By David Pierce for WIRED.
Stepping into one of the “project rooms” at speaker-maker Sonos’s office in downtown Boston is like opening a teleportation portal. The large, messy space, cluttered with half-built soundbars and heaping piles of screws, almost exactly replicates a room 3,000 miles away in Santa Barbara. Two screens hang on the wall of each one, displaying live feeds from both offices. Microphones around the room make it impossible to even whisper without being heard across the country; a surgical camera hanging overhead can zoom in on tiny screws anywhere on the table. Even the whiteboard syncs between the two offices. From either project room, you’re really inside both.
Sonos rigged the system together, largely with technology from conferencing startup Zoom, so its engineers and designers can work remotely and yet together. It’s a particularly complex solution to an increasingly common problem: Employees just don’t work in the same room anymore. A Gallup poll earlier this year found that 43 percent of American employees spend at least some time working remotely, and 20 percent work remotely all the time. Meanwhile, analysis firm IDC suggests that by 2020, nearly three quarters of the American workforce — more than 105 million people — will do work on mobile devices. The days of the 9 to 5 desk job are nearly dead and gone.
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All this gives reason to solve a very old problem: meetings suck. That’s always been true, even when meetings only involve people in the same room. But now that so many people work outside of the office, dialing in from the airport or Starbucks or their dining room table, it’s increasingly difficult to get everyone on the same page. Remote workers need to hear and be heard, to share their screen and collaborate on documents, even if all they have is a crappy Android phone.
Enterprising startups have tried to fix conference calls for years. But thanks to improved bandwidth, mature tools for sending video and audio over the web, and some very good and very cheap hardware, real change is finally possible. And companies throughout Silicon Valley are taking advantage ― not just to reinvent the conference call, but the way you collaborate with co-workers in real time from thousands of miles away.
Many Problems, One Solution
When Eric Yuan joined WebEx in 1997, the web-conferencing startup had 10 employees and one goal: to let you share your computer screen over the internet. By about 2010, after WebEx sold to Cisco and Yuan became the VP of engineering, he started to see people doing new things, too: audio conferencing, video conferencing, document collaboration, and more. There were patchwork solutions—Skype here, GoToMeeting there, Polycom in the conference room—but those came with a mess of plugins, logins, and user interfaces. “Quite often, I’m using four, five, six solutions for collaboration,” Yuan says. “That’s crazy.”
Yuan envisioned a system that fixed everything at once. That wasn’t possible at Cisco — it would’ve required re-writing most of the company’s software — so he left, and spent the next two years quietly building what he hoped would be the alpha and omega of conferencing solutions. The result, Zoom, goes beyond conferencing. He calls it “a next generation cloud unified collaboration solution company.” OK, sure.
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Zoom now sells a system in which 500 people can join a video meeting with a single tap. There are apps for mobile devices, integrations with calendars and Slack, and lots of ways to share your screen. You can launch the latest presentation across screens with one click, or use Zoom to teach yoga over the internet, which Yuan says he’s witnessed firsthand. The service promises rock-solid connectivity with high-quality video and audio, for a monthly fee of about $20 per person.
These features represent the new standard for meeting improvers, from BlueJeans to Highfive to Chime to Google Hangouts. They can’t make your synergistic circle-back meetings more useful, but they can make them easier. “Teams are defined by their experiences together,” says Scott Johnston, Google’s director of product management for Hangouts Meet. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to just instantly jump into a face-to-face chat.”
Can You Hear Me Now?
The ideas seem obvious, but only recently has technology made them possible. Your phone’s selfie camera is now high-res enough, and your screen big enough, to double as a functional webcam and workstation. Excellent bandwidth is now widely available. Cameras, processors, and wireless radios have become so cheap that kitting out a conference room costs a fraction of an old Polycom rig. Those Polycom rigs can now intelligently identify who’s speaking, and thanks to devices like Google’s Jamboard and Microsoft’s Surface Hub, it’s even possible to write on a whiteboard alongside someone miles away. And it’s all accessible with a few clicks. “I shouldn’t have to remember these long, complicated pins,” says Gene Farrell, Amazon’s VP of web services and the head of its new Chime conferencing tool. “I shouldn’t have to hire professionals to be able to start a video conference, and I shouldn’t need these clunky tools to either go through my computer.”
Back-end technologies have come a long way, too. Take WebRTC, a widely-used standard that enables your web browser to access your camera and microphone, then transmit audio and video in real-time. That standard made it possible to join a call just by opening a link. And because systems like AWS and Google Cloud exist, rather than forcing every customer to buy and maintain a rack of servers, everything can be hosted on a cloud service somewhere. It’s cheaper, more stable, and a whole lot easier to spin up.
These days, a do-everything service makes sense — no one wants to have to decide which kind of meeting to schedule, or remember where they’re supposed to log in. But conferencing companies are also learning to be productive members of an ecosystem, rather than replacing it themselves. Sure, Zoom and Chime have chat apps, but they won’t kill Slack. So instead, they’re all integrating with Slack, Google Calendar, and Outlook. If you want to use Hangouts but keep all your stuff in Dropbox, Google’s OK with that. “We’ll solve the meetings piece,” says Highfive CEO Shan Sinha. “You use whatever you use for your documents piece, you use whatever you use for your chat piece, and we’ll work right alongside those tools.” Sinha, like everyone else, knows that people generally don’t like new tools. His goal is to integrate Highfive into your current toolset.
The end game, then, is about more than conference calls. It’s about becoming the office of the future — ultimately, working without the office at all. As employees scatter across the globe and the gig economy replaces traditional office jobs, virtual workspaces become as important as physical ones. That only works when employees can talk as easily as walking over to each other’s desks. Luckily, it’s already happening. Which means we might all finally get some work done.
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