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Video collaboration tools aren't good enough for hybrid work

Cisco, Microsoft and Zoom agree that their video collaboration products need to do more for at-home and in-office workers. Future uses of AI could help.

Zoom, Microsoft and Cisco executives agree that their companies' products fall short in making videoconferencing an equitable experience for in-office and remote workers.

During a panel discussion at this week's Enterprise Connect conference, the representatives of the three leading video conferencing companies said customer adoption of hybrid workplaces would complicate worker collaboration. As a result, their video meeting platforms will evolve to make the meeting experience equitable for all participants, no matter their location.

"There's no going back to the way it was [before the pandemic]," when in-person meetings were the norm, said Graeme Geddes, head of sales for Zoom Phone and Zoom Rooms. "We're in the very early innings of the expansion into the office environment."

Snorre Kjesbu, vice president and general manager of Webex devices at Cisco, said the sudden shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic democratized meetings by placing every participant in a video frame that was the same size as everyone else's. That equitable treatment would have to continue as some workers return to the office.

Zoom, Microsoft and Cisco plan to use AI to frame each meeting participant individually in a conference room, placing them on an equal footing with remote workers. The feature will also make it easier for at-home employees to read facial expressions and body language.

Microsoft Teams video gallery
The Microsoft Teams video gallery presents an equalized view of meeting participants.

Zoom's feature is in beta, while Cisco and Microsoft plan to release the capability by the end of 2021 and next year, respectively.

Ilya Bukshteyn, the general manager of Microsoft Teams devices, said AI-powered cameras could also improve the view of remote workers by following presenters in a conference room. He cited an example where a remote worker said he often saw his coworkers' backs when they stood up for presentations and blocked the conference-room camera.

Kjesbu said live transcription and translation are other ways AI can make meetings more accessible to all participants.

Moderator Ira Weinstein, founder of Recon Research, asked whether augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) would play a role in online collaboration's future. Companies on the panel have announced investments in AR and VR: Microsoft has its Mesh platform, and Zoom plans to integrate its video meetings and whiteboard with Facebook's Horizons Workrooms VR product.

Kjesbu said AR wouldn't be ideal for a typical meeting, but it could be helpful while looking at a virtual mockup of a new product.

Bukshteyn said meeting rooms could benefit from technology less advanced than AR, like larger monitors. Bigger displays would show video feeds and presentations with chat, a list of people who have raised their hands, and a running transcription of the meeting.

Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily NewsWalpole TimesSharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.

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