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Specifically, there is too much 3D and not enough 2D.
Before exploring this seemingly contradictory problem, let’s get the semantics straight. Spatial computing is a new model 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 mixes or integrates with the physical environment. Both Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) fall under this umbrella.
In contrast, Virtual Reality (VR) replaces the physical environment with a digital one.
It’s easy to blur the line between virtual reality and spatial computing because three-dimensional space strongly defines both. This common trait too easily becomes the dominant objective. Virtual reality is about highly immersive digital experiences, which require 3D content to achieve target depth and absorption.
Careful 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 for the purpose of adding meaning or illuminating perspective.
However, too often, three-dimensional content is used clumsily and gratuitously for alluring novelty.
The distinguishing feature of spatial computing is the close relationship between digital content and physical environments. Regardless of dimensional depth, digital content must fit into the physical environment in a complementary and comfortable way for the user.
Digital content doesn’t 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 should have a sense of belonging and communion with the physical environment.
In spatial computing, digital content has “placeality”.
How placement brings clarity in digital content
Placement means that digital content is anchored to the physical environment in a meaningful way. The anchor can be absolute or relative to a physical object or the environment, such as a desk, person, room, building, or the universe. Also, the weather can affect the dynamics of the anchor. Placement describes the space and time of digital content in a physical environment. Placefulness is the flagship application of spatial computing.
Games and entertainment experiences have been and will continue to be driven by 3D digital content, but other application categories are better served by less 3D and more 2D. The purpose of most application categories is the sharing, consumption, or merging of information by humans for humans. Hierarchy, organization, and presentation of information are key, and two-dimensional text, images, and video remain the most effective and efficient forms of information sharing.
Now consider the physical three-dimensional space around you. Two-dimensional content saturates the environment: text in a book, label on a bottle, framed photos, a sign, a restaurant menu or a social media video on a smartphone. 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 to content being in 3D; in most cases, this hinders consumption or makes it more difficult. The place of the content is more critical than its 3D.
Developers and designers shouldn’t give up on 2D
Naturally, 2D is considered boring and uncool. Compared to ray-tracing graphics or real-time physics, it’s stuffy, corporate, and not technologically advanced.
However, we can’t get lost in the excitement of blending digital and physical worlds inspired by sci-fi movies and novels. Creators of spatial computing must design experiences that are tailored to the forces and nature of the medium. More importantly, they must provide functional value to the user and adhere to the universal priority of user experience.
There are other practical and economic reasons to favor 2D digital content — 3D content is expensive to create. Generally, spatial computing experiences are expensive to create, and digital 3D content dramatically inflates costs without always adding value or an enhanced experience. The two factors driving the high cost of creating spatial computing experiences are talent and tooling.
Businesses are often shocked by the cost of software projects targeting traditional technologies like the web or mobile devices. The driving cost is that of the developers; even for traditional technologies, there is not a large pool of skilled developer talent to meet demand. The talent pool of skilled spatial computing developers is orders of magnitude smaller.
However, developers do not (usually) create digital 3D content. Designers or artists specializing in 3D do it, and these digital artisans are even fewer. To make this situation even worse, these 3D artists are highly sought after by the video game industry. Finding 3D content creators under normal circumstances is difficult, but the popularity of virtual reality has created an arms race for talent, and companies are hoarding designers and 3D artists.
A two-dimensional content strategy takes advantage of traditional 2D designers and traditional design principles, reducing the need for specialized talent. Developers become responsible for delivering content and functionality as it is on the web and mobile devices. However, this highlights the second challenge: tooling.
Existing XR tools are not optimized for creating sophisticated digital 2D content. The tool chain is based on tools optimized for the generally 3D-based video game industry. To be clear, this is not a negative review as these tools are not designed or optimized for this type of content. These tools were critical for the initial maturation phase of spatial computing; however, the influence has led to a narrow set of experience categories that favor open worlds, social media-based activities, digital cosplay, and marketing.
If spatial computing is to have product categories of diverse breadth, it needs new tools: those optimized to accommodate digital information in three-dimensional space.
Rightly, there is great optimism for space computing experiments. This maturing new form of computing is filled with excitement and momentum, but it’s also over-exuberant, over-stimulated and impulsive.
Spatial computing has substantial potential to be more than just another gaming platform, but only if there is less superficial novelty and more functional and informative content. For spatial computing to thrive, it needs design principles that emphasize the nature of spatial computing – placement – and more efficient production processes.
Otherwise, it will flounder and become another segment of the tech industry generating more revenue from investors than customers.
Jarrett Webb is Chief Technology Officer at argodesign.
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