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Hands on with Meta Pro, the futuristic augmented reality glasses

REVIEW

A concept image of what sculpting could look like with Meta.

A concept image of what sculpting could look like with Meta.

Portola Valley, California: The future is here and it's projecting itself right back at me.

I'm in a converted cathedral, deep within Silicon Valley, getting a demonstration of the latest prototype of Meta Pro, the augmented reality glasses its founders say is the PC of the future.

Looking like a cross between ski goggles and Ray-Bans, Meta allows wearers to see and interact with virtual objects in 3D using their hands. Wearers can see the non-existent objects thanks to tiny projectors in the glasses, while sensors detect hand movements.

What the Meta Pro glasses look like when worn.

What the Meta Pro glasses look like when worn.

A number of former University of Sydney and University of Wollongong students are working on Meta, along with others from around the world, in a team of almost 40. Its co-founders – profiled by Fairfax Media earlier this year – are Ben Sand, Meron Gribetz and Raymond Lo.

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. It can also include virtual web browsers, keyboards and videos being pinned to tables and walls, allowing for things like tweets and movies to be displayed on almost any surface.

So does it actually live up to the hype? In a demonstration by Gribetz, the Meta chief executive, it still feels like very early days for the product. But I can see its potential.

What one of the Meta Pro's latest prototypes looks like.

What one of the Meta Pro's latest prototypes looks like.

I was able to burst virtual 3D "orbs" with my finger (just like in the game Asteroids) and move them around with both hands by grabbing them; type on a virtual keyboard in mid-air with surprising accuracy; and explore 3D models of a Tesla electric car and motor. I was also able to read an article in a web browser and scroll up and down by tilting my head. While in the browser I was also able to click on links to navigate to other pages on a website.

Surprisingly, I didn't feel sick while – and after – using the glasses. This is often a complaint of those who use the Oculus Rift, which offers virtual reality, as opposed to Meta's augmented reality.

The difference between the two is that virtual reality requires you to basically strap a screen on your face that transports you to another world, whereas Meta augments your reality by allowing virtual objects to appear in front of you without fully disrupting your field of view. This means you can still see the real world around you while also seeing 3D objects.

The developer edition of the Meta glasses.

The developer edition of the Meta glasses.

For now, the glasses connect to a small, rectangular computer connected to a laptop or PC. But in the not-too-distant future, Gribetz says all of this will fit into a compact PC.

"You're going to have a pocket computer instead of your computer," he said. "You'll plug it in to that, which sits in your pocket and gives you enough computing [power] to walk around with it."

When it ships later this year, the Meta Pro will costs around $US3000 ($3220). A cheaper version with fewer features, called the META.01 Developer Edition, for those building apps for the device, is shipping now for $US667. So far, Gribetz says there are about 500 apps being developed – more than half are video games.

Although the Meta Pro has 16 times the viewable area of Google Glass and makes use of more than 20 powerful sensors, Meta's founders don't see it as a Google Glass competitor.

Instead, they see it as the future of the PC. But in my view it has a long way to go before I recommend anyone consider pre-ordering it. The demo showed it was buggy and took a few restarts of the software before Gribetz was able to get it to track my hand, for example. But it's still in the "alpha" stage of development, so this is to be expected.

The engineers working on the Meta Pro – almost 90 per cent of them live on campus – have put in a lot of work to make a truly augmented reality come to life. That much is clear when you look at how far the team – former NASA, Google and Microsoft engineers – have come.

The ability to detect when a hand is clenched up like a fist, even when it's facing away from the camera, is remarkable. There's a hell of a lot of maths that goes into that, and when perfected it could provide a world of possibilities.

Is this the future of computing? If I was to compare it to something like the Leap Motion, which is touted as a replacement to the computer mouse, I think it has a far better chance of becoming something useful.

It's exciting times ahead for the Meta team. And with the help of Jayse Hansen, the man responsible for heads-up display in Iron Man 3, on the user interface design and other high profile names in the wearable computer space, Meta really could become the future of computing.

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