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Augmented-Reality Startup Meta Ups the Ante in the Headset Race

The startup’s headset will need to be tethered to a computer, but it costs a third the price of HoloLens.

Making an augmented-reality headset that can depict digital images so precise they seem real is tricky. Letting you interact with them in an intuitive way is even trickier. Deep-pocketed companies like Microsoft and Magic Leap have been working on it for years, and neither has yet released a consumer product.

Meta, an augmented-reality startup with a relatively modest cache of funds—$23 million, versus Magic Leap’s $1.4 billion—has also spent the past several years working toward this goal. It’s still not ready to release a consumer headset, but on Wednesday the company trotted out a headset for developers, called Meta 2, that shows bright, crisp 3-D images that you can easily and accurately nab, move, and poke.

The headset, which comes about a year and a half after the release of its predecessor, Meta 1, and needs to be connected to a computer, costs $949 and is now available for pre-order; the company doesn’t plan to ship it to buyers until the third quarter of this year. The price is about a third the cost of Microsoft’s HoloLens developer headset, which can work as a self-contained unit and will start shipping March 30.

Meta hopes that developers who buy Meta 2 will come up with a range of applications to make it useful, and the device will also come with some augmented-reality applications for things like looking at 3-D models and surfing the Web. Meta expects to release a consumer version in a couple of years.

“We wanted to get a product out there that’s immersive and fun to use,” Meta CEO Meron Gribetz said before leading me behind a password-protected door in Meta’s office in Redwood City, California, last week to show me what he means.

He pulled a soft cloth off a Meta 2 headset and placed it on my head. It weighs a little under a pound and a half with the cables that connect it to a nearby computer, and since it’s meant only for augmented reality, rather than virtual reality, you can see right through its plastic visor (which is also used for its image projection). It offers a much wider field of view than the Meta 1—90 degrees at the diagonal—and much wider than what I’ve seen through HoloLens (that experience is more like looking at 3-D images through a small rectangle in front of your face). It also uses sensors for measuring motion, several speakers, and cameras to track your hands and head position.

In one demo, which illustrates how Meta might make a good shopping companion, I pointed at a sneaker on a virtual Amazon webpage displayed in front of me. The sneaker popped off the page as a detailed, exploded-view 3-D model that showed the different layers of the shoe, which I could inspect from any angle, including looking from above or below. This and other images didn’t seem as detailed or real as what I’ve seen from Magic Leap but did look quite good, even close up.

In another demo, I easily grabbed and moved a bunch of brightly colored virtual geodesic 3-D orbs, stretching one with my (actual) hands to enlarge it and then placing smaller orbs within it.

The company doesn’t want people to use Meta all by themselves, however. While wearing the headset, I also took a short video call with a blocky-looking digitization of the top half of Meta’s chief technology officer, Raymond Lo. He held out a small 3-D model of the Sydney Opera House in his virtual hand, and I was able to grab it with my real one to inspect it up close.

Meta’s latest augmented-reality headset, Meta 2, weighs about a pound and a half and lets you touch and move digital images that appear to be in front of you in the real world.

Making tracking technology work reliably so images look good is tricky, says Blair Macintyre, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and director of its Augmented Environments Lab. I saw this firsthand with Meta 2, where certain images seemed to fidget in space as I moved my body around them.

“Getting like 80 percent of the way there is one thing. Closing off that last bit is hard,” Macintyre says.

And he also thinks the company will have to eventually figure out how to make its device work without being connected to a computer, as HoloLens does.

Gribetz says the company is working toward this. In the near future, Meta plans to roll out a pocket-sized computer and battery pack that it can work with, he says, rather than the bulky PC it’s connected to behind that password-protected door.

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