To the Moon and Back in 15 Minutes: Testing Augmented Reality

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Why you should care

Because virtual reality is so 2015.

A shadowy elevator zips me up to the top of a swanky hotel — and soon, I’m staring at the majestic International Space Station. Normally, it’s a hunk of clunky metal that floats hundreds of miles away in outer space. But today, it’s orbiting around me in circles, until I start passing it in between my fingertips like a basketball. Behind me, Mother Earth is glowing, in all her green and blue glory.

This isn’t drugs, and it’s not a dream. It’s augmented reality for tech folk — or, as all we commoners like to call it, magic. And while Silicon Valley isn’t known for theatrics, Redwood City-based Meta is putting on a mind-bending show for all the world to see — at least in the TED Talk above, which co-premieres on OZY today. The bewitchment goes something like this: Strap on the $949 headset, test-drive a virtual Tesla, brush away digital screens like Iron Man and high-five your hologram bud. Presto! You’re a wizard now. To be sure, it’s not like putting a bucket over your head and disconnecting yourself from the world, says Meron Gribetz, the sorcerous CEO of Meta. These glasses give you “infinite screen real estate” to do whatever tickles your inner Harry Potter and create the stuff of dreams. Reader: I was too spellbound to ask about hologram sex.

The headset is big and bulky at first, but it’s easy to forget you’re wearing it after a few minutes because of all the luminescent bits and bobs whizzing past your face. I stick my fingers between the ribs of a skeleton, which feels a bit intrusive — even though it is a hologram. I shop for shoes on Amazon, and hold the sneaker up in my hands, lift its tongue and look inside. I play a strange game that involves computer-generated orbs floating around me; when I touch them, they explode into fire with a detonating “boom.” My fingers tingle with expectation. I wonder what black magic has befallen me. “The world is our canvas now,” says Gribetz. He’s after your laptops, tablets and phones, because “the future of computers is not locked inside one of these screens; it’s right here inside of us,” he says in the TED Talk as he debuts the technology.

But it can easily plunge into the wrong direction, says Cody Karutz from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. You can neglect your spouse, forget what it’s like to unplug and spend the rest of your days scoring points in a gamified life — as not everyone can afford such expensive gear yet, he says. From the outside, I expect, I look like a clumsy toddler grasping for the air. Some people scream, I’m told; others cry. However, Gribetz says this social isolation is what he’s aiming to fix with augmented reality, which melds the real world with the digital world. These augmented reality glasses are just one piece in a broader puzzle to reinvent the computing industry and jump-start productivity in the workplace. His entire office is already moving in this direction; within a year, they’ll be dumping their computer monitors for good.

As for me? My 15 minutes of magic are over, and I’m asked to hand over the headset. I guess for the rest of us Muggles, we’ll just have to wait.

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