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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

Erica Pandey, author of @Work
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 3 hours ago - World

Skripal poisoning suspects linked to Czech blast, as country expels 18 Russians

Combined images released by British police in 2018 of Alexander Petrov (L) and Ruslan Boshirov, who are suspected of carrying out an attack in the in the southern English city of Salisbury using Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, and also the2014 Czech depot explosion. Photo: Metropolitan Police via Getty Images

Czech police on Saturday connected two Russian men suspected of carrying out a poisoning attack in Salisbury, England, with a deadly ammunition depot explosion southeast of the capital, Prague, per Reuters.

Driving the news: Czech officials announced Saturday they're expelling 18 Russian diplomats they accuse of being involved in the blast in Vrbětice, AP notes. Czech police said later they're searching for two men carrying several passports — including two with the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

Indianapolis mass shooting suspect legally bought 2 guns, police say

Marion County Forensic Services vehicles are parked at the site of a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Friday. Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images

The suspected gunman in this week's mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis legally purchased two "assault rifles" believed to have been used in the attack, police said late Saturday.

Of note: The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's statement that Brandon Scott Hole, 19, bought the rifles last July and September comes a day after the FBI told news outlets that a "shotgun was seized" from the suspect in March 2020 after his mother raised concerns about his mental health.