Standing in a holographic office space half-layered into the real room I was in, back in February, I lifted my hand to a wall full of faces of myself, pulled from a search engine. I dragged one across the room to where a group of people stood – some real and standing with me, others were avatars. Dragging my finger across a phone screen like a touchpad, I controlled the virtual things hanging in space that I saw through the augmented reality glasses I had on.

It was a unique experience that showcased intriguing potential. As remote work and telecommuting become more prevalent, the question arises – will augmented reality (AR) like this become a fundamental aspect of our work environment? Was it a glimpse into our future of virtual co-working using VR/AR technology, or did it highlight the challenges we may face?

The compact AR glasses, crafted by Nreal, boasted impressive resolution, though they didn’t align with my prescription, necessitating me to hold them up to my face. Utilizing the connected LG phone as a touchpad presented some rough patches, occasionally struggling to accurately track movements. Nonetheless, it successfully enabled me to collaborate with others in the room who wore HoloLens 2 and worked on various devices. The intention is for this setup to eventually operate on a 5G network, a component I have yet to experience.

AR, despite its promises, currently lacks standout applications. Additionally, 5G networks are still in their nascent stages and are not fully equipped to support AR hardware processing in the cloud, a capability essential for smart glasses to function seamlessly anywhere. If we envision a future where AR smart glasses are ubiquitous in a 5G-connected world, a compelling rationale must underpin their adoption. Could this technology hold the key to addressing the work-from-home challenges prevalent today? Will office dynamics pivot towards digital telepresence? The initial encounter I had felt like the initial strides in this direction.

Collaborating with AR glasses manufacturer Nreal, chip-making giant Qualcomm, and several international 5G carriers, Spatial, a provider of collaborative telepresence software, is striving to enhance its versatile multiplatform collaborative application for office settings or any location. The affordable Nreal glasses I tested hint at a surge of USB-C-connected, phone-dependent glasses powered by Qualcomm’s latest chips.

The semi-virtual office setup I explored at Spatial’s New York offices with Nreal’s glasses was a preliminary prototype, highlighting areas that require refinement. However, it demonstrated functionality on a $500 headset and a compatible phone that rivaled more expensive alternatives in certain aspects. Although my demonstration operated on Wi-Fi rather than 5G, the latter is expected to enhance the overall experience significantly.

Apart from delivering low latency and cloud rendering to prevent overheating in the prototype phone I used, phone-linked AR headsets necessitate user-friendly software. While tech giants like Google and Apple presently pose challenges for plug-and-play AR headsets to seamlessly utilize phone apps, future OS updates may streamline this integration.

Spatial’s pursuit of a multiplatform AR/VR future that is still evolving presents an intriguing exploration. Engaging in activities such as studying a 3D map of Mars and collaboratively interacting with avatars signifies a promising future. Despite being a work in progress, this collaborative platform with training wheels instills curiosity about its future evolution, albeit with uncertainty surrounding the timeline.