Preparing for the Future of Hybrid Engagements
The need for hybrid meetings and workshops will not disappear anytime soon; in fact, it will likely continue to increase with the growing desire for flexibility in the workplace and the geographical disparity inherent to a global economy. We’ve solved many of the challenges of running a good hybrid meeting with today’s technology, but what will the future of this space look like? Who are the key players, and what are the keys to successful innovation in the market for hybrid and remote collaboration technology?
In an example of life imitating art, the 2014 film Kingsman: The Secret Service featured a scene in which two characters sat down at a long conference table and began speaking as if the table was full. Colin Firth’s character dons a pair of ordinary glasses, and suddenly, we can see digital projections of the other participants, each in their respective chairs around the conference table.
This may seem like a bit of sci-fi, but the primitives of this technology exist, and major tech leaders are investing heavily in the platforms to support its success.
Augmented reality (AR) is progressing in ways that could drastically change how we think about remote and hybrid workshops and meetings. Meta has begun pioneering the space with their virtual reality conferencing platform, Horizons, which supports collaborative remote conferencing, including interactive whiteboarding. Meta has released their next iteration of wearable hardware, the Meta Quest Pro, featuring high-resolution sensors for improved mixed reality, sharper visuals, as well as eye tracking and natural facial expressions to help reflect participant’s reactions to others while collaborating digitally. Meta has also recently purchased Luxexcel, a company that 3D prints lenses, which could rapidly advance Meta’s AR offering.
Apple has reportedly filed patents that point towards their intent to create AR glasses that look more like reading glasses than the VR headsets on the market today. Google is piloting a 3D high fidelity telepresence, Project Starline, in partner offices. Mesh is Microsoft’s offering targeted at bringing an AR solution to hybrid meetings using their HoloLens headset.
Despite the investment from major players in the space, there are still significant opportunities for innovation. Smart contact lens startup Mojo Vision has even entered the testing phase of their AR contact lenses, which they claim will be “The world’s first AR smart contact lens with a built-in display that delivers Invisible Computing.”
A number of factors will determine which, if any, of these solutions captures the opportunity in the hybrid work enablement space, including:
- High-quality audio, which is critical to successful visual collaboration
- Ability to drive remote engagement, addressing the critical challenge of hybrid meetings
- Appealing aesthetics, ensuring social adoption beyond early adopters of new technology
- Accessibility and ease of log-in, technology designed to make our working lives easier needs to eliminate the hurdles of adoption as much as possible.
While video conferencing has become the standard for remote collaboration, audio quality is still the keystone of a successful meeting. When participants have poor connectivity, they opt to turn off their cameras to allocate more bandwidth to audio.
A simple experiment to demonstrate the importance of audio quality is to go on YouTube and see the engagement numbers for videos with high-quality sound and grainy video vs. HD video and poor sound. People will tolerate a lower-quality video, but poor sound quality will cause them to stop watching almost immediately. Successful hybrid conferencing technology will seamlessly integrate high-quality sound and engaging video functionality.
Driving Remote Engagement
The solution that can solve the problem – not just for the team members in the room but those dialing in – will be a key differentiator.
Augmented reality has potential value because it encourages the in-person participants to interact directly with remote teammates as they can see the remote participants at the table. The ideal product will not just bring the remote participant into the room visually for the other participants to engage with but also enable the remote participant to see and hear what happens in the room, and feel as if they are there.
While much of this is feasible today, the current AR solutions are expensive and require heavy, unusual-looking equipment. To achieve mass adoption, wearable hardware must be light enough to support longer meetings or seminars and aesthetically pleasing enough to be adopted by all participants. A single participant who refuses to engage with the technology will undermine the effectiveness of the entire experience.
Imagine a meeting of bankers, lawyers and corporate leaders. Ego and vanity likely loom large in that room. No one wants to feel that they have lost any perceived respect by wearing hardware that feels silly or distracting. For this group to adopt AR and its associated benefits, the wearables need to feel no different than a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. While this group is likely later in the technology adoption curve, they are a population that would derive some of the most value and enable an offering to reach mass adoption and scale.
Looking good is not enough. Over two years of normalized remote work and video conference calls have opened the door for further technology innovations in the space, and raised the bar for what we all expect regarding ease of use. In order to be competitive, new technologies need to exceed existing offerings in ease of use and quality of experience. They will need to be as easy to log into as walking into the room, taking your seat and starting the conversation. Any additional steps required to connect accounts, pair devices, or otherwise interrupt the onboarding experience will limit adoption and use.
These capabilities are all feasible (with the right investments), desirable (with the right user experience), and viable (at the right price). However, there is no offering that currently combines all three on the market today. While we search for the solution that meets the market’s needs, we must work with what is available.