During its annual I/O event in May, Alphabet Inc.’s Google showed off Starline, a high-tech video chat system that brings depth and lifelike reality to on-screen conversations. Other tech giants have similar ideas: WeWork has begun rolling out a hologram chat system in select New York, Los Angeles and Miami locations, while Microsoft has launched Microsoft Mesh, a smart glass-compatible means of showcasing 3D images of people during a conversation.
These different spins on the sci-fi premise of speaking to holograms at the office share a few things in common, namely a desire by Big Tech to make videoconferencing better and iron out the kinks in personal communication in newly remote and hybrid offices. Gartner research predicts by 2023, more than 40% of workers will work remotely at least one day a week, up from less than 30% before the coronavirus pandemic.
But communications specialists and business analysts suggest that while new tools would be welcomed by workers, they may not be ready for prime time. Starline, for instance, currently requires an expensive tech setup and is only operational at select Google offices, with reports of small trials taking place at certain media firms.
“It’s an amazing technology that appears to offer a close approximation to the in-person experience and addresses one of the major problems with current virtual video solutions, the issue with eye contact,” said Karin Reed, founder of Speaker Dynamics and co-author of the book Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work. “Unfortunately, this technology requires highly specialized equipment that won’t be available, let alone be adopted by the masses, for some time.”
Companies and office space providers are investing in new technology to make communications easier between in-office meetings and at-home colleagues. Reed said that while most companies are making significant investments in technology in their meeting rooms to allow for hybrid, specialized systems aren’t necessarily what’s needed. The majority, she noted, are focusing on adding larger monitors, digital whiteboards and more robust audio and visual systems to create an inclusive environment, regardless of how attendees are joining.
Gartner Chief of Research Brian Kropp, who specializes in human resources, said business leaders have realized employees want to experience technology at work in a way that mirrors their consumer technology, something “easy, seamless and user-friendly,” and have increased their technology investments in kind. After a year in which organizations rushed to set up teleconferencing tech to keep employees connected from their homes, it’s safe to assume videoconferencing isn’t something that will be forgotten. Kropp predicts it will still be seen as a lifeline for connecting those at home and in remote offices or coworking space to the main office.
But so far, he said, managers and executives haven’t shown widespread interest in experimental technology, and they have tended to cobble together different communications tech.
“Organizations are facing a problem,” Kropp said. “As of right now, the best solutions for employees tend to be point solutions for different talent activities rather than a fully integrated solution that they can source from just one vendor. Consequently, more companies are buying point solutions and then trying to bundle them into a customized solution.”
Scott Dust, a management professor at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University, and the chief research officer at Cloverleaf, said this new generation of hardware, unlike today’s communications software, is going to be cost-prohibitive for many companies. Starline supposedly costs “tens of thousands of dollars” a unit. Like many new tech products, it may take time to become widely adopted enough to lower the cost enough that a larger circle of firms can afford it. At the same time, some companies may see it as a bargain, even with a high price tag.
“For companies that do a great deal of travel, it might be worth the investment,” he said. “A one-time $1K investment in a headset replaces the ongoing costs of hotel and airline tickets.”
Even if companies do have the budget, the tech will also have to live up to expectations, and not stumble due to bandwidth and connectivity issues. A big challenge, Dust said, will be whether the new types of videoconferencing are “real-time” enough, and don’t exacerbate existing frustration over dropped calls and bad connections.
Some caution it’s premature to expect new videoconferencing technology to solve the issues inherent in moving to hybrid, namely organizational challenges around managing teams, keeping them on track and maintaining and building corporate culture in different locations.
Workplace consultant Liz Burow said that while some clients have talked about cutting-edge technology as they get ready to reopen and go remote, much of the conversation has been focused on “resetting the basics of the workplace experience,“ where how meetings are organized and run is more important than the fidelity of team members on a chat screen.
“How and why do we come together in the workplace and how do we create an equal feeling of experience leveraging what we have control over right now?” Burow said. “That means looking at corporate flexibility policies, team culture, norms and practices, furniture settings, distributed team training and upskilling, in addition to updates to AV, IT and tech.”
Kropp added that the fundamental nature of the hybrid shift means firms should be “ rethinking the purpose of the physical workspace altogether,” and being stricter about outlining the tasks, activities and moments requiring teams to be in the office.
While new takes on videoconferencing may not solve larger corporate issues around communications and organization, the promise of more face-to-face communication could end a persistent pet peeve.
“One key difference with using virtual reality for meetings is that the participant must be paying attention,” Dust said. “ You won’t be able to multitask, unlike video calls when no one is really completely paying attention. They are looking at their phones, switching tabs and answering emails. It’s likely to be more taboo to mute yourself or step away.”