Conferencing fatigue is a very real thing.

After her team spent months staring at faces in little boxes, said Toronto-based social scientist Dr. Mary Donohue, founder and CEO of Donohue Learning, she finds that people are exhausted by digital communications. It’s a big problem. She cited a 2019 Gallup study, reported in Forbes that found that 23 per cent of employees feel burned out at work very often or always, and another 44 per cent of the nearly 7500 respondents feel burned out sometimes.

However, she thinks the upcoming Together Mode in Microsoft Teams, one of a series of features expected to roll out in August, is a first step in reducing that distress.

Together Mode in Teams. Source: Microsoft

Jaron Lanier, self-described “octopus” (which stands for Office of the Chief Technology Officer Prime Unifying Scientist) at Microsoft and a pioneer in the virtual reality field, said the new viewing mode is a direct consequence of the ever-increasing number of video calls people are making during the pandemic. Rather than being in isolated little boxes, in Together Mode meeting attendees are seated in a virtual auditorium and the view for all is one that emulates looking at the group in a mirror. It hacks the brain’s spatial sense so people can make eye contact and even offer virtual high-fives.

“This is very much a specific design in response to the pandemic,” he said. “The design was initiated during the pandemic, developed during the pandemic and is released during the pandemic.” And, he observed, the data has shown that people are calmer, more empathetic, and more focused in the virtual environment and retain content better. They are also, at least at first, more playful.

“We’re trying to make our circumstances a little less miserable,” Lanier noted. “It makes meetings less weird.”

“Every month my team has this thing where we read a book and we get together for 90 minutes and talk about it,” added Karan Nigam, group lead, product marketing, Microsoft Teams. “Trying to stay honest, as much as possible. And I think I’ve noticed how the conversation used to be a lot more rigid and a lot more formal in the traditional grid mode, but in Together Mode now, it’s a lot more playful, you’re giving each other high fives if someone shared a comment, we’re not talking on top of each other.”

At launch, the only option will be the auditorium view, which is optimized for calls where everyone is alone in front of a webcam (other virtual environments are in the works, Lanier said). It supports multiple speakers, highlighting and identifying each when they’re talking. However, it is not suitable for use where PowerPoint presentations are involved – the new Dynamic View feature that will let attendees and presentations co-exist on the screen, and will allow the presenter to see the reactions of key people, would probably work better.

Dynamic Stage in Teams. Source: Microsoft

“The dynamic view feature is also very helpful for me,” Nigam said. “And it’s just another example of us just being truly empathetic to the user. One of the big incentives of this feature, a lot of times when you’re presenting, it’s tough to follow along on who’s doing what, and the ability to have the content and people in the same view, and then being able to pin the presenter and the decision-maker in the meeting so that you can really see their reactions, real-time, while presenting. I think it’s just a simple example of how utilizing our infrastructure gives a great user experience.”

Innovation is not just launching new features, he explained. It’s also about updating and creating a more engaging user experience, based on customer needs.

“Smallish features will make your everyday experience a lot more delightful,” he said. “Just the fact that it’s easy to see who’s speaking in a visual way, I think that’s really incredible. I think the new stuff like chat bubbles and being able to react while you’re in the meeting with hearts and emojis, that’s something that we have noticed the newer generation really needs and wants. Being able to build some of these capabilities right into Teams, I think it’s going to be a welcome set of features.”



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