Tech Translated: Spatial computing

  • February 07, 2024

What is spatial computing? Originally described as a human interaction with a machine that references real objects and spaces, spatial computing has continued to evolve over the past two decades. Spatial computing now includes augmented reality, which overlays digital information onto a view of the real world, as well as virtual reality, which immerses users in a completely virtual world. “Spatial computing is a great example of the convergence of physical and digital,” says Jeremy Dalton, a director in PwC US’s customer transformation practice who is focused on metaverse-related technologies. “The technology is mostly accessed via a headset or smartphone but could also ultimately include neural interfaces direct from the brain.”

What business problems can it address?

For companies, there are currently four primary areas of spatial computing worth considering to improve productivity and growth—although, as with any emerging technology, others will likely be developed over time.

  1. Process optimization: Whether enabling designs to be tested as digital twins or offering real-time advice through augmented reality overlays, spatial computing interfaces can help users identify more effective interactions with machines, environments, and people in the real world.
  2. Brand and community engagement: With in-game advertising and digital-asset sales increasing, marketing departments are increasingly looking to virtual environments to reach new audiences in new ways.
  3. Employee experience: Immersive environments have a strong track record of boosting engagement and focus, as well as helping with team-building, day-to-day working, and training.
  4. Revenue diversification: From expansion onto new customer-facing platforms to enabling collaboration and co-creation, spatial computing is at the heart of new income streams.

How does it create value?

Although PwC studies have shown that some VR training can quadruple learning speeds and nearly triple learners’ confidence, successful adoption is less about the technology itself and more about how you use it. Given the breadth of the potential business use cases of spatial computing, “it’s important to try to go beyond thinking about two-dimensional experiences and how they could be better in 3D,” explains Dalton, “because the real opportunity is for radical reinvention of ways of working, not just optimization or enhancement.” Use spatial computing simply to enhance an existing process, and given the current high cost of hardware and development, it may be difficult to demonstrate ROI. Think beyond current ways of working, and the potential gains could be exponential—assuming your target audiences are willing to try something new.

As with any emerging technology, there are some challenges to consider when using spatial computing, including finding ways to verify identity and asset ownership, clamping down on misinformation, and rethinking data and security strategies, systems, and processes. And because the potential for some users to experience nausea and discomfort while using VR headsets has been well documented, these kinds of interfaces may not work for everyone.

Such considerations are part of the reason that some uncertainty remains about the speed of adoption of these technologies, which means investing in them could be a risk in itself. “The technology and consumer engagement is not at a point at which we’d recommend anyone to invest a big chunk of their R&D or innovation or marketing budget on experimenting with it,” says Roberto Hernandez, PwC’s Global Metaverse Leader and PwC US Chief Innovation Officer. “But testing the waters with small investments and trials could prove a great use of your money.”

Who should be paying attention?

Consumer-facing and innovation-focused leaders and teams— especially the CIO, CTO, CISO, and CMO, as well as R&D and marketing and sales teams—should be keeping an eye on spatial computing and related technologies as they develop. The technology could become relevant to all industries, but immediate use cases can be found in TMT, hospitality and leisure, engineering and construction, industrial manufacturing, automotive, consumer markets, and aerospace, defense, and security.

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