(Bloomberg) -- After months of staying home, almost every office worker is probably sick of virtual meetings. Microsoft Corp. said it has a few new ways to make videoconferencing more interactive and easier to figure out who’s talking, or who is trying to.
New features for the company’s Teams videoconferencing software announced Wednesday include one in which participants are arranged side-by-side in white chairs seated in auditorium-style tiers. The company also developed a touch-screen display as a companion to a computer that can be used with Teams to access calendars, messages and calls. The voice-controlled devices will be made by partners like Lenovo Group Ltd. and will be available later this year.
Microsoft has seen usage of Teams explode as the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to shutter offices and move to remote work. Teams vies with Slack Technologies Inc. and Zoom Video Communications Inc. for corporate customers, and Microsoft is trying to rapidly improve its video-conferencing product and add new features.
The theater-style seating is called “together mode.” Microsoft said the idea is to better show participants and let them interact with each other — you can sort of virtually high-five your neighbor for example. You can more easily see when someone in the meeting wants to speak or is tuned out, which might be a problem for many frequent meeting-goers. The feature will be available to all users in August, the company said in a statement. New views will be added in the future.
Microsoft said its internal testing found the new virtual mode has increased the amount of time participants look at others and choose to keep their cameras on, helps them better retain content and have a stronger memory of who attended big meetings. When brain activity is measured, this mode has been associated with more calm and focus. The company had been working on different conferencing prototypes and sped up “together mode” when the pandemic hit.
“It’s really a design specific to this current situation and to try to make our circumstances a little less miserable,” said Jaron Lanier, a Microsoft researcher, who is considered a virtual reality pioneer. “For the moment it makes pandemic-era meetings less miserable, less isolating, less fatiguing, less weird, although a little weird in its own way.”
Later this year, Teams will make it possible to note who said what in live transcripts. The app now has live captions and will soon add speaker attributions, which are helpful for meetings in which the user doesn’t know everyone.
The company also plans to expand meeting capability to 1,000 participants, all of whom can talk, chat and appear on video. Microsoft will add a feature for presentations or classes, where attendees listen and watch but don’t participate, for as many as 20,000 people.
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