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Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Last year entrenched videoconferencing at the center of our work and private lives — but also showed us the limits and drawbacks of the tools we now depend on.

What's happening: Services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WebEx were a lifeline in 2020, channeling everything from work and school to parties and doctor's appointments into our homebound lives.

  • The more we got to know these tools, however, the more we could see that putting a bunch of kids on Zoom sure doesn't make it a party. For every conceivable use of videoconferencing, there's a need for more nuanced and specialized software to deliver more enjoyable, less fatiguing experiences.

As we head into another year likely to be filled with online substitutes for in-person gatherings, most of us are still using the same basic software for K-12 school, religious services, family gatherings, work meetings and book clubs.

  • It doesn't have to be that way.
  • Imagine, for example, an app built for birthday parties that offered kids some interactive fun — anything from a digital version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey to built-in-access to Super Mario or Minecraft. One can easily envision adult-themed possibilities as well.

Where it stands: The space has already seen some innovation, with Zoom adding much-needed security features and Microsoft Teams experimenting with a "together mode" — including venues like virtual coffee shops and lecture halls to give different types of gatherings a more appropriate digital space.

  • Cisco has started to offer custom versions of its WebEx software, including one designed for parliaments and state legislatures trying to conduct government business online.
  • Meanwhile, startups are also taking note. Mmhmm is among those offering tools to people who want to customize video meetings with more than just fun virtual backgrounds.
  • Other startups, including Spatial, are trying to use VR to make digital gatherings more immersive, though doing so takes away one of the few benefits of virtual meetings — being able to easily multitask.

Yes, but: Much is still lacking in these offerings — especially the ability to capture the whimsy, serendipity and intimacy of in-person events.

The big picture: Customized videoconferencing tools may be what users need, but the tech industry usually coalesces around one-size-fits-all platforms that substitute the power of scale for the appeal of tailor-made services.

  • From office-document software to search engines and social networks to e-commerce, tech remains a winner-take-all world. Videoconferencing requires a lot of bandwidth and technical overhead, and the ability to deliver that may win out over subtler improvements in interface and social features.

Between the lines: Better hardware can also play an important role in making video conferencing more satisfying.

  • Already we've seen Zoom come to smart displays such as Facebook's Portal and Amazon's Echo Show. TV set-top-boxes are probably next. Amazon already added camera support to its FireTV Cube device.
  • Dedicated video-conferencing devices could also break into the consumer market after being aimed almost entirely at businesses.
  • Meanwhile, 2021's laptop models may get serious camera upgrades, coming after device makers have had time to address the rise of remote work in their development and production cycles.

What's next: In the meantime, expect another year of people buying add-on microphones, cameras and ring lights to improve their at-home set-ups.

Go deeper

Jan 26, 2021 - Technology

Part of East Coast hit by internet outages

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Internet users in the Washington-to-Boston corridor reported widespread outages Tuesday, affecting service for both broadband and internet content.

Driving the news: Many Americans have been unable to access remote learning and telework because of the outages, which have affected ISPs including Verizon FiOS, Charter and Comcast as well as internet services including Google, YouTube, Amazon's AWS and Zoom.

1 min ago - World

Biden freezes U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia and UAE

Trump struck several large arms deals with Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Saudi Arabia. Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration has put on hold two big arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which were approved in the final weeks of the Trump administration, a State Department official told me.

Why it matters: The sales of F-35 jets and attack drones to the UAE and a large supply of munitions to Saudi Arabia will be paused pending a review. That signals a major policy shift from the Trump era, and may herald sharp tensions with both Gulf countries.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
41 mins ago - Podcasts

Robert Downey Jr. launches VC funds to help save the planet

Robert Downey Jr. on Wednesday announced the launch of two venture capital funds focused on startups in the sustainability sector, the latest evolution of a project he launched two years ago called Footprint Collective.

Between the lines: This is a bit of life imitating art, as Downey Jr. spent 11 films portraying a character who sought to save the planet (or, in some cases, the universe).