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Tech News: Spatial computing – stepping inside the world of the computer

Many people are currently tired of the numerous virtual meetings in the Covid era, says Professor Louis Fourie.

Many people are currently tired of the numerous virtual meetings in the Covid era, says Professor Louis Fourie.

Published Nov 20, 2020


Many people are currently tired of the numerous virtual meetings in the Covid era.

However, in the not-too-distant future, the use of spatial computing, haptic feedback and 360-degree cameras, could enable a person to pull up a chair and sit down to discuss a new project with a colleague in an office thousands of kilometres away.

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Technology has over the years made some great contributions in the enhancement and augmentation of our world. Around the world billions of people are using spatial computing on a daily basis without even realising it or understanding how it works.

Whenever someone uses a ride-sharing app, GPS, social media location tagging, an Augmented Reality (AR) app such as Pokémon Go, or AR filters on Instagram or Snapchat, they are using spatial computing. Spatial computing is often used by researchers to track diseases, map the bottom of the ocean, and track the behaviour of species in danger of extinction. It is also used in driverless cars to ensure a safe ride.

In the report, “Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2020,” published in November 2020 by The World Economic Forum, leading experts named spatial computing as one of the emerging technologies that have the potential to disrupt industry and society. It is seen as a novel technology that will have a significant impact on the way we live and will change our lives profoundly in the next three to five years.

Spatial computing is a complex umbrella term, but basically refers to how we as humans are increasingly stepping inside the world of computers, rather than merely interacting with it from a distance. Spatial computing brings the real and digital worlds together in a much more significant way than any technology before. Through spatial computing, computers can now roam the streets and even independently tackle crime.

Building on Virtual and Augmented Reality

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) very much entails the convergence of several technologies and in particular the merging of the physical and digital worlds. Part of this confluence of technologies is “Spatial computing,” the next step in the continuing convergence of the physical and digital worlds.

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Spatial computing includes the functionality of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications, namely digitising objects connected via the cloud; allowing sensors, machines and motors to react to each other; and digitally representing the real world.

But spatial computing goes much further by combining the VR and AR capabilities with high-fidelity spatial mapping that can enable a computer assistant to track and predictively control the movement and interactions of objects as a person traverses through the digital and physical world. Spatial technology offers a huge range of technologies, from haptic feedback systems, to edge computing, machine learning, robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT).

A typical scenario for the application of spatial computing would be an elderly person in a wheelchair who still lives independently. All relevant objects in the house have been digitally catalogued and all sensors and devices that control objects are connected to the Internet.

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A digital floorplan of the house has also been overlayed with the complete object map with the result that as the elderly person moves through the house, the lights will automatically switch on and off. In the rather small kitchen, the table will move by itself to improve access to the refrigerator and stove and will move back into position when the person is ready to eat. And when vertigo takes hold of the person in the bedroom, the furniture moves to protect the person from falling, while simultaneously alerting the closest family member or a monitoring station of the situation.

By creating an “extended reality” or mixed reality, spatial computing is elevating human to machine and machine to machine interactions to new levels of efficiency in several industries, healthcare, transportation and the home.

Digital twins

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Spatial computing builds on the concept of the “digital twin” that was introduced by Dr Michael Grieves from the University of Michigan in 2002 as the conceptual model underlying product lifecycle management (PLM). A digital twin is basically a virtual simulation model of a process, product or service that allows the monitoring of systems and analysis of data to prevent problems and downtime before they occur.

Digital twin technology has also been recognised for disrupting healthcare. Digital twins allow a more data-driven approach to healthcare and allow the building of personalised models for patients and are able to continuously make adjustments based on tracked health and lifestyle factors. Ultimately this leads to the virtual patient that I covered last week. Philips incorporated this technology so that patients can use a digital twin to act preventatively rather than reactively.

“The Living Heart” is a well-known collaboration between Stanford University and Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) where scientists created multi-scale 3-D models of the heart to monitor circulation and to virtually test developmental medications. Siemens also use Digital Twin Technology combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to assist doctors in making more precise diagnoses. Sim&Cure is known as the first company to market a patient-based simulation model for the treatment of aneurysms. Their implanted product Sim&Size, consisting of three applications, is claimed to heal patients of neurovascular disorders such as aneurysms.

Spatial computing

Spatial computing builds on the above thinking by seeing digital twins not only as representing objects, but also people and locations. Using Global Positioning System (GPS), LiDAR (measuring distances with laser light and making 3-D representations), video and other geolocation technologies, spatial computing creates a digital map of a room, building or even a city.

Artificial Intelligence algorithms then integrate this digital map with real-time Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensor data and digital portrayals of people and objects to create a true interactive digital world that can be observed, quantified and manipulated and that can even take action and manipulate the real world.

It is very possible in future that a paramedic team is sent to an office block in a large city to take care of a patient with a medical emergency. The AI driven system immediately send the patient’s medical records to the mobile devices of the paramedics, as well as real-time updates from the control centre that is connected to the location of the patient.

The system also determines the fastest route to the person in need and takes control of traffic lights to enable easy passage of the emergency vehicle. As the vehicle arrives at the office block, the electronic gates automatically open and when the vehicle parks in the emergency bay the elevator is already waiting for the paramedics.

Objects automatically move out of the way as the paramedics hurried to the patient with their stretcher. On the way back to the emergency room at the hospital, the system again determines the fastest route, while also sending the medical records and updated information to the emergency room. Depending on the complexity of the emergency or injury, the surgical team uses spatial computing and augmented reality to plan the entire operation.

The future

The modern world has progressed far with the integration of dedicated sensors, the Internet of Things, and digital twins to improve efficiency and to optimise productivity. It is therefore very likely that spatial computing will be adopted in various industries to enhance efficiency, save costs, improve safety and quality, and enhance the flow of work.

Spatial computing could be valuable in the fixing of complex machinery by guiding the technicians according to a spatial map of components, thus limiting the downtime considerably. In the case of a digital twin of a remote site where robots are building a new factory, spatial-computing algorithms could assist in optimising the safety, quality and efficiency of the work by enhancing the coordination of the robots and also the selection of tasks assigned to them.

Spatial computing could also be used in most companies handling retail, fast food or any fast-moving product. By combining spatial computing with standard engineering techniques (e.g., time-motion analyses) the flow of work could be enhanced and waiting times could be reduced significantly.

Spatial computing is promising, and it is no wonder that large companies such as Microsoft and Amazon are making huge investments in this technology. It is already changing how we live, work, learn, and drive. However, although elements of spatial computing are found in almost every aspect of life, we have only dipped our toes into the water. In the years to come, as technology continues to evolve, the possibilities of spatial computing will certainly increase.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist


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