Microsoft Together mode

Microsoft's new "Together mode" in Teams brings video conferencing into the same room.

You knew it was coming.

In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom and other niche players in tech capitalized on the rare product that went from nice-to-have to necessity overnight: video conferencing software. Their existing digital tools could not only be applied to socially distant office gatherings but also happy hours and trivia nights. Zoom, in particular, has become part of the cultural lexicon, earning the verb treatment (“want to Zoom?”) that every marketer dreams about. (The company has also quadrupled its stock price since the start of 2020.)

But it didn’t take an industry insider to know that tech’s biggest companies would ultimately summon their substantial resources to challenge and, perhaps eventually, overtake these smaller companies that had a jump on them in video conferencing. In late April, Facebook unveiled Messenger Rooms, a video meeting extension of its chat app. In early June, Google Meet’s noise cancellation feature started silencing video background noise in earnest. And this week, Microsoft rolled out a long scroll of new features that the Redmond-based company hopes will combat virtual meeting fatigue.

The headline-grabber is “Together mode," which uses AI technology to position the upper bodies of meeting participants in shared backgrounds. “Together mode makes meetings more engaging by helping you focus on other people’s faces and body language and making it easier to pick up on the non-verbal cues that are so important to human interaction,” Microsoft notes.

Somewhat oddly, the company chose an auditorium as its first backdrop for these simulated gatherings. While colleges attempting to replace their lecture halls this fall might appreciate the visual, for corporate users, it’s a weird configuration replete with twisting necks and bobbling heads. It’s hard to imagine many companies hosting brainstorms and roundtables stadium-style.

Microsoft promises that more backgrounds are on the way. A coffee shop, for instance, will feel like a more natural space to chat with coworkers. But it will also highlight our increasingly simulated reality, one where we’ve replaced public spaces that still exist with pixels on a screen.

Microsoft Teams "Together mode" coffee shop

More natural, if a bit too rustic.

As video conferencing increasingly gamifies to boost engagement, it also crosses into terrain usually reserved for social media and text threads. If you’re feeling hungover, just apply video filters, which can soften those rings under your eyes and blur the messy floor behind you. If you’re worried that your boss didn’t catch your vigorous nodding, fill your video grid with thumbs-up emojis. And if you spaced out during that last PowerPoint, soon enough, you’ll be able to scan a transcript in real time.

Microsoft conducted months of research to back those features and more in the rollout. One of the studies in its Work Trend Index found that "overwork and stress are significantly higher in video meetings than non-meeting work like writing emails. Further, due to high levels of sustained concentration fatigue begins to set in 30-40 minutes into a meeting."

In other words, video fatigue appears to be real, and there's some evidence to suggest that it can be applied to work-from-life more broadly. A Harris Poll survey commissioned by Microsoft revealed that 60 percent of respondents "feel less connected to their colleagues since working remotely more often."

The company views this as a sign that physical offices will survive to some degree post-pandemic. Others may deem it a temporary bug to be fixed by innovations in video conferencing and other digital technologies. Either way, Microsoft has positioned itself as a leader in a burgeoning space.

Your move, Google.

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