Mediated reality is a little like augmented reality (or AR) in that it alters your perception of the physical world around you through the use of overlaid graphics. In the case of the Meta Spaceglasses, you look through twin transparent LCD displays that can show text, 3D graphics and more. So far, so AR. Where mediated reality differs is that it can subtract objects from your field of view as well as add them. It’s like an ad-blocker for the real world: mediated reality can remove things that you don’t want to see.
To do this requires so-called ‘featureless surface tracking’, which scans the real-world environment using a camera and identifies – or at least attempts to identify – everything within your field of view. Once the computer knows what you’re looking at, it can enhance or diminish objects’ visibility, and overlay graphics and text. AR uses markers for this – physical labels that the camera recognises – but with featureless surface tracking, everything in the world becomes a marker.
An example would be a blank sheet of paper. Meta’s built-in 720p camera will recognise this for what it is, and the infrared 3D depth camera will track its changing position in the physical world. The headset can then ‘print’ text or graphics on the paper, which will behave as if it were real print: should you bend the paper or move it further from your face, the virtual print will move with it. It will even hide the text, or parts of it, should you turn the paper over or fold it.
Crucially, Meta is also able to recognise your hands and their position in 3D space, and will hide any graphics ‘behind’ them where necessary. And in a similar way to the Xbox 360’s Kinect controller, it’ll track hands and fingers to allow you to manipulate objects and graphics within its mediated reality world. So you and another Meta-wearer can play a game of chess on a board that isn’t really there, picking up and moving pieces with your hands. But there are bigger possibilities beyond just fun and games. Meta will also ship with software enabling wearers to use it for design, sculpting virtual 3D objects with hand-controlled mediated reality tools before sending them to a 3D printer for real-world creation. If that sounds reminiscent of Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies, that’s unsurprising. Meta recruited Jayse Hanson, the man responsible for Iron Man’s heads-up display in the films, to help design the device’s user interface.
Priced at $667 (around £410), Meta will be the first truly affordable mediated reality system available when it arrives in January 2014. But the technology still has a fair way to go before it becomes as wearable as Google Glass: the sheer amount of sensors, cameras and processing power required means that the first generation of Meta is a pretty bulky device. A sleeker Streamlined Edition is due to launch in April 2014.
Sam Kieldsen is a freelance technology journalist based in New York. His preview of the Meta Spaceglasses first appeared in the November 2013 issue of BBC Focus Magazine.