Tech

Acer’s new SpatialLabs tech brings 3D video to a laptop screen

Acer has announced SpatialLabs, a new 3D technology that will debut on the company’s ConceptD laptops. I got a chance to try it. It’s not something we’ll realistically see on a consumer device anytime soon — but it’s pretty dang cool nonetheless.

SpatialLabs is, according to Acer, “a suite of experiences empowered by cutting-edge optical solutions.” Plainly, it’s a set of tools that makes 3D work look very realistic and cool without requiring special glasses to see it. It delivers content in Stereoscopic 3D, which presents a pair of nearly-but-not-quite-identical 2D images (one to each eye) that combine in your brain to look like one 3D picture. (It’s essentially imitating what your eyes already do.)

SpatialLabs uses a combination of three things to do this. There’s a stereo camera, consisting of two image sensors, in the laptop’s top bezel, which tracks the position of your eyes and head. There’s an optical lens bonded to the top of the display; the images for each eye are projected through this lens, then refracted to your eyes. And there’s real-time rendering technology inside, which allows you to rotate and move 3D models in certain applications.

That means there are some limitations to how SpatialLabs can be used. For one, only one person can use it at a time; Acer emphasized that I couldn’t have anyone behind me during my demo. You also can’t have a mask on during use and can’t have strong light behind you. And needless to say, you need a powerful system to run this stuff well: Acer sent me a ConceptD 7 Pro with an eight-core Core i7-10875H, an Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000, and 32GB of RAM to test the tech. One of these would cost $2,899.99 without the SpatialLabs features, and Acer didn’t specify how much the extra stuff would add to the cost. Regardless, I’m sure it’ll be well outside of my price range, but I can dream.

Acer showed me SpatialLabs at work in both proprietary and third-party software. In SpatialLabs Model Viewer, which professionals would use to showcase 3D models, I was able to play around with some animated 3D objects. The light and shadows change as the objects move, and you can adjust the light’s intensity and the direction it’s coming from. The very neat thing, though, is that you can move the objects along the Z-axis (that is, pull them toward you and push them away from you), and it looks surprisingly realistic.

The experience that really blew me away, though, was SpatialLabs Player, where you can play videos in stereoscopic 3D. You can swap between 3D mode and 2D mode (where you’ll see two images side by side). What I saw wasn’t seamless — there was visible ghosting, especially right after I moved my head — but things really looked like they were popping out of the screen at me. I ducked as a flurry of baseballs was thrown my way. I reached out and tried to touch a flying alien because it looked very real, and I am 12 years old.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen glasses-free 3D on a portable device, of course. All kinds of devices have tried it in the past, from smartphones to Nintendo’s 3DS. But this was the first iteration I’ve ever seen where turning my head an inch to the left didn’t ruin the entire thing. It was quite impressive.

You can also edit content in 2D on an external display while viewing it in real-time stereoscopic 3D on the ConceptD, using Maya through PiStage (which allows you to quickly present projects with Unreal Engine) or Blender through SpatialLabs Go. You can also use the latter to view YouTube content that was created for VR or 3D TV.

This could be you, for just $3,000.
Image: Acer

Finally, SpatialLabs supports Unreal Engine through Acer’s XR Runtime. You could use these to create and present 3D “experiences” (such as virtual showrooms). Acer is running a beta program for Unreal Engine developers and will loan admitted participants a free ConceptD SpatialLabs notebook for three months.

I saw a demo of a game, with all kinds of battle debris flying out of the screen at me, and one of a virtual furniture showroom, which I could wander around in. The ConceptD had trouble with both of these on the first run; the game was stuttery, and the showroom froze and wouldn’t close. Acer says that’s not uncommon due to how demanding the programs are, and restarting the system would do the trick. It did, and they worked fine the second time. But Acer does still have a kink or two to work out, it seems.

These were all quite fun for me to experience as a layperson. But the main benefit of this technology, of course, would be for users who actually work with 3D. So I asked The Verge’s senior motion designer, Grayson Blackmon, whether something like this would actually be useful for his workflow.

Blackmon was largely dubious. While he finds the idea of editing models in 3D intriguing, he’s not sure what the practical benefit would be for creators like him. “A lot of times, we’re creating for people who don’t have these technologies who are viewing a 2D image,” he told me. Blackmon also can’t see himself doing these kinds of tasks on a laptop. “If I’m getting into serious work, I’m usually sitting at a desktop,” he says. He’d be more interested if SpatialLabs were built into a bigger monitor.

But designers like Blackmon are also used to new technologies not holding up to their promises. His team usually holds off on updating to new versions of Adobe, for example, because they bring new bugs, and novel fancy-looking features tend not to be as helpful as they appear. For that reason, Blackmon doesn’t see himself being an early adopter of this kind of tech. “I might do it for my own personal enjoyment, but I’m not going to rely on it for production,” he says.

So that’s where we are. There are a number of caveats to SpatialLabs. It may be a while before we see professionals adopting it in full force and even longer before consumers can realistically try it out. (Acer is shooting to have SpatialLabs on the market sometime later this year.)

But hey, Acer does have a working product. And it’s very cool to witness. If nothing else, like so many other laptop technologies out there, it’s a possible glimpse of the future.

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