Patricia Esteban, mobile and XR consultant with IBM weighs in on spatial computing—including the big problems preventing our big visions from becoming a reality.

Patricia Esteban is a mobile and XR consultant with Global Business Service (GBS), the consultancy side of IBM. And she has an unusually practical approach to spatial computing. We found her through her Medium piece called 30 Days of 3D Scan that asked, “Can I make professional 3D models ONLY with iPhone 12 lidar scan capabilities?”

In this piece, she tests the variety of scanning options available to iPhone 12 users. And this means she quietly surveys where cutting-edge consumer 3D capture technology stands today, while also detailing the practical issues of merging the physical and digital worlds in an “extended reality.”

As a fan of her thinking, I caught up with Patricia to get her take on spatial computing in general. We talked about what the term means to her, where the technology is poised to make the biggest splash in business, where it sits in the hype cycle, and the problem with presenting 3D information on a 2D screen.

Sean Higgins: What does “spatial computing” mean to you?

Patricia Esteban: For me, spatial computing is every experience that merges digital information with the real world. It is bigger than XR—it is using technology to extract data from the real world, process it, and show it digitized as part of a digital twin of the world. So, this includes the UI, the digital representation of AR/MR, as well as the technology drivers for getting that info (IOT, scanners, etc).

What’s the most interesting application of spatial computing for everyday life? Why is it a big deal?

I think that spatial computing will have the biggest impact on e-commerce. At the moment, a high percentage of the population does their shopping almost completely online (and the pandemic has increased this number). This means that these shoppers cannot see clearly the textures, volume, or size of an object.

With AR, you could display the 3D model at your house (or wherever you are), without having to move. This will speed up the decision making progress of customers and differentiate vendors who have this capabilities. What would you buy on Amazon? A book with only one bad quality photo, or the same book with a video of the book, additional information of the author, and several images of the book from different angles?

Armchair Scan by patritevi on Sketchfab

What’s the most potentially transformative application of spatial computing you’ve seen in the business world?

Besides e-commerce, I think that the biggest application is training. Companies spend a lot of money on learning/training programs, and with spatial computing people more keen to retain the information than when faced with several outdated slides. Not only that, but in the long-term companies can reduce costs derive from the need of physical classrooms for training and the teacher (and training the teacher).

What is the biggest problem with spatial computing today?

Most people don’t think in 3D. When you show an AR app, a lot of people don’t “get” the projection of digital information onto the real world. They still think in 2D and, for example, with Pokemon Go, they would say that the Pokemon is on their phone screen, not on the sofa or around them.

Where do you think spatial computing sits on the hype cycle? Why?

I think it has passed the trough of disillusionment and it is just going through the slope of enlightenment. Hardware is getting better and real-world applications are getting created and replicated. But we are still in the early stages—like an iPhone 2 or 3.

What technology changes do we need to see before spatial computing reaches its full potential?

5G has to be the rule, we cannot have high downloading/loading waiting times for XR experiences. And the hardware devices need to be powerful enough to be standalone. Probably Apple’s product will have the power to make this mainstream, even without reaching full potential.

What’s the biggest barrier we need to overcome to move spatial computing forward? Is it technological, cultural, market-based, or something else?

I think it is cultural. Half of the people who tried very early stages XR experiences discarded this technology for not being good enough, since they had high expectations from sci-fi movies. The other half does not understand this new technologies and prefer to stay “old-school.”

Do you have a big opinion about spatial computing that we didn’t cover? Anything else you’d like to add?

I think that we can take the project Earth2 as reference as what spatial computing can be. A complete digital twin of the world where people can see AR/VR experiences all around the globe or teleport to other places without moving from their homes. It is still in very early stages but I think that this will be mainstream in 5 years—I see it being something like the Ready Player One world.

Find Patricia Esteban on LinkedIn, Medium, and Twitter.