If virtual reality is barely getting a hold on the mainstream, augmented reality — the kind that uses glasses, not your phone — is barely on most people’s mental radar. Even so, projects like Magic Leap have been massively hyped in the tech community, while Microsoft’s HoloLens can support experiences that seemed impossible a few years ago. But one of the most interesting AR headsets has a lower profile: the Meta 2, which started shipping to developers late last year.
Where many AR glasses produce a heads-up display style overlay, devices like the Meta and HoloLens aim to put real-looking “mixed reality” holograms into the world. The Meta 2 does this with a clear set of tradeoffs. On one hand, it’s far cheaper than HoloLens: $949 compared to $3,000. On the other, its images look less convincingly real, more like a projection than a solid object. It’s tethered to a computer, not self-contained. And even its creators admit it’s not nearly as good at tracking the world — as you walk around, objects shudder to the point of disorientation, even if they’re beautifully clear when you’re still.
But in a couple of places, Meta blows the HoloLens (and any other augmented reality I’ve seen) away. The first is its 90-degree field of view — more than twice the largest estimate I’ve seen of HoloLens’ FOV, and comparable to some VR headsets. You don’t have any peripheral vision in Meta, but it also doesn’t look like you’re staring through a window. The second is comfort. Meta is the only AR headset I’ve ever worn that didn’t feel like it was slipping down my face, including HoloLens. This is because it’s designed like a VR headset, with an overhead strap that holds it up. The Meta 2 may be comically huge and weirdly shaped, but I could look around normally and see a sharp, full image, instead of constantly tilting my head at odd angles.
People who have seen Magic Leap often describe it as the gold standard of mixed reality, but Magic Leap is also so secretive that it’s impossible to judge this, and a recent report suggests it’s having trouble turning a giant prototype into a pair of glasses. Meta’s product is still rough, but at least it’s showing its work.
Sales VP Ryan Pamplin compares the Meta 2 to the Oculus Rift DK2, an innovative experiment that shipped with clear shortcomings and was greatly improved for consumers. Pamplin says Meta could cut the computer cord within a year, connecting to something like a pocket-sized mobile pack instead. That would let the headset stay light, while the team works to make the lenses and frames smaller as well. And he promises the tracking will improve within this generation.
Of course, there’s a difference between saying that and doing it, and Meta may run into the same problems as (allegedly) Magic Leap. For now, though, wearing the Meta 2 is one of the most pleasant AR experiences I’ve had — even if I looked even sillier than usual.