(Bloomberg) -- One recent morning, Stephanie Rosenburg arrived at work to find her PC monitor had vanished. She looked around the office and saw that members of her team were wearing headsets with see-through visors and grabbing invisible objects with their hands. Rosenburg had just returned from vacation so it took her a few seconds to process what was happening before she clued in: "Oh," she thought. "It's my turn now."
Rosenburg handles marketing for Meta, a San Francisco startup that makes augmented reality headsets that overlay holographic images on the real world. Users can manipulate 3-D models with their hands or browse web pages, send emails and write code from floating virtual screens. Her boss, Meta founder and Chief Executive Officer Meron Gribetz, is determined to end what he calls the "tyranny of the modern office" by replacing monitors, keyboards and eventually even cubicles with augmented reality. To get there, he’s using his own employees—including Rosenburg—as test subjects to help Meta figure out what works and what doesn't.
When Gribetz revealed the plan last year at the TED Conference in Vancouver, he was under no illusions about the challenge. "I was extremely nervous about this," he recalls. "You're going against 50 years of computing tools."
Gribetz, 31, founded Meta in 2012 after studying neuroscience and computer science at Columbia University. He made the first Meta prototype with an oven-heated knife and hot glue gun. Last year, Meta raised $50 million from investors like Lenovo Group Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. Today, its devices are used by developers and companies—ranging from architects to designers to auto manufacturers. By year-end, Meta expects more than 10,000 people will be using the $949 headset.
Meta’s goal is to make its augmented reality technology a seamless extension of the real world—enabling people to interact with holograms much the way one interacts with real objects. Instead of clicking, dragging and pushing buttons, the technology lets users control 3-D content with their hands. Gribetz believes AR hardware will become quickly commoditized, so he’s focused on perfecting the software, taking inspiration from Apple’s intuitive user experience.
In his vision, office workers will huddle around holograms to collaborate on pretty much any kind of task. That means no computers, cubicles, regular desks, or chairs. Gribetz's own office provides a glimpse of how a future workplace might look. He has a thin slab of wood at standing height as a desk. It’s just wide enough for the headset to rest on it. He plans to redesign the rest of Meta's office in a similar way.
Tall with impeccable posture, Gribetz solemnly describes his vision as "cognitively healthy computing" that helps users close "the latency between imagination and creation." He believes AR will eventually place a meta-layer (get it?) of information around everything in the real world. Touch a piece of food and immediately see its nutritional content, hold a flower and see its DNA, shake someone's hand at a conference and see a sort of virtual LinkedIn page appear. Some may find that creepy, but Gribetz believes augmented reality is about bringing people closer to the real world.
"This won't happen overnight," he says. "But certainly if you move forward about a decade or even less, people will have strips of glass that will look very much like the glasses I have on, that will be able to do everything that a computer, a tablet, or a phone will be able to do, and a whole lot more."
Meta isn't the only company with big ambitions for augmented reality. Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. are also devoting considerable resources to developing the technology; Apple's Tim Cook told Bloomberg he was so excited about AR that he wanted to "yell out and scream." Gribetz believes he has a chance of snatching the lead from better-financed rivals by testing his technology on employees who are focused the singular goal of transforming the workplace through AR. Many tech companies use this tactic, known as dog-fooding, but employees at larger firms often have multiple projects and incentives.
The experiment is being overseen by a team of neuroscientists who are collecting data from Meta's employees: how people's eyes and bodies feel in the headset, how much work gets done compared with using monitors and the overall experience day-to-day. Meta is also encouraging employees to write daily logs about the experience. Even though the goal is to make an operating system that Gribetz says will be 10 times easier to use than an iPhone, the technology is still in its infancy. So as expected, the rollout has been a demanding experience for employees and executives alike.
Meta's experiment began with the engineering team, which happens to be one of the largest groups with the highest-pressure deadlines. It went badly. The engineers complained that they couldn’t get their work done on time without their monitors. Not all of the software packages that the engineers used day-to-day were compatible with the headset. They also had trouble testing and writing code at the same time. Coder Ben Lucas describes his early experience with the technology as "discombobulating," like being on a boat. Plus, the headset didn't fit his head shape correctly so he attached a weight to the back to make it more comfortable.
Eventually, Gribetz let the engineers revert to monitors and transitioned small groups at a slower pace, starting with marketing, sales and administration. Before long, useful feedback began pouring in. Some employees reported a distracting jitter when using the technology. The coders tweaked the algorithms and the problem disappeared. The hand-tracking and stability of the images improved. Employees participated in a company-wide hackathon to create various applications. Among them: a 3-D data visualization tool, a sticky note app and a stress-relieving orb that makes different musical notes when prodded. The company has filed several patent applications that cover concepts and tools developed during the dog-fooding process.
Inevitably the technology made some jobs easier and others harder. Esther Lekeu is designing the next-generation headset. In the past she would bring two-dimensional drawings to design-review meetings. Now, everyone dons a headset and looks at the mockup as a 3-D hologram, moving it around and viewing it from all angles. "That's been night and day in terms of communicating my idea," Lekeu says.
On the other hand, the early phases of the design process were harder for Esther in the headset. It was painstaking to make small iterations to sketches in augmented reality, compared to being able to make quick changes on the fly in Photoshop. It’s not that this is necessarily a limitation of augmented reality, she says, just that the technology—at least for now—is better for some tasks than others. Lekeu sees a future where AR is one of various tools we use in our everyday lives, much the way we still use pen and paper for some things, and our phones and monitors for others. Her boss, of course, believes AR will supplant everything.
The benefits of the technology are clear for companies that make physical products. Carmakers can speed up the gestation of a new model thanks to instant holographic renderings of life-sized prototypes. For the average office worker, the perks are more nuanced. Based on the experiences of Meta employees, the biggest productivity gain is having virtually boundless space for an unlimited number of screens. That means focusing on one task while distractions–email, social media–can literally sit behind you. Some Meta employees ay that making a spreadsheet of data enormous can make it easier to spot interesting trends in the numbers. It’s also made brainstorming easier, they say, since you can collaborate on giant, holographic pages.
Many employees were reluctant to give up their monitors but, after ditching them for good, said that doing daily work was a much more immersive and visceral experience, so much so that returning to the real world after spending a few hours in augmented reality could be jarring. "Suddenly everything seems very small again," says Kharis O’Connell, senior director of user experience. "I pick up my phone, sort of squinting at it after being in the headset for a while, and suddenly you're like, 'wow, I can't believe we have such small rectangles around us all of the time.'" Lis Owuor, a copy-writer, sometimes struggles to grab objects when she re-emerges. The tongs at the startup’s salad bar are a challenge. "I was trying to grasp it like it was a hologram!"
If Meta employees are a hard sell you can imagine how tough it will be persuading the general public of augmented reality's benefits. Many tech companies doing futuristic work employ an in-house evangelist to get the word out. Meta's evangelist is Ryan Pamplin, who builds partnerships and support for AR among the general public. An avowed AR enthusiast, Pamplin already spends much of his day augmenting reality. He even brings the headset home and on airplanes, where he likes to watch movies on wider screens.
Like his boss's office, Pamplin's workspace is a study in minimalism: a white desk with nothing on it except a headset and keyboard, and some awards and news clippings pinned to one wall. Put on the headset, though, and you step into Pamplin's dream office. Photos of his girlfriend are plastered all over. A holographic bust of Steve Jobs and a model of the Tesla 3 float nearby. A YouTube video of the Katy Perry Roar plays from a midair screen. A virtual shelf sits on the desk of the real office. It's basically Meta's version of a standard desktop, a stand-in for the traditional icons on a screen. If Pamplin wants to check his email, he grabs the web browser image from the shelf and a screen opens, suspended in the air. He has a bunch of other things on the shelf that aren't strictly work-related, including crackling fire for ambience. There's also a holographic eyeball. It's designed for medical students, but Pamplin just thinks it's cool.
"It's like real life," he says with boyish enthusiasm. "You're reaching around the office and you're grabbing objects, just like you would in a real office.''