Review: Spatial Softwares by John Palmer

This is a follow up essay part from John Palmer (Author) back from Spatial Interfaces which talks about the newest trends on natural interfaces which are more interacting and intuitive.

In this essay Author formalizes a new framework to design and work with Spatial Interface and software designs.

Author starts his remaining essay with parts of his thesis which he is working upon; he was optimistic about adoption of spatial interfaces over the course of years. But the unpredictable event of a global pandemic has accelerated the adoption for spatial interfaces and it is growing at an accelerated rate as of writing now.

He writes that social distancing has put people in a new context of interaction and everyone is in need of an analogous way to interact with what we have in the real world. Also current messaging and video conferencing applications are static and with limited functionalities it makes them easy to use but at the same time it also strips the freedom which we have in in-person interactions. Our current software doesn’t give us expressive control.

When we are not social distancing we go for a walk, meet someone for a coffee or share something funny in our phones and other infinite options we have for interactions, but lack of this in softwares is inconvenient and we can usually get over it.

But things are different now with pandemic situations and we all are constrained to use exclusively softwares for all of our interactions. Those minor inconveniences of traditional softwares are preventing us from our social needs.

Because of global pandemic we have already leaped into the first phase of spatial software gaining rapid adoption in social applications.

Author notes three advantages of spatial software in that remark which are:

  • Afforded Intuition: Spatial Interfaces are intuitive and easy.
  • Expressiveness: Have more freedom to move and express.
  • Presence: A given body or avatar of others gives us a sense of presence.

Now comes the main part of her essay where the author describes and formalises the Spatial Software Framework . Do refer to original Essay (Spatial Software by John Palmer) for an in depth explanation which is much more clearer. Here I am giving a short insight on how it is designed :

Separate Elements into two categories: Bodies and Objects. A body is the User and Object is something non living such as lamp, desk etc. Now give bodies and Object freedom to move inside the world (Virtual World). And move that world in an Interface of Software.

Formal Definition from Author is as follows :

“It is characterized by the ability to move bodies and objects freely, in a parallel to the real world. This is opposed to traditional software, which uses some other logic to organize its interface.”

A Pseudo sketch of what spatial software will be in the real world. By ~john palmer

Author adds that when we zoom out we see that the real world and virtual world are characterized by the same core trait: free movement of bodies and objects in space. A virtual world can also mirror the real world beyond that and it can have an environment full of mountains and trees or all earth objects, etc. And current messaging is not spatial software as they do not present a world that allows for free movements of its contents like Whatsapp, Facebook, etc.

Next author gives examples of MMORPGs like Second Life or World of Warcraft for representing an actual Spatial Interface. A great example to add will be a racing game “Forza Horizon 5”, which is the epitome of spatial software which we can achieve (at least I believe it is), Do watch this video to understand more — “Forza Horizon 5 Official Gameplay Demo — Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase 2021”. Inside the game, it’s the best real world interaction ability to interact with people who are online and on the road around you in real time. You can go for a challenge right in the middle of the road while driving and believe me it gets much better when played.

Now for his thesis author noted some of the references softwares:

1. Figma: Author mentioned it because it allows for free movement and manipulation of all elements inside the world, and it’s open in all directions. Author points out that he uses Figma for his work and other people can use it for many other purposes such as brainstorming, playing pictorial games, etc.
As an additional note the author adds that we could add functionality in figma to host whole websites and create a map of the internet as mentioned in his previous essay part, and figma plugins show us early evidence of that.

2. Muze: Author notes this one as a spatial Chat Application similar to figma but a little more constrained.

3. Animal Crossing: New Horizons — Apart from game’s releasing timing author shows 2 uniqueness of this game:

It provides a customizable space to hang out.

the point of the game is mostly social, focused on creating your space and spending time in it

It’s really easy to control and the openness of the virtual world is a strong point as people are using this for weddings, date nights, etc.

Author gave some thoughts on how we can use other websites and tools to build inside the game’s virtual world but notes that we are still in the early days of spatial web.

4. Online Town (now gather.town): The main innovation here is the way the game handles audio and video streams between players. Similar to real life, walking near someone you can see and hear them. Last month I joined the hackathon (ETHOdyssey by Devfolio) which was organised solely on gather.town and my experience was much more engaging and interacting on gather.town when interacting with other people in the room. Now I use it to hang out with my friends to play light games as this platform features a virtual space with customizable items such as adding games and objects in the virtual world.

A view of Gather.town room with Spatial Design Notion

5. Nototo: Author’s gives the best explanation on this — Nototo is like a software manifestation of a memory palace.

6. Spatial Chatroom: It is an example which the author built where users get an avatar and a speech bubble to talk to each other. He noted that within a few minutes of testing out the app with his friends, his friends discovered to play some tag for fun or have a foot race around the map. In short it makes people more creative like using a deck of cards in the real world.

What’s Next

Author urges on the need for softwares that can fulfill our social needs. He notes that now is an extremely generative time for insights and innovation in the way we build software.We need to take design patterns from gaming and apply them to non-competitive scenarios, especially social use-cases.

He is hopeful that readers can easily think about softwares when in a spatial context. He imagined a remake of the virtual world, where each user gets a house that friends can stop by to visit. Or a web browser with a topographical view, where users who work together to build a spatial map of related websites, and you can put a whole world inside of almost any interface and even a blog post.

The Author has presented a great framework for developers and designers to think about and work with spatial software interfaces. It presents an easy way to think about software design in the context of spatial softwares and onpoint to design more intuitive and fresh designs for fulfilling our social needs. With the advent of spatial interfaces we might even have virtual worlds resembling worlds as in an Anime Sword art online Sword Art Online — Official Trailer. I am also optimistic about the world wide adoption of spatial interfaces and user friendliness of such interfaces as well as their use cases in social situations as well.

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