The Spatial Age of Computing: Some of my initial thoughts

Jason Fox
Jason Fox
Sep 18 · 7 min read

In my opinion, technology, which today, is largely driven by computing, is transitioning into a new era of innovation and advancement enabled by spatial computing technologies. This new age, is what I’m choosing to call The Spatial Age of Computing.

Computers are being evolved past being the simple input devices of old, that are only capable of acting upon the task that human program them to do, to being capable of fully understanding the real world in the same ways that we do and then act intelligently upon that understanding. Becoming truly intelligent machines.

As someone who is working right in the middle of this transition, I thought that I would share some of the thoughts I’ve had over the years regarding this shift.

It will Empower Humans and Society in New Ways

This age will advance the ability of computers to understand our environments and our lives in much the same ways that humans understand them. These new powers will unlock new, profound experiences and provide insights into our lives that humans have never been capable of before. In this, Humanity will achieve what will be the closest thing to magic, or wizardry, that we have in our history.

Optimistically, in the next 5–10 years, with the advent of spatial computing technologies, artificial intelligence and the “AR Cloud” enabling this new techno-wizardry, tens-of-millions of people will be walking around and seeing the world in a much different light. We’ll be interacting with shopping experiences in new ways that show us, using digital content, the usefulness of a product before we purchase it. And, that experience will be personalized on a level that we’ve never been able to achieve at scale.

We will be experiencing entertainment in fundamentally different ways (immersive, interactive movies, anyone?). Our social lives will be enhanced by data that provides insights about the people around us, unlocking news way to connect with our neighbors. In essence, humans will be “immersed in reality”. If done right, it will make us all more connected to each other. Something that we’ve lost in the current Information Age.

This new age of computing also presents immense opportunity for empowering humanity to grow beyond some of the challenges of today. I believe that one of the greatest opportunities we, as the progenitors of these technologies, have is to enable creators to be able to build empathy into spatial experiences. This in-built empathy could help change a lot about the way people view the world through, often times myopic, lenses of our own creation — expanding our understanding that humanity is ultimately but one, not meant to be many.

The economic opportunity present during the Spatial Age will, in many ways, replicate the opportunity brought about by the internet and the Information Age. In fact one could think of the Spatial Age as the natural evolution of the Information Age. Technologists and entrepreneurs will first build evolutions of our current digital engagements presented through web pages and mobile applications. This is a natural transition period between computing ages. Take what you know well and usher in the new age by building upon it.

Me trying the nReal Light mixed reality glasses at AWE2019 in Santa Clara, CA

It’s not difficult to imagine the possibilities. As a technologist and someone who grew up reading and watching a lot of science fiction, I couldn’t be more excited about the future. I can’t wait for the day where I wake up, put my augmented contact lenses in and login to “the grid”, where I see the world enhanced with the digital information that matters to me. What is the outlook of my day? What about my family’s day? Get the status of my coffee maker? Where exactly is my self-driving shared ride to the office? All while going through my morning routine getting ready for the day. and allowing me to spend a few extra, precious moments, with my family before we all get on with our busy days.

New Systems

This new age of computing requires new systems. New ways for computers to understand our environment. The technological boom of these new systems is well underway. Companies, big and small, are frantically building the components that will ultimately bring about our full transition into this new age. Every month, there is a new milestone achieved or announcement about a new technology or company being formed. According to the Crunchbase page for AR Startups, there are currently 514 companies registered and being tracked along with investment amounts and stages.

These systems that are enabling this new age of computing will have to be accurate down near to a few centimeters in order to present information in a shared frame of reference for anyone who opts in to participate. This level of accuracy will enable users’ personal computing devices to locate their precise position and pose in real space, so that they may participate in this massive shared digital experience. A capability called micro-location. The result of this micro-location process is a person’s geopose. A standard being out forth by the Open Geospatial Consortium and will likely be adopted by Open AR Cloud and other industry groups. You can review an initial working group charter for this proposed standard here.

The Two Biggest Challenges — Security and Privacy

Of course, with this new era of computer enlightenment, this new immersive reality, there will also be new dangers the likes of which humanity has never seen along with the ones that we’re all too familiar with. The analysis and mitigation of these risks to privacy and personal safety have to be at the forefront of this new age. Otherwise, people will experience new types of exploitation that the most worldly of us can’t even imagine today.

To loosely quote my friend, Jan-Erik Vinje, who is the managing director of Open AR Cloud, “Imagine walking down the street, wearing AR glasses, experiencing this new reality and a bad actor hacks this experience to show you an altered version of reality, causing you to respond adversely and exposing yourself to risks that you would not have otherwise”. You could be lead in front of traffic, or a bus, for example. Or worse, an attacker could be masked or omitted from your perception of what’s real. This new kind of “reality hacking” type of attack could be very real and is an exploitation that needs to be thoroughly researched and legislated against.

We’ve already seen work to alter reality by removing parked cars from the curbsides of a city, which I argue is well-intentioned, but proposes a dangerous alteration to human perception. The implications for pedestrian safety are immense and, as I alluded to before, could be used to cause suicide-by-bus (sorry, I know that’s a grim thought). Pedestrian safety is already down significantly due to the increased distraction of drivers likely caused by smartphone use in the car. [Citation link]

Software engineers, ever the pioneers, are already experimenting with neural networks that can mask people and cars from reality. And while their intentions are pure (who likes seeing all of those cars parked on the roads?), they are ultimately building the tools for which those who want to exploit, will be able to. Thus, careful thought and industry self-regulation should be considered now before these technologies are widely available to consumers.

Removing cars from our roads by Chris Harrison

Let’s dig into the nascent privacy risks — which pose the most imminent threats to us given where the trends of developing technology are today in computer vision based augmented reality systems. These systems that are enabling this new age of computing will have to be accurate down near to the centimeter in order to present information in truly useful and engaging ways. This level of accuracy will enable users’ personal computing devices to locate their precise position and pose in real space, so that they may participate in this massive shared digital experience.

Along with this capability of micro-location exists the risk of a user’s exact position being exposed through the system. Imagine the damage to someone’s reputation if they were found to have been at locations that would embarrass them or the possibility of an abusive ex-partner being able to easily track down their victim.

Coupled with micro-location, is the detailed 3D map of our spaces that these systems will generate. Currently, some technologies allow you to generate a SLAM map of a space, along with 3D reconstruction capability, and the only two entities who control that data are the companies building the technology and the developer who’s app uses their SDK. I’ve yet to see an application that empowers the user to delete the spatial mapping data of the spaces that they own. This poses a huge privacy risk, as other entities now own the data to replicate your space down to centimeter accuracy in some cases.

There will be justified uses for the aforementioned micro-location capability. For example, this pinpoint accuracy could be useful in cases outside of finding our own location in space for personal use, such as search and rescue. If there is an emergency incident and people are trapped and in need of rescue, then the systems could potentially enabled rescue workers to find them much faster than other methods. In this case, there would need to be a legislated process in which rescue organizations can activate spatial location during the course of the emergency and then deactivate at the end of the event. Along with audits against abuse, this is a very empowering use and something that we should be open to allowing.

I know that I’m sounding fairly sensational at this point, but I feel like we need to be in order to imagine and propose all of the challenges that lie ahead in this new Spatial Age. We must be able to imagine the dystopia, so that we can work to prevent it.

Fortunately, there are industry groups such as XRSI and Open AR Cloud, who are working to head off these risks by engaging the industry in a conversation about them. This conversation is already having a positive impact by creating some industry self-regulation, but much more is warranted as the industry grows.

I should also mention that I co-chair the spatial mapping and location working group within the Open AR Cloud organization. My hope is that I will be sharing some of our work here on my blog over the coming years as we develop industry standards for interoperable spatial maps and what we call “reality modeling”.

Jason Fox

Written by

Jason Fox

Head of Spatial Computing at Hypergiant Sensory Sciences. Co-chair Spatial Mapping and Location at http://openarcloud.org

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