As opposed to the rudimentary capabilities of the current king of wearables, Google Glass, a company called Meta is building a full-fledged augmented reality computing platform into a pair of aviator shades and a pocket computer. The platform aims to provide the kind of user experience heretofore seen only in Hollywood films -- think Tony Stark using J.A.R.V.I.S. in Iron Man. It's been about four months since we last touched base with Meta, and at the time, we saw a prototype headset and got a demo of the company's technology -- it was a good start to be sure, but the UI was far from ready for consumer use. Since then, Meta's been working hard to get its $667 Meta.01 developer kits ready, while also designing its first consumer set of specs set to ship in June: the $3,000 Meta Pro.
The Pro is the first pair of smart glasses that stuffs the technology needed to enable Stark-esqe computing into the form factor Meta's founder, Meron Gribetz envisioned when he started the company -- something akin to a pair of Ray Bans. And, not only do these new glasses sport more fashionable frames than the dev hardware, but Gribetz promises us that they'll also have greater computing capabilities, too. So, when the company offered up the opportunity to learn more about the Pro and use a prototype headset in person at Meta's headquarters in Silicon Valley, we jumped at the chance.
To see the new prototype, we drove out to Meta's new headquarters in the tiny Portola Valley community located in the hills overlooking the western half of the Bay Area. Like any good startup, Meta's employees eat, sleep and breathe work, and we can think of few places as picturesque in which to do so -- it's a mansion complex atop a mountain that provides stunning views of the Valley. Within the walls of that posh compound, the Meta team has been hard at work refining its core technologies, designing the Meta Pro, and manufacturing Meta.01's for internal use.
The two bedrock technologies that set Meta apart from others in the augmented reality computing space are its surface tracking and hand tracking algorithms. These algorithms are based upon the pioneering work of Steve Mann, Meta's chief scientist, and are essential to enabling quality holographic computing constructs that Meta wants to build. Before, the company's surface tracking tech relied upon seeing the edges of the plane it was tracking in order to turn it into a virtual display. Now, the tech can identify and track wall and table surfaces even if the cameras in Meta's glasses cannot see the bounds of those surfaces. The breakthrough was accomplished thanks to the incorporation of info provided by the 9-axis inertial measurement unit in the glasses. This capability is what will enable Meta users to eventually fling different computing windows onto walls and have them stick there -- letting them virtually place a window, look elsewhere, and come back to find the window where they left it.
Meta's made serious progress on its hand-tracking algorithms, too. Building off of SoftKinetic's technology, Meta glasses now can identify user hands in any orientation and begin tracking them with almost zero wait time. The company tells us that reducing the latency is essential to providing the natural user experience it desires. It allows users to simply don the glasses and start interacting with Meta's digital constructs without them needing to calibrate the system first.
Of course, those tracking technologies are only as good as the hardware that implements them, and the Meta Pro is the culmination of all of Meta's work. The Pro frames were designed by Martin Hasek, an industrial designer who previously worked for Nike. And, while the renders aren't entirely accurate -- the headset will have a cabled connection to a wearable computer -- they showcase Meta's retro design aesthetic. We got to see where the hardware is currently, and while we weren't permitted to take photos of the device (which Meta tells us cost $30,000 to build), you can see a press shot of it above. It's a little bit bulkier than it appears in the picture, but we imagine that further engineering between now and June (when it's supposed to ship) will tidy things up and get the final hardware closer to the renders. The prototype was connected to a laptop, so we didn't get to see what the Pro's waist-mounted computer will look like, either.
As for using the Pro prototype, we were impressed. We got to try a trio of programs: one that enables you to create a digital rocket engine nozzle by shaping its profile using your fingers and two others that let you interact with a virtual iPhone and buttons to turn on and off a real-world lamp. Neither program was particularly amazing in its function, but what was impressive was the user experience. Augmented reality computing is in its early days, and while the technology is rapidly improving, our previous experiences with it have been less than stellar. The UIs were rudimentary and unpolished, usually consisting of simple buttons and geometric objects, or were ports of existing touchscreen applications with limited functions. It was also difficult to gauge how far out we needed to reach to interact with digital constructs. Plus, the experiences were plagued by inconsistent hand tracking -- meaning that those systems would fail to recognize gestures or let us interact with constructs even when our hands were positioned correctly. Meta's new, limited demos gave us no such difficulties, and the programs are much more polished graphically.
You may be wondering why, exactly, the Meta Pro ($3,000) costs almost five times as much as the Meta.01 dev units ($667). Well, while both sets will be able to run Meta's software, their hardware is not created equal. The company's still determining the final hardware that'll ship inside the Meta.01, but we do know that it'll come with displays borrowed from Epson's Moverio headset. Meanwhile, the Pro will ship with transparent displays used by military aircraft. These displays provide the wearer with much improved viewability in brightly-lit areas and a wider 40-degree field of view (compared to the Moverio's 23-degree FOV). Meta tells us that until recently, these ultra thin, 720p displays cost over $10,000 apiece. Clearly, the price has come down, but putting such high-quality displays in the Pro accounts for a good chunk of its higher price. Additionally, the Meta.01 can only track surfaces within a range of about one meter due to its singular depth sensor, while Pro will pack dual RGB cameras that will eliminate that range limitation.
Should you choose to order up a pair of Pros, you'll also get a pretty powerful wearable computer to run them -- an Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, 128Gb of storage, 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 powered by a 32WHr battery. Of course, you won't get them until next summer, so our gallery of photos will have to tide you over until then.