The Race To Fix Virtual Meetings

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The Race To Fix Virtual Meetings
February 19, 2021

Sick of boring grids of heads? A new crop of start-ups aims to bring some serendipity and spark to remote meetings.

 

A few weekends ago, I went to a birthday party for a buddy of mine. The theme was “Lord of the Rings.” When I arrived, I could see that many of my friends were already there, bunched up in groups of five or six, as the host circulated among them. I said hi to the birthday boy, ran into acquaintances I hadn’t seen in a while and avoided others I didn’t want to talk to. No one wore masks.

 

That’s because the party was held on Gather.town, a new platform for online meetings. Instead of a fixed grid of floating heads, as you get in Zoom calls, there was a virtual map — a grassy hill, the Shire — and participants moved around it by hitting their arrow keys. Just as they do at real-life gatherings, people came together in clusters and broke apart. The farther you walked away from them, the softer their voices got.

 

The host mentioned in the invite that the guest list was longer than it would have been ordinarily, because the event was virtual and could accommodate everyone. In the past, friends who didn’t live in town often complained about feeling left out; now they didn’t have to be. They came from across the country, from every manner of desktop setup and living arrangement — some attended from their parents’ homes, a few had their babies in the background. The convenience was undeniable. Rather than having to dress up, call an Uber and trek over to a friend’s place on a cold winter night, I simply signed on to my computer and said hello. And because I hadn’t invested a lot of time and effort getting ready for and traveling to the party, there was no regret when I took off early.

 

Gather.town is one of several virtual-meeting start-ups that have emerged as a result of the pandemic, spurred by consumer demand from those stuck at home and fueled by venture capitalists eager to capture a slice of the videoconferencing market currently dominated by the likes of Zoom and Google Meet. Some, including Gather.town and competitors like Kumospace and Pluto, are incorporating spatial dynamics — users move around and interact with one another on virtual maps — and are primarily used for office happy hours or hanging out with friends. Others, like Hopin and Run the World, whose origins predate the pandemic, are focusing on corporate and academic conferences.

The advent of remote work and virtual meetings has meant a decoupling of the social aspects of work and the actual doing of work at work. Instead of goofing off for a while after lunch with your co-workers, you go right back to work and goof off at night with family members or your significant other. This sounds great for employers, in theory. But Avichal Garg, an investor at Electric Capital, a venture-capital firm, argues that remote work currently trades serendipity for efficiency — and that happy accidents are crucial for innovation. “Creative problem solving requires looking at problems differently,” he says, “and having serendipitous interactions with other people allows you to see problems and discover solutions in new ways.”

 

How to enable people to meet online in a way that promotes connection and creativity, then, is the challenge that all these virtual-meeting start-ups face. It’s a significant one. Unlike TikTok or YouTube, which I can consume in a vegetative state on my couch, virtual meetings aren’t something I can just mindlessly scroll through at my leisure. They are inherently synchronous. Their success depends on my active participation. And while science-fiction visions like “Ready Player One” have given us a glimpse of what is possible once electronic devices are connected to our bodies and brains deeply enough to provide truly immersive experiences, that physiologically indistinguishable merger of our real and digital lives has yet to arrive. Until then, what kinds of engaging virtual-meeting experiences can we create — and which ones do we want to?

 

When the pandemic first hit, nearly a year ago, it was thrilling to realize that remote work was feasible. Many executives, even at tech companies, had never fully believed that geographically dispersed teams could function productively. But months at home proved that — for most knowledge workers, at least — remote work could work: Employees were still creating ads, writing code, contributing to a company’s bottom line. It also became clear, however, that virtual communication software like Zoom and Slack were replacing only a sliver of what the in-person work experience had been like.

 

In the pre-pandemic office, for example, you would run into co-workers and strike up impromptu conversations throughout the day — about your pets, your boss, whatever project you were in the middle of. Information would be disseminated, ideas exchanged, additional meetings scheduled. But on Zoom, moving from one meeting to another means choosing which buttons to click. There’s no buffer for serendipity and fewer opportunities for bonding. The sales rep who dropped by to meet with a client before the pandemic got to walk through the office and say hi to everyone. The next time the client needed to buy new customer-relations-management software, she might not recall which product had the most security features, but she would remember that one charming sales rep who went to her alma mater. Now those in sales have to demo a product over Zoom. Because they have to share their screens, they can’t take full advantage of their charisma or poise. The best they can do to cultivate a relationship, post-sales pitch, is send a follow-up email. Maybe a meme.

 

Before the pandemic, if you were a senior engineer or an academic, you could count on attending a few conferences a year with others in your field. You’d walk around the various company booths, pick up some logoed giveaways, get a quick summary of the latest technology or paper over dinner and tack on a few vacation days at the end. A pandemic conference, in contrast, is a series of 300-person Zoom calls in which only one person can ever speak at a time.

 

It’s a testament to the fecundity of Silicon Valley that so many start-ups dedicated to countering such work-from-home limitations have mushroomed in the last year. Hopin, which was founded in 2019, gained traction as thousands of academic and corporate conferences moved online; clients have included the United Nations and TechCrunch Disrupt. Compared with Zoom or Gather.town, Hopin requires more preparation and setup: Clients have to design their virtual venue by deciding on everything from color schemes and logos to sponsors and schedules. “The example I like to give is, you’re renting out a big building for an event,” says Johnny Boufarhat, Hopin’s founder and chief executive. “The office floor probably has a meeting room, which are the videoconferencing platforms,” like Zoom. “But then downstairs, on the ground floor of the building, there’s usually a big venue, and the venue can turn into whatever you want — maybe you’re hosting a recruitment night; maybe we’ll see a conference; maybe you’re hosting a meet-up.”

 

Each event starts at a Hopin profile page. The “enter” button takes you to the virtual-conference home page. On the right side, there’s a running group chat. On the left, there’s the banner for the conference and a list of all the live speaker sessions. Clicking on one of them takes you into a Zoom-like room. Within that room, the audience can vote on questions to put to the speaker. You can also search through a comprehensive list of the conference attendees and invite any of them into an individual video chat.

 

While Hopin’s focus is on efficiency, there are other start-ups that more actively seek to recreate the chance encounters of the workplace. The virtual offices created by Teamflow and Branch come with personal desks, common areas and private conference rooms. On Teamflow, your video appears as a bubble on a virtual office plan, which you can move around the office by typing on your keyboard. When you want to check on co-workers, you just “walk” up to them. When you are going to your next meeting, you might “bump” into someone.

 

Much of the inspiration animating this bloom of spatial meeting platforms comes from video games. Yang Mou, the chief executive of Kumospace, was a competitive StarCraft player in college and, once lockdowns started happening, wondered why it was that he could spend hours and hours playing online with his friends and not want to stop, while Zoom meetings engendered only fatigue. In creating Kumospace, he was particularly influenced by massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft. “One of the jokes is that it’s a glorified chat room,” he says. “You play the game, you run out of stuff to do and then you’re really just hanging out with friends.” He adds, “It’s like going to the mall.”

Events hosted in Kumospace are set in a virtual living room. Once inside, you can interact directly with your surroundings, as you might in a video game. When you sit down at the piano, it plays Debussy; when you grab a drink at the virtual bar, it drains over time as you “drink” it.

 

One of Kumospace’s insights is that video games give participants a goal around which to center their social energy. In the physical world, this structural element is often implicitly present as some sort of physical interaction, like dancing or sharing a meal. In the digital world, there are fewer options for analogues, mostly things that are easily rendered in pixels, like board games, poker and video streams. But pandemic hits like Teleparty, which enables synchronized movie watching among groups of friends, and Among Us, a multiplayer game of deception, attest to the fact that virtual activities can generate real camaraderie. Kumospace plans to offer users a number of games built into the virtual surroundings. One that’s already running is popular for friendly hangouts as well as team-bonding events. “We actually have an escape-room game,” Mou says. “It’s a series of 10 different rooms on Kumospace, and there’s a puzzle in each one, and you work with your team to solve each one before you can proceed to the next.”

 

As employees move out of big cities, often permanently, and companies extend their work-from-home options, investors are betting that these virtual-meeting start-ups will outlast the pandemic. This seems like a reasonable expectation. A year of remote work has fundamentally shifted — or expanded — the kinds of decisions we’re willing to make without relying on in-person interaction, from fund-raising to sales to voting to making friends. “People will likely have a mixture of traditional real-world offices and spaces as well as virtual spaces,” says Elad Gil, an entrepreneur and angel investor whose most recent project, Pluto, is a virtual-meeting platform that allows users to move around 3-D renderings of places like the Maldives, Admont Abbey in Austria and Burning Man. Even most conferences, those original super-spreader events, are likely to keep at least some remote facets, if for no other reason than doing so will be profitable: “You’re able to attract significantly more people to the event,” Boufarhat says. “It’s a lot more accessible.”

 

Start-ups like Kumospace and Hopin recognize that while in-person interactions can’t be fully replicated, they can in many respects be surpassed, or productively disrupted. Virtual meetings make the exchange of contact information and the ability to remember names trivially easy. They also make it possible to collect a great deal more data. Software tools like Otter.ai and Huddl.ai, which transcribe and, with machine learning, analyze recordings of meetings, can improve transparency, detect fraud and improve internal record keeping. (They also pose privacy challenges.)

Virtual meetings can subvert traditional social dynamics in positive ways too: One thing users like most about Hopin, for instance, is a feature that pairs off participants for speed-networking “dates”; because the platform forces the engagement, it removes the social anxiety usually involved in figuring out whom to talk to at a cocktail party. Virtual meetings also de-emphasize criteria like looks, height and geography. Everyone is only a blurry rectangle — whether located down the block or in San Francisco or in Dubai — and there’s little reason physical appearances can’t be further abstracted with filters, deep fakes or simple avatars.

Capabilities like these point to a future of meetings that is increasingly data-driven, efficient, unbiased, inclusive and accessible — but also possibly soulless. Whether this shift toward a more anodyne, algorithmic ethos is a good thing, of course, depends on your vantage point. Matt Levine, who writes a Bloomberg newsletter called Money Stuff, recently riffed on the fact that company whistle-blower reports have increased by 30 percent in the work-from-home era. He concluded that when people work together in person, a conviviality develops that makes ratting colleagues out feel like an act of betrayal; this inhibition disappeared once co-workers saw one another only on screens. “I guess this story is good news from a prevention-of-financial-crime perspective,” Levine wrote. “But it is sort of a sad story from a human perspective. All these people feeling disconnected from their work and their colleagues, with no strong personal ties of loyalty and friendship and common mission. Sure, the common mission in these particular cases was crime, but still.”

 

It’s possible that some of this dislocation that Levine is talking about will slowly dissipate as technology evolves — hardware in particular. For all the advances in software and platforms over the past year, most remote workers are still largely limited by their laptop cameras and audio inputs, which are not usually state-of-the-art. Audio lags. Video is overexposed. It’s hard to suspend disbelief and feel as though you’re in the same room as someone who looks like a shadow half the time and sounds like a gremlin.

 

Virtual reality, which might have been expected to get one of the biggest boosts from the move to work-from-home, has actually been the focus of few new start-ups so far — most consumers simply don’t have the hardware to enable V.R. But that is likely to change. Right now we can reach only two senses — sight and sound — through the computer, but eventually we will be able to, if not actually get to the other three, produce proxies that are convincing enough. Having a drink with someone virtually could be as intoxicating as in the physical world.

 

By then, humans will have most likely progressed as well. The societal conditioning that currently tells us that meeting in person is superior, somehow more “real” than meeting online, is already fading. Boufarhat points out that the Hopin team has always been remote, and yet when he does meet employees in person for the first time, “I feel like I already know them.” The intensity of being in a fast-growing start-up together, whether virtually or physically, has a way of strengthening bonds. “Humans are extremely adaptable, and people have adapted to a cloud-first world,” says Garg, the investor. “In person is just a different way to get to the same end place of deep emotional connection.”

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