There aren't many big players in AR right now, but Meta can count itself as one of them. It has the technology. It has the growing developer community. It has the talent (Alan Beltran, creator of Google's Project Tango included). It also has a $949 price tag, making it one third of the cost of a HoloLens.
I'm sat with Meta's VP Ryan Pamplin in the company's Redwood Shores office - GoPro's old headquarters - wearing the Meta 2, pulling and prodding objects around the room that nobody else can see. I take 3D models off a shelf; I put them back. I pick up a giant moving eye and stretch it to the size of a space hopper. I drag over a YouTube player and watch a Katy Perry video. At one point Ryan pulls out his phone and opens a notepad app, hands it to me and asks me to draw on it. Once I squiggle something with my finger he tells me to "pull it" off the screen; I grasp my hand like I'm scrunching paper and now I'm lifting a hologram of the post-it note out of the screen, doodle still visibly intact, for me to place anywhere around the room. The world is now my post-it wall. The trick has served its purpose: I'm impressed.
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Meta 2 is a bit like Oculus Rift DK2 was, if you can remember it; a more stable demonstration of AR that's not quite there, but doesn't feel a million miles away. It doesn't use light field technology like Avegant's but has its own secret sauce to produce stereoscopic images. "We invented an entirely new display technology," says Pamplin. The holograms aren't as vivid as HoloLens', but they fill much more of the room, and I can lean right in and focus on them up close. It's rough around the edges, especially when it comes to moving holograms with my hands - Meta's own hand-tracking tech isn't yet as finessed as Leap Motion's, and you can still see the pixels. But as I lean into a 3D model of a city my eyes are able to focus on and appreciate the finer details produced by a 2.5k resolution, while moving the tiny cityscape around with my fingers to view different angles.
Meta is one of just a few companies in AR right now building an end-to-end device, including hardware and software. "We're not a piece of the stack," as Ryan puts it. "We're the whole damn stack". Meta hasn't had the profile of Microsoft or Magic Leap, but it's sitting pretty with the biggest names, having raised over $73 million in investor funding and swelling with talent.
The company has more than 600 patent claims concerning its optical engine and sensor array, and this engine was Beltran's contribution to Meta. "It gives you more than twice the field of view of a Meta 1 or a HoloLens," says Ryan. "In order to beat our field of view you either need our technology or you need to invent something completely new."
But there's no ecosystem, no apps. So, like just about everyone else out there, Meta is seeding to developers. "We're going to ship this to more developers this year than any other AR headset," Pamplin says. "We're going to have this in the hands of 10,000 plus developers who are going to create the applications, the tools, the experiences that are going to pave the way to having something, say, next year or the year after that's untethered, that's a prosumer form factor - something you would actually want to be seen in."
I think the confusion created by Google Glass is actually why the term MR exists
Pamplin believes that next year's GPUs will let Meta go wireless without sacrificing graphical quality, though he also insists that, unlike HoloLens, Meta is already reaching people beyond the enterprise space (where most AR is finding its footing). "Yes we have a lot of enterprise companies - pretty much every Fortune 500 company is a customer - but we also have tonnes of customers in entertainment. We have people from Hollywood, we have people from all the major sports teams. We have governments who are ordering this. We have every major prestigious university and institution. And then you have kids in their moms' basements."
Name drop time. "I was telling Kevin Durant about this. He goes, 'If I could watch tape that way and see it from any angle, that would be a huge competitive advantage for me.'"
We're not a piece of the stack. We're the whole damn stack
How does this all differ from HoloLens? Firstly, the 90-degree field of view is larger than HoloLens' 40 degrees, but HoloLens is wireless while the Meta 2 means being tethered to a PC.
Interacting with holograms in HoloLens is smoother, but focusing on them up close is uncomfortable. HoloLens has Windows 10; Meta has Workspace, its own environment for spatial computing. Naturally, both headsets will continue to get better and by the end of 2018 we could be looking at AR from both companies that's, dare we say, consumer-ready.
Breaking the back of it
Just don't ask Ryan if it's MR or AR - he's really not bothered. "I think the confusion created by Google Glass is actually why the term MR exists, but I think the only people perpetuating that term with an AR headset are out of Florida." He's referring to Magic Leap of course, a company that we can only speculate about until it shows us something, anything. Actually, included in the many companies whose employees have found their way to Meta - Google, Oculus, HTC, Facebook, Microsoft - Magic Leap is included. "They're all very respectful of their confidentiality agreements," says Ryan. "We don't try to pry it out, and frankly we don't care."
By about 2020, 2021 we'll start to slit each others' throats
The Meta 2 is shipping to developers through this year and Ryan believes they've broken the back of the main work. "The product that comes after this? It's going to be smooth sailing compared to what it took to make this one happen." As for the developer community, he's most thankful right now for Apple making its grand entrance into the space with ARKit. "I'm already seeing these great ARKit creations and I'm reaching out to people," he says. "I think ARKit is actually fuel, it's a propellant for Meta." He tells me it's even possible to build an app in ARKit that would let the iPhone user see what the person with the Meta 2 is seeing.
It's a long road ahead for everyone in the AR space - we probably don't need to tell you that - but Meta is rapidly establishing itself at the top of the pile. Ryan doesn't see HoloLens, Magic Leap and others as direct competition, yet, but takes the same line we've also heard from many VR companies: right now, more is better. "It's all of our jobs right now to convince the world that this is the next paradigm of computing, and if any of us trip on the way to the new paradigm it's going to slow all of us down. So today I want them to succeed, I want to see their ecosystems create amazing exceptional applications, because it's going to drive all of us forward and our whole industry forward.
"And then by about 2020, 2021 we'll start to slit each others' throats."