How Spatial Computing Can Stop Shooting Itself In The Foot

VR, AR, XR, Mixed Reality—call it what you want— will fail unless we stop repeating this blunder

Virtual and mixed reality has, so far, been heavily positioned as a gaming platform, but that is a mistake.

Presenting these new interaction paradigms as primarily for games and escapist entertainment is not only alienating to people who don’t identify as part of the gaming community, but also trivializes the technology. To create a sustainable product ecosystem for both creators and audiences, 10 million people need to be actively engaged on one platform. How can we help more people to realize that VR is for them?

To succeed as an industry and practice, it is imperative that VR designers must appeal to a broader audience by showcasing meaningful functions that meet real needs, create value and a strong engagement loop: driving adoption.

While attending the Oculus Connect 5 conference in San José last September, Michael Abrash, said something during his keynote that changed how I would think about spatial computing forever:

“VR isn’t a competitor for TV, it’s a competitor for real estate.”

Another great quote

As unsexy as it might seem, spatial computing is poised to revolutionize telepresence as the very nature of work evolves to include greater numbers of remote workers. Virtual real estate infrastructure and services can empower teams to meet, share, and collaborate, regardless of distance.

Existing players who are attempting to tackle the issue of virtual telepresence and collaboration, such as Spatial and Dream, are still leaning on visual metaphors like screens within VR, contrived physical abstractions that were previously needed when we didn’t have the capability to directly interact with the media we want to manipulate.

Disembodied heads + conventional screens in VR (Dream OS)

The telepresence hardware market will be valued at $2.63 Billion by 2022, and legacy players like Cisco, and their now defunct Spark, are backing away from virtual workspaces due to its unique hardware challenges. Now is the perfect time for a hardware first company light Magic Leap, HTC, or Oculus to present a solution designed to take advantage of the unique spatial computing possibilities of Lightwear to deliver true mixed reality workspaces.

The world grows more informationally connected every day, and yet people are still tied to where they can work depending on where they live, with work itself evolving to include greater numbers of independent and remote contributors.

A booming economy of players in the coworking space (WeWork, Breather) shows strong signals for a discrete workspace outside of the home for freelancers and remote workers, enabling them to mentally separate work and home, and to host meetings with coworkers and clients.

Augmented or virtual workspaces has the potential to explode the current conventions of screen based work by immersing users at a human scale in the media which they’re manipulating, not simply pulling physical abstractions into the virtual world.

People can configure their workspaces by adding virtual tools, some that are analogous to tools in existing physical workspaces, some that are not. Breaking from the metaphor of screens in VR, users can choose where they want to be on the spectrum of immersion: from a more traditional viewing port setup, or they may choose to pull the virtual world around them fully.

Meetings with coworkers and clients will happen through transpatial teleportation and simulated colocation, fostering deeper connection and alignment than traditional telepresence.

Unlike virtual spaces such as Rec Room, Facebook Spaces, or Oculus Venues, this virtual real estate service is not a gaming or entertainment space.

Avatars in Facebook Spaces

Users are given perceptual superpowers through the metaverse, augmenting their professional performance by creating the most productive work environment. This could replace the personal computer, and could in many cases enable teams to work entirely remotely while still experiencing the same levels of alignment as if they were colocated.

Another major needed differentiator is personal representation. Competing virtual workspaces like Spatial, Maquette, and Dream still rely on attempting to represent users with rendered avatars that look childish at best and deeply creepy at worst.

Spatial

Google Docs approaches representation with just a cursor and a small one-color badge; either of the user’s profile picture, or a randomly assigned animal if user information is unavailable. Cisco experimented with more minimal avatars, using a single colour overlaid on a rendering to represent a user in their discontinued Cisco Spark. However, they chose to also include a picture of the user and their full name, contributing to the end result looking cluttered.

Cisco Spark

This left me wondering: what is the least amount of identifying information that individuals need to recognize each other in the virtual spaces?

Inspired by existing behaviour around conference calls (an earcon sounding when a new individual joins the call and then identifies themselves verbally), virtual telepresence should explore minimalist representation.

Avatar + meeting participants concept (Hilary Hayes)

Designers should not focus on attempting to provide true to life renderings of individuals present, since virtual humans run the risk of dipping into the uncanny valley, distracting from work. Favouring instead a translucent form that indicates presence and where that individual’s focus is, but doesn’t block the viewing field.

Spatial Computing meeting room concept (Hilary Hayes)

During the spatial computing workspace setup, users could map their physical workspace, break it down into base volumes, and re-skin those forms, intermixing real and virtual however they need to tailor the most productive solo workspace for their working style. After their workspace is set up, it can remain persistent in that physical space, with tools, either mapped to a physical object or virtually build, organized around the space as desired.

Just as responsive content scales to accommodate the context, the workspace would react to environmental changes. If a user enters their workspace on a plane, their tools and materials would morph to be more contextually appropriate, bringing elements within arms reach.

The unique freedoms inherent in spatial computing allow for extreme customization and wish fulfillment, opening the door to having something that you could never possibly have in the physical world.

Everyday office headaches like ergonomics of viewing port placement or clutter vanish, replaced by a totally flexible and productivity enhancing work environment.

Users can pull in tools from pre-built project archetypes, or they can craft their own ideal workspace with holograms, whiteboards, prototyping tools, documents, and whatever else they need to do their best work.

When multiple users want to meet or collaborate, they can also load a pre-built space, be it a prototyping shop or a boardroom, or they create their own. Each party can bring their own tools and materials into the space, ensuring effective context sharing and knowledge transfer. Multiple colocated individuals may also choose to work together in one space.

Text entry, be it typing or writing, remains a real challenge for designers seeking to create effective spatial computing workspaces.

Concept image for VR/AR swipe typing (Hilary Hayes)

Possible solutions could implement an evolved predictive text instance of swipe type, allowing users to create words through gestures mapped on a virtual input space. Wearables are another potential solution. TAP, a wearable Bluetooth enabled “keyboard” could be worn by users while in their virtual workspace.

Object tracking offers yet another solution, rendering existing conventional inputs such as keyboard mouse useable in virtual or augmented reality. This would decrease the workspaces learning curve while avoiding muscle fatigue. The issue of paraphysical interaction could be avoided altogether by implementing voice as an input, but this may not be suitable in all contexts.

In conclusion, 2019 is an inflection point for spatial computing. Will VR designers continue to trivialize this technology, squandering this new interaction model as a nice-to-have entertainment option, or will we choose to engage more people by creating meaningful experiences that meet real user needs?


Many thanks to Andrew MacLusky for help gathering my thoughts for this post.