Workplace

The next generation of WFH gadgets is (finally) here

Eighteen months into the pandemic and a lot of head-scratching later, the home office is getting an upgrade.

The Logi Dock on a computer desk.

The Logi Dock is one of Logitech's new ideas about the future of WFH gear.

Photo: Logitech

Eighteen months ago, Scott Wharton thought the webcam business might be about to collapse. Wharton runs Logitech's video collaboration business, and in the early days of the pandemic it looked like the economy was going to slow, and so would sales. "So one of the first things that we and other people did," he said, "is we started cutting our buying of components, manufacturing capacity, etc."

Bad call, in retrospect. Instead, for the next year, webcams and all kinds of other home-office gear were in hot demand as millions of people tried to find ways to get their job done remotely. Instead of collapsing, the webcam market quadrupled. For months, Wharton said, Logitech scrambled to get back on top of demand. "We were basically just finding new chips, any that we could find, and having to rewrite them over and over and over again." A global chip shortage exacerbated the problem, and Wharton said it took a full year before the supply chain was back to normal. This wasn't just a Logitech problem, either; anyone who tried to buy a webcam, monitor or other work-from-home gear had a hard time finding anything in stock.

While companies across the industry were scrambling to meet this unprecedented demand in an otherwise pretty sleepy space, they were also looking ahead. They knew the pandemic had created new ways of working, many of which would never go back to the way they were before. Consumers and businesses both needed new and different tools going forward. And, suddenly, the market was ripe for innovation again. "Even at Logitech," Wharton said, "we weren't really doing a lot of innovation at times" when it came to things like webcams. "We're like, all right, we're at 90% market share, our products are pretty good, no one's really doing anything new there. And then the market totally flipped."

Now, 18 months and roughly one product-development cycle later, the first in a new generation of work-from-home gear is starting to arrive. These are the products built for hybrid work, forged by — and during — a pandemic, meant to reflect the future that no one predicted a few years ago. WFH is suddenly a big business, and an innovative one.

Communication tools of all kinds continue to lead the charge. Poly, long known for its conference room gear and speakerphones, rushed to develop a set of webcams and in-home gear for video chat. Startups like Opal entered the market, bringing the kind of high-end design and specs that absolutely no one would have thought to put in a webcam two years ago. (The Opal C1's $300 price tag would have seemed much crazier back then, too.)

The Opal Camera on top of a computer. The $300 Opal Camera is the kind of gear nobody made pre-pandemic.Photo: Opal

There's even an entirely new category of gadgets starting to emerge: the dedicated video-chat device. Google recently launched a series of dedicated meeting hardware, including the Google Meet Series One Desk 27, a $2,000, 27-inch device that has microphones, speakers and a camera built in, along with a touchscreen for when you're hooked up to the digital whiteboard.

These devices are something of a reinvention of the computer monitor, said Jeetu Patel, who runs security and collaboration at Cisco. "You can have a laptop hooked up to it, or make sure your iPad is connected to it," he said. That makes screen-sharing easy, and allows users to multitask rather than having video fill their whole screen. And because it's dedicated hardware, with a GPU, it can handle on-device translation or cancel out background noise, or use AI to have the camera follow you around the room as you talk.

To prove it, Patel prodded at the device on his desk, a Cisco Webex Desk Pro, which offers similar features to the new Google gear. "It's got surround sound, 4K video, and you can sit and relax rather than hovering over your laptop." He stood up, and the camera tracked up to keep him in frame; he sat down and the camera followed him back into his chair. It's his second monitor, and his Webex device. Only problem is, the Desk Pro costs about $4,500. But that's changing fast, Patel said. And that's really the point: In many cases, the kinds of collaboration devices people need have existed for a while, but at prices that many companies and nearly all consumers balk at. Now these business-grade devices are beginning to come to everyone.

Google's Meet Series One Desk in a small office. Google's Meet Series One Desk is part monitor, part video-chat device.Photo: Google

At Logitech, the team's first idea was to build a better webcam. Obviously. But as Wharton and his team started talking to customers, they discovered image quality wasn't at the top of most people's list of problems. Instead, users complained that their desk was too cluttered with cables and peripherals. They heard from IT managers who were overwhelmed by provisioning, managing and troubleshooting thousands of different setups. And mostly they heard about audio quality. "A lot of people were using their laptop audio, sitting in their living room," Wharton said. "We're hearing leaf blowers and babies." And one person's bad audio, everyone was quickly learning, can ruin the call for others.

So Logitech pivoted. Instead of building a better webcam, it built a new kind of device, in a category Wharton said he still doesn't have a good name for. It's called the Logi Dock, and it's a $400 combination USB hub and video chat device. It uses a bright light to warn users when their next Zoom is about to start, and tappable buttons to mute their mic or start their next meeting. It handles noise cancellation on the device — Logitech trained an algorithm on hundreds of different keyboards to help it cancel out typing sounds — and even charges your laptop.

The opportunity that Logitech and others see here goes beyond just selling new gadgets to knowledge workers, though. They see a chance to simplify the nature of hybrid work, building the gear that goes in conference rooms, the gear that goes in home offices and the software that manages and knits them all together, and to sell a more holistic product to companies that want to stop dealing with meeting software and just get back to work. Logitech's new Logi Bolt system exists for just that reason: to make devices easy to provision, security compliant and interoperable. "The B2B buyer journey has never been more complex," said Joseph Mingori, who runs Logitech's B2B team. "They're really looking for these simplified, trusted relationships that are credible and built on quality."

There's also an opportunity for companies to help make hybrid meetings more productive. Seemingly everyone in the industry is thinking about how to make them more equitable: A number of companies are building AI into their cameras that isolate each person around a table, turning them into squares on a table just like everyone else, and some are building tools that will alert hosts when someone is talking too much or hasn't had a chance to chime in yet. Meanwhile, video-chat apps are turning into platforms, webcam manufacturers want to offer complete communication solutions, and everybody's leaning into analytics and AI.

In general, what was once known as the "peripherals" market has become central to the future of work, and a lot of companies want a piece. The home office upgrade is just beginning.

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