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Microsoft unveils Teams breakout rooms and more at Ignite

The long-awaited breakout rooms for Microsoft Teams were introduced at Ignite, along with support for more meeting participants and better ways to conduct presentations.

By early next year, Microsoft expects to have many new features in Teams aimed at increasing productivity while making virtual meetings more like the real world.

The upcoming enhancements, introduced this week at Microsoft's annual Ignite conference, include breakout rooms, a better way to do presentations and more virtual places to gather. The new capabilities demonstrate the company's focus extending beyond the technical aspects of hosting virtual meetings.

"The announcements are not just focused on productivity-enhancing features, but also make meetings more fun, less monotonous and more professional," said Roopam Jain, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

The breakout rooms in Teams, which Microsoft promises to deliver before the end of the year, are a feature that users have wanted for two years. Since 2018, almost 17,500 people have asked for breakout rooms in Microsoft's feedback forum. Nevertheless, Microsoft has been slow to roll out the feature, despite its popularity among people using Cisco and Zoom collaboration products.

"The lack of [it] has always been an argument for Zoom fans to dismiss Teams," said Ionel Ursu, an IT specialist at the University of East London.

The breakout-room feature lets meeting participants form small groups for discussions before being reunited in the general video conference. Meeting hosts can jump between rooms and write messages to all participants.

Another long-awaited development coming to Teams is support for significantly larger meetings. The current 10,000 view-only limit will double to 20,000, and the number of active participants will increase from 250 to 1,000. People will also see as many as 49 participants on video during a meeting, rather than the current limit of nine.

Teams users will soon see improvements in live transcriptions during video and phone calls. Teams will attribute text to the speaker within a side panel, translate it into other languages and save the conversations.

Together Mode

Microsoft also plans to add features to Together Mode within Teams. Rolled out this summer, Together Mode lets users pretend that they're in the same room as other meeting participants. It will soon offer layouts such as auditoriums, conference rooms and a coffee shop.

An upcoming overlay feature in Together Mode would let presenters hover over their slide decks like a TV weatherperson over a weather map. The feature enables participants to keep their eyes on the presenter and presentation simultaneously, as they would if they were watching someone at a whiteboard in a conference room.

Together Mode has been adopted by the NBA to add a live feel to its games, which are being held without fans as teams remain in quarantine at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fans use Teams to get their image on virtual bleachers as if they are watching a live basketball game alongside other devotees. They also get to see their picture on live TV.

Microsoft tries to ease the stress from working at home

Microsoft is tackling the grind of working from home with a feature aimed at mental health. The app, called virtual commute and developed with meditation software specialist Headspace, will offer people meditation breaks and scheduled reflection time before and after work.

Starting in October, employers will be able to monitor the number of hours people spend on Teams. Microsoft provides similar analytics for other applications in its 365 office productivity suite, such as Outlook.

Tracking employees working from home has two sides: monitoring productivity and making sure workers don't suffer mental fatigue from working too many hours. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the average workday increased by 48.5 minutes during the weeks following government stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"Over the last few months, leaders have gone from worrying about whether or not people will be productive to worrying about whether people are working in sustainable ways," Jared Spataro, a product marketing executive at Microsoft, said during an Ignite presentation.

In addition to Teams software news, Microsoft announced the arrival of two sets of Teams hardware. One is called Teams panels, a device mounted outside of meeting spaces. The product gives users the option to reserve a space, view an upcoming reservation and see whether nearby rooms are available. The other hardware is called the Surface Hub 2S, an 85-inch version of the original Surface Hub digital whiteboard.

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