"Welcome to the future," said Anand Agarawala, as he adjusted his Microsoft HoloLens.

Minutes later, a hologram of his co-founder Jinha Lee beamed into space in front of us in a conference room.

I drew some doodles on an iPhone, and, after hitting send, they transferred to virtual sticky notes in the air. Holding up two fingers and saying "Inc. magazine" filled the space with past magazine covers, article previews, and an Amazon subscription page. I pinched one of the sticky notes and tossed it to Lee--it landed right in front of his face.

"We're basically filling the room with our thoughts," said Agarawala.

Agarawala and Lee are the entrepreneurs behind Spatial, an augmented reality conference room app that launched to the public in October. The app promises to take remote working to a new level by turning meeting attendees--all of whom need to be wearing a VR headset like a HoloLens--into lifelike avatars that can interact with one another. The app allows users to drag content from a web browser, smartphone, and the Google Suite of applications into a shared holographic space. When the meeting is over, you can preserve the virtual room where you've tacked up your sticky notes and come back to it later. 

"The high-level goal we're trying to do is increase the communication bandwidth between people," says Lee.

New York City-based Spatial isn't the only company trying to fix the problem of connecting people in different locations and helping them work better together. Doghead Simulations is working on VR collaborative spaces. And then, of course, there are more traditional and widely used videoconferencing apps like Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts. With Spatial, the co-founders say, they've found a better way to literally give everyone on your team a seat at the conference table. 

"If your meeting can be done effectively via conference rooms, then we're probably not the best solution," Agarawala says. "With that said, conference calls kind of break down after three to four people."

Both Agarawala and Lee have tinkered with the 3-D space for years. After selling a 3-D desktop interface app, BumpTop, to Google in 2010, Agarawala joined the early Android team and later worked on Google Glass. In South Korea, Lee spent his alternative mandatory military training at Samsung working on making a TV device more than just a physical screen before studying at MIT Media Lab.

Agarawala and Lee, aware of each other's work, finally crossed paths at a TED Conference in 2013. A few years later, Agarawala asked Lee if he wanted to start a venture together. Lee initially wasn't sure if it was the right time to dabble in AR startups. Eventually, he agreed, thinking that even if they failed, at least they would have worked on an important project in the future of computing.  

The co-founders say that Spatial has a handful of customers in industries including health care, military intelligence, tech, and advertising. Ford is currently using Spatial for its internal "warring" meetings on autonomous vehicles, while creative agency Ideo is exploring Spatial for brainstorming sessions, Agarawala says. A pharmaceutical company is using Spatial to display presentations, charts, and 3-D images of cells for its clients. Spatial's 10-person staff--with two remote employees--has holographic meetings at least once a week.

The company declined to disclose how much Spatial costs, but mentioned that there will be separate prices for enterprise and consumer customers.

Before it can gain any kind of widespread adoption, Spatial has some challenges in front of it: Agarawala admits that the technology is limited--the avatars, for instance, looked more cartoonish than lifelike. Plus, there isn't much technical support with these platforms yet.

"They have to align themselves within very specific tasks or markets, because the technology isn't robust enough yet to have a general-purpose-type device," says Tuong Nguyen, Gartner senior principal analyst, who focuses on immersive technologies. 

While AR still is not common in office environments, mixed reality (the blending of the physical and virtual worlds)--especially for training purposes--already can be found in industries like manufacturing. With desk jobs, "all the information you need is literally at your fingertips, whereas heavy industries don't have that information right at their face," says Nguyen.  Walmart recently rolled out a VR training program for more than 4,000 stores.

Spatial also provides virtual reality capabilities, but Agarawala says that VR is not the company's primary focus because "not everyone feels comfortable losing themselves in the room."

To date, Spatial has raised $8 million in funding from investors including iNovia Capital, Lerer Hippeau, Samsung Next, Uber co-founder Garrett Camp, and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito. On the product side, the company's next task is making the setup more seamless with single sign-on capabilities. Of course, Spatial also needs to prove to more customers that donning a clunky headset just for a meeting is worth it. 

And to do that, the co-founders are keen on making sure that this isn't just something straight from a Black Mirror episode--it's about promising increased productivity. While AR and VR are still pretty nascent, Agarawala is optimistic: "If we can get in early enough, we can put our humanistic ideals into this." 

Published on: Nov 21, 2018