Spatial and Nreal, two augmented reality startups, are joining forces to create better virtual workspaces. The two hope the combination of Nreal’s lightweight AR glasses and Spatial’s virtual workspace software will attract more users among businesses that stand to save money by conducting some face-to-face meetings in virtual form.
I got to know Spatial when when some of its people were preparing for a demo on stage at Microsoft’s Build conference last year. The company’s 3D workspaces can be created within Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed-reality headset. In a work context, augmented or mixed reality lets you see digital work assets superimposed or positioned within the real world. At Build, Spatial created a workspace in which several people collaborated on building a toy robot.
Nreal’s hardware adds a new element of mobility to the workspace experience. The Nreal AR glasses are far slimmer than the HoloLens, and the displays in the lenses are surprisingly good. The Beijing-based company caused a stir at CES with its newest glasses design, Nreal Light, which it expects to begin selling later this year.
When I recently met with Spatial in San Francisco, I hopped into a demo workspace with five people, one of them in another city. Once in virtual space, I could see the avatars of the other participants, and the walls and floor of the real-world office. I could see my own avatar, too. (A new tool lets you create an avatar based on a 3D picture of your face.)
CEO Anand Agarawala told me that Spatial’s product had evolved “from something like a 3D Zoom meeting to something more like a 3D Google Docs workspace.”
The room offered a number of different collaboration modes. I could see web pages on the wall. I walked up to a couple of panels that were showing video. A hologram of a car sat in the middle of the space, and the meeting participants were interacting with the design, pointing at things and making written notes on the car. We were all talking to each other, too, and the directional audio made voices sound like they were coming from the direction of the respective avatars.
I started out the demo using a HoloLens 2, which costs $3,500, then switched to the Nreal glasses, which will sell for $500. The visual quality and field of view of the two devices seemed roughly comparable, which is saying a lot for the Nreal glasses given that they’re smaller, lighter, and so much cheaper. And the compact size of the Nreal glasses changed the experience of using a virtual workspace. Because I had much less weight on my head, it was easier to move around to look at the various AR content around me.
The Nreal Light glasses don’t look exactly like regular sunglasses. They’re a little bigger and a little heavier at 3.1 ounces. But that’s still very light for AR glasses. Agarawala told me Nreal was able to get its glasses down to that size partly because it offloads its connectivity, processing power, and battery juice to a smartphone tethered by a USB-C cable.
Overall, the demo experience was a bit clunky because the Wi-Fi we were on was a little flighty. But I could see that the experience had evolved and improved since I saw it a year ago.
Ready for 5G
Spatial and Nreal aren’t resellers of each other’s products, Agarawala told me. Rather, they’ve teamed up to create an AR bundle designed with 5G connectivity in mind. Wireless carriers such as KDDI in Japan, Deutsche Telekom in Germany, and LG Uplus in South Korea plan to offer the Spatial software and Nreal hardware together.
Agarawala says his company already has 85 paying customers and that the technology is being explored by a significant portion of the Fortune 1000.
One reason I like Spatial is that there’s a real business case for using the product they’re making. Many multinational companies rely on air travel and face-to-face meetings to conduct business. That’s really expensive and time-consuming. And sometimes it’s just plain impossible: As the coronavirus rages on, many companies have restricted travel to Asia. The Spatial/Nreal combo is tantalizing evidence that AR hardware and software may soon provide an alternative that’s not just economical, but also an effective way to get work done.