What is Spatial Computing?

What is the story of the term that Apple used to describe the next big computing paradigm in the Apple Vision Pro?

Avi Bar-Zeev

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It’s wonderful that I can finally talk about Spatial Computing, having been immersed in it for over 30 years. Without violating my NDAs, I’m going to let you in on a few secrets that probably shouldn’t be secrets.

A screen capture, circa 1993. This term has been a long-time coming…

I joined my first startup in 1992, driving cross-country in a station wagon after meeting my new CEO online. Bob Jacobson had previously co-founded the Human Interface Technology (HIT) lab at the University of Washington along with Tom Furness, who is widely recognized as the “grandfather of VR.” Bob recalls the term Spatial Computing being used at the HIT Lab prior to 1992. We definitely used it at our startup around 1992, including, I’m told, as the title of an article by Dr. Sandra Helsel, for a Virtual Worlds magazine. I’m happy to credit the HIT Lab if that’s Bob’s memory.

Worldesign, Inc. was our spin-off, an early attempt to build a boutique design business for VR in 1992, which in hindsight was a tad bit premature. We came up with amazing ideas. People like Neal Stephenson hung out with us. But the company ran out of money after hiring too many staff when the contracts weren’t exactly rolling in. I wound up living in the office, otherwise homeless, while we tried to turn things around.

What did I know? This was my first long-term job, after a few internships. We got a life-line of $30k to build a demo for a casino attraction. But it didn’t save the company in the end. It did, however, open a door for me at Disney. And that helped eventually bring me back around to Spatial Computing at Microsoft (HoloLens) and Apple (Vision Pro) years later.

The term Spatial Computing surfaced again in 1997 for an academic collection of the same title. Then again around 2003 in Simon Greenwold’s MIT thesis. That’s as far as the Wikipedia went for most people. It’s pretty sparse, unfortunately. Turns out, it goes back to the 1980s in the field of Geographic Information Sciences, but used to talk about big spaces, like towns, countries and even the Earth. Our use is much more centered on individual — or someday collective — humans, at the distance of zero to a few meters ordinarily.

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Avi Bar-Zeev

XR Pioneer (30+ years), started/helped projects at Microsoft (HoloLens), Apple, Amazon, Keyhole (Google Earth), Linden Lab (Second Life), Disney (VR), XR Guild