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With everyone stuck at home, meetings have to be held remotely. Video conferencing services, like Zoom and Google Meet, have exploded in popularity, but they’re limited by a screen. You can share what’s on your desktop or in front of your webcam, but you can’t really work together in a shared space like you can when you’re in the same room.

Spatial uses virtual reality to change that. It’s a teleconferencing platform that uses virtual reality to let people work together in a shared 3D space, displaying both 2D and 3D objects with which everyone can interact. It’s rolling out on Oculus Quest for the VR experience, but a clever web app lets headset-less users also participate in these virtual meetings.

Pricing and Requirements

Spatial is available for free for individual users, with unlimited access planned for the next few months. Eventually Spatial plans on setting free and paid tiers for the service, with the free membership limiting the length of meetings and access to other features. For now, though, you can try out Spatial yourself for free, and play with all of its features. The service is also available to enterprise customers for various rates.

While Spatial is intended for virtual reality, you don’t need a VR headset to use it. Spatial is accessible through a web app that provides the same interactive visual experience in a 3D space as the VR software on Oculus Quest, just through a computer monitor screen and using a mouse instead of motion controls.

Setting Up a Meeting

Spatial starts with registration on the web, where you create an account and generate an avatar. The service uses your webcam to take a picture of your face, then skins that picture over a 3D head, which is placed on a torso wearing a plain t-shirt. This avatar represents you in the virtual space, and lets you see other users in the same way. The head and mouth are articulated and move when you move your head or talk, and the hands can be controlled by 6DOF motion controls, like Oculus Touch. The lower half of your body isn’t rendered, and the avatar simply fades down past the waist, producing a slightly ghostly image.

The virtual meeting space is a large, open room with modern, minimalist architecture (lots of wood and right angles), located in a pleasant daytime environment with blue skies and clouds. You won’t see a large conference table by default; instead, Spatial provides a big space for you to customize with the information you want to share, or any decorations you want to place.

What You Can Share

Pressing a button on your controller brings up the content menu, which lets you add different 2D and 3D objects to the space. The easiest way is to search for content by entering a search term. This will bring up a variety of 3D objects from Google Poly, along with 2D images from Google. You can also import your own custom graphics and 3D models for use in meetings. However you get them, placing them in the space is as easy as reaching out, pulling the trigger, and “grabbing” the object or picture you want, then setting it anywhere around you. You can rotate and resize any object you place, making it so big you can stand in the middle or so small you can hold it in your virtual palm.

You can also draw freely in 3D with a virtual pen, either in the air or attached to any other object you place in the meeting space. If you’re annotating, you can attach text notes, which appear like floating sticky notes hovering in the air. These tools are very useful for online collaboration, since anyone in the meeting can contribute by drawing or placing notes. Of course, anyone in the meeting can also freely move and resize 3D models, which could be slightly awkward if a presentation requires a model to be fixed in space. Hopefully Spatial will add some form of individual object locking mechanism in the future.

Spatial

Spatial doesn’t feature a built-in web browser for displaying web pages in a meeting, but it does support screen sharing. Users who access the service through the web app can share their screens, which can be placed like any other object in the virtual space. Shared screens appear like pictures, as floating rectangles that display what’s on the user’s monitor.

The Virtual Meeting Experience

Spatial held a demonstration meeting in its service, which I accessed through an Oculus Quest. I was shown multiple meeting scenarios, starting with a basic gathering in the virtual space, then a presentation with a large screen floating in the air. During the presentation, I could move around the room in virtual reality, either by physically walking within my own play space or by teleporting with the motion controller’s analog stick. CEO Anand Agarawala explained the slides while standing next to the display, just as if he was giving a presentation in a physical conference room. His virtual avatar even gestured as he moved his hands, and his virtual mouth moved somewhat along with his speech.

Spatial

The meeting then demonstrated more specific real-life use cases for Spatial. One use was a product review, showing three mock-up 3D backpacks intended for sales. These backpacks could be moved and resized, and even virtually placed on the back of an avatar (manually by moving it with your motion controllers; the system doesn’t enable adding accessories to your avatar) to show how it looks. Notes placed around the backpacks highlighted comments and concerns for the different designs, and bright, 3D pen marks pointed out specific spots on each bag.

Spatial

The bags were then replaced with a virtual cell phone store, which was loaded as a single 3D model in the virtual space. It was placed in the middle of the room like a model to analyze from above, like a mock-up model on a table. Then, with a pull of the motion controls, the model was expanded to fill the virtual space in approximate life size, offering a customer’s view of what the store layout would be like. It was a fascinating experience, to suddenly move from looking down at a model to be standing in the middle of a life-size mock-up. This kind of innovation could really only happen in a VR space, and it’s certainly a big help to certain kinds of collaboration, just like the simpler more mundane capabilities of writing notes or making sketches.

Spatial

Experiencing all of these demonstrations in the meeting with my Oculus Quest felt very natural. I could simply look at anything I wanted to look at, leaning in closer to get more details or standing farther back to see the group. I could even walk around if I wanted, but the teleportation was faster and involved bumping into less furniture. Watching and participating in presentations felt intuitive, though occasionally navigating the content menu to produce my own objects in the virtual space had hiccups. Those generally required me to repeatedly pull the trigger and poke at menu items before they would appear. Still, the virtual meeting looked and sounded much more engaging than a typical video teleconference.

Accessible VR Collaboration

Spatial provides a powerful collaboration space that can bring coworkers together in virtual reality or in their web browsers. It’s certainly more flexible and cooperation-focused than Zoom and other video teleconferencing platforms. Even at this fairly early stage in its development, it’s a powerful, engrossing way to hold tightly collaborative meetings between people separated by long distances. It could use a bit more polish and some more features to make customizing your collaboration space and sharing web-based information easier, but it’s still a very strong virtual experience.

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