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Protocol | Workplace

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.

Protocol | Fintech

Marqeta turns to a fintech outsider

Randy Kern, a Salesforce and Microsoft veteran, is taking a plunge into the payments world.

Randy Kern is joining Marqeta after decades at Microsoft and Salesforce.

Photo: Marqeta

Marqeta has just named a new chief technology officer. And it's an eyebrow-raising choice for a critical post as the payments powerhouse faces new challenges as a public company.

Randy Kern, who joined Marqeta last month, is a tech veteran with decades of engineering and leadership experience, mainly in enterprise software. He worked on Microsoft's Azure and Bing technologies, and then went on to Salesforce where he last served as chief customer technology officer.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"

In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.

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J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.
Protocol | Policy

What can’t Jonathan Kanter do?

Biden's nominee to lead the DOJ's antitrust section may face calls to remove himself from issues as weighty as cracking down on Google and Apple.

DOJ antitrust nominee Jonathan Kanter's work as a corporate lawyer may require him to recuse himself from certain cases.

Photo: New America/Flickr

Jonathan Kanter, President Joe Biden's nominee to run the Justice Department's antitrust division, has been a favorite of progressives, competitors to Big Tech companies and even some Republicans due to his longtime criticism of companies like Google.

But his prior work as a corporate lawyer going after tech giants may require him to recuse himself from some of the DOJ's marquee investigations and cases, including those involving Google and Apple.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Enterprise

Couchbase plots escape from middle of database pack with $200M IPO

The company has to prove it can beat larger rivals like MongoDB, as well as fast-growing competitors like Redis Labs, not to mention the big cloud companies.

Couchbase celebrates its initial public offering on the Nasdaq market.

Photo: Nasdaq

At first glance, Couchbase appears to be stuck in the middle of the cloud database market, flanked by competitors with more traction and buzz. But fresh off a $200 million IPO Thursday, CEO Matt Cain relished the opportunity ahead to prove why his company can beat out rivals the market considers more valuable.

The NoSQL database provider's public offering helped propel Couchbase to a $1.2 billion valuation. But unlike one of the last big data-related IPOs, market leader Snowflake's historic debut on the public markets last December, Couchbase has some work to do to differentiate itself.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

People

SPACs are so Q1 and other takeaways from a disorienting year in IPOs

Amid the frenzy of tech IPOs this year, a few surprising discoveries stand out.

Through it all, the house always wins.

Image: CSA Images/Getty Images

2021 is shaping up to be a disorienting year for tech IPOs. The first six months brought us the Alex Rodriguez SPAC, an $85 billion Coinbase debut and a mysterious delay in the Robinhood S-1 filing that was ultimately cleared up when the firm paid a token fine.

Amid the recurring frenzy, it's easy to slip into a familiar pattern of analysis: Wait for an S-1 to drop, react to the financial disclosures, then see whether the stock "pops" after its trading debut. By the time one stock starts trading, several tantalizing new S-1s are already up for inspection. The problem with this cycle is that it stops too early: A stock's opening-day pop only really reflects the extent to which a few overworked investment bankers underestimated investor demand. A pop makes for headlines. It doesn't make a company.

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Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.
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