Tech innovators pivot to support the post-COVID workplace

Plenty of firms have been busy over the past year building new products or enhancing existing ones to support a distributed workforce, virtual collaboration, and socially distanced office space. Over the next two newsletters, I’ll be looking at a few of their inventions that particularly impressed me. This week we look at how technology will change the way we meet.

The Brady Bunch model

One thing Covid has taught us is that the technology we used to use to accommodate remote participants into meetings, well, sucked. The audio quality of most legacy conference bridges was awful, forcing dialed-in workers to struggle to hear or speak. They couldn’t see what was going on in the room and, lacking a visual presence, were easily forgotten.

Zoom was the great leveler. The growing consensus is that all meetings should now be conducted as if everyone in them is virtual, which means erasing the distinctions between local and remote space.  “What was great about everyone working from home is it created a level playing field. We all looked like the Brady Bunch,” said Christy Harris, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at insurance giant Allstate.

Zoom Video Communications, Inc. has been keying off of the popularity of its videoconferencing service to make Zoom Rooms more ubiquitous, launching a hardware-as-a-service version and bulking up features for meetings with a lot of remote participants.

Allstate is testing a new Zoom technology at eight of its largest facilities that can pick out faces in a meeting room and place them in individual tiles so that everyone gets an equal amount of screen space. It’s also adopting Mural, a product that replicates in a virtual space the flipcharts and sticky notes that are commonplace during group brainstorming sessions.

Allstate is still in the early stages, but the insurer has high hopes. “There is a psychological benefit that comes from knowing everybody can contribute,” Harris said. People are less likely to miss out on critical information because of a bad audio connection, and “diverse voices also make our products and services better,” she said.

Presentations for video conferences

I’ve enjoyed using Prezi’s swooping and zooming animated presentation software for years as an alternative to static PowerPoint. In late 2019, the company broadened its scale with Prezi Video, a product that enables presenters to integrate animated visuals into visual presentations. While technically introduced just before the pandemic hit, Prezi added Zoom and Microsoft Teams integration last year along with a live-editing feature. This week the company introduced integration that lets users bring an existing Google Slides deck onto the screen next to their face within any video platform.

“We knew that having the presenter amidst their content would create a more immersive experience for the audience, which would make them likelier to engage,” said Prezi CEO Jim Szafranski in an email interview. “Video meetings actually have much greater potential for engagement than in-person meetings, if you give attendees the tools to respond with visual content.”

Prezi Video does away with the need to choose between a shared screen and a talking head and preserves the creative animation effects of its flagship software. The company says more than 130,000 organizations have adopted it for virtual meetings in less than two years, including more than half of the Fortune 1000.

New cam perspectives

Boston-based Owl Labs makes an integrated device with a 360-degree camera, microphone, and speaker that sits at the center of a conference room and automatically tunes into whoever’s speaking. Since COVID hit, the company has included a vertical flip feature for mounting on a ceiling, improved voice tracking, incorporated a digital whiteboard, and even added options to switch off the panoramic view to protect the privacy of students in a classroom. Demand has increased “exponentially” over the past year, a spokeswoman said.

Unity Technologies is best known for its visualization technology that powers about 90% of mobile games and half of all virtual and augmented reality products. “Due to the pandemic, we saw a massive need for the use of virtual collaboration to sustain the architecture and construction industries,” said Matias Cavallin, a communications lead at Unity.

The result was Unity Reflect, an immersive collaboration environment that enables multiple designers and construction engineers in different locations to walk through a digital twin of an architectural design or construction project and make adjustments collaboratively. Models can be imported directly from popular computer-aided design packages, and participants can view what others in the meeting see.

Meetings won’t disappear after COVID, but technology can make them more bearable. Next week I’ll look at technology to make the workplace safer and more organized.

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