Beyond AR. Welcome to the Age of the Spatial Transformation

We are building the operating system for the physical world, and it will be more than just Augmented Reality…

Close your eyes and visualize the room you’re in. Can you point at the closest exit? Nice! Pick a familiar location close by and imagine walking there. Easy, right? Ok, now, open your eyes…

Hm, I didn’t think this one through…Oh well, it’s fine, I’ll just wait for you…

Hey, you’re back!

The point is: humans have the fantastic ability to explore places in our mind’s eye. We can use our own mental maps to plan future actions in the space around us. We evolved to navigate complex environments and manipulate physical objects. We are spatial creatures. Yet today, our digital life is still mostly limited to the flat rectangular space of a screen. This is not what our advanced primate brains and agile monkey paws were made for.

Nature didn’t give you an opposable thumb just so that you waste it on no damned touchscreen… 
That toad gets it.

Not only did touchscreens restrict our hands to a form of glorified finger painting, as Brett Victor famously complained, but the digital world in general hasn’t made great use of our abilities for spatial reasoning, object manipulation, and situation awareness. That is until now…

Enter the Spatial Transformation

We are standing at the edge of a major technological shift: spatial (AR, VR, MR), cognitive (ML, AI) and physical (IoT, Wearables) computing are on the verge of reshaping reality. The internet is increasingly weaving itself into the fabric of our physical reality. The future will be a complex layer cake of digital and physical elements rolled into one continuous ambient connected experience.

A new web is emerging: a physical, contextual, and spatial web, not just an Internet of Things, but the operating system for reality itself.

While smartphones are unlikely to completely go away, they will not remain the dominant computing platform forever. What comes next will require a very different perspective on interaction design, service design, user experience, etc. For anyone dealing with the impact of digital media on a daily basis, this should be an exciting (if somewhat overwhelming) prospect.

This is the reason why we started NEEEU, to identify opportunities in the Spatial Transformation of technology, and help others negotiate that transition. We expect our digital and physical worlds to align seamlessly, and people to demand services and products that also do. Spatial Transformation is a term we made up, but it represents that shift towards a new blend of technology, from augmented reality to artificial intelligence, where digital and physical realities meet.

Augmented reality is only the shiny visible part of the Iceberg. Spatial Transformation is not about any single technology, product, or service; it is the magic that happens at the intersection of overlapping realities in an increasingly connected world.

From smart cities to smart factories, from home automation to uberization, at every corner of the tech world, the internet is breaking out from the screen and eating up the world. In that process, a new web is emerging: a physical, contextual, and spatial web, not just an Internet of Things, but the operating system for reality itself.

This new world-scale interaction platform will be built on four main pillars:

The four pillars of the Spatial Transformation

1. Context awareness

Devices and spaces that understand human behavior. Using artificial intelligence, rooms, buildings, cities will respond to human activity, predicting needs and autonomously optimizing mobility, energy grids, supply chain, public services, etc.

In many ways, this is already happening. Geolocation is one of the earliest and most widespread forms of contextual awareness, and it enabled all sorts of location-based services like Uber, Runtastic, Snap Maps, or Pokemon Go. Once our devices better understand human activity, a new generation of context-based services will emerge.

Heat maps showing live Pride Parade routes in various cities, image by Mapbox

2. Responsive environments

The physical space will be addressable down to the smallest item, making tangible objects, digital or not, an integral part of a connected experience. Architecture, vehicles, decoration, furniture, signage, appliances, will move, morph and adapt to the needs, and values of the people physically or virtually present in the space. Smart sensors, autonomous machines, smart materials, and ambient displays will have a huge role to play in this one.

Go is Amazon’s vision for cashierless retail

Amazon recently launched their first brick-and-mortar store: Amazon Go. In Amazon’s new retail concept, you check in with your smartphone, take what you need and walk out. No checkout required. Cameras in the ceilings and weight sensors in the shelves precisely track which items customers pick up and take with them. Amazon Go perfectly illustrates the kind of seamless customer experience that intelligent spaces will enable.

3. Hybrid reality

Augmented reality will not only turn the whole world into a volumetric display, but also mesh with connected objects to enable hybrid tangible/digital interactions. The concept of digital twin will take a whole new dimension when that virtual representation of a physical object can be colocated with the object itself. Real-time manipulation of one will visibly affect the other, and vice-versa.

Bi-directional AR in Reality Editor, by MIT Fluid Interfaces

It is already common for designers to see the mobile app as a digital extension of a connected device. In a similar way, we should design augmented overlays as a literal extension of the device itself. Eventually, we will see the tangible and the digital half of a product as one unique thing. This will produce exciting new hybrids that blur the boundary between realities.

4. Distributed internet

In the immortal words of HBO’s Silicon Valley protagonist Richard Hendricks: “We could build a completely decentralized version of our current internet”. It’s not just fiction: a new internet is already being built that doesn’t rely on central servers. I might still look like a pipe dream at this stage, but then so did the internet not so long ago.

The peer-to-peer internet portrayed in HBO’s “Silicon Valley” is more than a plot driver

It’s to early to tell exactly which form this new internet will take. What’s certain is that a distributed infrastructure will have to be at the heart of the physical web. If all goes well, cryptographic peer-to-peer networks will ensure that users retain ownership of their data, make the system resilient and scalable, ensure interoperability between services and devices, and make sure privacy is built at the core of the system.

Follow The Rainbow

Many of the ideas above can be traced back to the work of Vernor Vinge, in particular the sci-fi novel Rainbows End. In the speculative world of Rainbows End, the concepts above are taken to their extreme, but Vinge never falls in purely utopian or dystopian hyperbole. The book paints a complex portrait of a fully connected society in which almost all of reality is laced with some form of augmented overlay. Rainbows End is an all around fantastic anticipation piece. I can’t recommend it enough.

I’ll leave you with this recent prototype by Keiichi Matsuda (of hyper-reality fame) which would fit nicely in a movie adaptation of Rainbows End. It will hopefully make you as excited about the future as I was when I saw it.

What’s next?

Spatial Transformation is still an emerging phenomenon. It will be easier to talk about in hindsight (imagine explaining contemporary filmmaking to a photographer in 1888). We don’t have the luxury of a shared vocabulary built over the course of decades. Instead, we have to use hand-me-down jargon from related fields, and sometimes obscure academic terms. This article was my attempt at bootstrapping an introduction to the Spatial Transformation from a technological perspective.

We only barely scratched the surface. An important point I only alluded to briefly is that of privacy. This is obviously too important to simply mention in passing. We also have to talk about design principles and see what the Spatial Transformation means for people, organisations, and society. We will discuss this as well as other facets of the Spatial Transformation in future articles.

Stay tuned!

🐸 Raphaël de Courville wrote this article. He is also a co-founder of NEEEU. You can find him on Twitter at @sableRaph or contact him directly at r@neu.io.

🤹🏻 Identifying which spatial technology has the potential to become a great product or service is a full-time job. It’s also not your job. Luckily for you, that’s exactly what we love doing at NEEEU. Wanna create delightful services and products that live in the real world? Get in touch at hello@neu.io