AR startup Meta sues former head of optics over alleged trade secrets theft

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A top augmented reality startup is suing its former head of optics for breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets in the creation of his own AR company.

Meta, which builds augmented reality hardware and software, filed suit earlier this week in a Northern California court against former employee Zhangyi Zhong, his company DreamWorld and 20 unnamed defendants.

The lawsuit alleges that Zhong “shamelessly leveraged” his time at the company to “misappropriate confidential and trade secret information relating to Meta’s technologies, supply chain, manufacturing methods and relationships, as well as business, investment and market strategies,” in the creation of his augmented reality startup, DreamWorld.

Zhong joined Meta in March of 2015 as a Senior Optical Engineer before his resignation in July of 2016.

Meta has raised more than $73 million in funding for its AR systems from top investors, including Y Combinator, Tencent, Comcast Ventures and Lenovo.

The San Mateo-based company has built a tethered augmented reality device, the “Meta 2,” which boasts a much wider field-of-view (FoV) than competitors, though its optics rely on far-less complex (and less expensive) technologies than the displays used by products like Microsoft’s HoloLens.

While Meta 2 has an FoV measured at around 90-degrees, Zhong claims that his company’s DreamGlass device will have an FoV of 100-degrees. Dreamworld plans to launch pre-orders for the device soon at a price of $350. The Meta 2 development kit currently costs $949.

Meta is claiming that Zhong’s has gone beyond stealing trade secrets and is also using Meta’s “market penetration strategy.”

While competitors like Microsoft are using the early generations of their hardware to prove out its SLAM mapping technologies while implementing expensive technologies that it hopes to miniaturize and improve, Meta seems to have focused a great deal of its effort on utilizing accessible hardware technologies to bring more robust visual user experiences to developers initially and secure interest while continuing to build out and miniaturize its technologies.

In the suit, Meta detailed that it has been creating versions of its optical engine that have wider field-of-views in smaller form factors than its current offering while it has also been exploring the idea of powering future headsets off of mobile devices rather than PCs.

Thought the lawsuit details that “Meta believes in free and fair competition in the augmented reality marketplace,” the suit alleges that Zhong had no experience with some of the technologies central to the DreamGlass device before joining Meta. Zhong is listed as an inventor on a patent related to Meta’s “Wide field of view head-mounted display apparatuses, methods and systems.”

Oddly, the suit also alleges that Zhong attempted to obscure his identity by changing his nickname from “Johnny” to “Kevin” after leaving the company, while not updating his LinkedIn profile to reflect his new position as CEO of DreamWorld.

Meta did not provide further comment on the lawsuit. We have reached out for comment from Zhangyi Zhong and DreamWorld.