In the tech industry, “dogfooding” is a common term that describes when companies make their employees use the software and hardware they make, so that bugs can be caught and everyday improvements can be dreamed up before the product ever hits the market.
Recently, the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley have shown significant interest in augmented reality, a technology that integrates computer graphics and software into the real world. Eventually, supporters say, when “AR” technology becomes advanced enough, a pair of smartglasses may be able to replace every screen you typically use, from your smartphone to your work computer.
But to get to that point, technologists are going to have to eat a lot of dogfood — they’re going to have to actually replace their beloved computers and smartphones with AR headsets.
One Silicon Valley company is actually doing this right now. Meta is a startup making an AR headset, and it’s asking its employees to put away their desktop computers and instead do their daily work inside the Meta 2 headset.
Although Meta’s engineers rebelled at first, according to Bloomberg, the company’s marketing, sales, and operations departments have provided a lot of useful feedback because of the experiment.
“I have not used any computing device except for my iPhone and Meta 2 for three weeks now,” Meta VP Ryan Pamplin, the startup’s evangelist, told Business Insider last month. “This is the end of my third week of being computer free.”
“I also stream my Mac desktop in a virtual window that’s floating in front of me, which is nice, because then I can use iMovie or Photoshop or any of the Mac apps I like,” he continued. Pamplin said he likes to watch movies on the Meta 2 on flights.
Meta has raised over $US73 million in venture funding from investors including Horizon Ventures, Lenovo, Tencent, and Banyan Capital. It’s reportedly valued at over $US300 million.
Meta’s desktop-discarding experiment is possible because Meta has developed a piece of software for its headset it calls Workspace.
In Workspace, users can pop up several browser windows inside the headset — perhaps one to play a YouTube video and another to work on a document. Software exists to create and place virtual sticky notes, photos of your family, or even digital houseplants around your desk. Basically, you can create your own virtual dream office.
“In order to get good you have to dogfood,” Pamplin said. “OK, well, if you have to dogfood to be good, why is Meta the only ones doing it? And I think the answer is, we’re the only ones that can.”
I got to try a demo of Workspace last month in San Francisco in a bright, sun-filled room. Here’s what it was like:
This is the Meta 2 headset. You can order a development kit for $949 now, although it might be a while before it's delivered -- the company is aiming for 'the end of the summer.'
And this is what it looks like on my head. During the demo, the Meta 2 headset was plugged into a gaming PC. Meta's big selling point is that it has a 90-degree 'field of view,' which basically means that the virtual objects are able to occupy a larger percentage of the display than competitors like Microsoft HoloLens. The sensors include a front-facing colour camera, two monochrome sensors, and a six-axis gyroscope.
This is close to what I saw during my demo. This is Meta's workspace software. Each 'object' on that shelf is a different app or feature you can play with.
To boot an app, you reach into the shelf for the one you're interested in. When you see a circle icon in your hand, you make a fist to grab it. Then you can place the app anywhere in your space.
You can move the entire shelf around by reaching into it and closing your fist, like you've grabbed it.
The app you'll probably use most often is the browser window. You can set up as many of them as you like -- so if you like having two monitors, you can simulate it in AR, too. You can also display a Mac or Windows window in a virtual machine.
But Workspace isn't just for productivity. There are fun toys on the shelf, too, like this musical instrument of sorts. You touch it and it makes sounds.
One issue that I had is that I consistently reached too far deep into the virtual object. Pamplin said that was the most common problem with Meta Workspace but most people get used to it. I also found my hand movements were sometimes just a little too fast for the system.
Meta's leadership believes that the workspace will one day be several people collaborating on the same 'hologram,' like this city-scape.
Pamplin told me that his personal virtual workspace has a YouTube video playing Katy Perry, several photos of his girlfriend, and a virtual fire underneath his desk.