What is Spatial Computing: Origins, Features, and Examples

What is Spatial Computing: Origins, Features, and Examples

Spatial computing is an evolving form of computing that centers on the use of technologies that allow humans to interact with computers in a more natural and intuitive manner. The interaction depends on the real physical space while inputs use gestures and voice commands. Hence, based on this concept, the user interface is not confined to the computer screen but is perceived as taking place in the real-world environment. Nevertheless, to understand what spatial computing is or what its main purpose is, it is important to understand its origins, features, and examples.

Origins of Spatial Computing

The exact origin of spatial computing as a concept remains uncertain. However, around 1985 or earlier, the term appeared in the field of geographic information systems. It was used to describe computations on large-scale geospatial information including natural geophysical features such as landforms and coastlines and human-made structures such as cities and infrastructures.

A virtual reality startup based in Seattle called Worldesign used the term in 1993 to describe the interaction between individual people and three-dimensional spaces. This was around the time when the field of virtual reality had escaped the confines of academic and military laboratories and was starting to find its commercial and more specific end-use applications.

Robert E. Jacobson, the chief executive of Worldesign, attributed the origins of the term to the experiments at the Human Interface Technology Lab of the University of Washington. The lab was under the directorship of professor, inventor, and virtual reality pioneer Thomas A. Furness III. Worldesign built a virtual Giza Plateau flyover called the Virtual Environment Theater.

An academic book entitled “Spatial Computing: Issues in Vision, Multimedia and Visualization Technologies” was published in 1997 as part of a series on machine perception and artificial intelligence. It was authored by Horst Bunke and edited by T. Caelli and Peng Lam. All three were computer scientists. They introduced the term to the academic audience.

The term was referenced numerous times in academic discourse and marketing lingo. Most of its uses are within the domains of virtual reality and augmented reality. Magic Leap used the term to refer to its head-mounted AR devices which were launched in 2015. Apple launched its mixed reality headset Apple Vision Pro in 2023 and called it a spatial computing device.

Features of Spatial Computing

The difference between traditional computers and devices that can provide spatial computing is straightforward. It is important to note the fact that spatial computing provides a user interface that is perceived as part of the natural environment. Nevertheless, to understand further, below are the main defining characteristics or features of spatial computing:

1. More Immersive User Interface

One of the defining characteristics of spatial computing is that the user interface is not confined within the two-dimensional limitations of a computer screen. The elements of the interface are blended with the natural world. These include digital or graphical elements that are overlaid in the physical environment or inputs that respond to environmental cues. This immersive and 3D user interface also translates to a more engaged user experience because the interaction between the user and the computer system is more natural and flexible.

2. Uses Computer-Altered Reality

Furthermore, for a more immersive user interface and user experience, several devices that are considered or marketed as spatial computers feature virtual reality, augmented reality, or mixed reality systems. These XR technologies are characterized by a computer-altered reality and they supplement the immersive and three-dimensional user interface of the entire spatial computing platform or system. VR provides a fully virtualized environment while AR superimposes digital information into the real world. MR combines VR and AR.

3. Depends on Sensors For Inputs

Another characteristic of spatial computing is that input is not limited to the use of input devices such as keyboards, mouse, or touchscreen. A user can manipulate digital objects or command a computer using gestures. Devices with VR or MR features use natural movements. Some of the most basic spatial computers are equipped with natural language processing to recognize speech for voice commands. The most advanced ones are equipped with either machine vision or more advanced computer vision to process still and moving images.

4. Higher Contextual Awareness

Related to the aforementioned, and in consideration of the sensor-dependent inputs, a defining feature of spatial computing is contextual awareness. It uses sensors such as cameras, infrared, LiDAR, gyroscopes and accelerometer, or audio inputs, among others to understand and process the surrounding environment and track the movement and placement of the user. The particular device also reacts to the context of its user. This gives it some autonomous capabilities that can be used to optimize the user interface and overall user experience.

Examples of Spatial Computing

The aforementioned features of spatial computing are present in more advanced devices. Some devices might be equipped with some but not all of the aforementioned features. Nevertheless, to understand better the purpose and applications of these devices, it is also important to know the different examples of spatial computing. Take note of the following:

1. Computer-Altered Reality Devices

One of the more advanced and common examples of spatial computing can be found in virtual reality, augmented reality, or mixed reality devices. Smartphones are the most basic and more specific examples. However, over the years since 2015, a range of VR and MR headsets have been marketed to the public. These include the devices under the Magic Leap brand, products within the Oculus Quest band of Meta Platforms, and the Apple Vision Pro.

2. Smart Appliances and IoT Devices

It is also important to highlight the fact that not all devices can feature all of the aforementioned features of spatial computing. Several smart appliances and internet-of-things devices feature some of the key characteristics of spatial computing. An example is a smart speaker. The entire user interface is both interactive and three-dimensional because it depends on speech recognition to respond to voice commands and other sensors for contextual awareness.

3. Spatial Mapping Systems and Devices

Other platforms or systems and devices might not be marketed as spatial computers but they still have features that take advantage of spatial computing. Specific examples include Tesla vehicles that are equipped with sensors and other computer vision systems for contextual awareness and devices used for spatial mapping. These platforms can map and understand the real world in 3D to create a digital representation of the physical environment.