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Our coverage on COVID‑19

Together Mode by Microsoft Teams seems dystopian, but it might help you feel more connected

Most digital solutions during this era seem to have weird dystopian vibes to them. And though Together Mode, a new video conference feature rolling out in Microsoft Teams, looks a little off, it can potentially help erase the feeling of distance between users.

Together Mode

The idea came from when a late night talk-show host in New York was struggling to perform his monologue to a camera in his living room, without a live audience to react to his jokes. Jaron Lanier of Microsoft, who also occasionally plays in the band for the late-night talk-show, pulled together what he calls a “magical” new feature to help the TV host and his viewers feel connected—along with Microsoft’s sea of researchers, psychologists and programmers.

The feature is meant to solve video-call fatigue. For example, in real life, reactions that are automatic and subconscious. And in video calls, there’s often a grid with multiple people’s faces filling the boxes—which is “a lot for your body’s nervous system to handle”, says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

As for how Together Mode tries to fix the issue, when using the feature the view is the same for everyone in the meeting and doesn’t change. This is unlike grid views, as normally it shows participants’ videos in different locations on each person’s screen and that move the boxes around during the call based on who’s speaking.

Participants of the new feature noticed that conversations flowed more naturally. People also began picking up on body language and could tell when others wanted to speak.

Together Mode also places all participants on a video call together in a virtual space, such as an auditorium, meeting room or coffee bar, so they look like they’re in the same place together. These AR backgrounds seem like an unnecessary addition, but it might still help you feel more like you’re in the same location with your co-workers during the pandemic.

Microsoft is also adding in video filters—a feature that lets you use filters to adjust lighting levels or soften the focus of the camera, and live reactions—which allows participants to react with emoji during meetings that will appear for everyone. These features, especially the live reactions, aren’t really new as video call platforms like Skype has had them for a while now.

Besides those, they are adding live transcripts to Teams later this year along with the ability to translate live captions into subtitles. This means that anyone will be able follow a meeting that’s being held in another language.

The new additions to Microsoft Teams, especially the new Together Now feature, are unique to the current situation resulted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It sure as hell isn’t the ideal given the circumstances, but new inventions could still help ease the burn of reality.

“So this is a huge thing for society. And who knows how long we’ll be in this pandemic situation,” says Mary Czerwinski, a cognitive psychologist at Microsoft.

Most of these new Microsoft Teams features will arrive in the app later this year.

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