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Video chat is getting a much-needed redesign

After a year turning everyone into boxes on screens, Zoom, Google and others are trying to come up with something better.

Zoom's Immersive View

The Holy Grail vision for video chat seems to be the same as ever: Everyone's a hologram and the digital meeting is just as interactive as an in-person one.

Photo: Zoom

First, there was Gallery View. Millions of employees all over the world, sent home in March 2020, fired up whatever crummy video chat software they used only to discover that a group video chat inevitably descended into chaos as the software tried to "intelligently" switch to whoever's speaking, only to become a blur of faces. Gallery View turned everyone into rectangles on the screen, all the same size and all visible at once. Any video chat software that didn't have Gallery View quickly built something like it.

Since then, a new industry of startups, like Hopin and Shindig and Airmeet, has found lots of ways to make large-scale digital events much better. (And they've raised huge sums of money to do so.) Meetings, however, have mostly remained rectangles on screens. Now, though, a bigger shift may be in progress. Last week, Google rolled out new tools for users to resize their own rectangle (and thus avoid the dreaded, and exhausting, effect of staring into a mirror all day), and pin and sort other people's rectangles. And on Monday, Zoom announced a feature called "Immersive View" that can put your meeting attendees into a virtual conference room, or put their rectangles into digital art frames on a wall. Teaching Zoom school? Put the kids in a virtual classroom, six to a row. It's not perfect, but it's better than rectangles.

Microsoft has been leading this charge, introducing Together mode in July 2020 after quickly surmising that staring at rectangles wasn't always going to be the right answer. Together now includes everything from a faux classroom to a digital replacement for in-stands fans at NBA games. Jaron Lanier, who helped spearhead the feature at Microsoft, said that "the social and spatial awareness systems in the brain can finally function more naturally" when seeing people in a more familiar setting, even a digital one.

Chat platforms are getting better at identifying who and what is in the rectangle, and so can do things like automatically pan a webcam to keep people in the frame or automatically brighten their background to make them visible. In the coming months, as some employees go back to the office, chat platforms are working on ways to isolate each face in the room and bring them into the digital space. "Through software, and intelligent machine-learning algorithms," Poly's VP of innovation, Beau Wilder, said earlier this year, "we can actually go frame in on the people in the room … so that we're all kind of democratized in the experience." Together mode could include five virtual people and five people in a conference room, on a stage that feels like everyone's in a coffee shop together.

Still, all that work is dedicated to faithfully re-creating the real world. What comes next will go beyond it. When Mmhmm CEO Phil Libin gave me a demo of the platform, for instance, he pointed his index finger up, and an instant later a giant foam finger icon appeared over top of it. Then he made a heart symbol with his hands, and a beating-heart emoji appeared. These are the sorts of things that can make video chat actually better than real-life meetings, Libin said. "Now that we have new technology, we shouldn't be re-creating the problems. We should be saying, 'How can we make it better?'"

In recent months Zoom has integrated with Otter.ai to provide meeting transcriptions and Dropbox to make collaboration easier, but CEO Eric Yuan's vision has always been substantially larger. He described it this way in an interview just before the pandemic started: "Imagine a world where, anywhere, any device, one click, you feel like you're in the same conference room … you can see each other and shake hands." Yuan wants to be able to smell coffee through Zoom, hug goodbye through Zoom, have a conversation seamlessly translated into multiple languages and generally have digital meetings that have all the upsides of face-to-face interaction with none of the downsides.

Even through the huge upheaval caused by the pandemic, the Holy Grail vision for video chat seems to be the same as ever: Everyone's a hologram, faithfully represented in digital space, and the digital meeting is just as interactive and human-centric as an in-person one. There's a clip from the movie "Kingsman: The Secret Service" that shows this off as well as anything, and that seems to be on the mind of many founders and developers. But that future is still far away. In the meantime, the pandemic has raised lots of new questions: Do digital meetings affect people differently than in-person ones? (Studies say yes.) How can video chat be made to feel more informal? Should everyone have a personalized experience, or should the person running the meeting control everything from the background to the order in which participants show up on screen?

There are still more questions than answers. But from Zoom to Meet to Teams to the slew of startups trying to reinvent meetings, it now seems clear to everyone that the future of video chat needs to go beyond rectangles. And it needs to happen fast.

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