The Spacetop functions similarly to a Chromebook for AR headsets. With Apple’s hardware on the horizon, it also serves as a reminder of how computers may evolve.
In my lap is a little keyboard and trackpad. However, there is no screen. In any case, not that you can see. I have a curving wraparound workstation with dozens of open windows. It’s seen through AR glasses (with prescription inserts) sitting on my nose.
I originally tried the Spacetop in January in Las Vegas, but the company that created it, Sightful, is only now releasing the early-access commercial experiment. I’ve seen a lot of AR and VR headsets, but there aren’t many unique peripherals built to operate with these futuristic goggles and glasses. Spacetop’s core pitch, rather than gaming or social interactions, is to transform laptops into AR-assisted devices with infinite virtual displays.
If that sounds like an odd pitch, keep in mind that I’ve already lived it. I’ve connected Meta’s Quest Pro to my laptop to expand its virtual monitors around my head, and many of similar options exist using free programs. The interfaces can be clumsy, and the hardware isn’t entirely mobile. The Spacetop keyboard base, which contains its own Qualcomm processor, serves as a spatially tracked anchor to which the AR glasses can follow and track the floating displays. The tracking may be used while driving or flying, and a button on the keyboard can make the floating displays disappear for an in-room discussion with someone, as well as toggle the virtual screens on and off.
The Spacetop comes with a pair of NReal Light AR glasses that must be physically attached to the keyboard to function. The makers of Sightful are considering wireless possibilities in the future, but for the time being, the tethered option is more trustworthy for regular tracking. Furthermore, the concept could possibly work with different AR and mixed-reality headset devices in the future.
That seems logical, given how many gadgets are expected to be released in the coming year or so, including Apple’s and whatever Samsung, Google, and Qualcomm are working on. NReal’s glasses are fine, but they don’t fit over my own. Instead, I had to use prescription inserts, which Sightful would provide to buyers of the hardware. The inserts I tried weren’t a perfect fit, but they were close enough to show that the display resolution was more than adequate for monitor readouts. However, the field of view is narrower than that of most VR headsets: It can simulate a 40-inch TV screen from across the table, but I have to tilt my head to see the other floating windows of minimized browsers on the Spacetop’s Chrome-like software interface.
Zooming into displays and scrolling around are all accomplished with the trackpad and keyboard. The interface is the keyboard itself.
Sightful’s team has prior expertise with augmented reality: Tamir Berliner and Tomer Kahan developed Magic Leap, and Berliner also founded Primesense, the depth-sensing technology that powered Microsoft Kinect and was acquired by Apple as the cornerstone for their Face ID TrueDepth camera.
As Apple’s headgear begins to conceive how mixed reality could interact with other devices – potentially iPads or the Apple Watch – forthcoming glasses and goggles will begin to envisage how mixed reality could work with phones, laptops, and other tools to come. It stands to reason that additional peripherals would follow, including not only controllers but also tracking rings, wearable trackers, and a new generation of keyboards developed expressly for mixed reality.
While Spacetop is built as a primary computer with its own headset, I believe the future may belong to smart accessories that expand from this concept to operate with more headsets to come. Better work tools are needed if VR and AR are to be more than just locations to play games. Spacetop is an intriguing initial step toward what I expect to be a lot more on this front.