A few months ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and we all went home to work, I opined
that when we headed back to our offices, some three to six months in the future, we might not return to our old ways, specifically in our use of the telephone. As the pandemic rages on, the habits developed while working from home are even less likely to change. Clearly, many voice calls have become video calls, and many conferences and meetings have become video meetings.
In some ways, things have changed a lot since the earliest days of videoconferencing, but in other ways, not so much. Videoconferencing began with connectivity between two televisions. When I worked at Hughes Aircraft, years ago, we connected a video room in California to a video room in Maryland over satellite — and the link stayed up all day long. As time went on, the concept of a multipoint conference emerged, and with it the “Hollywood Squares” format of multiparty displays that persists to this day. While telepresence system vendors of a decade ago attempted to create a common room environment for meeting participants, most video meetings still take place on individual screens. Within that construct, many vendors have created virtual backgrounds, but each user is still an individual screen presentation.
As an indicator that multiple participant screens in every meeting is the long-term future for video meetings, we’re starting to see innovations around that standard. Last week, for example, a major industry player, Microsoft, and a start-up, mmhmm
, each revealed ways they are innovating using artificial intelligence (AI) and compute power to create more personable and less fatiguing experiences (see related article, “Reducing ‘Meeting Fatigue
Take Your Seats!
Microsoft last week introduced Together mode
, which uses AI to separate each participant from the rest of their video stream, for placement in a new, less video like, view — like a coffee break, as shown above. Microsoft said it anticipates the ability to choose a meeting environment that appears more visually as a normal space will increase user acceptance, as well as significantly reduce online meeting fatigue.
Being able to isolate a meeting attendee’s image and manipulate backgrounds to optimize the event experience has long-term value. Perhaps the Holy Grail of work from home is combining the video capture of a real-time image, combining it into an active avatar that exists in a virtual space that replicates a real space. In this way, we can bring together distributed and in-office employees in a seamless physical-to-virtual environment.
Let’s Add Some Pizzazz
Mmhmm, the start-up, provides an overlay experience that works with Zoom and other video meeting platforms to enhance the video presentation of the user as well as provide some new capabilities. Like Microsoft does with Together mode, mmhmm uses AI to isolate the speaker image from the background. It then combines it with other images and video streams, generates a combined image, and sends that to the video meeting system.
Mmhmm enables more innovative ways of presenting information than are possible using the screen-sharing functions built into video platforms. As you can see in the pictures below, the mmhmm AI can manipulate the image in dramatic ways — providing a speaker transparency, as is the case on the right or front and center for full attention, as shown at left. In addition to doing this for each individual meeting participant, mmhmm has developed a mode called Dynamic Decks, where two presenters can share control of a background and appear together in the meeting image. This is an interesting video
that shows some of the capabilites that mmHmm is incorporating.
On the Brink of More Innovation
These developments hint at a coming explosion of innovative tools aimed at better integrating a WFH workforce into the business. These tools will change the experience from the bland square world of pre-2020 to something that is both more dramatic and engaging. The result will be greater adoption, less fatigue, and an acceleration to virtual meetings replacing an increasing percentage of both in-person and voice meetings.
But, be warned: Before you embrace AI-powered advanced meeting capabilities for your connected, but distributed, workplace, you have to make sure worker devices are up to the task. Platform enhancements like virtual backgrounds, Together mode, and mmhmm put significant loads on the user device, and there is some indication that Apple desktops and laptops are more suited to this sort of processing than Intel-based PCs — mmhmm’s initial offer is limited to Apple MacOS, for example.
The capablity for AI manipulation of meetings images may become an evaluation criteria for future device purchases for WFH workers.
Join us at Enterprise Connect Digital Conference & Expo on Wednesday, Aug. 5, to get insight on balancing distributed and office work in a fireside chat with Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm. Register today!