You've seen this cinematic vision of the future: holograms in your conference room, consulting on glowing, floating 3D plans. Windows popping up in the air with real faces joining in videoconference, like portals to other worlds. Avengers: Endgame had a few scenes peppered with visions like these. The Microsoft HoloLens 2 is getting something that's the closest thing I've seen to that in the real world via a company called Spatial.
I got a peek of it ahead of Microsoft's Build developer conference, which opens Monday, and it's the most interesting use of mixed reality for work that I've ever seen.
Watch this: HoloLens 2: Avatars reach out and touch 5:01
Spatial debuted its first version of collaborative workspace software for HoloLens in October 2018. I demoed it earlier this year in New York on the original HoloLens hardware, before the HoloLens 2 debuted. The company demonstrated its improved collaborative tools on HoloLens 2 at the Microsoft launch event in Barcelona in February, and announced extra features at Microsoft Build on Monday, including hook-ins for Microsoft Teams.
The new version's avatars and their added eye and hand tracking make use of HoloLens 2's most interesting features. But I'm equally intrigued by how Spatial aims to blend documents from many sources and devices at once.
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The feeling is uncanny: a coworker's avatar can drop in like a ghost in your space, while you both bring up shared documents, clippings, 3D assets and web pages and throw them on walls. Suddenly, everything feels like your office webconference has sprouted 3D tendrils and expanded around the room. Or, it's like turning 3D space into a whiteboard.
Toymaker Mattel has already been using the HoloLens and Spatial's mixed reality app in collaborative workspaces.
Spatial takes advantage of some key HoloLens 2 features, pointing towards the possibilities for telepresence in mixed reality down the road. Hand and finger tracking mean avatars can point and grab at things. Eye tracking translates into your avatar's eye motions actually shifting and landing on whoever you're addressing from your headset.
The demo video that Spatial CEO and co-founder Anand Agarawalla showed me ahead of Microsoft's Build conference was almost eerie. It's not as ultra real as Facebook's experimental 3D photoreal avatars being developed at its Reality Labs in Pittsburgh, but it's a step towards a future like that. The finger tracking means avatars could scribble on a wall, too.
Would collaboration with uncanny 3D avatars feel useful, or jarring? I sometimes found it an odd mix. But I loved the idea of turning a whole space into a flexible brainstorming space, covering walls with screens and notes, and gathering around 3D objects together. It's not as seamless as the Marvel future-vision of effortless holograms, but it's probably the closest thing we've got right now.
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The coolest thing about Spatial to me, though, is that it works with phones or laptops: iOS and Android phones have apps that can be used to type, throw links into the collaboration, or even skip the HoloLens 2 and do standard video chat instead. Team members could use a phone or a web app to chat, and the phone app uses AR to peek into the collaborative session, too, for people who can't afford a $3,500 HoloLens 2 for their office. Spatial's app uses Microsoft's Azure Cloud Anchors to pin collaborations in a shared space, and a new Android app can access those cloud anchors, too. Spatial can also pull in files via OneDrive.
Spatial's Microsoft Teams support comes to the existing app for the HoloLens in June. Meanwhile, the new HoloLens 2 has a price, but no official release date yet, and it'll need great software to be relevant. Spatial is the first interesting app I've seen that could help it out.