To See or Not to See: Conducting Immersive Virtual Meetings Without Video

The past eighteen months or so has seen a worldwide migration from working in offices to working from home. This switch has catapulted virtual meeting platforms into the limelight. Companies schedule regular video meetings with remote workers, students learn in a virtual classroom, and even social events have gone online.

While digitization and virtualization dominated in the pre-2020 world, our increasing reliance on such technology is now undeniably clear. This has prompted technology to up its game—with more urgency than in pre-COVID times. Virtual work meetings have become part of our everyday lives, and as of yet, there are no signs that things will return to “normal”. Navigating the world of virtual meetings is a task that everyone must conquer.

What Are Immersive Meetings?

Zoom, the virtual meeting platform, has launched a novel new feature called “Immersive View”, in the hopes that it will make online meetings feel more real and personal. Immersive View allows users to adjust their background to replicate that of an actual office—an attempt to regain some semblance of normality after almost two years of isolation and remote working.

This new development went public in October last year at Zoomtopia 2020, where users were also made aware of other developments. Animated reactions, reactions with an audio component, upgraded virtual waiting rooms and the ability to record selectively so that transcripts are concise and contain only the most important insights were amongst the new features.

Immersive View has now been released to those with Free and Pro accounts and allows a maximum of 25 participants in a meeting. Some of the older versions of Zoom do not support this feature.

Apart from Zoom, other online platforms have begun to develop features that make a more immersive virtual environment achievable. FRAME, a product from the virtual world platform Virbela, has put together an array of immersive meeting options, ranging from virtual offices to classrooms for virtual learning. Before immersive meetings, Zoom offered a “Virtual Background” feature: similar to their new upgrade, but only for individual meeting participants.

Why Are Immersive Meetings Popular?

It’s quite clear why these new features are so popular. Those who have had to work or study from home since early 2020 have endured hours upon hours of awkward online meetings, trying to acclimatize to the new normal. Immersive View and any other immersive meeting development give people the chance to feel more connected, as opposed to working in an isolated environment with very little interpersonal connection.

Immersive View is a very welcome development for the vast majority of businesses. Having a meeting that allows everyone to feel like they’re in the same space can facilitate clearer communication and help to maintain some sort of work culture; encouraging teamwork at a time of physical distancing.

From another angle, using Immersive View can boost professionalism. In a virtual meeting room with a customized background, people won’t get distracted by disruptions in others’ video frames.

Audio-Only Virtual Meetings

There are many people who still prefer meetings without a video component. When the first wave of lockdowns hit the world, millions of companies turned to video conferencing, using platforms like Zoom, Google Meet and Skype. Now, more than a year later, the term “Zoom burnout” was coined to describe the mental exhaustion some experience when spending too much time on the app.

Why is this relevant? It seems that Zoom burnout (also called Zoom fatigue) is caused by the visual overstimulation, or “non-verbal overload”, of spending too long gazing at colleagues on a screen. The effort required to read non-verbal cues when you’re interacting with small images is hard to sustain for extended periods.

Opting for audio-only meetings cuts out this issue. Apart from that, research has suggested that listening to audio can increase physiological responses such as heart rate and body temperature, while watching video has a lesser impact. This may mean that an audio-only option enhances participants’ engagement.

One of the logistical benefits of an audio-only meeting is that it requires less data. When you’re having an important discussion, the last thing you want is to lose connectivity, which is far more likely if your video is on and draining your data by the second.

How Non-Video Meetings Work Compared To Immersive View

When you look at Zoom’s Immersive View feature, it can be hard to think of an audio-only equivalent that offers a similar level of “togetherness”. People almost always assume that watching rather than listening is a more effective experience.

Not so. There are a number of options when it comes to having virtual meetings without video.

SONICOM, a Europe-based research project focused on audio-only online interactions, has drawn attention to the capacity of sound to achieve an immersive effect in virtual meetings. While Zoom’s Immersive View is an excellent feature that allows people to be present in a shared virtual and visual space, the use of immersive audio has yet to establish itself as a popular communication tool. While many people do use audio-only platforms for business and social interactions, many others aren’t even aware that immersive audio exists.

Many of us don’t realize that in everyday life, the sounds we hear are far more layered and complex than they seem. Sitting at your laptop while you’re working, your ears pick up a huge array of sounds: the soft hum of the laptop, the tapping of your fingers on the keyboard, your own breathing (and sniffing, clearing your throat, swallowing), a slight breeze outside, and so much more. We don’t often have a complete absence of noise, so the constant background noise seems normal.

Our brains are accustomed to hearing these noises to such an extent that we aren’t aware of the impact they have on our reality. This is one of the issues that SONICOM is tackling. Instead of trying to replicate a visually immersive virtual/artificial reality, it aims to use artificial intelligence to construct “packages” of customized sounds to provide users with realistic audio environments.

How Does This Work?

One aim of an immersive audio experience is to mimic the way we hear sounds in terms of direction, volume, and intensity. Our ears hear the same sounds, but not in the same way when it comes to the position of the source.

Anyone who has used earphones to listen to music will be familiar with the difference between using both earbuds as opposed to one. Surround sound is a natural physical feature we take for granted until it’s removed. The immersive audio that SONICOM’s exploring allows users to experience sounds from all different directions. Exactly how we experience sounds in everyday life.

This isn’t a gimmick. Researchers are confident that using immersive audio will restore essential elements of in-person communication that are lost when using digital means.

Using video for virtual meetings allows us to see one another and read visual clues as we would in any other conversation. Using audio in an immersive way, however, allows people to hear something closer to a real environment, including tone of voice and the position of the source.

Solving Common Problems

While video meetings communicate visual social cues to some extent, there are some common issues that hinder communication. Screens freeze, video and audio break down, and there can be a lag with both sound and videos which makes interacting effectively nearly impossible.

When it comes to audio-only meetings and interactions, the more realistic audio helps people to communicate more like they would in normal, face-to-face interactions. Part of an effective conversation is the ability to pick up social cues, which aren’t limited to facial expressions. The ability to hear someone’s tone of voice accurately and clearly makes it easier to know when and how to respond.

A great example of this is the difficulty some people experience with instant messages. Typed messages like those used in WhatsApp can be concise and informative, but they lack the social context so essential in interpersonal communication. Reading someone’s tone of voice in a typed message is notoriously difficult and has led to many misunderstandings. Some people resort to overusing emojis, but the absence of any kind of authentic human communication makes interacting difficult.

Entering An Interactive Future

Many people aren’t aware that immersive audio is already in use, just not with virtual meetings. Watching a film, you’ll experience immersive audio as speakers on either side of the movie theater increase or decrease their volume independently of each other. The fact that we now rely more heavily on virtual communication platforms has just thrown the issue into focus.

SONICOM, which is one of the main players in developing immersive audio for virtual interactions, has the funding to explore all options. Ultimately, they and others will build digital tools that will help us to communicate in the most comfortable and effective way possible.

The Virtual Way Forward

There are many things to love about working remotely, from working from bed to no daily commute. But the struggle with online meetings is not one of the positives.

It’s evident, however, that before long our virtual interactions will feel more like “normal”, no matter what the future holds.

Author’s bio

Riley Richardson is a writer extraordinaire who lives and breathes words. She usually covers topics related to business and employee management. When she has the extra time, she enjoys long walks at the park with her dog, Luna, or knitting on her veranda

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