Augmented reality invades the conference room

Spatial extends the core functionality of video and screen sharing apps to a new frontier.

At its Build event last year, Microsoft showed off how many of its advanced technologies, including Cortana, Surface Hub, and HoloLens, could come together to raise the bar on meeting productivity. But if the vision behind Spatial can make inroads, the HoloLens (or another augmented reality platform) may be enough to redefine the meeting on its own. The idea behind Spatial is simple: Take the mechanics of a web-based conferencing and screen-sharing application such as BlueJeans or Zoom and blow it out into three dimensions that are integrated with our physical world.

Also: Mixed Reality 2019: Why the year ahead will be huge for enterprise AR/VR

To do this, the first thing that Spatial needs to bring in the room are participants who aren't physically present. Rather than have them submit to a facial scan, though, the software can create a workable avatar by using images of the person that may be available on the internet. That feature is in keeping with how people use systems such as BlueJeans, often to present or communicate with people who might be outside of their organization.

At first glance, it seems as if much of what Spatial does could also be achieved with virtual reality. This would certainly help bring down costs as an inexpensive platform such as Google Daydream or Oculus Go can provide serviceable VR. At its recent Oculus developer conference, Facebook provided several conceptual examples of collaboration in VR.

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VR would also solve one of the shortcomings of Spatial, at least under the HoloLens. The limited field of view can leave you blind to what is happening in part of the room, leading you to have to scan your surroundings in order to pick up on some content or even a virtual participant's avatar. However, Spatial can take advantage of surfaces such as walls to act as pinboards and, more critically, allow participants to turn their single-screened laptops into computers with multiple virtual displays that can be seen simultaneously. It's like Apple's Mission Control window organization feature brought into the real world.

Also: VR: It's time to break up CNET

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One application at which Spatial excels is manipulation of documents, including multimedia documents. It would be a good fit for something like, say, an agency pitch in which several commercial campaigns could be rearranged around a room and piled on top of each other, all in a view that is shared by and can be manipulated by different participants. Media can also be brought in dynamically via a web search. Of course, anything that can exist in AR can also exist in a Spatial room, so various kinds of topographical maps or models can also be placed upon a tabletop. However, creating these kinds of objects generally require the intervention of someone skilled in more specialized 3D model software.

Many enterprise augmented reality applications have been focused on more industrial tasks such as visualizing factory machinery in order to spot defects or comparing the aerodynamics for different options for the front of a truck. To be sure, the potential high stakes and return on investment at play in these tasks provide a strong case for acquiring what has been exotic headgear.

Also: 5 strategies for navigating VR in the enterprise TechRepublic

But the economics of AR can only improve over time as volumes increase. In its early stages, Spatial certainly provides a more engaging way to collaborate versus existing 2D tools; it's just not clear how that currently translates into a productivity advantage. That said, AR opens the door to many kinds of visualizations -- 3D-branching processes or mind maps, for example -- that are cumbersome today on a flat screen. As these more sophisticated business applications are developed, the business case for Spatial among a broader group of enterprise team members will grow stronger.

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