In 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computers in Jobs' parent's modest ranch house in Los Altos, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. Nearly 40 years later, in a Los Altos Hills mansion on a hilltop with a view of what Silicon Valley has become, Meron Gribetz is leading a startup that he contends could be the next Apple.
The startup, Meta, is developing so-called augmented-reality glasses that combine the power of a laptop and smartphone in a pair of stylish specs that map virtual objects into the physical world, controlled by your hands, similar to the movie portrayals of app control via gestures in "Iron Man" and "Avatar."
Meta, which came out of Columbia University rather than the Homebrew Computer Club, is trying to usher in the next era of computing. Apple inspired the modern personal computer revolution with the Macintosh and the mobile revolution with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Meta wants to lead the transition from mobile to wearable, augmented-reality computing.
Gribetz, a 27-year-old former neuroscience graduate student who grew up in Israel, bears some resemblance to Jobs (as much as Ashton Kutcher with a scraggly beard). He also shares with Jobs the ability to seize on an idea and make visionary claims, but he has yet to ship a product.
"There is no other future of computing other than this technology, which can display information from the real world and control objects with your fingers at low latency and high dexterity," Gribetz told CNET in May. "It's the keyboard and mouse of the future."
The video below offers Meta's vision of a future enabled by augmented-reality technology:
Meta sprung to life in December 2012 with $1 million in seed funding, and the blessing of Y Combinator startup guru Paul Graham, as well as wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann, who signed on as the company's chief scientist.
Gribetz and his band of less than 25 employees are ensconced in the Los Altos mansion, filled with mattresses, cables, and aluminum bins of takeout food, building glasses, an operating system, and apps to show off the capabilities of the platform. He took pride in noting the number of people, most likely competitors, checking out Meta's employees on LinkedIn.
"We are hacking 24-7," Gribetz said, "and making less than McDonald's wages. We have many Ph.D.s, which is indicative of their desire to build the 'Iron Man' experience." He also said that his team is frustrated by the limits of Google Glass.
The Natural Machine
Google's wearable device has become a focal point for Meta in its quest to deliver the iPhone or Xbox of wearable computing. Gribetz classifies Google Glass as a basic "notification machine" that can take videos and pictures. "Google Glass is an accessory for the phone. Meta replaces these things," Gribetz said.
Meta is developing what Gribetz calls a "natural machine," which is a less sci-fi way of saying "augmented reality." It's a device that overlays computer-generated objects in the physical world and allows users to interact with the projected images using their hands.
In a video demonstration of Meta's technology, a person sculpts a virtual vase with her fingers and then hands it off to a virtual 3D printer that communicates with a real 3D printer.
Apps floating in space enable different kinds of user experiences. For example, the Meta operating system could track you, placing messages, status updates, points of interest, friends in range, and other information near your head on top of the real world at any time or location. Surgeons could view CAT scans projected in the operating room while performing procedures. Architects could model buildings in minute detail or even cities in virtual space with their hands.
The natural machine is also different from the immersive virtual worlds painted in head-mounted displays like the Oculus Rift. In Gribetz's view, the Oculus Rift is a "matrix machine."
"It's a big bucket on your head to transport you to an alternate, virtual 3D reality," he said. "You leave your friends behind in the Oculus Rift. My feeling is that people will be consuming old-world movies and computer games with a matrix machine because it's an extension of the experience in a movie theater, a darkened room with a giant screen, now with 3D."
Going to the Mattresses
At this juncture, Meta's product is still a bulky, tethered pair of glasses for developers that only works indoors. It's Meta's version of the Apple I, which was housed in a homemade wooden enclosure. What Meta hopes to achieve is the equivalent of a virtual MacBook Air and iPhone loaded with sensors incorporated into a pair of Ray-Bans sitting on your head. And it will be priced more like a high-end tablet or laptop computer than a wearable smartphone accessory.
Never mind that it took Apple 32 years to go from the Apple I to the MacBook Air. From where Gribetz sits wearing his first-generation Meta glasses, all the elements are in place for a speedy drive to the natural machine revolution.
Gribetz knows that his little band of engineers is way outmatched by the likes of Google and Apple. He can look to the east and south from his work mansion in Los Altos and see the sprawling campuses of Google and Apple. Google has hundreds of people working to make Glass a major success in the coming year, bringing the price down from $1,500 to well under $1,000 and filling its store with thousands of Glass apps. Apple has yet to show any of its wearable ambitions, but both companies are piling up patents related to wearable computing.
Gribetz says he is prepared to "go to the mattresses," in Godfather-speak, for as long as it takes to succeed, citing the advantages of being young, small, and nimble. If Apple could succeed in the midst of IBM and Microsoft, why not Meta? And Meta doesn't need to conquer the competition -- it just needs to lead the higher-functioning, natural machine market. "Meta is addressing a different use case, with an immersive graphical interface," Gribetz said. "Simultaneously, Google will have a $400 notification machine and we'll have a $1,000 virtual computer."
Of course, Google won't be content to just offer a notification machine as the technology for natural computing becomes smaller and cheaper. In addition to the giants of Silicon Valley, other startups are focusing on wearable and augmented-reality computing. Atheer Labs, for example, is developing an augmented-reality software platform for Android.
"We will stay small and agile and live off soup and beans for a little longer," Gribetz said. However, with angel investors and venture capitalists paying visits to the startup mansion in Los Altos Hills, Meta's team could be upgrading to sushi. "As a platform play, we are more like Apple, potentially more value but higher risk," he said. "In the valley, VCs are ballsy, and more interested in upside than downside."
Meta's dream of staying independent and becoming the next Apple will depend on having developers who believe in the platform as a business and create irresistible apps. In the month since its Kickstarter campaign began, Meta has signed up 500 developers for prototype glasses and the software development kit for around $600 each. (The price on Meta's Web site is now $667, $1 more than the original Apple computer.) The company just spent $60,000 for a marketing campaign and video (the Kickstarter campaign cost $2,500 to produce) with a goal of signing up 2,000 to 4,000 more developers.
Meta's Road Map
"Every company that tries to change goes through a period of bulkiness," Grebitz said. "We are packing a large number of sensors into one pair of glasses. Google is taking a safer way with a minimalistic processor and GPU. Our philosophy is to make it fun before you make it small. We can show that the technology shown in 'Iron Man' can work, and then we miniaturize it, following Moore's Law. When the glasses are stylish and field of view is big, there is the capability to replace computers."
In a year and half to two years, Meta will have miniaturized its technology into a pair of slick Ray-Bans, Gribetz claimed. In early 2014, Meta hopes to introduce untethered glasses with a CPU, GPU, and wireless connectivity that are less bulky than the current version, reducing the weight from 330 grams to 115 grams. The company also needs to integrate other key features, such as voice recognition, maps, and search, from third parties.
The "Imagination Lead"
Gribetz is confident that his company can overcome the miniaturization challenges. "We are not so concerned about form factor; it's more about marketing and selling," Gribetz said. On the marketing front, the company just changed its Web site URL from the unmemorable meta-view.com to spaceglasses.com.
Even with the technology issues resolved, Meta's glasses won't be a mass-market phenomenon in two years. With a price point around $1,000 and a new interface paradigm, and relatively expensive vertical apps and games, Meta's glasses will have limited audience appeal. Not everyone will be ready to ditch their iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy 6 for a kind of virtual supercomputer with apps that appear in front of their eyes on the side of a building, controlled by sticking their hands out in space to type a message or swipe a page.
"We have an interesting imagination lead," Gribetz said about the competitive environment, as if imagination alone were the key ingredient to success. He expects Google and others to pave the way for consumer adoption of notification machines, and hopes that they lack the imagination to focus on a mass consumer leap to natural machines.
The more likely outcome for Meta is that it takes in tens of millions in private funding, progress is slower than expected, getting to the next stage requires more heft than imagination, and a big company acquires the company, with a decent premium for investors. Or, Meta flames out and is barely a footnote in wearable computing history. On the other hand, Gribetz could bear more than a passing resemblance to a young Steve Jobs.