People

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.

Fintech

Binance’s co-founder could remake its crypto deal-making

Yi He is overseeing a $7.5 billion portfolio, with more investments to come, making her one of the most powerful investors in the industry.

Binance co-founder Yi He will oversee $7.5 billion in assets.

Photo: Binance

Binance co-founder Yi He isn’t as well known as the crypto giant’s colorful and controversial CEO, Changpeng “CZ” Zhao.

That could soon change. The 35-year-old executive is taking on a new, higher-profile role at the world’s largest crypto exchange as head of Binance Labs, the company’s venture capital arm. With $7.5 billion in assets to oversee, that instantly makes her one of the most powerful VC investors in crypto.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and 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 Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Sponsored Content

How cybercrime is going small time

Blockbuster hacks are no longer the norm – causing problems for companies trying to track down small-scale crime

Cybercrime is often thought of on a relatively large scale. Massive breaches lead to painful financial losses, bankrupting companies and causing untold embarrassment, splashed across the front pages of news websites worldwide. That’s unsurprising: cyber events typically cost businesses around $200,000, according to cybersecurity firm the Cyentia Institute. One in 10 of those victims suffer losses of more than $20 million, with some reaching $100 million or more.

That’s big money – but there’s plenty of loot out there for cybercriminals willing to aim lower. In 2021, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received 847,376 complaints – reports by cybercrime victims – totaling losses of $6.9 billion. Averaged out, each victim lost $8,143.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Policy

Trump ordered social media visa screening. Biden's defending it.

The Knight First Amendment Institute just lost a battle to force the Biden administration to provide a report on the collection of social media handles from millions of visa applicants every year.

Visa applicants have to give up any of their social media handles from the past five years.

Photo: belterz/Getty Images

Would you feel comfortable if a U.S. immigration official reviewed all that you post on Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, Twitter or even YouTube? Would it change what you decide to post or whom you talk to online? Perhaps you’ve said something critical of the U.S. government. Perhaps you’ve jokingly threatened to whack someone.

If you’ve applied for a U.S. visa, there’s a chance your online missives have been subjected to this kind of scrutiny, all in the name of keeping America safe. But three years after the Trump administration ordered enhanced vetting of visa applications, the Biden White House has not only continued the program, but is defending it — despite refusing to say if it’s had any impact.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Policy

The US plans to block sales of older chipmaking tech to China

The Biden administration will attempt to roll back China’s chipmaking abilities by blocking tools that make a widely used type of transistor other chipmakers have employed for years.

By using a specific, fundamental building block of chip design as the basis for the overall policy, the White House hopes to both tighten existing controls and avoid the pitfalls around trying to block a generation of manufacturing technology.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

The Biden administration has for several months been working to tighten its grip on U.S. exports of technology that China needs to make advanced chips, with the goals of both hurting China’s current manufacturing ability and also blocking its future access to next-generation capabilities.

According to two people familiar with the administration’s plans, President Joe Biden’s approach is based around choking off access to the tools, software and support mechanisms necessary to manufacture a specific type of technology that is one of the fundamental building blocks of modern microchips: the transistor.

Keep Reading Show less
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a senior reporter at Protocol covering the semiconductor industry. He has worked for Barron's magazine as a Technology Reporter, and its sister site MarketWatch. He is based in San Francisco.

Entertainment

Netflix Games had its best month yet. Here's what's next.

A closer look at the company’s nascent gaming initiative suggests big plans that could involve cloud gaming and more.

Netflix’s acquisitions in the gaming space, and clues found in a number of job listings, suggest it has big plans.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Netflix’s foray into gaming is dead on arrival — at least according to the latest headlines about the company’s first few mobile games.

“Less than 1 percent of Netflix’s subscribers are playing its games,” declared Engadget recently. The article was referencing data from app analytics company Apptopia, which estimated that on any given day, only around 1.7 million people were playing Netflix’s mobile games on average.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Latest Stories
Bulletins