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A HOLOGRAPHIC MEETING PLATFORM FOR COLLABORATING FROM ANYWHERE

12.01.21

WHAT'S IT ABOUT?

Overview from TED

When you think of telecommuting, you might think of a remote colleague's face in a tiny square on a screen. But with Jinha Lee's augmented reality platform, Spatial, distant coworkers can now teleport as digital avatars into a shared virtual space. Check out the incredible potential and possibilities for colleagues on different continents or in different time zones to collaborate as if they were physically together in a virtually enhanced workroom.

"This playful user interface really helps people to improvise and bounce ideas off of one another... almost like playing jazz together."

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Jinha Lee

Designer | Inventor

Jinha Lee wants to weave digital computing into the flow of our physical reality. He co-founded Spatial, a company that's building a holographic meeting platform that allows people to work together from anywhere as if they were in the same room.

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MY TAKE...

Jinha Lee delivered his presentation on holographic meetings at a TED Salon event in November 2019. Fast forward a year and the potential application of this type of technology seems more pertinent than ever in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.


Lee begins with an overview of the benefits of working together in the same physical space – heightened engagement, genuine eye contact, physical gestures, utilising office desks and walls to collate ideas… For many, these once everyday occurrences now feel like a different life. 


Instead, those lucky enough to still be in active employment find themselves confined to tiny rectangles on a computer screen awaiting their nth Zoom call of the day. What’s worse, it’s unlikely to change any time soon.


Thankfully I’m well accustomed to working remotely (and recently shared my tips for doing so) and have found this has still allowed me to build connections with people. But for millions around the globe the transition from office to home has brought new challenges. Could Lee – and his company Spatial - offer a solution to those suffering Zoom fatigue and craving face-to-face contact?

SPATIAL AWARENESS

Spatial isn’t new – it was founded in 2016 and companies including Mattel, Ford and my own employer, Pfizer, have been using it for some time – but it has only recently been made available to everyone.


Owing to a COVID-driven 1,000% increase in demand, Spatial launched support for web browsers on desktops, Android and iOS – and it’s free! Once a cost-inhibitive offering - where a VR headset was essential for every user – Spatial now represents an opportunity for any Tom, Dick or Harry with internet access to connect in another dimension.


To get the most out of the experience, however, it helps if at least a few participants are using VR headsets – such as Microsoft’s HoloLens or the Oculus Quest. As Julian Chokkattu explains in his Wired article:


"Spatial works best with more than two people in augmented or virtual reality - joining in from the web is a nice addition to include folks that don't have a headset, but if only one person has a virtual avatar, the experience is a bit awkward.


"If you have a headset, you'll have a virtual body with arms that swing around as you move your limbs in real life, a mouth that moves when you talk, and eyes that blink. (And if you don't, you'll appear as a floating rectangular 2D screen with footage from your webcam on display)."


He adds:


"The company says it's working on iPhone and Android apps that will use the phone's camera to recreate the virtual avatar experience at a more affordable and accessible level."


Whilst flailing limbs and virtual eyes do sound like fun features to have, there’s still a lot to gain from joining via a webcam – if only as a break from the two-dimensional video calls that dominate our diaries.


But how does it work?


Lee explains the simple steps to getting started – create a 3D avatar from a selfie and join a room. That room becomes your monitor, and your hands become the mouse, allowing you to jot down ideas, search for images, upload 3D models and even high five others!


Ok, I admit, high-fiving colleagues is not something I ever did before social distancing measures were put in place, and I don’t intend to start now – virtual or otherwise! But there is something to be said for a technology which allows you to “teleport” and engage with the “physical” presence of another human being whilst sat at your desks on different sides of the Atlantic.


From a graphics point of view, there is still significant scope for improvement. Lee shares a clip of Josh, an engineer who worked from home in Detroit on the project.  When Josh “teleports” to Spatial’s office in New York, he looks more like a gawky, legless apparition from the Harry Potter movies than a real person. But it doesn’t matter. If you can get past the uncanny valley effect, there could be real value in collaborating in this way.


To put the value of remote collaboration into perspective, Lee shares a slide comparing the CO2 emissions of one round-trip from New York to Korea to a year’s worth of other environmental initiatives – going vegetarian, ditching driving, recycling, switching to LED bulbs, eating local food with zero food waste. That one round-trip cancels out all the other efforts.


As someone who travels a lot for work, it’s shocking to see the environmental impact in such black and white terms. But it’s not just commuting and travel that Lee intends to change. If more companies adopt holographic meetings as a new way of working, he anticipates a reduction in the carbon footprint of office buildings too.

REDUCING THE DIVIDE

Towards the end of the talk, Lee references how platforms such as Spatial can not only help to reduce the economic and geographical divide, but reduce the distance between people’s minds and dreams too.


I’ve heard enough meaningless mission statements in my time, but this doesn’t feel like one of them. Allowing participants to be present, to express themselves, to communicate their ideas and to feel seen can only be a positive, for businesses at least – especially at a time where many of us are more isolated than ever before.


If home-working is to become the norm – for the short to medium-term, at least – it makes sense that companies invest accordingly. With the correct processes and technology in place, remote working can actually increase productivity and collaboration.


In June 2017, the Stanford Graduate School of Business published a study heralding working from home as a “future-looking technology”. In their experiment, half of the volunteers worked from home for nine months, coming into the office one day a week, whilst the other half worked only from the office. The results make for fascinating reading:


"Remote employees not only outperformed the control group by 13 percent, but they also had half as much turnover. Employees working from home were more likely to put in a full day of work and were able to concentrate better. Successful virtual teams combine these productivity gains to reach their goals more effectively."


With Twitter stating that staff can work from home “forever” if they choose following the pandemic, it is surely only a matter of time before other companies follow suit.


However, the very existence of Silicon Valley shows that even the world’s leading tech companies believe in the value of bringing people together in the same space – there are some things that cannot be replicated by a video call.


Could hologram meetings be the answer? There is no doubt the technology offers something different which might enhance our ability to build connections remotely. But the jury is still out on whether the value gained outweighs the practical barriers. While it might be successful in supporting one-off events like virtual conferences, I can’t see working days routinely starting with teams around the world donning their VR headsets for morning fist bumps anytime soon.

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