The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of the networks linking the world together and challenged us to reimagine how we work together and maintain those connections. At the same time, it has presented us with a complex problem that crosses borders and raises economic, political, and social questions as well as medical ones. We need to enable experts to collaborate effectively and marshal enormous amounts of information as we formulate the best ways to limit the spread of the disease and to identify and protect the people most vulnerable to its effects.
We wanted to be very clear about what we as an organization want to achieve, how would our different future look like? And then walking it back in terms of if we want to achieve that, what do we need to change, and what are the steps that will get us there? Who are the people? What are the levels of change? What are the possible barriers? What is the resourcing behind that? How would we need to change our culture?
The pandemic has also accelerated changes in a world that is becoming more digitally connected. With smart cities and the Internet of Things, we are building digital infrastructure in which energy, sanitation, and health services are part of the same connected system. We have new sources of information about the world, through social media, crowd-sourced observation and open data repositories. Organizations are working, thinking and connecting differently. If we don't spend time, energy and manpower exploring and co-developing pilots and prototypes then we are likely to be left behind and this will impact our competitiveness, and our ability to grow.
With these questions and issues in mind, we carried out a series of short-term, results-focused projects. We looked for the biggest opportunities, the places where spatial computing can contribute the most in the short term.
Virtual reality and spatial computing are visually impressive technologies, but we needed to identify use-cases where it could provide useful results, and understand in practical terms what it takes to implement them effectively.
When you hear Pokemon GO you know it's Augmented Reality.
For virtual reality, think of the film The Matrix (minus killer robots!). The headset creates a full 360-degree environment that entirely replaces the real world. You can be standing in your office and seem to be on a tropical seashore or the top of a skyscraper. It’s powerfully immersive. The disadvantage is that, your sight is entirely blocked; you can’t see or hear the real world and the people around you (so watch your steps).
All these technologies are visually spectacular and entertaining, but what are the practical applications? We identified two initial problems that these technologies can address.
Telepresence and remote collaboration
Even before the pandemic, travel was one of UNDP’s challenges. It’s a significant part of our budget, and it has a large environmental impact. The pandemic introduces more difficulties, most importantly the risks posed to travellers. However, we need to be able to collaborate and connect with people far away, and bring expert knowledge to places where it is needed.
Current solutions haven’t entirely met our needs. Video conferencing, chat and document sharing can't offer the faster communication, ease of rapport, spontaneity and sense of connection that in-person meetings do, and we’ve all experienced the fatigue and frustration of prolonged teleconferencing.
Spatial computing can be used for telepresence: allowing people in different locations to work together in a shared virtual space, almost as if they were in the same room, preserving the body language and spontaneity that come with face-to-face contact.
We explored this application with our Colombia country office by partnering with Spatial to create a shared meeting room, equipped with three-dimensional displays and interactive collaboration tools to allow policy-makers in remote locations to meet in a shared virtual work-space, to communicate and experience an immersive presentation about the development challenges and potential crisis management solutions surrounding the Amazon forest.
Travel also incurs risk, now more than ever. The danger of infection from COVID-19 has drastically limited the amount of travel we can do and has forced the cancelation of meetings and conferences such as Innovation Days and UNDP's global RR meeting. Even without the coronavirus, political situations, emergent crises and other safety related issues regularly cause mission delays and cancelations.
Video conferencing, chat and document sharing can't offer the faster communication, ease of rapport, spontaneity and sense of connection that in-person meetings do. Let’s not forget ZOOM fatigue.
What we’ve learned
We also learned valuable lessons about what it takes to implement these solutions effectively.
3D Content Creation: spatial computing happens in three dimensions, so making it effective requires the specialized work of 3D modelers and animators. Any spatial computing project needs allow for the need to find specialized providers, and the time and expense involved.
Changing the Culture: Even when a new product works better than the old, there are always inconveniences and cultural resistance to making changes. We worked with our colleagues at remote offices to understand what they need from those technologies, and to identify the obstacles to adopting new solutions.
This work is only the beginning! The real potential of spatial computing is much greater, and is part of a growing paradigm shift in our digital lives; how we work, how we live and connect to each other. The PAA project is devoted to using spatial computing to facilitate that change, not only within UNDP but outside it - to make UNDP a leader in the adoption and application of these technologies.