Meta AR hardware chief Caitlin Kalinowski on the future of wearable technology

"We’re developing something that’s the first-ever of its kind."

February 1, 2023
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Much of the excitement in consumer technology these days centers on virtual reality. And why not? The idea that we soon will be able to play, work, and socialize in a fully immersive, three-dimensional universe is enticing, to say the least. But just as transformative — perhaps even more so — is the emerging field of augmented reality (AR). With AR, rather than disappearing into a virtual environment, digital information is woven into or layered on top of our experience of the real world. And that’s not the only difference. While VR headsets have been with us for at least a decade, AR hardware barely exists today; indeed, the very components that will comprise the hardware barely exist, making it a truly zero-to-one innovation challenge. Leading that charge is Caitlin Kalinowski. A veteran of Meta’s VR team who led product design and integration of the Oculus Quest, Oculus Go, and the Oculus Link cable, Kalinowski recently spoke with Tech@ about the differences between VR and AR, how diversity fuels innovation, and navigating the massive space between zero and one.

Before joining Meta’s AR hardware team, you spent almost a decade here working on VR hardware. From a product development standpoint, what’s the difference between the two? How are the problems you’re working on similar? How are they different?

Caitlin Kalinowski: Both products are at the cutting edge of consumer electronics, and both are really exciting. But there’s a term of art in my world called new technology introduction, or NTI. It refers to something brand new, that has never been done before. If you look at Meta Quest Pro, the most difficult NTI was the lenses, which needed to be designed in a way that brought the display closer to the user’s face, allowing the product to be smaller in size. The AR glasses that we’re working on have about six NTIs that are just as, or even more, difficult. With VR hardware, there are a lot of commodities involved or parts that are modified from their mobile phone versions, from molded plastic and foams to displays and silicon chips. But we’ve been able to ship six or seven different VR products because there aren’t as many NTIs. On the AR side, each NTI needs to be solved before we can even think about shipping. So the biggest difference right now is that we’re in a different phase of product development. VR is a lot further along than AR, but eventually AR will catch up.

Caitlin Kalinowski

Job Title: Head of AR Glasses Hardware

Years at Meta: 10

Education: BS Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University

Hometown: Portsmouth, New Hampshire

What led to your current role?

CK: As an undergraduate, I studied mechanical engineering. When I was a junior, I dropped out to go work in a startup that had been spun out of Apple. After a few years, I finished my degree, and around 2007 started working at Apple and stayed there for about six years. Then I joined Facebook. This was just as we were beginning to think about consumer hardware. When Oculus was acquired in 2014, they asked me to lead the hardware team, which I did for several years. And then last year I joined the AR glasses team.

Are there things that AR products have to do that VR products don’t, which make your project particularly difficult?

CK: VR is closed — you can’t physically see through a VR headset. But Meta Quest Pro has stereoscopic color Passthrough — cameras that see the physical world and pass that information through to the displays inside that let you see the world around you. So when you’re in VR, your view of the outside world is constructed inside the headset. With AR hardware, you’re looking at the actual physical world. This means that the augmented reality you show has to line up with the physical world perfectly — you can’t really do any tricks. Everything that we’re projecting on the display has to match up exactly. That’s one of the biggest challenges. Another is that the AR hardware needs to be about one-sixth the weight, or less, of a VR headset.

It has to be smaller, lighter, and equally or more powerful.

CK: Correct. Almost everything has to be custom-built to draw as little power as possible because there’s not as much room for batteries. The entire back of Meta Quest Pro is a battery. We don’t have that kind of space for AR devices.

What kind of timeframe are you on?

CK: We’re going to ship as soon as we possibly can.

So, essentially, you’re working on a product that doesn’t exist with challenges that shift constantly based on your success in dealing with the NTIs. What kinds of challenges does that pose for you as a leader? Is it difficult to keep people motivated and focused?

CK: One of the great things about the AR team is that a lot of people joined us from fantastic companies, like Microsoft and HoloLens. These are the folks who are comfortable being on the bleeding edge of technology. Coming from VR, a world where there is more certainty, I’m actually a little less comfortable than my team. So that’s been a fun thing to get used to and start to recalibrate myself.

What does that process of recalibration look like?

CK: We’re developing something that’s the first-ever of its kind, and at the same time, we’re working on productizing it. So for me, the process has been getting comfortable with not being 100 percent sure about when things are going to hit, when everything is going to be totally lined up. My teams have been helping me a lot with that — every time something happens with our schedule, they’re like, “Yeah, this is part of the deal.” And I’m like, “OK. All right. This is part of the deal.” It’s taken me a while to get used to that. But that’s the trade-off you make for working at the bleeding edge of a new technology space.

That’s an interesting place for a leader to be, where you’re the one being reassured by your team as opposed to it coming from the other direction, which is what you typically hear managers talk about.

CK: I hope that I can provide that reassurance in other aspects of the business. But one of the reasons I love working at Meta is that it’s not a top-down, do-what-I-say kind of culture. That creates a lot of safety as a leader, in terms of not always knowing, not always being the one leading the charge, and instead taking input from your team and learning from them.

Will AR hardware eventually displace VR? Or do the two technologies complement one another?
CK: My view, and the company’s view, is that they will not converge. VR takes you somewhere else — a place to focus, or game, or travel. AR is where you are at right now. The two are really quite different. Sure, we can take learnings from VR to AR. But generally speaking, they’re divergent technologies. I think we’re going to spend a lot more time in AR than we spend in VR. VR will be really important for learning, for deep, immersive experiences, while AR will be used for most of the things that you currently use your phone for.

I was recently on a business trip in Europe, in this beautiful old town with tiny little streets, and I kept having to pull out my phone to get directions, which kept taking me out of the experience. I would much rather have pulled up directions on a pair of AR glasses. That’s one of a million applications. The fun thing about the space, though, is that we actually don’t know what all the key applications are going to be. We’re good guessers, but one of the things that really surprised us with VR was fitness. People want to go work out in VR, which is something we never expected. There are going to be surprises with AR too.

You can’t build technology like this without effective collaboration. What are the secrets to building a high-functioning, innovative team?

CK: You’re going to have skills gaps that you need to fill. But there also are approach gaps. If everybody on the team is highly analytical, you want to add somebody who has great intuition. You don’t want everybody to have the same approach or the same skills or the same background. I also think that you always want somebody who’s motivational. Whether that’s you or somebody that reports to you, you need to have somebody who can bring people together. I’m lucky enough to have someone on my team right now who’s really good at that.

You’re talking about diversity of skills, of temperaments, of sensibilities. What about diversity in terms of ethnicity and gender and the like? How important is that to the specific problems you’re working on?

CK: I have a strong point of view on this. The products that we’re talking about are different than mobile phones or laptops in that they’re worn. You put a phone in your pocket, not on your body. It’s not something you wear or that needs to conform to your body, your sense of fashion. To be good at building tech in this space, you need to have physical diversity on the design teams. If you don’t have that, you lose, because you’re trying to fit all sorts of different people. If your designers and engineers and testers are not diverse, you won’t fit everybody. You’re going to miss something — maybe something about textured hair or eye color. In its first-generation watch, Apple famously didn’t take into account tattoos, which affected the ability of its sensors to read some information. This is really, really important in the wearable space.

Morally, of course, I also feel that this is important, but I don’t want to get into arguments about that. In my world, in wearables, it’s much easier to say, “Hey, if you don’t have a diverse team, your products are going to suck.” That’s something that I think is easy for everybody to coalesce around as it’s a less theoretical, less moral kind of question.

As a woman leader in tech, what are your perspectives on the kinds of challenges that people from nontraditional backgrounds face?

CK: I did have more challenges early in my career, when there would be assumptions that I would not necessarily be as good at something. That was really annoying. Now that I’ve established myself in the field, I don’t experience that as much or I don’t notice as much. Of course, you pick the companies where you can have the most impact. I think if you’re LGBTQ+ or a woman or a person of color, you can’t necessarily just work for anyone.

For me, Meta has been completely fabulous and different from all the other tech companies I’ve worked for. My diversity as a woman and an LGBTQ+ person is considered an asset and celebrated inside the company, which really takes the focus off of needing to talk about being a woman and a queer person. You can just focus on your job — unless you want to engage in these other areas, which is something I choose to do. But isn’t it nice that I don’t have to spend a whole lot of time talking about that unless I feel like it? That’s a gift and something that is not true at a lot of other places.

Finally, in a zero-to-one environment, you’re almost by definition going to encounter a lot of missteps, failures, plans that fail to pan out. How do you cope with that?

CK: You can’t work in zero-to-one without experiencing failures. Most people try to avoid making mistakes, of course. So you have to create a safe space on your team for mistakes. You almost have to applaud mistakes, make it safe — and even fun — to report mistakes early on. And it can be fun, actually, to discover, “Oh, this path won’t work. So let’s pivot to that path.” If you have the right culture and the right people on the team, that’s exciting and fun. It’s an adventure. If you have that approach, almost nothing is a failure.