Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Can holograms help overcome the frustrations of social distancing?

Holographic meeting company has seen 1000% growth in customer interest.

Has the time for holograms finally arrived?
0:47

I have a to admit something: I've long hated video conferencing. Truth be told, however, I've grown somewhat less resistant toward it as the shelter-in-place orders continue. 

True, I'm still usually a little grumpy about getting myself settled into a lighted corner to take the video calls, but more often than not I'm finding the face-to-face lifts my spirits and does me some good in a way that phone calls alone can't. Jokes are funnier when there's a mimed expression to accompany them, it's good to see people smile, and it's heartening to realize that whomever I'm speaking with has also gotten themself to a lighted corner of their home, which brings a sense of shared experience to this whole mess.

But is the world -- and more specifically the video conferencing curmudgeons like me -- really ready for virtual reality meetings where holographic avatars convene in digital space? Is that the next frontier, or is it a gimmick that won't take off?

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It turns out this might be a watershed moment for a technology that I, for one, would otherwise have been very reticent to adopt. One company, Spatial, which closed an impressive $22 million series A in February and is one of the better funded virtual reality collaboration outfits, is a fitting canary in the coal mine. I caught up with the company just a few months (and a universe away) from that successful raise, and the picture seems quite rosy for VR collaboration.

That makes sense. We're all remote workers for the time being, and a lot of us will be indefinitely, even when restrictions begin easing. According to Spatial, there's been a 1,000 percent increase in broad-based interest from organizations in the company's solution.

"Now is a time when feeling connected is needed more than ever, and while video chat is great, it just doesn't replace people collaborating in the same room," says Spatial CEO Anand Agarawala. "Over the last few weeks we've seen a surge in interest for Spatial's services, ranging from Fortune 1000s, to schools and hospitals, to SMBs."

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Attempting to capitalize on the interest and perhaps win long-term customers, the company is making its enterprise offering free for the coming months.

"We really wanted to respond to the global need and make Spatial Enterprise freely available to serve as many people as possible as we all navigate new territory with home and work life," says Agarawala.

As I wrote back in February, Spatial's big selling point is that it's device agnostic. The founders started with the premise that working remotely is increasingly popular, but staring at their faces on videoconference calls while sharing screens is clunky at best. Real-time feedback, real-world collaboration, and the ability to draw, build, and tweak in 3D space is lost.

Holographic collaboration is a promising solution as the world makes the move to remote work. Slipping on a VR headset, the most compelling version of the idea puts you seamlessly into a shared setting with colleagues from around the globe who can interact, share ideas, present, and collaborate. It's an attractive enough proposition that many large companies are willing to test the concept, particularly now while there's a rush to figure out solutions to keep teams synchronized.

I'll be keen to see how adoption progresses over the coming months. What's clear is the way people work, which has been evolving for decades, has now been forced to change drastically under hothouse conditions. That counsels new tools and collaboration techniques, and the once-reticent adopters like me might do well to give augmented reality and virtual reality collaboration a shot.