One of the things that former Intel CEO Andy Grove regretted when he left the company was going into video conferencing. Intel lost its shirt in what was the second major effort to get this technology to replace air travel. What has been happening is that a bunch of companies get excited about the prospect, they rush to build products, sales under performs, the market consolidates, and a few years later, the process repeats. While some of these existing video conferencing technologies do assist with collaboration at a distance, workers still feel the need to travel because looking at someone on a screen isn’t at all the same as being there in person.
This week, I got a demonstration from a new little company called Spatial, and while what it has isn’t cooked yet, it is close enough to see a light at the end of the tunnel. And I’m pretty sure, this time, the light isn’t an oncoming going out of business train. Spatial basically puts you in the room when you are remote and the people in your office for the meeting are using augmented reality (AR).
Let’s talk about what makes Spatial different (this video helps).
AR Brings You into the Meeting
What Spatial does is use a top AR headset like Microsoft’s Hololens or the Magic Leap solution to place an avatar that looks like your ghost in a meeting and, if you are remote, the people on site as ghosts in your office. You can move around and interact with each other as if you are in the same room and you can see what appears to be your remote coworker in the room, while still seeing the physical parts of the conference room or office (so you don’t trip and hurt yourself).
While the current generation of even high-end AR headsets from Magic Leap and Microsoft don’t yet do a good job of occluding the background (thus the AR projection looks like a ghost), it does give you a feel that they are there with full hand and facial gestures, even though the image is a digital rendering, and not a projection, of how the person actually looks.
However, given that a lot of us who work from home have less than stellar dressing habits (like the tendency to forget to put on pants), this is likely a good thing. You can even lock in your image, so you effectively look like Dorian Gray (the guy whose painting aged while he didn’t) for the rest of your remote working life, if you want.
The cameras in the headset capture your arm movements and the technology syncs your lips to your words so it looks like you are talking. The image is pretty raw right now, but the technology exists to make it photorealistic, increasing the sense of the person being there as this technology evolves.
The reason for an avatar rather than constantly scanning and converting an image captured in real time while you are conferencing is bandwidth and the issue with the head-mounted display. You’d look like a dork and people are very conscious about how remote people see them.
So, this allows you to see an image of the person as they would appear if they weren’t wearing a headset, but the image is scanned in prior to using the product, not while you are in the conference.
The result, as it currently exists, does take some getting used to because the remote person is represented without legs, reminding me a bit of the genie in the old Donald O’Conner Aladdin movie. While the image is rough, it does give you a sense for how powerful this solution will become. Interacting between the material being presented and the remote employee is more natural, there is a stronger sense of being in the room, and the technology starts to make it feel like everyone is there together (albeit with a little post-life, ghost-like feel). With some of the new technology that NVIDIA just announced, RTX, the capability to do real-time photorealistic avatars is now possible and if you were to link Spatial with RTX, you’d end up with a vastly more realistic result.
Wrapping Up: Remote Parenting/Mentoring?
While Spatial was presented as a conferencing solution, I think it might have missed a more compelling use for this technology. Whether we are talking a mentor or a parent, the ability to put the remote person in the room with you to assist with training, ease homesickness or missing a loved one, Spatial could be key. You could watch TV together, play computerized board and card games feeling like you were in the same room, or just chat without the distraction of looking at someone on a screen.
Just being able to drop in on your kid and help them with their homework or read them a bedtime story while physically remote could be huge for parents who must travel or for that sick child alone and afraid in a hospital or relative’s home. Telemedicine, where you can talk to your doctor or nurse as if they were in the same room, could also be far more powerful than just a remote meeting. Now think of how this could be eventually integrated with an AI that would learn from this behavior and begin to emulate the person using the technology. Maybe you could (after you died) still read your great grandchild a bedtime story and even chat with them eventually, and using an AI simulation and the ghost appearance would better fit the situation.
I think Spatial, or a technology like it, will eventually redefine our reality, making this company worth watching. But for now, it may just change your need to get on a plane, and maybe that’s enough.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+