Collaboration: About Face
Collaboration can be a rich, satisfying experience. A dynamic leader can engage a group of committed people and draw a result much greater than the sum of the parts.
From the dawn of humanity until recently, collaboration has been an in-person activity. Then postal mail came along and brought with it a means to engage with remote collaborators, albeit with variable amounts of delay and uncertainty.
Snap forward to today. Most of us carry devices throughout our work and personal days that allow real-time communication and collaboration face to face virtually any distance from collaborators.
In this blog, we’ll look at how we virtually work together today and what’s next for the future of remote collaboration.
The Current State of Remote Collaboration
I marvel at the speed of progress in what we decreasingly call video conferencing. As recently as the start of the 21st century, video calls required special equipment, unusual room requirements, dedicated communication lines — lots of cost and complexity. Now, we use our phones, laptops, and tablets for virtual communication that’s nearly as good as face-to-face.
Unless, that is, we try to use a tool for a task it’s not specifically designed to accommodate.
Take, for example, the common practice of using a web collaboration tool like Zoom, WebEx, or BlueJeans on a laptop. These, and most of their competitors, do an acceptable job of connecting an individual with another person or even a group. Most laptop cameras are good enough to transmit acceptable images of a person to their collaborators. Audio is another issue: many workspaces are inappropriate places to use a laptop’s (or tablet’s or phone’s) built-in speaker and microphone.
Laptops, tablets, and smartphones are commonly used in conference rooms, too. That’s not a flawless experience, is it? Even the tech-savvy among us need a few minutes at the start of meetings to get everything plugged in, turned on, selected, and connected.
There are alternatives to the BYOD (bring your own device)-based approach I just described. Instead of depending on users’ devices, we can design systems dedicated to the meeting room that allow users to simply walk into a room, push a button, and start their meeting.
These collaboration/communication systems, whether BYOD-based or dedicated to the meeting space, depend on microphones to pick-up peoples’ voices, loudspeakers to reproduce the voices of far-end collaborators, cameras to capture people’s faces, and displays. Each of these elements is poised to improve substantially in the near future.
Remote Collaboration: Improvements on the Horizon
Many of the ongoing improvements in the remote collaboration experience come from automation, sound system, camera, and display. What improvements can we expect of these?
If starting a meeting requires more than the push of a single button, that’s too involved. In fact, one-push meetings are available today, with some limitations.
One-push, or better still zero-push meetings are the future of zero-friction remote collaboration. Automation TEECOM is designing will make it possible for the conference room you booked to know when you enter. When you do, depending on your preference, it might start the meeting just because you’re there. Or it may prompt you by voice, asking if you are ready to begin. If you aren’t comfortable with smart speakers in an office setting — and many reasonable people aren’t — the system might prompt you by voice or on the room’s display, asking you to click a single button to begin your meeting,
The same microphone that hears you and your colleagues talk also does a pretty good job of picking up the sound of your speedy keyboarding and the dulcet tones of the Fritos bag your pal from marketing is opening. Microphones, and the electronics that process the signals from them, are changing to deal with these acoustical challenges.
The ideal microphone would hear only the voices of meeting participants as if it were right in front of their faces, and it would ignore all other sounds. This rejection of non-voices matters for a couple of reasons.
When someone talks to us in a conference room, we first hear their voice coming straight from their mouth to our ears. A fraction of a second later, we hear reflections of that sound bouncing off room surfaces. Our brains are generally really good at ignoring the bounced sound and extracting information from the direct sound. But the more bounced sound our brains have to ignore, the more mental effort we put into decoding. The more cognitive effort we put into decoding speech, the less brain power is left to actually think about what’s being said. You may have experienced this phenomenon yourself — maybe when a meeting participant called in from somewhere noisy, like a car.
Conference rooms with lots of glass create a lot of this bouncing sound. You already know the word for it: reverberation. Sound systems that listen only to the sources of speech — people — and reject sound from other parts of rooms help deliver clearer, less muddled speech to far-end listeners. Microphones are getting better at this, and we can expect them to get still better in the future.
Echo during meetings is a terrible distraction. For some time, sound systems have been improving in their ability to reduce echo — what a relief! What if sound systems could also tell the difference between speech, keyboard pounding, and crinkling potato chip bags and diminish or eliminate those distractions? These too are improvements we can expect.
Everything I just said about the perfect microphone (focuses on people, ignores everything else) applies to the ideal camera. Imagine a typical scenario in a conference room: while the room is large enough for eight people, only four are in it. Wouldn’t it be great if the room’s camera automatically sized its field of view to include only the participants in a conference room, not the empty part of the room?
What about a camera covering a large group, say ten or more people? If the reason we use cameras is to see the facial expressions of the people we’re conversing with or presenting to, do we get that with a camera that covers an entire group? We currently have no reliable way to automatically direct a camera at the currently talking person. We’ve come up with some great solutions for this challenge, both for the corporate and education worlds, but none that answer this persistent need.
There are glimmers of hope in the world of automatic cameras. While it’s early days, there are now cameras that automatically reframe to the occupied portion of a conference room — usually. And there are ways to make an audiovisual system point a camera at the current talker — sometimes. Expect both of these capabilities to become commonplace in the future.
What’s happening in the realm of displays; where are they heading? We know that, except for certain specific kinds of spaces, projection systems are giving way to brighter direct-view alternatives, like LED screens. And we know that these displays are getting brighter and are offering higher and higher levels of detail. Is that all we can expect from display systems: a trend line leading to infinite image sharpness and brightness rivaling the sun? In many cases, that’s just fine. We do want the images we present, or the video of far-end collaborators, to be as close to undetectable from real life as possible. What else might the future of display technologies hold?
VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) are beginning to be leveraged for remote collaboration. What if, instead of leaving your desk to go to the Yeti Conference Room, a 20-minute walk from your desk, you could don a VR headset and be transported to a virtual conference room? What would it be like for a presenter — or a teacher — to take a group to a 3D virtual building, or sphinx, or rabbit’s ear, or the surface of Venus, or molecule, instead of presenting these things on a screen?
Turn to your right, and there’s your colleague from Human Resources, who just happens to be sitting in an office a thousand miles away. On your left sits a new hire, so you and she do a quick private chat to start to get to know each other. What would virtual meetings do to the need for conference rooms, and classrooms? What impact would they have on the time lost to starting meetings? How would they affect the sense of isolation a person in a home office might feel?
The future of VR — not just displays — holds much for the remote collaboration experience. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see VR becoming essential to remote collaboration in ways we haven’t even dreamed about.
People are social, and the social component of collaboration helps us define the technologies for meeting and education spaces. Technologies that do a better job of bridging the distances between collaborators enable better productivity and more enjoyable collaboration. Some of these technologies are in our hands today, while others are just out of reach — for now.
VR’s capability to allow groups — even geographically dispersed ones — to jointly explore imagined, or distant, or historical spaces, will enable fundamentally different ways of working and learning together. While we continue to design collaboration spaces for today’s realities, we keep our eyes on the technology horizon to incorporate new ideas and new ways of working together.
Read Next: Ben Shemuel’s tips on how to design an audiovisual system for a corporate presentation space worthy of a TED Talk.