While the term spatial computing may seem like something out of a science fiction film, in reality hundreds of people and businesses use spatial computing in their daily lives without even realizing it. Technology solutions like ride-sharing apps, virtual home assistants and autonomous vehicles, among others are all contributions of spatial computing. Experts believe, its applications are immense and the technology can change the way we work and live in the foreseeable future.
Spatial computing, an umbrella concept
The term ‘spatial computing’ was coined by MIT Media Lab researcher Simon Greenwold in 2003, but it’s only in recent years that new technologies have made his futuristic vision possible. By definition, it is not just one technology or solution, but is synonymous with extended reality (XR), an umbrella term for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. It is the practice of using physical space as a computer interface, in which machines no longer need to be tied to a fixed location.
According to Gartner, VR is a computer-generated 3D environment that surrounds a user and responds to actions in a natural way. On the other hand, AR is the real-time use of text, graphics, audio and virtual enhancements integrated with real-world objects. If we combine computer-generated 3D environments of VR with visual enhancements and information that add value to the individual (AR), we end up with spatial computing.
Magic Leap CEO, Rony Abovitz wrote in a blog post that spatial computing creates the power of place, of physicality with digital together.
“The post-COVID economy will be one of resiliency and the ability for businesses to operate across vast distances and connect with their customers in ways that mimic physical interactions, but benefit from the speed and scale of high-speed networks, will be critical. Spatial computing will very much be part of that coming economic change.”
In our daily lives, our interacting with virtual home assistants like Alexa or Siri or ride-sharing apps to move around the city is enough to explain its uses. Whenever you use a ride-sharing app, GPS, social-media location tagging, or even an AR app like Pokémon Go, you’re part of the spatial computing revolution.
Scientists, healthcare experts, and researchers are relying on spatial computing technology to track diseases and map crucial information about space exploration or even the bottom of the ocean. Environmentalists use spatial computing to determine the behavior of species going extinct, and driverless cars use spatial computing to get riders safely to their destinations.
No wonder, studies show that spatial computing market size is estimated to grow from $21.4 billion in 2020 to over $254 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 42.4% during the forecast year from 2021 to 2027.
The enterprise gains of spatial computing
The business and industrial use cases for spatial computing are far broader, as these solutions represent a real opportunity of blending VR and AR to help workers in various fields perform better and with greater accuracy, says Shashi Shekhar and Pamela Vold in their book, Spatial Computing by the MIT Press Essential Knowledge.
For instance, one area is corporate training. Industrial sectors like energy will benefit heavily from this technology to train workers in computer-generated 3D environments resembling real workplaces and scenarios. In offices too, making meetings with employees and stakeholders can be an effective thing. By merging video streams and using AR to share key information, communicating with people in different parts of the world becomes easier. For instance, when GE equipped its technicians with AR glasses, they achieved a 34% improvement in productivity for each worker. That’s because the individuals wearing the glasses had a more immersive way to see the information that they needed as they worked.
In the healthcare sector, as the Covid-19 pandemic raises the necessity for better diagnosis and the avoidance of physical touch as much as possible. For example, allowing CT scans and MRI data to be displayed directly on a patient’s body, this tool can enhance and provide live feedback to the doctor. Besides diagnostics, this technology can be used to plan procedures ahead to maximize efficiency.
The impact of the pandemic has been huge even in the manufacturing industry. In many cases, the remote monitoring capabilities of spatial computing enabled them to control and manage the shop floors. Also, traditional industrial IoT suffers from blind spots when it is executed in a 3D environment. For example, be it an equipment malfunction, or a manual error, this technology can act as a boon, providing industrial workplaces with greater accuracy – something that human eye tends to overlook.
The technology can also create experiences to change the world around us for the better to support for people with disabilities. Academics from the Dartmouth University received a research grant to develop an app for the Microsoft HoloLens that uses voice recognition and pattern technology. This solution helps people with impaired vision to read signs so that they can better move around environments that would require them to understand text and visual information.
Overcoming the adoption challenges
So one may ask, why despite its amazing contributions, spatial is still not commonplace in businesses and in our society. The biggest issue, like with most new technology in the current landscape, is that its reluctance by people to adopt this technology.
Experts believe, like with any digital transformation effort, businesses will need to take their time to define the benefits of bringing more spatial computing solutions into the workplace. Once companies of all shapes and sizes begin to feel more comfortable stepping into the digital landscape with spatial computing, worldwide adoption will grow. With this, the spatial computing community will be able to invest in new technology that changes the way we work.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that a lot of spatial computing technology today still requires various pieces of disparate technology and information to be brought together in a more unified environment. There’s a lot of expertise required in making spatial technology as immersive as it needs to be.
We’re just on the very edge of diving into the spatial computing landscape today. As 5G connection and hardware evolve, the possibilities of seeing more and more spatial computing solutions within our common spaces and work life will grow as well.
Leveraging spatial-computing analytics for continuous process improvement can more accurately and readily identify worker and production bottlenecks than previous methods. Spatial ‘heat maps’, for example, will give directions into the time spent by a worker in a particular location at a particular stage in a workflow and what routes around the factory are used most frequently.
There are an incredible range of opportunities in the spatial computing environment, and as technology evolves, our ability to tap into the digital world is just growing. And in a world in which virtual and real increasingly merging,, there’s no doubt that we’ll continue to see plenty of legacy companies and startups offering computing software solutions that focus on augmented workflows, immersive training, office productivity, design visualization, and more.