The Future of Augmented Reality Ain’t Pokemon Go

Meta’s Meron Gribetz on the present & future of AR

Five years back, Google Glass’s famous launch video trained us to think of augmented reality as a flat translucence. It would be a bunch of wee announcements slapped on our field of view like Post-Its on ski goggles. The world beheld this daring vision and hit the snooze bar. AR’s next major milestone, Pokémon Go, is also all about simple superimposition (for now, anyway). So I was surprised to find the faithful at last month’s AR in Action conference almost wholly focused on holograms and photorealism. It’s a big step forward — and it’s actually starting to work.

I attended the New York City event to meet up with Meta CEO Meron Gribetz. Meta is racing Microsoft for the early lead in commercial AR. Florida-based Magic Leap is also allegedly in the hunt, having raised over a billion dollars. But having yet to ship a product, they came in for some sharp criticism back in December, followed by bemused head-scratching, which continues to this day.

Subsequent to the conference, I sat down with Meron in Meta’s Silicon Valley HQ to record a long interview — which now is part of an eight-episode audio series I’m producing to accompany my new novel, After On. I set the novel nine seconds into the future, as this let me feature all kinds of present-tense science and technology. I figured this would also let me stuff my book full of 20-page digressions on how cooooool AR, synthetic biology, quantum computing, and other fields are (or rather, will be. You know — nine seconds from now).

As it turns out, 20-page digressions constitute lousy storytelling. Like, who knew (answer: My editor)? My consolation prize to myself is these interviews, in which world-class experts take us on deep dives into their fields. My co-host in all this is the inimitable Tom Merritt, who makes up for my complete inexperience in audio production and podcasting.

Meron Gribetz practices his “air grab” move on something that he swears is RIGHT THERE!

Meeting with Meta didn’t just add holograms to my conception of AR. I’d mainly thought of the field in consumer and entertainment terms (I blame Pokémon Go and AR’s flashy cousin, VR). But Meta is betting wholly on productivity and the enterprise. Meron says this stems from calling over 400 enterprise buyers of his first AR headset, which he launched via a 2013 Kickstarter. He found they were almost unanimously focused on productivity, and bet his company on this insight.

As a direct result, he now tethers his headsets to computers — which is fine for office-bound use cases. This lets Meta enlist beefy off-headset processors, avoid battery problems, and dodge issues with heat accumulation. A more powerful headset with a far wider field of view than Microsoft’s is the result. To me, this makes for a much more compelling experience. Microsoft’s HoloLens is like floating a mid-sized HDTV in front of your eyeballs, while Meta’s experience is much more enveloping. Of course, if AR turns out to be all about live-action role playing in the park with holographic scabbards, tethered headsets will be a lousy bet.

But for now, Meron is happy to all but inhabit his vision. He sits not at a desk, but a plank — a ten-by-one-foot slab of redwood whose thinness is allowed by the lack of a monitor. He says he wears his Meta headset throughout the working day, and that dozens of his hundred-plus employees do the same. In our interview, he cites a barrage of precedent going clear back to the Apple 2 and VisiCalc to argue that computing platform transitions are funded by enterprise use-cases — not entertainment.

As for AR’s first killer app in the enterprise, he offers collaborative 3D. Which struck me as rather niche. But then I went back to that VisiCalc analogy. This was the first commercial spreadsheet — the forerunner to Lotus, which itself was the forerunner to Excel. Meron likes to point out that Steve Jobs credited VisiCalc with much of the Apple 2’s success. And think of how nichey spreadsheets must have seemed in 1978. The analog equivalent was the accountant’s ledger — which would have been as familiar to non-accountants as cockpit controls to non-pilots. There were just a few hundred thousand American CPA’s. Yet VisiCalc went on to sell over a million copies. And Excel is now installed on over a billion computers. So, much as my Carter-era forerunners might have snorted at digital ledgers, I may not be visionary enough to imagine the countless uses collaborative 3D will have, once it democratizes.

When I ask if Meta’s more of a hardware, application, or OS company, Meron goes with door #3. And this resonates with me. He’s most excited when discussing things that unify the Meta experience across use cases. For instance, “air grab” — which he positions as AR’s equivalent of the iPhone’s pinch-to-zoom feature. It’s just what it sounds like: to move a hologram, you reach out, grab it, and yank it to a new point in the illusory matrix. An intuitive move, it contrasts with the taxonomy of “gestures” that HoloLens and others require users to learn to navigate AR space.

Meron most surprised me when I brought up the technology that appears in this section of my novel (conveniently excerpted right here on Medium). In this scene, a sketchy guy stalks a woman using an AR headset that’s indistinguishable from glasses. It identifies her using facial recognition. It then gives him scads of background data, allowing him to feign a jolly friend-of-friend connection, which takes her guard down.

Meron predicts this grade of hardware will ship within five years. Surprising— as this is one of just three points in the novel where I violate my “nine seconds in the future” rule to commit some science fiction, and I thought I’d been more aggressive than that! As for how we’ll avoid the related creepiness I depict in the novel, Meron presents a concept he calls “public by default” around 0:26:40 in our interview. Give it a listen, and post a comment if you have a strong reaction. If you’re a Medium member, you can listen right now by hitting “Play” at the top of this page. If you’re not a member, it’s worth trying out if it’s within your budget — and if it’s not, I’ll be posting all these episodes as podcasts on a weekly basis starting August 1st (not coincidentally, the release date of the full After On novel).

During the last part of the episode, Tom Merritt and I relate the interview to the first three excerpts of After On that appear on Medium. You can find those excerpts herehere, and here, and I’ll be honored if you make time to read them. This final section is the only part of the audio episode that presumes familiarity with the novel, and you can skip it if you haven’t yet read the relevant parts.

I hope you find time for the episode, either now or when it’s released as a podcast. Future topics and guests, plus release dates both on Medium and as podcasts, follow:

  • Neuroscience and consciousness, with Adam Gazzaley of UCSF. Adam is harnessing the power of video games to fight ADHD, autism and dementia. Yes, really! And this work has appeared on the cover of Nature, which is a huuuuuge deal in science. On Medium this Friday, July 21, podcast Tuesday, August 8.
  • Digital privacy and government intrusion, with Cindy Cohn, who runs the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“the leading nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation”). On Medium Friday, July 28, podcast Tuesday, August 15.
  • Synthetic biology’s promise & peril, with Autodesk Distinguished Researcher Andy Hessel. A major synbio thought leader, Andy is a catalyst behind GP-Write, described by some as the heir to the Human Genome Project. On Medium Monday July 31, podcast Tuesday, August 22.
  • Quantum computing, with venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson. Early backer of Elon Musk ventures including Tesla and SpaceX, Steve has spent fifteen years on the board of DWave; the world’s largest quantum computing company. On Medium Monday August 7, podcast Tuesday, August 29.
  • Nihilistic terrorism, with five-time New York Times bestselling author Sam Harris. Sam is one of the most outspoken and controversial people in America on this subject. On Medium Monday, August 14, Podcast Tuesday, September 5.
  • Superintelligence risk. Surprise guest. Just you wait! On Medium Monday, August 21, podcast Tuesday, September 12.
  • Fermi’s paradox, with British astronomer Stephen Webb, author of multiple books on this fascinating topic. On Medium Monday, August 28, podcast Tuesday, September 19.

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