The experience acquired during the pandemic from using tools such as videoconferencing across a range of situations has prompted several companies to experiment with new technologies and interfaces for when the pandemic is behind us and we’re living in the new normal.
The basic idea is to replace the need for face-to-face contact with technologies that allow us to move beyond what we already see as the somewhat clunky “Zoom model”.
Zoom has emerged as one of the big winners of the pandemic, making its founder, Eric Yuan, one of the richest people in the world and turning his brand into a generic term for videoconferencing; but after months of staring at countless people — and ourselves — on a screen, we’re already tired of the limitations of this interface model.
In response, Zoom has already taken a few ideas from much more advanced and visionary virtual camera interfaces such as Mmhmm, and has begun to experiment with features like importing presentations to use them as virtual wallpapers (which was precisely what some of us did at the beginning of the pandemic, exporting our presentations to images to avoid using the extremely limited screen sharing functionality) or allowing the images of other attendees at virtual meetings to appear as if they were students seated in rows of desks in a classroom. But beyond these simple exploratory initiatives, other possibilities are appearing based on specialized combinations of hardware and software that could approach the idea of replicating our physical presence using technologies that resemble holograms.
For example, companies like Spatial use avatars to simulate a simultaneous presence in a virtual environment, while Microsoft is trying to expand the possibilities of its HoloLens through interfaces like Mesh or to build meeting rooms with directional cameras that eliminate the need for AR glasses and allow attendees who are physically present and those who are virtually connected to share a work table (similar to Cisco’s TelePresence created several years ago).
Other players are exploring concepts similar to the window or a table separated by glass, such as Google and its Project Starline, creating a more realistic sensation and that transcends the interface completely (it gives us the impression of being with our interlocutor) but which are still in the experimental phase and still seem difficult to imagine being used in an everyday context.
The point here is that we know how the technology works: options that until recently seemed like something from the pages of science fiction or only within the reach of professionals, such as when Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama held their fireside chat, when in reality they were each on different sides of the country, are becoming increasingly simple to use and pretty much within the reach of anyone. In the not-too-distant future, will those with the space have a green chroma room in their homes where they can meet people virtually and feel like we are physically with them?
It is becoming increasingly clear that our location will no longer determine who we can meet and when or where, because technology will allow us to do so as though we were in the same room, regardless of the distance between us. The potential of this in terms of allowing us to decide where we want to live, independently of where we want to work, is limitless. The key, as with every technology, will be to resist the temptation of exploring that potential by simply replicating the same parameters we’ve used so far, and instead to come up with more creative ways of doing things.