Technology

Augmented reality app opens door to remote 3D design collaboration

31 May 2020 | By Stephen Cousins

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for more effective forms of remote collaboration, beyond video conferencing and immersive technologies, that more closely emulate the real-life feeling of togetherness and proximity.

One system gaining more traction is Spatial, an augmented reality app focused on 3D digital design that enables users to share content and develop models together as if they were in the same room.

The tool can place multiple local and remote users together in a virtual workspace where they manipulate and interact with 3D models, videos, documents, and other digital content. Each individual is represented as a realistic avatar, constructed from 2D photos, that gestures, mouths words and even blinks in sync with actual body movements and speech.

The cross-platform solution is compatible with AR headsets, like the HoloLens 1 and 2 and Magic Leap, VR headsets, and iOS and Android devices. As of this month, enterprises can get several months’ free access and connect via desktop computers fitted with a webcam, which should draw in more remote workers during the outbreak.

We’re a general purpose collaboration tool that can be used and tailored for any industry. Construction teams can design their own rooms and models to collaborate on in the 3D space around them.– Anand Agarawala, CEO, Spatial

Anand Agarawala, CEO and co-founder at Spatial, told BIM+: “It’s about providing accessibility to all – allowing people to join Spatial 3D meetings on the devices they already own, regardless of whether they have access to a headset or not.”

The tech start-up is strategically well-placed to take on bigger brands in the remote collaboration space. In January, it closed a $14m (£11.3m) funding round that included Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and Zynga founder Mark Pincus. Total funding is $22m (£17.8m).

Spatial recently announced a partnership with AR headset manufacturer Nreal, which makes very thin, light and comparatively affordable AR glasses that attach to a phone. It is also working with Korea’s LG Uplus, Japan’s KDDI and Deutsche Telekom in Germany on low latency, wide bandwidth 5G connectivity. 

Architecture, engineering and construction is a priority sector for Spatial, says Agarawala, and the app can import 3D models produced in the likes of Rhino, Revit or AutoCAD as long as they are converted into gITF, GLB, or FBX file formats.

“We’re a general purpose collaboration tool that can be used and tailored for any industry. Construction teams can design their own rooms and models to collaborate on in the 3D space around them,” he said.

The tool enables users to draw, build and tweak documents, images and models in 3D space, including photos, videos and PowerPoints.

The ability to annotate, digitally whiteboard and live screen share is designed to speed up the process of capturing ideas and feedback in real time. The app integrates with Microsoft Teams and can be configured to create custom access permissions for different teams and individuals.

Various pre-defined virtual project rooms are available to work in and Spatial plans to update the system to allow users to customise their own environments in the near future.

According to Agarawala, one of the most popular use cases is 3D model collaboration and iteration, whereby users annotate directly onto models, view them from any angle, identify issues and share feedback.

A second key use case is brainstorming, users post sticky notes on the walls, upload notes, photos, videos or PowerPoints, or import images from the web using HoloLens voice commands.