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Apple's spatial computing could make offices less relevant

Apple's upcoming Vision Pro, a spatial computing platform, could revolutionize virtual collaboration, potentially making traditional offices less important.

One thing that became evident in 2023? Employees don't want to work in the office five days a week. Instead, they want a hybrid work model. With that settled, the thing for HR managers to watch for in 2024 is the introduction of technologies to improve virtual collaboration, especially for remote workers.

The big change expected is Apple's release of its mixed reality product, Vision Pro, due out sometime next year. Apple has referred to it as a spatial computing platform because it will allow people to navigate a virtual and augmented space, or mixed reality environment, using eyes, hands and voice -- or in ways that are more natural than current headsets.

Vision Pro could be enough to make 3D collaboration mainstream. Still, it might take a few years for it to achieve that level of adoption, said Blaine Brown, director of machine intelligence innovation at Diversified, an audiovisual (AV) services firm. One limiting factor is the headset's $3,500 price tag.

Nonetheless, if Apple reduces the pricing and size of the headset -- something that seems likely as time goes on -- it could move augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), or spatial computing, out of its niche and into the enterprise, Brown said. It's "a very big player coming into a niche market that justifies the market."

[Spatial computing is] a whole next level.
Blaine BrownDirector of machine intelligence innovation, Diversified

As an AV services firm, Diversified outfits offices and conference rooms with advanced camera tracking systems focusing on speakers, microphones and other tech to ensure seamless in-person and remote worker meetings. It builds broadcast studios and immersive tech and has deployed VR for customers, such as an insurance company that uses it to train agents.

Today, workers use computing in 2D environments, which is limiting, Brown said. "When you start immersing yourself into virtual environments where you can collaborate with each other and with other objects or other content, it's a whole next level," he said.

Business adopters of AR/VR primarily use these systems for corporate learning, but there is increasing interest in their ability to facilitate collaboration. Apple's Vision Pro is expected to get wide use in learning.

Vision Pro headset with battery.
Apple's Vision Pro could improve collaboration for hybrid teams.

The cost limits on spatial computing

Where the tech goes next will depend on a company's willingness to invest, said Khalil Smith, vice president of inclusion, diversity and engagement at Akamai Technologies, a computing, security and content delivery company. The technology development will follow if companies are willing to spend top dollar on headsets for each employee.

One commonality between Akamai, which employs 10,000, and Diversified, which has 2,400 workers, is their adoption of remote work. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the two companies operated with mostly in-office workers.

Akamai operates office collaboration hubs for employees and will rent out conference rooms as needed. Up to 5% of employees are required to work in the office, but that number is primarily driven by roles, such as government security work. Based on badge swipes, Smith said about 8% to 9% of its employees go into the office on any given day.

Akamai allows U.S. workers to work remotely in any state. When other companies announce return-to-office policies, Akamai's recruiting efforts benefit, he said.

"Our talent acquisition team absolutely loves it," Smith said of the company's remote work policy. It also helps with retention, he added.

Studies indicate that employees don't want to return to the office full time. Based on poll results released earlier this year, Gallup stated that "fully on-site work is expected to remain a relic of the past." Its survey found that "a mere 6% want to work entirely on-site going forward."

Kastle Systems, an access control systems company that uses badge swipe data to calculate building occupancy, estimated the average office occupancy rate in December to be about 51% compared with pre-COVID-19 data. It collects data from 10 large metro areas, including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington.

Dan Schawbel, managing partner at consulting firm Workplace Intelligence, said the hybrid model represents "a truce between employer and employee, allowing both to meet in the middle."

"The hybrid model combines the advantages of remote work with the benefits of in-person collaboration, providing a balanced solution," Schawbel said. The model accommodates "the desire for increased flexibility and work-life balance among employees" while allowing businesses to maintain "a physical workplace for teamwork, creativity and organizational culture."

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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