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Megatrends for this decade – VI

The Spatial Web weaves together all of the digital and physical strands of our future world into the fabric of a new universe where next-gen computing technologies generate a unified reality. Image credit: Gabriel René, Book The Spatial Web, 2019.

5. Augmented Reality and Spatial Web

Augmented Reality has been around for several years now. Actually, Virtual Reality came first, the possibility of immersing oneself in a virtual world, but in the last few years the flanking of virtual and real has taken the upper hand in several business and, more recently, consumer applications. Virtual reality goggles have improved but not as much as many believed and we are still facing a gap between the “reality” offered by these devices and the one we are experiencing every day with the result that “virtual” remains “virtual” in terms of perception and often creates a sense of uneasiness, even dizziness. One of the reason is that our brain integrates multi-sensorial flows of data and if there is a mismatch (like it perceives movement based on your eyes’ data but that movement is not coherent with the data received by proprioceptors -in your ears and joints-) something feels wrong.  Although vision goggles have been improving (as an example there are now untethered models and the screen resolution has improved) we haven’t been able (with few exceptions like professional flight simulators that re-create movement and acceleration sensations) to re-create the flow of data that would normally occur in real life and this is likely to remain unchanged in this decade.

Ikea lets you browse their catalogue and “see” how a furniture would fit in your home. In this case how a table would look like in your living room using your smartphone to deliver augmented reality. Image credit Ikea

On the other hand, seamless overlay of cyberspace data on the physical world does not create the issues we are facing with Virtual Reality. Here it is not about fooling our brain, rather it is adding an extra “sense” to our brain or extending existing sensorial capabilities, like increasing our sight into the infrared spectrum, hearing in the ultra-sound frequencies … Additionally, devices to extend our sensorial space are, usually. less cumbersome than VR goggles. Actually, we can use our smartphone to access augmented reality!

We can expect to see a growing space for AR application. Industry is already a major user of AR for operation and maintenance, retail applications are growing and, interestingly AR in this areas is seen both as a way to incentivate buyers and as a way to decrease returns of merchandise. This latter is becoming a major hurdle for online retailers. In the UK the cost of returned merchandise has reached 60 B£, 30% of online orders are returned. Products return has been eased and at no cost for the customer, as a way to establish trust and grow sales. However, many customers are now routinely over-ordering as a way of seen the merchandise in their home and keeping the one that fits best and returning the others. During the lock down in UK online retailers have seen a 40% increase of intentional returns (those that the customers knew would return at the moment they placed the order). Augmented reality is seen as a technology/service that could significantly decrease this problem.

Other present use of AR can be found in Education, field operation, healthcare, business logistics and more. As an example of using AR in collaboration watch this clip. The growth in AR is fuelled by the Digital Transformation through the creation of data and the connectivity being established between products/products’ users and service providers.

This Megatrend foresees a tremendous growth during this decade to the point were AR becomes the normal way to access the cyberspace. The point here is that we will reach a dimension (“digital reality” in the parlane of the Digital lReality Initiative) where cyberspace and physical space overlap in a seamless way. Everything we will perceive as reality will actually be a mixture of bits and atoms. Interestingly this does not restrict to human perception. Also “object” perception will be a mixture of bits and atoms. As Digital Twins move to stage 4 (we are now at stage 3 in most applications) an object will be made up by atoms, local bits (software enabled features) and its digital twin that operates in the cyberspace but is also a fundamental part of the object and its behaviour.

This is sometimes referred to as the “Spatial Web”:

a pairing of real and virtual realities, enabled via billions of connected devices, and accessed through the interface of Virtual and Augmented Reality

As shown in the figure the Spatial Web results from the seamless integration of different technologies, part in the hardware side (like IoT, robotics), part in software (like AI, clouds) and part in connectivity (like 5G, digital twins, blockchain). By the way, the reason for the name “Spatial” is because the bits will be associated to a location (will become visible and meaningful in a specific location). For more insights watch the clip below. A search on the web will return different results depending on where we are since the result willl be materialised in the context we are in.

According to Deloitte, the shift towards the Spatial Web has already begun. Whether you feel it today or not, I have no doubt that the dividing line separating the physical from the cyberspace is becoming fuzzier and fuzzier and will completely vanish by the end of this decade.

Of all the Megatrends proposed by Peter Diamandis this is the one that I am most sure of!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.