Spatial computing has a 3D problem

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Specifically, there is too much 3D and not enough 2D.

Before exploring this seemingly contradictory problem, let us align on semantics. Spatial computing is a new pattern of computing, and in its dynamic and nascent state, it, unfortunately, suffers from ambiguous terminology. The defining characteristic of spatial computing is that digital content blends or integrates with the physical environment. Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) fall under this umbrella.

In contrast, Virtual Reality (VR) replaces the physical environment with a digital environment.

It is easy to blur the line between VR and spatial computing, as three-dimensional space strongly defines both. This shared trait too easily becomes the dominating focus. VR is about highly immersive digital experiences, which require 3D content to achieve the target depth and absorption.

Image via argodesign

Prudent use of 3D

With spatial computing, this maxim is not necessarily true, and too often, 3D content carelessly overwhelms the experience. Three-dimensional content can be extremely valuable when used with the purpose of adding meaning or an enlightening perspective.

However, too often, three-dimensional content is used clumsily and gratuitously for seductive novelty.

Spatial computing’s distinguishing characteristic is the strong relationship between digital content and physical environments. Regardless of dimensional depth, digital content must integrate into the physical environment in a complementary way that feels comfortable to the user.

Digital content does not have to be hyper-realistic or hyper-physical. Users will know what is and what is not digital and will be okay with the distinction as long as the digital and physical interaction is harmonious. Digital content has to have a sense of place and communion with the physical environment.

In spatial computing, digital content has “placefulness.”

How placefulness provides clarity in digital content

Placefulness means digital content is anchored to the physical environment in some meaningful way. The anchor may be absolute or relative to a physical object or the environment, such as a desk, person, room, building or the universe. Additionally, time may affect the anchor dynamics. Placefulness describes the space and time of digital content in a physical environment. Placefulness is spatial computing’s killer app.

Games and entertainment experiences have and will continue to be driven by 3D digital content, but other application categories are better serviced by less 3D and more 2D. The purpose of most application categories is the sharing, consumption, or coalescence of information by humans for humans. Information hierarchy, organization, and presentation are critical, and two-dimensional text, images, and video remain the most effective and efficient forms of sharing information.

Consider the physical three-dimensional space around you now. Two-dimensional content saturates the environment: text in a book, label on a bottle, framed photos, a street sign, a restaurant menu, or social media video on a smart-phone. These are all examples of 2D content on a 3D object. The object is an anchor for the content.

In the physical world, there is no pragmatic advantage of content being 3D; in most instances, it detracts or makes consumption more difficult. The placefulness of the content is more critical than its 3D-ness.

Developers and designers shouldn’t write off 2D

Understandably, 2D is considered boring and uncool. Compared to ray-tracing graphics or real-time physics, it is stuffy, corporate, and not technologically advanced.

However, we cannot get lost in the excitement of blending digital and physical worlds inspired by movies and sci-fi novels. Spatial computing creators must design experiences to the strengths and nature of the medium. Most importantly, they must provide functional value to the user and respect universal user-experience precedence.

Image via argodesign

There are other practical and economic reasons for favoring 2D digital content — 3D content is expensive to create. Generally, it is expensive to create spatial computing experiences, and digital 3D content significantly adding inflates costs while not always adding value or an improved experience. The two factors driving the high cost of building spatial computing experiences are talent and tooling.

Enterprises are often shocked at the cost of software projects targeting traditional technologies like the web or mobile devices. The driving cost is developers; Even for traditional technologies, there is not a large talent pool of skilled developers to meet the demand. The talent pool of skilled developers for spatial computing is smaller by a few orders of magnitude.

However, developers do not (generally) create digital 3D content. Specialized 3D designers or artists do that, and there are even fewer of these digital craftsmen. To further exasperate this situation, these 3D artists are highly sought by the video game industry. Finding 3D content creators in normal circumstances is challenging, but the popularity of VR has created an arms race for talent, and companies are hoarding 3D designers and artists.

A two-dimensional content strategy leverages traditional 2D designers and traditional design principles, reducing the need for specialized talent. Developers become responsible for implementing content and functionality as they are on the web and mobile devices. However, this highlights the second challenge: tooling.

The existing XR tools are not optimized for creating sophisticated digital 2D content. The toolchain sits on top of tools optimized for the commonly 3D-based video game industry. To be clear, this is not a negative critique as these tools are not designed or optimized for this type of content. These tools have been critical for the initial phase of spatial computing’s maturation; However, the influence has led to a narrow set of experience categories that favor open-ended worlds, social-media-based activities, digital cosplay, and marketing.

If spatial computing is to have product categories with diverse breadth, it needs new tools: Those optimized for giving digital information placefulness in three-dimensional space.

Justifiably there is great optimism for spatial computing experiences. This new and maturing form of computing is filled with excitement and momentum but is also over-exuberant, over-stimulated, and impulsive.

Spatial computing has substantial potential to be more than another gaming platform, but only if there is less superficial novelty and more functional and informational content. For spatial computing to grow, it needs design principles emphasizing the nature of spatial computing — placefulness — and more efficient production processes.

Otherwise, it will flounder and become another technology industry segment generating more income from investors than customers.

Jarrett Webb is technology director at argodesign.

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