The Future of Communication Technology: Anand Agarawala of Spatial On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up How We Connect and Communicate With Each Other

Spatial is taking computing into a collaborative medium by turning any room into a 3D workspace. It is pioneering an entirely new way to work through Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), re-defining the workplace to the way it should be — blending the best of real and digital worlds by mirroring how we move, think and create in physical space but with the unlimited possibilities of digital tools. In the process, teams grow closer, think bigger, and accomplish things faster.

Imagine Zoom with Holograms. Imagine feeling like you’re working side by side with someone who is thousands of miles away. Using life-like avatars and connecting to the knowledge work tools we know and love, Spatial provides AR or VR 3D workspaces that allow users to upload, create, share and iterate on 2D and 3D ideas and documents in the space around them and in real time.

The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?

In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anand Agarawala. He is a Nigerian-born, Indian-Canadian entrepreneur, engineer, product designer and technologist. Anand is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Spatial, a company that’s pioneering an entirely new collaborative computing medium through Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) workspaces. The company is re-defining the workplace from traditional work to the way work should be — mirroring how we move, think and create in physical space, in turn allowing teams to grow closer, think bigger, and accomplish things faster.

Anand is an entrepreneur, product designer and engineer who has been on the forefront of 3D technology for the past decade. Prior to Spatial, he founded BumpTop, a pioneering 3D, multi-touch, physics desktop interface inspired by real desks that he presented at TED. The company was later acquired by Google in 2010.

At Google, Anand was an PM on early versions of Android, Google+ and Google Glass. Anand has a Masters degree in Computer Science from the University of Toronto and holds several patents across 3D user interface design.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Bumptop was an accidental hit — I actually wanted to go to film school, despite my parent’s disapproval! Bumtop was was my thesis at University and became an overnight Youtube sensation gaining 4 mill views in 4 months. Shortly after that things sort of spiraled from there — I was invited to speak at TED. Within 4 years Bumptop was bought by Google (2010) — the first Canada startup to be acquired by the company.

At Google, I worked on early versions of the home screen and core user interface on Android. I also led an effort to reboot the design of the Google+ mobile apps. I later became team lead at the Google New York Creative Lab.

It was through the TED network where I met my Co-Founder and CPO, Jinha Lee. He had created SpaceTop, one of the first AR desktop projects that lets you reach into the screen with your hands and physically interact with digital objects. He believed that computers should be used by multiple people together in the same room, and later moved on to build collaborative content sharing experience for Samsung TVs.

We both agreed that the future of computing would eventually live in 3D space and started designing user interfaces for that future. As soon as we started trying AR and VR devices like HoloLens, Magic Leap and Oculus Quest, we knew we had the vision and the know-how to build the experience that hardware vendors have long been promising — bringing about this next era of spatial computing by changing how people interact with their devices and each other.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The whole BumpTop journey was pretty wild. I’m sitting at my desk after I graduated working at an architectural firm that was interested in commercializing BumpTop and my video is #1 on YouTube. Next thing you know I’m invited to TED, Steve Jobs wants me to work on the iPhone team, I’m being flown around the world to Japan, IDEO etc to speak. I meet Larry & Sergey at TED as well as all these other heroes. It’s been a crazy ride.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I heard Salman Khan say in a talk he was trying to have generational impact. Aka, impact that goes beyond the generation you’re in and actually impacts the next one and ideally even the one following. I am driven by having that level of impact. Since augmented reality is the next/last visual frontier of computing I think there is a chance to leave fingerprints on history.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Definitely my parents. My dad had a glimmer in his eye when I was born in Nigeria to give us a better education. So he found a way to get to Canada. Our family of 6 slept on the floor, my mom sold samosas to make some money and he found a way to put us through school and worked really hard along the way. Their sacrifices and hard work really helped set me up for success.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Many companies are becoming increasingly global and working with dispersed or fully remote workforces. To solve this, businesses rely on video chat, which is impersonal and doesn’t allow for interactive collaboration. Or they rely on travel, which is expensive, exhausting, and terrible for the environment.

Spatial’s mission is to empower anyone — regardless of platform or industry — to be more connected, creative, and productive. Since Covid, we’ve offered the platform for free, in a bid to aid economic progression and as a lifeline to companies trying to stay afloat and keep dispersed teams motivated, connected and productive. The strong sense of presence in 3D offers a deeper level of trust and kinship. Many of our customers have also told us how Spatial is helping their teams who are struggling with isolation and loneliness. We have church groups, youth communities and countless others who simply use our platform to feel connected and together again, helping to ease the mental and emotional side-affects brought about by remote working.

3D collaboration in Spatial reduces lag time between ideation and go to market strategies and connects the very best people to do the job, regardless of where they’re located in the world. Spatial eliminates the need for business travel, helping to decrease huge global carbon footprints of some of the big corporates. Other benefits include improved work/life balance by reducing travel and time away from family. Meetings can also happen immediately instead of waiting months for calendar and travel coordination as well as saving company money by reducing airfare and hotel costs. It also creates more connected teams and deeper client relationships by making meeting much easier. It reduces design errors — teams can catch mistakes by taking CAD files into 3D from your 2D screen. Visualizing data in the space around you also allows you to be unlimited by screens or wall space to share ideas, data and strategies. Lastly it improves efficiencies with training global teams.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting-edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Spatial is taking computing into a collaborative medium by turning any room into a 3D workspace. It is pioneering an entirely new way to work through Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), re-defining the workplace to the way it should be — blending the best of real and digital worlds by mirroring how we move, think and create in physical space but with the unlimited possibilities of digital tools. In the process, teams grow closer, think bigger, and accomplish things faster.

Imagine Zoom with Holograms. Imagine feeling like you’re working side by side with someone who is thousands of miles away. Using life-like avatars and connecting to the knowledge work tools we know and love, Spatial provides AR or VR 3D workspaces that allow users to upload, create, share and iterate on 2D and 3D ideas and documents in the space around them and in real time.

How do you think this might change the world?

Computing was always heading this way — it will eventually become a much more collaborative medium, rather than the tool today that is actually largely disconnects us from the world around us. Computing will eventually live in 3D but Covid has just catapulted its progression forwards. It will change how we collaborate, communicate with friends and colleagues and will have knock on effects on so many other social- economic factors. For example, where we choose to live, as we are no longer restricted by the ‘office’ as a place we go.

Today Spatial is already relieving a disengaged and lonely workforce. When you take collaboration into 3D space, the dynamics of that meeting change — everyone becomes an active and engaged participant. Life-like avatars create a sense of presence and emotional connection, making workers feel they are once again together with teammates. In VR, Spatial allows them to step away from the confines of their four walls and into a virtual workspace where creativity and collaboration tools are limitless. Via AR headsets, workers can see holograms of their coworkers right with them in their living room, throwing up ideas, scribble notes on the walls around them — uploading documents straight from their computer, Slack or Gdrive, or manipulating 3D models in the space around them.

It’s also helping with vital Covid response work today — Government agencies and healthcare units such as Cornell Medical, are using Spatial’s holographic 3D workspaces to better prepare global teams, teach remote volunteers on ventilator support or for drug research between global physicians. A medical professor at the University of Nebraska is looking at how Spatial can give better and more affordable care to remote patients, allowing anyone access to the best care, regardless of location. It also drastically limits exposure to staff, as well as conserves valuable masks and medical supplies. Spatial also works with pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines and managing projects in Spatial.

Spatial is also saving time, money and the environment — connecting the very best people to do the job, instantly and regardless of where they’re located in the world. Spatial works with 40% of Fortune 1000 to help them improve efficiencies and productivity of global teams — training staff and sharing ideas, while significantly reducing cost, time and carbon footprints brought about by unnecessary business travel.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

One big concern is that we already spend too much time on our phones. I’m definitely guilty of this. Now imagine if your phone is on your head via a pair of glasses — it’s really hard to escape and not scroll your feeds forever. But I also think AR has great potential for creativity and collaboration. We need to be thinking about these issues from day 1.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

We didn’t originally start out with a collaboration tool but after testing out different scenarios, we came to the realization that a collaboration experience that merged the best of the real world and digital space was the obvious use case for spatial computing — helping people to be more connected, productive and creative. We both saw a vision for a workspace that allows you to feel as though you are collaborating side by side with coworkers who may be located thousands of miles away. Virtual space takes away the conventional limitations of the real world by creating rich, interactive 3D environments that truly augment reality out of the confines of your 2D screen. It’s how work should be.

After several years in beta, testing and refining the product, we made it available to select Enterprise companies in 2018. From the start we knew we wanted to invest in the backend to make the experience as easy to use and intuitive to navigate as possible. Our latest version released in 2020 is all about simplicity and accessibility, which includes a revamped simpler interface, availability of a VR version via the Quest — the most popular VR device on the market, and the launch of a web app for desktop/mobile. In 2020 we also launched the first public version of Spatial, allowing anyone to download the app directly from, for free during the pandemic.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

Spatial computing will be the OS of the future — 3D computing will become engrained in the way we interact with computers and each other, across any line of business, in any industry and accessible through any device.

Cheaper headsets that are untethered and with a longer battery life will help us get to widespread adoption — Quest 2 has helped hugely here, already selling 2- 3 million devices and on track to become the device to take VR to the mainstream.

Covid has also catapulted things forward, as companies are having to reimagine their office spaces and look at the tools to help them function under these new scenarios, now and for the long term. We are likely to see a much more fluid structure of remote and in person workers for the long term.

Many of our power users are using Spatial for over half the day, underlining that we are tracking towards a ‘holoffice’ experience — A virtual workspace that provides for a future of ambient collaboration, that transcends scheduled meetings in favor of VR/AR presence that’s activated as and when you need to speak up or share ideas, mirroring how humans are naturally inclined to behave at work — ‘virtually’ popping to someone’s office or desk. We’ll be announcing more on this later this year.

Spatial also launched on Mobile before the end of the year so you can now experience social AR and VR to connect with coworkers on the device you already own, opening up access to billions and breaking down hardware being a barrier to adoption.

Tele is new experimental breakthrough app that we also launched at the end of last year. It lets you video chat multiple friends in 3D, as if they were in your living room. It tracks real-time 3D facial expressions using the iPhone’s TrueDepth Camera to give a more fun and immersive experience — a sort of Facetime to ‘Placetime’. Soon we plan to integrate this into the headset Spatial experience, further progressing the feeling of connection and presence in these virtual spaces.

The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?

We’ve seen 130X increase in the last year, brought about in part by the availability of the Quest 2 headset at $299 but also the pandemic and an overnight globally remote workforce. Interestingly the growth has been from the bottom up and well beyond our traditional Fortune 1000 customers — with medical companies, Universities, SMBs, Government agencies, even celebrities and more, all looking for ways to stay productive and connected.

Regular use cases include group presentations, speaker series or poster sessions, where people are able to wonder and explore different rooms freely. Panels or town hall meetings also work well in Spatial, and even virtual events with “booths”. Training and educational sessions are proving popular with customers, as well as brainstorms and 3D design and data review work sessions.

Users can transform any room into their monitor by uploading 2D and 3D images, videos, models or notes straight from their computer of the web into the space around them. Users can screen share or automatically port in content via Google Drive, Slack and Figma.

As mentioned above, it’s helped to relieve a disengaged workforce, connecting people in new ways. It’s also helped connect the best person for the job, regardless of where they are based in the world. And specifically, its helped Covid response teams — sharing vital information, training staff or protecting people from unnecessary exposure.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • It’s going be ok. You’ll do fine.

I put so much pressure on myself to succeed in my 1st company BumpTop. I had taken friends & family money. This was my first real job and I wasn’t sure if I was throwing my life away. I was on welfare for a bit struggling for grant money. You can get really down and hard on yourself, “squeeze the stick too tight” as they say in hockey. It’s important to keep perspective and know hey you’ll be fine! And actually its going to work out pretty damn good. So don’t forget to have fun.

  • Oh the places you will go.

It’s going be a really fun journey so stop worrying so much. (worry a little though! As Andy Grove says, only the paranoid survive).

  • Work really, really hard, it’s about how much you want it.

The relentless pursuit and effort you put in to achieve your goals really can pay off. It’s that willingness to be gritty and grind it out to succeed that is so key.

  • Innovate on the areas that matter. Use standards for the rest.

As a young bright-eyed entrepreneur I wanted to re-invent and innovate on everything. Never settle for any convention because I thought I knew better or could re-derive things from first principles. A lot of the times this proved not to be worth it. For example, we spent a bunch of time on a really elegant gesture-based menu system that people just couldn’t figure out how to use. We should have just kept it simple and used standards that people already know how to use.

  • Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

This is a phrase my friends at Apple used internally. A bit related to the above, you want to put your best efforts on the areas that really matter. You could have a really crazy dope intro to your app, but where they actually spend the time in the app is what matters.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to increase the level of connection & compassion people have for each other. We are all one. I feel like I see too much selfishness out there and think it’s a downward cycle. If we can help others we really do help ourselves. Maybe it’s the classic karma thought, but like when you give and are generous you are increasing the good energy in the world and that will make it a better place for all.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.


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