XR Talks is a series that features the best presentations and educational videos from the XR universe. It includes embedded video, as well as narrative analysis and top takeaways. Speakers’ opinions are their own.

Spatial computing continues to be equal parts excitement and disappointment. Its game-changing potential clashes with the reality check of low consumer traction today. Cue the Bill Gates quote about overestimating the short term and underestimating the long term.

So what are the factors standing behind those two opposing forces that define spatial computing today? 3D spatial interfaces align with human cognition in areas like gaming, commerce and knowledge retention. But its revolutionary leap from 2D media is a blessing and a curse.

Because it’s such a departure from decades of conditioning, it will take a while to reprogram those habitual pathways. Though keyboards and mice are “abstraction layers” compared to things like intuitive VR hand tracking, the former is advantaged by its familiarity. Old habits die hard.

Baby Steps

This not only goes for consumers but developers, designers and content creators. There’s always a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma for new technologies when it comes to supply and demand. In spatial computing, that’s amplified by the supply-side’s (creators’) learning curve.

“I think we tend to underestimate how hard it is to shift a cultural norm of existing behavior,” said Adobe’s Silka Miesnieks during a panel at SPIE (video below). “We’re spending a lot of effort teaching designers who aren’t used to working in 3D space to now design in 3D space.”

However, the effort will pay off in the form of more engaging media. Joining several other data points for AR’s high engagement rates, Miesnieks reports that Adobe sees greater consumer engagement with 3D content versus 2D. That includes things like AR brand experiences.

To get over the development hump, 8th Wall’s Tom Emrich says it’s all about the tools. The more we democratize AR creation, the faster creative pros will adopt it. That includes things like 3D model creation and asset libraries. And it applies to user creation in addition to the pros.

“I’ve always said that some of the early use cases for consumers is in the democratization of special effects, and giving the end-user the tools to be able to create content that typically a professional would only have access to.” said panel moderator Emrich. “We’re seeing that especially in the social AR space with filters. [They’re] a really important baby step to help to groom and to better understand how to leverage 3D.”

Spatial Natives

One way this is playing out according to HTC’s Amy Peck is through the community-building that social lens platforms like SparkAR (Facebook) and Lens Studio (Snapchat) have cultivated. Knowing that’s the fuel for their revenue-generating AR lenses, they’ve leaned into it.

That includes lots of free resources for lens developers to convene and share their work. For example, Snapchat last year launched developer profiles that give them a presence to promote their lenses. This serves as a sort of incentive for developers to pick up and use the tools.

Another factor propelling AR adoption is Gen Z. Applying to both the creators and consumers, Miesnieks asserts that the generation are spatial natives in the way they interact with computing (Minecraft, Pokemon Go, etc.). So for a glimpse of future demand signals, watch their behavior.

Meanwhile, all of the above examines AR in light of its mobile manifestations, which of course are more prevalent today. And that’s important in the same “baby step” construct Emrich espouses above. Though AR glasses will fully unlock the technology, mobile experiences will pave the way.

“A lot of the focus is on headsets, but I would really encourage anybody in the optics and photonics industry to really take a look at what’s happening in mobile because there are a lot of foundational elements coming into play within the consumer space,” said Emrich. “That’s going to inform what the use cases are for headsets. Filters and creation tools are one example […] This content is all about experience at a time when we’re entering the experience economy.”

Cautionary Tale 

Speaking of headsets and headworn AR (and VR for that matter), there are likewise lots of barriers. And like the challenges mentioned above, they’re more rooted in cultural factors than technological ones. Sometimes that’s all about context and thoughtful positioning.

Miesnieks backs up this point with the classic cautionary tale of Google Glass. Though many people see it as a laughing stock of pre-mature AR, few realize that it actually found a successful place in industrial settings. And that was all about pivoting the device to the right context.

With VR, there are similar challenges. Comfort is a big issue, contends HP’s John Ludwig. That goes for ergonomic comfort, which impedes session lengths. And it’s also about social comfort, as wearing a headset or even being in VR is still jarring or socially awkward for some.

“I’m a hardware guy: It’s all about comfort and that’s what’s holding back a lot of use cases,” said Ludwig. “And it’s comfort both socially as well as physically. Today, VR headsets are mostly just a brick strapped to the front of your face […] After about 45 minutes, when we do our testing, most people no matter how immersive it is, their face is tired […] On the social side, it’s pretty weird to be in VR […] Every time you go to, say, an architecture firm and ask who wants to do the architecture demo in VR, all the execs in their suits kind of look around and no one volunteers.”

Social Contract

Adding to the comfort challenges, Emrich adds that cultural acclimation will be required for AR glasses to be worn without freaking people out. There will have to be a sort of social contract established, just like we saw 15 years ago when cameras started to integrate with phones.

Hanging over all of the above lessons is the matter of product design. Emrich contends that the industry’s excitement has pushed towards devices that do everything. But purpose-built tools are traditionally more successful — including the iPhone 1 — versus a Swiss Army knife approach.

“We seem to have a ‘conquer the world or nothing’ mentality, where we to have an all-day, every-day device,” said Emrich. “You don’t always have a knife in your hand, you just use the knife to cut the chicken when you need it. So I think that there’s something to be said about thinking about these valuable reasons to use the device and allowing for those to sing. And then what will happen naturally is a developer ecosystem will grow around that, and surprise us as to what these devices are to be used for. We saw that with the smartphone.”

See the full session below. 

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