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Investors sink $50M into VR startup Meta

15 Jun 2016

Developer of 'augmented reality' headsets claims advanced optics will create disruptive computing experience.

California-based Meta, a startup claiming that its optical technology will help create a ground-breaking new “human-computer interface”, has raised $50 million in a series B round of venture financing.

Unveiled earlier this year at the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) 2016 event in Vancouver, the company's latest “augmented reality” Meta 2 headset looks something like a cross between Oculus Rift and Google Glass, and is said to combine the digital and physical environment seamlessly with holograms.

Meta’s CEO Meron Gribetz describes the equipment as a “natural machine”, that uses the principles of neuroscience to create a more intuitive experience with virtual reality than has been the case thus far.

Optical technology is at the heart of the headsets, with Gribetz claiming: “[Our investors] understand that the combination of our advanced optical engines along with our neuroscience-based interface design approach are what will create a computing experience that is 100x easier to use and more powerful than traditional form factors.”

Immersive interaction
While those investors include Chinese PC giant Lenovo and audio giant Dolby, the latest funding round was led by the 87-year-old Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing: reputedly the second-richest person in Asia. Ka-shing invested via his Horizons Ventures vehicle, having previously supported the likes of Facebook, Spotify, traffic application Waze and plant-based-but-meaty-tasting burger company Impossible Foods.

According to a US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) filing, Meta had already raised $23 million in equity funding as of January 2015, three years after it was founded.

The company has not disclosed too much detail about its optical technology, although in the February 2016 Vancouver TED talk (see video below) former neuroscience student Gribetz showed the “Meta 2” headset, with immersive, interactive holograms.

“What you’re seeing is augmented reality,” he told the TED audience. “But to me, it’s part of a much more important story, of how we can begin to extend our bodies with digital devices, instead of the other way round.”

Gribetz also predicted that within five years the headsets, currently resembling welding masks rather than motorcycle helmets but still somewhat cumbersome in appearance, will have evolved into flat strips of glass capable of projecting holograms.

Meta says it plans to use the fresh funds to further develop both hardware and software, with a view to launching the next generation of its technology, dubbed “Meta 3”.

Beam splitters and eyetaps
Bloomberg lists University of Toronto engineer Steve Mann as Meta’s chief scientist. Mann’s Toronto biography describes him as “the father of wearable computing”, and also credits him with inventing the hydraulophone – a musical instrument that makes tonal sounds from physical contact with fluids.

More to the point, while completing PhD studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Mann patented a method to produce high-dynamic-range imagery that more realistically represents human vision than conventional electronic or photographic reproduction. US patent 5,828,793 describes how images of the same scene with different exposures can be combined into a composite form.

Aside from the Meta role, Mann now heads up Toronto’s EyeTap Personal Imaging Laboratory. The word eyetap describes a device enabling the eye to function as both a camera and a display, with a beam splitter or similar optical component used to combine the perception of a headset wearer’s immediate surroundings and video imagery seamlessly.

Among the other investors taking part in the $50 million round are China-headquartered Banyan Capital, which has previously backed sports action camera firm Xiaomi Yi, as well as US-based Comcast Ventures, Shenzhen’s Tencent, and the Chinese display and image processing firm Ningbo GQY.

Banyan founding partner Bin Yue said that Meta is probably the only startup with the ability to compete with the likes of Microsoft’s Hololens technology, while GQY said that it would look to deploy the augmented reality technology in applications like industrial training, public transportation, and education.

And in a blog post for Comcast Ventures, its chief Michael Yang wrote: "Augmented reality has been around for decades but only recently have the requisite technologies become 'good enough' to allow a new generation of entrepreneurs to give it a go."

Meron Gribetz at TED 2016:

EKSMA OPTICSJENOPTIK  -  Optical SystemsSchaefter und Kirchhoff GmbHAVANTES BVSynopsys, Optical Solutions GroupESPROS Photonics AGSpectrum Scientific Inc. -  SSI Optics
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