Meta's $3,000 3D glasses look to an augmented reality future

Meta expects to ship the equivalent of a MacBook Air in a pair of augmented reality glasses and a pocket computer in June 2014.

Dan Farber
4 min read
Meta enables a "natural interface," using your hands to shape an object and navigate the application with low latency and high dexterity. Meta

High up in the hills of Portola Valley, Calif., west of Stanford University, a band of engineers and designers are creating the future. At least that is what they hope. For the last several months, Meta has been developing augmented reality, 3D glasses that combine the power of a laptop and smartphone in a pair of thick Ray-Bans and a small pocket computer.

CEO Meron Gribetz believes that physical laptops, phones, and tablets will soon no longer be necessary. In an augmented reality environment, the world of physical objects is rendered virtually, and those virtual objects, such as a phone, drawing program, or tabletop game, are controlled by your hands. Similar to the movie portrayals of computing in "Iron Man" and "Avatar," you can touch and move 3D holograms directly with your hands in 3D space.

Meta's Meron Gribetz wearing prototype Meta Pro Ray-Ban-styled, 3D glasses. Dan Farber

Gribetz claims that within three to five years the capabilities of the 3D glasses can be shrunk into a contact lens and eventually inside the brain, implanted behind the optic nerve.

Meta recently moved from a modest mansion in Los Altos Hills overlooking Silicon Valley to a rented $15 million, 20-acre estate in Portola Valley with a pool, tennis court, and even a nearby military tank museum. A team of 40 people is packed into the main house working on everything from hand-tracking algorithms and custom silicon to glasses frames and apps.

Read More:Meta's Meron Gribetz and the rise of the natural machine

One room, with a cathedral ceiling, was used to house a massive church organ, with 2,838 pipes. Now the room is occupied by Meta engineers who are printing prototype glasses on a 3D printer and hand-assembling and testing the device.

A 3D printer churns out prototype glasses frames while Meta engineers assemble and test the augmented reality glasses. Dan Farber

For now, Meta's technology isn't ready to take on the world. The Meta 1 is expected to ship in February to more than 1,500 developers. It's bulky and more of a heads-up display than fashionable eyewear, and is tethered to a computer.

Meta has published a few demo programs, included a 3D sculpting app that can interface with a 3D printer. Working with the designer of the "Iron Man" suit, Meta modified the app for Space X, which manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft, to sculpt a rocket engine with your hands, attach it to a rocket, and launch it into space.

Assembling prototype Meta 1 glasses. Dan Farber

"There is a parallel with the Macintosh at its beginnings. It had the ability to paint a picture on the screen with MacPaint. Now the x, y, z of your finger is tracked and you are drawing in virtual space," Gribetz said.

However, the Macintosh was designed as a machine "for the rest of us" as the personal computer revolution was getting into high gear. Meta's computer is at the bleeding edge of the wearable computing revolution, which will take several more years to enter the mainstream. Going from keyboard controls to the mouse is a less disorienting user experience transition than engaging with the virtual objects and heads-up displays, but it is inevitable.

Meta wants to have 200 to 300 apps available, ranging from games to industrial design, when the more polished MetaPro version becomes available to the general public in June. It is available for preorder now.

Meta Pro artist rendering of the aviator-style glasses, which will weight about 180 grams. Meta

"The MetaPro prototype cost $30,000 to build and uses best of everything in the augmented reality market, including state-of-the-art fighter pilot head-mounted display technology," Gribetz said. "The MetaPro will be $3,000, like the launch price of the MacBook Air. It will come down just as price of MacBook Air has."

The glasses feature two 1280x720-pixel LCD displays, each with 40 degrees field of view and aligned for stereoscopic 3D; twin RGB cameras; 3D surround sound; 3D time of flight depth; and a 9-axis integrated motion unit with accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass.

Gribetz said that the MetaPro, including a pocket computer tethered by a thin wire to the glasses, will be 5 to 10 times more powerful than an iPhone. "It will be the most powerful wearable computer," he said.

The MetaPro pocket computer will include an Intel i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, Wi-Fi 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0, and 32WHr battery, which should yield at least 4 hours of battery life. The glasses weigh in at 180 grams and support prescription lenses, which are attached via a magnet. The MetaPro will include a virtual phone, laptop, and tablet. "This will be the last pair of glasses, sunglasses, or computer you will need to buy," Gribetz boasted.

Meta's glasses will be compared to Google Glass, but they are very different species of augmented reality. MetaPro is basically a high-powered computer, rather than an accessory for a smartphone that takes pictures and video and presents notifications in small virtual screen above the eye. MetaPro has a much thinner lens and 15 times the display area of Glass, which only presents 2D images. However, the Meta Pro is more than three times heavier than Google Glass, is tethered, and will cost substantially more.

Meta is not alone in seeking to become the Apple or Google of wearable computing. Startups like Atheer Labs Labs and Oculus Rift are building augment reality devices. And, of course, Apple and Google, as well as other established companies, will enter the zone. But Gribetz believes that Meta's time has come.

"These paradigms are shifting. Only companies that look like us can do it," Gribetz said. "The big companies have to ship in the millions and have baggage. We are running at the speed of light. Let the others copy. There will always be Samsungs copying the iPhone. A couple of guys took on IBM, and that's us today. We hope to make a dent in the history books."