This year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) was brimming with virtual reality devices and games, but there was room for some augmented reality (AR) companies to make their mark at the show, too. One such company was Meta, which showed off its Meta 2 AR HMD.
The demo was held in a dark room at the W Hotel, which is right across the street from the Moscone Center. The HMD was initially hidden underneath a thin black cloth, which Ryan Pamplin, Meta’s vice president for sales and partnerships, whisked away like a magic trick to reveal the device. After putting it on my head for a few minutes for calibration, Pamplin walked me through some of the device’s features.
Things To See And Hold
The demo was split into a series of short segments. To start, I saw a large, 3D moving image of the Earth, which showed off the HMD’s 2560x1440 resolution. For the most part, the image was crystal clear, and I could see the details of the various clouds moving across the planet. However, the border in the middle of the HMD’s screen broke the illusion, as certain parts of the planet didn’t align in the center of my view.
Moving on, I also tried my hand (pun intended) at playing with digital objects with my physical hand. A virtual basketball was placed in front of me, and I put my hand underneath it. As I pulled my hand away, the ball fell onto the physical table and bounced a few times before I caught it again. I was surprised by the low latency when I stopped the basketball in mid-air. However, the hand tracking wasn't completely accurate, as a portion of the ball sank into my hand.
The Meta 2 also allows you to watch movies and videos. A short video played in front of me while Pamplin joked that other TV companies are jealous of Meta’s viewing capabilities because of the lack of bezel on the virtual screen. Indeed, the video screen was akin to a borderless window. I could also look at it from different angles, so you could (in theory) share the same screen with multiple HMDs at the same time.
A Productive Workspace
The developers also believe that the HMD could be a potential replacement for your office workspace. Another demo showed a series of tabs on a web browser. By clicking on one page, I could open it and “grab” it in space with both of my hands. I could also use my hands on either corner of the open window to expand its size. In essence, I could have multiple pages open and around me at the same time. With the help of a Bluetooth-connected keyboard, I could also type in one of the pages, which had Google Docs loaded.
Online shopping could also improve in AR. Pamplin showed me an Amazon page for a pair of Nike shoes. By “clicking” on the image with my hand, the shoe popped out of the page and turned into a 3D model, which I could manipulate with my hands. Obviously, in order for this to work with other brands, Meta will need to work with throngs of Amazon vendors.
Perhaps the most interesting demo was video calling. Pamplin showed me a direct stream of one of his colleagues in another room in the hotel. However, Pamplin took the feature one step further and brought his colleague into my virtual world, at least from the shoulders up to his head. The image quality wasn’t the best (I could barely make out his facial features due to connection issues), but it was astounding to see that video calling was possible in virtual space.
The final demo showed a detailed 3D diagram of one of SpaceX’s satellites. Pamplin then told me to grab the satellite with my hands and turn around. In front of me was the moving image of Earth again. I placed the satellite in orbit and watched it move around our little blue planet while the "Sunrise" fanfare from "Also Sprach Zarathrustra" played in the background.
Quite The Experience
I took off the Meta 2, astounded by what I saw in the various demos. My only experience with AR prior to the Meta 2 was Microsoft’s Hololens at last year’s E3. However, it seems that Meta is a step or two ahead of Microsoft in terms of development.
The main problem I had with Hololens was its miniscule field of view. Pamplin told me that the Meta 2's field of view was increased to 90 degrees. (This was an oft-requested change by most of the users who tried the first Meta prototype.)
Even though it’s considered to be a dev kit, you can pre-order it for $949. The high price, however, seems somewhat justified, as the Meta 2 comes with an HD camera, a depth camera, a six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU), four speakers and a sensor array for hand tracking.
Just like virtual reality in the past few years, augmented reality is still in the developmental stage. However, devices like the Meta 2 show that AR isn’t just a figment of the imagination. It’s actually coming to life.