prior to Microsoft, Johnson also worked at Qualcomm, and before that at General Electric in the Military Electronics Division.

The question now is whether Johnson can turn around Magic Leap's fortunes and reposition it to push mixed-reality in enterprise settings. Despite the relatively somber publicity, the company has proved it still hasn't fallen entirely out of favor with investors, certainly. Shortly after it announced its job cuts earlier this year, for example, it announced another $350 million raise.

Nonetheless, it's going to be an uphill battle. What early-adopter momentum Magic Leap might have had has narrowed, with Microsoft already on the ground and running with HoloLens, Apple poised to enter the AR space, and Google still pushing its own Glass efforts – and recently acquiring North to help build that out further.