An Australian and Israeli who met in a university maths class in Sydney are taking on Google with augmented reality glasses they say is the computer of the future.
Google computer engineers on salaries of $US250,000 ($279,673) think the project is so exciting that they've left the tech giant to work at the start-up for less pay, lured by stock options that could net them a windfall if the company is acquired or lists publicly. Former NASA and Microsoft employees have also joined the project.
"People don't come here because they want Wall Street dollars," says Sydney-born co-founder Ben Sand, 31. "They come here because they want to change the world ... and of course everyone that comes here at this stage is going to be very well off when the company goes big."
Looking like a cross between ski goggles and Ray-Bans, Meta SpaceGlasses allow wearers to see and interact with virtual objects in 3D space with their hands. Wearers can see the non-existent objects thanks to tiny projectors in the glasses, while sensors detect hands and allow interaction.
"The easiest way to think of it is if you've seen the movie Iron Man," says Sand. "He walks around the room and there are holograms and he can pick them up and grab them and manipulate them. That's what we're building. And it's all in a pair of glasses."
Uses for the technology include interacting with a virtual smartphone or laptop, a live-action role-playing game where players can throw virtual fireballs at each other, and a sculpting app that can send handmade designs directly to a 3D printer.
Nikki Durkin, the 22-year-old founder of fashion start-up 99 Dresses, is working with Meta to create an app that allows wearers to see what different clothes would look like on them. Others wearing the glasses in the same room could also see the clothes from their perspective.
"The possibilities for this interface are something that hasn't been [fully] discovered," says Sand. "Personally what I believe is incredible here is just the ability to walk around information."
The glasses make use of more than 20 sensors. There's an array of microphones for 3D sound and voice recognition, a nine degrees of freedom sensor that tells the glasses what axis they're on, traditional cameras that orientate the system in the real world, a miniature Xbox Kinect-style sensor, and a depth camera.
The glasses are built at a rented $US15 million ($16.7 million), 80,937 square metre estate in Portola Valley, California, complete with pool, tennis court and 30-staff mansion.
There are six Australians currently working at Meta, though Sand says he's had between 10 and 15 working on contracts while they've been in the US.
"This is the Aussie kingdom man," says Meta co-founder and chief executive Meron Gribetz, 28, who met Sand while studying at the University of Sydney.
Gribetz, who grew up in Israel and worked on James Bond-style gadgets during national service, is working on Meta with Sand and Ray Lo, who joined the company through the prestigious Y Combinator start-up program. Sand serves as chief operating officer and Lo as chief technology officer.
Meta has even recruited Jayse Hanson, the man responsible for Iron Man's heads-up display in the films, to help design the user interface. A number of other high profile names are also involved, such as Steve Mann, the man attributed with inventing wearable computing 35 years ago when he built something similar to Google Glass. He's now Meta's chief scientist. Professor Steven Feiner of Columbia University, who was the first person to publish "augmented reality" as a term and is regarded as the father of 3D user interfaces, has also joined as an adviser.
Those who have tried the device say the experience is better than Google Glass.
But Meta's Sand doesn't see Glass as its main competitor, even though the company's website lists prominently that Meta offers "15-times the screen area of Google Glass".
"We're billing ourselves as a computer replacement," Sand says. "You will not buy us instead of Google Glass. You will buy us instead of a computer."
Market trends show people are already shunning desktop computers for mobile technology, says Sand.
"There's a reason Apple sold 50 million phones, 50 million tablets and 5 million computers in the last quarter," he says. "It's pretty clear that that entire category is fading away ... and it's time for something with that [same computing] power to replace it."
Meta first raised money through crowdfunding site Kickstarter, where it raked in almost $US200,000 from 500 backers. Since then it has raised money from Fenox Venture Capital for an undisclosed amount and through Y Combinator. Gribetz said in a recent interview that Meta had also been raising money from other investors – "fast".
It's rumoured that Meta has already raised several million dollars, although Sand won't confirm this. "We aren't releasing investor and investment information at present due to [US Securities and Exchange Commission] regulations around publicising financing details," he says.
Fenox Venture Capital principal Eddy Lee won't say how much the firm invested. A consulting professor at Stanford University's School of Medicine, Lee believes that over the next three to five years we will see "an unprecedented explosion of wearables hitting the market".
"That's why I am building a cluster of wearables start-ups that can help one another, and giving them access to enterprise partnerships deals in our corporate network."
A version of the glasses called META Pro is due out in July for $US3650. A cheaper version with fewer features, called the META.01 Developer Edition, is also due in July, for $US667. The Pro connects to a pocket computer that is provided by Meta, while the developer edition connects to a user's own computer. In December, Forbes reported that the company had sold several hundred of its developer glasses, bringing in more than $US650,000 in revenue.
This reporter is on Facebook: /bengrubb