It's late evening in San Francisco right now, but that doesn't mean that Aussie-expat and Space Glasses-staffer Ben Sand is resting. "We sleep about two hours a night wherever we can find right now," Ben tells me via Skype. Ben's tired because he and Israeli colleague Matt Kitchales are working with Space Glasses to design, construct and ultimately ship "Meta": a pair of wearable smart glasses worthy of Tony Stark's Iron Man suit, while aiming to make Google Glass look like a tacky Bluetooth headset.
First of all, what the hell is Meta?
The Meta is a giant, augmented-reality headset that you strap to your face which supports cool stuff like virtual gaming, facial recognition and 3D visualisations to help you in your day to day life. As far as hardware goes, the Meta is powered by two 960×540 transparent TFT LCD displays with a 23-degree field of view, a 720p camera, a 320×240 infra-red depth camera on top for measuring stuff in front of you, a 9-axis sensor array and a bunch of cool software on top of that.
The company designing it — Space Glasses — is based out of Silicon Valley, and one of the generals working on the project is Aussie Ben Sand. Ben came up through the Australian start-up scene with his own educational project. During his time at studying at his native Sydney University, Ben met up with Meron Gribetz. Meron had this idea that innovation had stalled in the computer and tablet markets, and that computers of the future would have to undergo a huge cosmetic and technical overhaul to be fit for future purpose.
As Meron flew home from his time spent studying abroad with Ben, he spent a lot of time staring at his black Ray Ban sunglasses before it hit him: the computer of the future will be worn rather than used. That was three years ago, and Ben moved to Silicon Valley to become a Co-Pilot on the project.
Being a Co-Pilot is a fancy way of saying that Ben does everything, he tells us over Skype.
"While Meron is overseeing the company, I focus in on our current biggest mission. For a while it was getting supplier contracts, recently it was managing pre-sales and making videos to show people the product and from there I'll transition into hardware," he says, with a slight weary wavering in his voice that only comes from working tirelessly at a start-up in full-swing.
That war weariness goes away, however, when you ask Ben to describe what he's working on.
"The easiest way to think Meta is that it's the computer that Tony Stark uses in the Iron Man helmet. It has a holographic interface which you can use to anchor different menus to particular surfaces, allowing you to stick a virtual screen on your desk, or sculpt virtual clay, attach a note to your wall or even hold a virtual game where all the characters are interacting with each other and you them in the physical world around you," he explains. Ben's colleague, project manager Matt Kitchales, says that he loves being able to hold a virtual lightsabre in his hand and swing it around the room to battle with friends.
But hang on. Haven't we already seen this? Didn't Google throw people out of a plane a few years ago to illustrate the future of computing on your face? They did, and it's called Glass: a comparatively discreet little gadget that puts cards of information in front of your face when they're needed, before quickly fading into the background.
That's crap, according to Ben.
"People aren't finding Glass interesting because it's a virtual post-it note in front of your face. We're building with Meta an entire computer replacement. It can abstract all of the functions of your computers and tablets and do a lot more on top of that," he says.
What makes Meta different to Glass is a reliance on augmented reality. Normally AR is something that would have us throwing our collective toys out of the future-pram, but Space Glasses have done some interesting work to make sure it doesn't suck when you strap it to your face.
"Normally with Augmented Reality, you're used to seeing black and white checker markers used as anchor points for the software. We have this team who built software that will attach AR to almost anything. They take a piece of blank paper and Meta attaches a movie to it. That's then contextual to the paper: the movie bends and scrunches with the paper. This then lets us put the content anywhere in the world.
"That's teamed with gesture tracking software which can see your hands so you can intersect with virtual objects. What will happen is you'll have applications on your walls and on your fridge door and on your cupboards at home but all of it will be virtual so you can have a real-world anchors and spatial navigation support for the gadgets and services in your life. You can use apps by actually walking up to them. It's very easy for us to do it. [Navigating apps this way] frees our brain up to do so many more interesting things," Ben says excitedly.
The whole concept is very much like the living room scene in the short film Sight (without the creepy, weird undertones at the end). A man sits in an empty room wearing smart eyewear which populates the bare walls around him with a virtual screen, virtual medals from gaming achievements and his cooking skills are refined by a gamified kitchen app. That's what Meta ultimately aims to be: a physical recreation of the digital services that help you run your life.
The software is all built on the Unity3D engine, which means that developers can port stuff over to the Meta quickly and easily.
"We didn't build a chess game," Ben admits. "We imported one from another Unity3D. We didn't build a Minecraft simulator (!), we imported it which makes it way more immersive," he adds.
The Meta crew has even met with Universal Studios to combine the Space Glasses with intelligent motion capture technology that will let a director don the glasses to see a 3D world play out on a sound stage that the actors block out the action on.
"It's true immersion."
Space Glasses are working to make an SDK for Meta so that anyone can port their apps onto the platform, and they're also running a "Killer App" competition which will let people out their ideas and win the chance to work with the company to help push the platform forward.
Ben also wants to give back to where he came from, so he's teamed up with the University of Sydney's IT program where he and Meron met, to let students get involved with the next-generation wearable platform and use it to design apps for themselves while still getting course credit.
With so much going on, it's easy to forget at the end of the day that they're looking to hit a ship date. Right now, the Meta is on track to ship in September, with almost 600 pre-orders in the bank.
Ben moved to Silicon Valley with a dream to make it in a cool tech start-up, and he's well on his way. But how can you make it in the Valley or any local start-up scene?
His best tip? Be uniquely charitable.
"You need to understand the Five-Minute Favour. You should be willing to do a five-minute favour for anyone in the tech and start-up community without expecting anything in return. It's easy in Silicon Valley to get advisors for your company, because they know too that what goes around comes around. Everything will come back to you eventually.
"I offered a guy a lift in San Francisco and that ended up in me pitching to a VC worth $2 billion. The simplest piece of advice I have is that if you see someone doing something cool, just offer to help. Send them a customer, grab them lunch, be a test user or just help them out in some little way.
"Maybe you'll never hear from them again but maybe you'll be onto something huge."