The Augmented Reality Office of the Future May Be Complete Illusion

Workers in an augmented reality office.

The dream office of the future may be almost empty. You may one day aspire to spend your working life surrounded by bare walls, sealed off from any outside noise. You may someday go your entire day without sharing your personal, physical space.

And yet you’ll be in face-to-face communication with dozens of people from across the country and completely immersed in an interactive, touch-sensitive, spectacularly lit and colored environment.

That’s what an augmented reality office has to offer. From small, unimpressive-looking devices will spring a hybrid of computer-generated and real-world imagery and audio that will fill each of your senses and then shut down to reveal a physical office that is just a canvas for work done virtually.

It’s a world of practical illusion where the current technologies of video conferencing, workplace collaboration, and digital communication merge into all-encompassing digital workspaces.

Augmented Reality Magic

Augmented reality is the ability to combine the unreal with the real. It’s a kind of merger between the human body’s perceptions and computer-generated illusions. We see it most commonly in our daily lives through the newscasts and sporting events that use augmented reality to superimpose scores and news tickers over live video.

Today augmented reality is being used to create interactive images that incorporate the physical world around us.

But you reach the heights explored in our introduction by taking the process a step further and removing the television screen. Today augmented reality is being used to create interactive images that incorporate the physical world around us. Usually, it involves wearing a headset which effectively places the screen between our eyes and the outside world. With that setup, you can project all kinds of impossible visuals onto your external reality.

In an office environment it could potentially look like this:

Granted, this video is a rendering of what the technology could do, not what it is currently, but if augmented reality can turn your office into a virtual shooting gallery, imagine what it can do for, well, actually working.

That’s the goal of a new augmented reality system that incorporates practical workplace tools like video conferencing and whiteboards.

Spatial’s Augmented Reality Prototype

New York startup Spatial recently released a prototype of a new form of office communication it calls a collective computing environment. It’s a hybrid of augmented reality and video conferencing that lets you become a 3D character capable of interacting with workplace documents, software, and, of course, other video callers. I use the term “character” as the system doesn’t render your actual human body, rather it creates a cartoonish avatar out of a still photograph.

You can see the result in the video below:

Ghost-like floating avatars aside, the Spatial prototype is an impressive device. Using a headset like the Microsoft HoloLens, you can immerse yourself within the digital world of your workflow, accessing and manipulating mundane files as dynamic, floating holograms.

The exciting element here, though, is the fusion between computer-generated imagery and live video conferencing. That ability to communicate in real-time, and almost in-person, gives a practical edge to the otherwise predominantly solo capabilities of augmented reality.

As the goggles are transparent, you can conduct collaborative, interactive group meetings with colleagues via a convenient video call and get the benefits of seeing both your remote, projected callers and those actually in the room.

Admittedly, the graphics don’t look terribly convincing just now and that dampens enthusiasm a little. But if you can cast your mind forward a few years, you can see how an augmented reality system like this could generate an all-encompassing digital office of the future.

An Augmented Reality Office

The reason Spatial has to render its callers from static photos is that wearing the necessary goggles obscures your face. That means people can’t see you properly, and neither can your webcam. Getting around that basic logistic is tricky. You could use a front and rear camera setup like most smartphones possess, one capturing your live image and another projecting the augmented magic, but anything caught between the two will not transfer to the digital reality–so your hands couldn’t “touch” the floating file graphics.

It’s clear from devices such as Spatial’s prototype that we’re not far away from inhabiting workspaces that are essentially a blank slate for an entirely digital experience.

The alternative is to find another form of screen. VC Daily recently reported on a holographic telemedicine demonstration that used curved, bubble-like displays in which 3D images were projected. Perhaps Spatial could draw on this technology, at the very least as a simple way to allow workers to interact with holographic files, documents, and graphics.

Until that occurs, however, we are left to ponder that supersensory augmented reality office of the future.

It’s clear from devices such as Spatial’s prototype that we’re not far away from inhabiting workspaces that are essentially a blank slate for an entirely digital experience. The only hardware you currently need to live in Spatial’s world, after all, is a desktop or phone and a pair of goggles. Your surroundings, in fact, should probably be left blank so you can maximize the visual impact.

From there, you could project live feeds from webcams stationed anywhere in the world onto your walls to act as windows. You could chat face-to-face with anyone you could video call. You could collaborate on shared whiteboards and documents in real time.

And when you were done, you could fold up your laptop, pop your goggles in your bag, and leave the room in pristine emptiness.

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