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Courtesy: Microsoft

As the pandemic continues to reshape office work, Microsoft is adding new features to Teams that aim to make video calls more human and less exhausting, including a new "together mode" that puts all participants in a single virtual environment.

Why it matters: Millions are stuck with video conferencing as a key work tool for the next many months (and possibly longer). That creates a huge incentive for tech companies to create a better experience in a market currently dominated by Zoom.

How it works:

  • Teams' Together Mode displays the images of the user and all the other participants in a video conference against the same backdrop, ranging from a coffee bar for a couple people to an auditorium for larger gatherings of up to 49 people.
  • Since users are in a fixed place relative to others (rather than in one of many boxes moving around in a gallery), they can point at each other and make eye contact.
  • The effect is like sitting in a barber chair, seeing yourself and others in the mirror and having a conversation with them.
  • Under the hood, the technology draws on understandings from virtual reality applied to a traditional 2D video chat. Indeed, one of the key collaborators on Together mode is Jaron Lanier, a researcher known as the father of VR.

Between the lines: Microsoft-commissioned research finds that people are more stressed out over video calls than over other types of remote work.

  • Lanier said that early testing shows those using Together Mode are more calm and retain more than those using traditional video calls.
  • "It makes pandemic-era meetings less miserable, less isolating, less fatiguing (and) less weird," Lanier said in a briefing with reporters — although he also acknowledged that the Together Mode setup is still weird in its own way.

Beyond Together Mode, Microsoft is adding other features to Teams, including meeting transcriptions, improved whiteboarding, emoji-based reactions and its Cortana voice assistant.

Go deeper

Oct 13, 2020 - Economy & Business

The winners of the stay-at-home economy

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic has created a stay-at-home economy worth trillions.

The big picture: While the pandemic is killing scores of businesses that depend on office workers, it's also making way for startups and titans alike to conquer a new industry — powering our remote lives.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."