(Bloomberg) -- Among the seagulls and pelicans of Silicon Valley’s Redwood Shores, there’s a startup called Meta that’s trying to change everything about computers and the way we use them.
Put on the Meta 2 headset, and ten holographic computer screens will hover in mid-air. Press the floating Amazon.com webpage with Nike sneakers and the shoes pop out. You can pull the image apart and examine the inner soles. A phone icon appears in front of you, ringing. Press it, and the caller appears in holographic form. She can hand you a model of the Vienna Opera House; you can hold it and turn it around.
With Meta’s technology, you become the operating system by controlling 3D content with your hands. Meta is a smaller player in the growing field of augmented reality, which puts digital images on top of the real world. (It’s not virtual reality, a more immersive experience that attempts to replace the world around you).
While bigger companies like Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. are using these new reality technologies for video games, Meta’s founders are pursuing practical uses. Meta Chief Executive Officer Meron Gribetz says his floating digital images can eventually replace your keyboard, computer screen and menu icon.
Meta’s goal is to make interactions with virtual objects a seamless extension of the real world. Soon, in Meta’s offices, the 100 or so employees will ditch their monitors and work exclusively through headsets. Gribetz is betting that someday, clicking, dragging, and pushing buttons on a flat screen will seem quaintly obsolete to all of us.
“My vision is to build an OS that’s 100 times easier to use than a Macintosh,” Gribetz said. "We’re excited to remove the start menu—all of these metaphors and buttons and icons that take your brain extra steps to decode, and that are making my grandmother’s job of using computers much harder.”
Gribetz, 30, founded Meta in 2012 after studying neuroscience and computer science at Columbia University and working in the Israeli intelligence corps. He built the first Meta prototype with an oven-heated knife and hot glue gun the same year he founded the startup, and in 2013 debuted its first augmented reality headset after raising funds through Kickstarter.
Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, has been inventing wearable devices for more than three decades, including his EyeTap augmented reality glasses in the late 1990s. Since that first version, the design has been refined with the Meta 2, a lighter headset with higher resolution images and new sensors.
Gribetz, who buzzes with excitement when he talks about the future of augmented reality, expects headsets to get lighter and smaller.
“Within five years I think Meta will be able to build a strip of glass that’s nearly invisible and projects holograms on your eye indoors and outdoors,” Gribetz said. “It won’t happen in one shot, but it will start being able to replace people’s phones in 5 years.”
Getting there requires overcoming a host of technical issues. While there are already multiple virtual reality devices that are consumer-ready, it’s still early days for augmented reality headsets, which have to deal with the hurdles of processing the real-world environment. One challenge: maximizing how much of the area in front of you can contain virtual objects. If that field of view is too narrow, hovering images will disappear from peripheral vision the moment you look away.
While the Meta 2 has expanded its field of view from the earlier model, it requires a PC for power so that a user is tethered to a computer and can’t move more than ten or so feet from the desktop, unlike the wireless Microsoft headset. Both the Meta 2 and Hololens are being offered as developer editions, which means they’re sold to corporations and software developers who will create ways to use the device—whether that’s making apps for 3-D data visualization, architecture, or education.
Developers have to pay $949 for Meta 2 and $3,000 for Hololens.
“Meta is definitely one of those companies that can drive whatever the next computing platform is,” said Phil Chen of Horizons Ventures Ltd., a Hong Kong firm that invested in Meta last year.
With sales of desktops and smartphones slowing, many of the tech industry’s biggest names are pouring resources into artificial reality. The market is projected to reach $80 billion within the decade. Deep-pocketed rivals, including Intel Corp.’s Recon Instruments, are investing in the sector. Magic Leap Inc. raised $793.5 million in February, with backing from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Google and Qualcomm Ventures.
Last year, Meta raised $23 million in a Series A funding led by Horizons Ventures, backed by Hong Kong’s richest person, along with BOE Optoelectronics and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
“It’s a very crowded marketplace right now. You’re also competing against significant entities like Microsoft and Google who have much more resources to drive this forward,” said Tuong Nguyen, an analyst at Gartner Inc. “Especially with some of the smaller players, it will require some help or collaboration with bigger players to get that scale.”
Gribetz is betting that Meta can stay ahead of the pack with its unique approach, where academic research drives the design decisions. Neuroscientists work closely with engineers to make sure interfaces aren’t rejected by the brain, according to Stefano Baldassi, director of user research at Meta.
“There are intimate and nontrivial connections between the human senses and this computer, said Baldassi. "They need to be studied in incredible depth for the product to succeed and to scale to the masses.”
So far, Meta says it has won some major customers, including Apple Inc., Amazon Inc., Boeing Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. The company’s headsets are being used by more than a thousand smaller developers, too.
Medical startup SimX is using Meta headsets to create simulations that train doctors, enabling them to see a virtual patient—one that could be pregnant, wounded or vomiting. The trainees interact with the patient and can take an ultrasound or use a stethoscope. Since the software projects medical machines and other characters in the room, Meta’s expansive field of vision is necessary to see the entire scene.
“Every person who puts it on takes a step back and says ‘Woah’,” Simx CEO Ryan Ribeira said. “They’re immersed in the situation and think of the person as a real person. They forget it’s an augmented reality projection.”
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