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I’m not often at a loss for words, but as I re-entered the real world after my second holographic media briefing this month, I realized that I was struggling to speak or type. Mentally, the sensation was awe — my sincere belief that I had just experienced the future of remote work and meetings. Yet physically, I was fighting off nausea, a reminder that though collaborative mixed reality experiences are now affordable and practical, people may not be ready for them to become the new work-from-home normal.
The breakthrough here is Spatial, a collaborative workspace app that just became available for the popular Oculus Quest VR headset. It’s not hyperbole to say that Spatial has unilaterally reignited my enthusiasm for the Quest, which has recently gathered dust on my desk, as the potent pairing enables me to quickly participate in 3D group meetings filled with multiple realistic participants. Instead of using cartoony avatars or floating video tiles, Spatial users appear as “holograms” with real faces, motion-sensed head and hand movements, and even lip motions keyed to their live voices.
At a time when workers are largely confined to home offices and prevented from attending physical gatherings, Spatial meetings feel like actual gatherings — and safe ones. Each of the briefings I’ve attended during the COVID-19 pandemic has been in a clean virtual meeting room, a welcome change from the crowded hotel ballrooms and convention halls typically used for major product announcements. In a Spatial gathering, there’s no need to worry about wearing a mask over your nose and mouth, but over time, you may notice the weight of the mixed reality headset.
Until recently, the Spatial holographic experience required a multi-thousand-dollar Microsoft or Magic Leap AR headset, but Spatial wisely widened its cross-platform support and temporarily dropped its pricing to bring more users to the table. For the duration of the pandemic, Spatial can be used for free by both enterprises and end users, giving businesses every incentive to test it out with the popular, fully standalone Quest — assuming they can find one (or a few) in stores. (Defying “VR is dead” pundits, the $399-$499 headsets keep selling out every time they briefly hit online store shelves.)
I can’t help but be impressed by the overall quality of the Spatial gatherings I’ve attended. While there have been tiny issues here and there, the totality of the experience is surprisingly, perhaps even amazingly, fluid. Step back for a moment and consider all the challenges of having five or ten people in different cities all interacting plausibly within a virtual space — collectively watching a live presentation, passing 3D objects back and forth, and taking turns talking — without constant hiccups. It’s somewhat remarkable that the biggest issues I’ve seen involved one participant dropping out due to a dead headset battery, and another experiencing a beta app crash. Early streaming video services couldn’t even do that much properly without frequent buffering, and Spatial makes 20 times as much complexity seem synchronous and effortless to its users.
On the other hand, I felt a little queasy as I took off the VR gear following an hour-long meeting, and I’m not exactly sure what did it. Was it the length of time I spent immersed? Or something about returning to the real world after focusing my eyes on the Quest’s 3D screens? As a fairly frequent VR user, I haven’t had these sensations for a long time, but I suspect that my eyes were trying to stay focused on some static visible pixels while my head moved during the presentation, and that eventually made me feel sick.
For Spatial and the companies that make mixed reality headsets, overcoming that sort of practical usability hurdle may seem like the final step in popularizing virtual work-from-home solutions. And initially, I might have agreed. It’s clear that virtual meetings that end with employees feeling nauseous isn’t the sort of “productivity” experience businesses are looking for. Moreover, Oculus and others are working on VR headsets with higher refresh rates and screen resolutions specifically to smooth the viewing experience for users, making it easier on their eyes and brains.
But as I think back to my latest meeting — where I had to stay focused on the presentation in front of me for an hour, without being able to take notes, check other apps, or attend to other real-world needs — I know that there’s another set of challenges yet to be tackled. Just like Apple’s iPad nailed the “right” tablet form factor but spent years struggling to get multitasking right, companies such as Spatial now have to formulate a cohesive modern XR work experience, one that’s more than just social gatherings, and speaks to the deeper, richer interactivity with objects and work tools that business users will expect to have in mixed reality spaces.
It goes without saying that delivering a comprehensive virtual working experience won’t be easy. After using Spatial, however, I’m optimistic that some great company or companies will make it happen in the not too distant future, and that holography and mixed reality will subsequently become as viable for working from home as desktop and laptop computing are today. I just hope I won’t need motion sickness medication to fully appreciate it.