I doodle a quick sketch on my iPhone. I hit a button, and it’s floating in front of me as a bright pink Post-it. I grab the note, then toss it 15 feet where it sticks to the wall next to a giant mood board of images and notes. My colleagues–one real, one a hologram beaming here from 2,000 miles away–nod in approval, as I’ve taken them both by surprise.
“I didn’t even tell you how to do that!” says Jinha Lee, from underneath his Microsoft Hololens headset. I’d just spoiled one of the best bits of Lee’s demo all by myself. But that’s how good Spatial, the new augmented reality conference room app he’s developing, is. You stop thinking that you’re wearing bulky AR hardware, you stop considering the things you can or can’t do–and you just do what comes naturally.
Spatial should be the worst kind of startup. It’s just coming out of two years of stealth development (check one). It’s developing an augmented reality app (check two) that wants to change the way we work (check three). And it’s raised a lot of money on that premise–$8 million from an all-star list of investors: iNovia Capital and Samsung Next. Garrett Camp, the cofounder of Uber. Mark Pincus, the founder of Zynga. Andy Hertzfeld, one of the original designers on the Mac. And Joi Ito, the director of MIT Media Lab.
What sets Spatial apart is that it’s being led by some of the most talented user interface designers working today.
Lee made his name with an insane system that used levitating orbs to control a computer. Then he spent a few years at Samsung to fulfill Korea’s mandatory military service, building highly experimental AR-like social experiences through the TV. He met up with Anand Agarawala, creator of the desktop interface BumpTop, which he sold to Google in 2010 before beginning work on the Android team. (The premise of BumpTop was that each icon behaved like a real, physical object, and it’s easy to imagine how it influenced Google’s Material Design guidelines to come.) Along the way, the team recruited VP of design Peter Ng, who worked on both Material Design at Google and motion graphics and 3D films at Dreamworks.
Spatial is an experience designed for conference rooms–and an impressive articulation of how AR can help teams work remotely, in real time.
So what’s it like to have an augmented meeting? Participants–wherever they are–all see one another as waist-up, photorealistic avatars, complete with real height that drops if they’re sitting, and articulated arms and hands. It sounds futuristic, but it actually starts to feel normal, fast. Photos, websites, Post-its, and even webcam feeds can be placed onto the shared virtual walls while you work. You can also pull in large 3D models, which can be placed on tables and resized.
But what makes Spatial so promising isn’t just that all of this stuff can be done; it’s that the experience is executed at a very polished level. In fact, the team built in all sorts of UI elements: You can draw a bounding box around several images to group them together, pinch-to-enlarge, and even toss items onto a board.
As Agarawala points out, Microsoft hasn’t built in this level of physics into its Hololens tools thus far. It’s a system that operates with restrictions like dragging and dropping the top bar of a window. Basically, Hololens is, with some exceptions, a desktop interface for your eyes that simply imagines your hand as a mouse. Spatial feels designed for the built environment.
Other nice moments of UI: You can pan through a panorama of Bing photo searches, and open a file on a topic–for instance, mountains–to pull up a 3D representation of a mountain (sort of like an icon) along with related 2D media. Media flows easily in and out of the Spatial platform; you can make a drawing or take a photo on your iPhone, then have it in your Spatial room in moments. The team would like to make some of these UI gestures open source, but they’re still working out the details of that arrangement.
Running three-year-old Hololens hardware, Spatial jitters now and again, but it runs smoothly enough to be comfortable. The bigger limiting factor is Hololens’ relatively narrow field of view. Sometimes I’d see someone pointing at something, but what? I’d need to turn my head and line up the tiny AR window in my eye to see it.
But Hololens will get better–and Spatial is launching on Magic Leap, too. Indeed, the company’s promise is that it’s platform agnostic. AR headset, phone, desktop with webcam–you come as you are, and it figures out the rest.
The catch is that not just anyone can sign up for Spatial just yet. The company is launching on a subscription model for big businesses looking for a way for creative teams to collaborate across the world. Then it will be available to the rest of us.
I don’t claim to know all the ins and outs of how the AR market is shaking out, but, having seen Spatial in action, it’s clear that we’re on the cusp of a new type of work, for a new type of office.
“We see this as potentially the final visual interface,” says Agarawala. “In the future, meeting rooms might be white blank rooms for AR. And if so, we want it to feel even better than reality.”