Floating just inches from my face was a semi-translucent brain. It was, this being Austin, missing a few pieces. To my left floated the frontal lobe. I reached out with my virtual left hand, tapped it and the lobe floated into place. The brain and my first taste of Meta 2 augmented reality were complete.
The experience was not wholly unfamiliar. I’ve tried out Microsoft’s HoloLens — the best-known augmented reality headset — fending off invaders crawling through hotel walls and walking around a virtual solar system. It’s impressive.
Meta 2, which Meta is showing off here at SXSW in Austin, Texas, where there are dozens of panels and sessions devoted to AR and virtual reality (VR), is impressive on its own.
First, the Meta 2 Development Kit costs $949. The cheapest HoloLens is $3,000.
However, that relative bargain-basement AR headgear price wouldn’t mean much if the AR experience were equally cut-rate.
Inside the Meta 2 headset, which looks and feels somewhat like the HoloLens, is an impressive array of technology. The front-facing depth sensors have a 270-degree field of view that tracks the real world and can keep track of your hands, as well. There are sensors to track head and body motion, quadrophonic surround sound speakers and a microphone array.
There are, though, distinct differences between Meta 2 and HoloLens. The latter is a complete Windows 10 PC, self-contained, polished, well-balanced and comfortable to wear.
Meta 2 is noticeably larger and appears to have a relatively large block on the back that counterbalances the weight on the front. Meta also put memory foam inside the headset to avoid what one company representative called “Meta head.”
In addition, Meta 2 can only run when tethered to a laptop or PC running a discrete graphic chip. The company hopes to offer untethered headsets by 2018.
Even with these limitations, the Meta 2 experience is notable.
When you wear Microsoft HoloLens, the Augmented reality window is confined to the space of a virtual, large screen HDTV floating in front of you. That may sound narrow, but because that effect follows you wherever you look, you soon forget about it. If you keep your head straight and look a bit to the left or right, the mixed-reality fades away.
Meta 2 expands that view port considerably. I had to look pretty far to my peripheral vision to see where the AR effect ended.
I was also impressed with the screen resolution and my ability to interact with virtual objects without the need for specialized gestures. Mostly I just pointed at or grabbed virtual objects (brain parts, airplanes, the Earth, sneakers) and moved them around.
One of Meta 2’s best effects is how it appears to digitize my hands by, essentially, showing me a rough version of the 3D mesh that bathes my hands when they enter the AR field of view.
Along with the brain interaction, I saw a business demo where a virtual spokesperson pitched a half dozen brands and products.
I could walk around, look under and interact with the demos. However, I did find being tethered frustrating and noticed that the audio was somewhat less robust than what I experienced with HoloLens.
Like Microsoft, Meta is still pitching the Meta 2 headset as a developer tool, only selling them in limited quantities as they hope to attract developers and partners to build applications for the platform.
Even as Microsoft continues to take its dear, sweet time on announcing a HoloLens consumer version, Meta 2 should be a wake-up call for Microsoft partners who’ve promised to build consumer-grade, Windows-based AR headsets for the masses. Meta 2 feels like HoloLens at a third of the price. Ultra-cheap headsets from HoloLens partners like Acer have been described, somewhat charitably, as “no HoloLens.”
It’ll be interesting to see who finally delivers a HoloLens experience at a truly consumer price.