Tucked away in the hills of Portola Vally, California, overlooking grass and trees and even some deer, you'll find the headquarters of Meta, which has been working on augmented-reality glasses that it hopes will change the future, and the world.
The glasses aren't just for entertainment, and they're not just a smartphone for your face. This is a whole other segment of computing that enhances how you interact with the world around you.
A team of fewer than 50 people lives in a huge rented mansion on a 20-acre estate overlooking the wilderness west of Silicon Valley. It's something out of a movie, with a pool, a tennis court, and pictures of Iron Man, Tony Stark adorning the walls.
That's because the glasses that Meta is developing resemble something from an "Iron Man" movie. Look through the lenses, and physical objects are rendered virtually. Then, whatever you're looking at — be it a phone or a document or even a keyboard — can be all manipulated by your hands.
"The future that we're envisioning has to do not only with showing awesome-looking holograms, but it has to do with collaborating and it has to do with eye contact," Meta CEO Meron Gribetz told me on a sunny Friday afternoon. "This is the first computer ever to allow you and I to make eye contact while we are looking at digital information at the same time. And we see it from different perspectives."
Meta has several experts on its team, including Professor Steve Mann, the inventor of wearable computing. Meta has also hired Jayse Hansen, the designer behind Tony Stark's holographic interfaces in the first and third "Iron Man" movies, to create a user interface that's basically the same as in the films.
The Meta 1 glasses have been shipping out to developers for $US667. The MetaPro glasses, for consumers, however, will take things a step further, offering more-functional and better-looking frames. They will arrive in the fall for around $US3650. But, Gribetz assured me, that price tag will be coming down "soon" for regular customers.
"This is all going to be very cheap in the future," Gribetz said.
The possibilities for such glasses are endless, whether it be playing games on your living room floor or sculpting a vase and sending it to a 3-D printer. You can check out videos on YouTube showing you what the glasses are capable of. And companies like Salesforce are already signed on to use the glasses for upcoming products.
Life At Meta
I went to the Meta campus to meet the team and try out a pair of the Meta glasses.
Mattan Kitchales, head of marketing and PR, met me at the door, wearing sunglasses and looking as relaxed as anyone who lives on a 20-acre beautiful estate. "Working and living here is like a dream come true," he told me.
He gave me a brief tour of the house, which runs on the same principle as a kibbutz: everyone lives together, makes food together, washes dishes together, and works together.
Kitchales met Gribetz in the Israel Defence Forces, where Gribetz was in an elite technological unit, more than 10 years ago. The two were roommates, as well, and he told me that Gribetz has been envisioning and talking about virtual reality and computers since then.
After the military, Gribetz studied computer science and neuroscience at Columbia University, which led to thoughts about computers helping people with visual impairments. Which eventually led to the Meta glasses.
After a few minutes talking with Kitchales, Gribetz came out to the backyard to meet me, wearing shorts and a blue V-neck. He looks like he could be Christian Slater's younger brother.
Gribetz was visibly excited to show me the rest of the house, and to give me a demo of the glasses. And after trying them out, it's easy to see why he was so happy.
What They're Like
The glasses themselves are pretty comfortable, as far as wearing a computer on your face goes. They even come with prescription inserts for people with bad eyesight.
They have two 1280x720-pixel LCD displays, each with a 40-degree field of view. They have two RGB cameras; surround sound; a 3D depth sensor; and a nine-axis integrated motion unit with accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass.
All those tech specs basically mean that when you're wearing the glasses, it's hard to remember that you're not looking at the real world. The glasses look like a pair of aviators, but with a wire that runs to the Meta's computer. And you can see through them, so you're not completely shut out from the rest of the world.
It's more than just two screens in front of your face.
During my demo, I blew up asteroids with my fingers. I typed on a keyboard. I even spun a car around with my hands, allowing me to look at it from different angles. I picked up objects and moved them around.
There's a small learning curve: it's a little bit weird touching things that aren't even there. You're supposed to move your fingers and hand exactly where your brain is telling you to go. But your brain is also telling you that there's nothing really there.
After a minute, my brain and eyes caught up to each other, and I was able to move things around with relative ease. To zoom in on something, you pull it toward your face, just like you would in the real world.
Graphics were high resolution. I could read text. I could watch a television screen. Playing Minecraft while wearing a pair of the glasses would be a possible use case. "It will be like crack for kids," Gribetz joked, and I think he's right.
The coolest part was when someone else put their hand in my field of view. I could see their hand rendered virtually in front of my face, grabbing the object I was working on; it was like they were entering my virtual world.
The Other Guys
Gribetz explained that there are three categories of wearable computing. The first is the "notification machine," which is just giving you popups and tidbits of information.
"Google is the information king, and they're going to win that category. And I wish them all the luck in the world," Gribetz said.
The second is the "'Matrix' machine," which transports you to a different reality. "The Oculus is going to be the best way to consume what I call 'old-world' movies and games in the next 10 years. And Oculus is going to win in that environment," Gribetz explained.
But the new generation of virtual reality — which he calls the "natural machine" — will be collaborative and more like the real world, Gribetz says. And that's where the Meta glasses come in.
"What Meta's about, fundamentally, underneath all the layers of 'coolness,' is bringing people together and making digital information the adhesive between people, instead of the separator," Gribetz said.
Theoretically, the Meta glasses can incorporate the "information machine" and the "'Matrix' machine," making for an all-in-one device that you already know how to use.
"It's an evolution of the iPad, which is an evolution of how we manipulate things in the real world," Gribetz said. "People get it. Touch the photograph, and it moves around on the table. Touch a photograph on the iPad, and it moves around on the iPad. It's a natural progression."
In a world where we spend so much time looking at our smartphones, laptops, tablets, or TV screens, there's not much room for collaboration.
But with the Meta glasses, other people will be able to see what you're working on. You won't just be waving your arms in front of you like a spaz — other people in the room will be able to see that you're manipulating a virtual document or playing a game or even working on a 3-D model.
In Gribetz's world, when you walk into a coffee shop, you won't see a bunch of heads looking down at computer screens. Instead you'll see people gazing at their virtual workspaces. If someone is looking at pictures of their trip to Peru, you'll be able to see them swiping through the pictures. He hopes it will spark a conversation.
"They're not just moving their hands; they're holding holograms, and other people can see you doing that," Gribetz said. "I envision a future where people are less worried about sharing information, and are more focused on meeting new people using the digital information."
But it goes even further. While wearing the glasses, you see panels of information. Those panels are connected to the internet, and you can scroll through them like you can on a browser.
"If you'd like, you could have more than one 'iPad,' you could have an infinite number of iPads kind of stuck in contextual places in the real world," Gribetz said. "So when you're going out of the house, you could have a shopping list stuck to your door, for example. Your spouse could leave you a note on the fridge. You could start sticking these widgets of contextual information all over your environment."
It's like combining all of your devices — smartphone, computer, portable laptop, tablet, game console — into one wearable device. "The office place of the future is going to be defined by Meta's technology," Gribetz assured me.
The Meta team works under the philosophy, called "natural computing," which means computing should only emulate what your brain does without it. "We don't want to clutter people's lives with a bunch of crap," Gribetz said. "The best success for us to know when you want and when you don't want to stuff, because they're equally important."
That means no display ads will pop up while you're wearing the glasses.
Instead the glasses will be an extension of the real world. An extension of what you do anyway with all your gadgets, and how others view you while you're using those devices.
"There's a giant movement that's emerging on the internet of people who are becoming anti-iPhone and anti-technology," Gribetz said. "So when you're with a group of friends, you'll have that moment where everyone is staring down at their phones. And there's no talking anymore between your buddies. It's kind of frustrating to a lot of people. And I think computing doesn't have to be like that."
Originally published on Business Insider Australia