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.

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