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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.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

Peloton's wild ride and possible buyers

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Peloton is having a bumpy ride, and has become a source of fascination among even those who've never invested or clipped in.

Driving the news: On Monday, a hedge fund with less than a 5% stake in Peloton called for CEO John Foley to be fired and for the connected fitness company to consider seeking a strategic buyer. Shares gained nearly 10% on the news, but remained down 16.2% for the year and off 80% their December 2020 peak.

Scoop: Republicans probe NBC over Beijing Olympics coverage

Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images

Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have sent a letter to NBC Universal executives voicing concerns about "the extent of influence the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) may have over NBCUniversal’s coverage of the games."

Why it matters: The human rights abuses committed by the CCP have been the subject of intense scrutiny ahead of this year's Winter Games in Beijing. Activists last year sent a letter to NBC executives urging the network to cancel plans to cover the Olympics.