Tech companies go to great lengths to ensure their secrets stay secret. Code names, keycard readers, stringent nondisclosure agreements—all are fair game when you’ve got world-changing technology on your hands. It’s not entirely surprising then that when notoriously secretive augmented reality startup Magic Leap finally began shipping its first batch of AR headsets to developers this week, it did so with a stringent order for recipients: that the device be stored in a locked safe.
According to Bloomberg, Magic Leap wants to maintain control around its debut product, the Magic Leap One, a gogglelike “mixed reality” headset equipped with six cameras for its “lightfield phototonics.” For now, we know only a handful of details about the device: It will debut sometime this year; it may come in different sizes; and it will be quite expensive, likely in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. It also will digitally insert things into your environment, so, for example, you can create a virtual TV screen on a wall where one doesn’t exist. Despite the lack of public details, the Florida-based startup has raised $2.3 billion in funding since its founding in 2011— but the company is so secretive that it took more than six years for the public to even learn the name of its first hardware endeavor.
Magic Leap is far from the first company desperately trying to keep an emerging technology under wraps. Below are four other examples of Silicon Valley companies going to extremes to ensure company secrets stay secret.
The First-Generation iPhone
Now that it’s been more than 10 years since the iconic product’s debut and many of the original engineers’ codes of silence have expired, we’ve learned more about the extreme lengths Apple went to ensure nobody learned about it. For example, for those working at Apple in the early 2000s, it seemed as if people were disappearing, Brian Merchant wrote in his book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.
“I had been hearing rumblings about, well, it was unclear what was being built, but it was clear that a lot of the best engineers from the best teams had been slurped over to this mysterious team,” Evan Doll, an Apple software engineer at the time, said. When engineers were brought on board, they were told no details about the project.
That was just the start. The endeavor was codenamed “Project Purple,” and there was secrecy even among those working on it. Those dealing with the software, for example, had no idea what the device looked like. “I got taken into areas where there were black cloths everywhere,” said ex-Apple engineer Terry Lambert in a 2016 Quora Q&A. Lambert also noted that Apple would use different code names for the same project, so people working on the same product might not ever realize it—the touch-screen device itself was code-named “Wallaby,” for example. According to senior software engineer Greg Christie, design decisions about the device were made in a plain, windowless room. Development was done in a “locked down” Cupertino, California, building equipped with multiple badge readers and security cameras dubbed “the purple dorm.”
While we’ve learned more about Alphabet’s semisecret research lab in recent years and its numerous “moonshot” projects, for a long time, Google X (now just called “X”) was a mystery. Fast Company got a first look inside the 250-person strong Google X lab in 2014, after it had already debuted a handful of projects such as Google’s driverless car program (which we now know as Waymo), Google Glass, and balloon-powered internet called Project Loon.
The purpose of X is to develop world-changing products and companies that solve a major problem in a radical, yet feasible way. Now, while we know the purpose of X and a handful of its past and current projects, the bulk of what it does is still top secret. It considers hundreds of ideas each year, but only a few turn into legitimate projects that we may end up learning about.
Apple’s MicroLED Displays
More recently, Apple has reportedly been developing a new kind of display technology called MicroLED, and it has been given a serious level of security. According to Bloomberg, Apple’s secretly been working on the technology for the past few years in a facility in Taiwan and a 62,000-square-foot manufacturing facility near its headquarters in California. Typically, Apple outsources its display components, but with its manufacturing facility, the company has been testing the feasibility of bringing display production in house. And while Apple’s California building is too small for mass production, it does serve another useful purpose: It keeps the company’s proprietary technology out of the hands of its partners for as long as possible. “We put a lot of money into the facility,” a person close to the matter told Bloomberg. “It’s big enough to get through the engineering builds [and] lets us keep everything in-house during the development stages.” It’s a lot of effort to go through just to keep an emerging technology secret.
Before its cover got blown in a Wall Street Journal investigation, Theranos did a good job of keeping its revolutionary blood-testing technology secret—or more correctly, keeping the blood-testing technology’s shortcomings a secret. Theranos promised to conduct a multitude of health diagnostics using a fraction of the blood it would normally require, at a fraction of the cost. Founded in 2003, the health tech startup raised more than $700 million from investors, peaking at a $9 billion valuation in 2014. Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes maintained tight lips on the trade secrets of the revolutionary technology, saying only that the company had optimized the chemistry of traditional lab tests but that it still used the same fundamental methods as existing methods. In fact, Theranos reportedly outsourced some of its tests, used third-party laboratory equipment, and ran tests that were completely fake. One reporter even claims that Theranos press representatives may have pulled the fire alarm in a Palo Alto Walgreens in order to prevent her from questioning patients getting bloodwork. Holmes managed to build an entire “corporation based on secrecy”—and the ruse lasted until late 2015. Earlier this month, the Securities and Exchange Commission dubbed Theranos “an elaborate, years-long fraud.” Holmes was required to forfeit control of the company, pay a $500,000 fine, and won’t be allowed to act as an officer or director of a public company for 10 years.