Published on August 9th, 2020 📆 | 5339 Views ⚑0
Today’s technology suggests our videoconferenced future won’t be so bad
It’s 2022, but who’s counting? Since losing my job during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been a freelancer working from home near City College of San Francisco. Today I have three meetings. It’s one of the staggered schedule days when my 6-year-old has “real” school at Commodore Sloat and then a music lesson, and the 2½-year-old is home from preschool with a sniffle (he’s not that sick, but these days schools won’t let parents send kids in with even a runny nose). My husband, Seth Shipman, has to mentor biology students at the Gladstone Institute in Mission Bay. A rotating cast of grandparents is on tap to help babysit, and we’re having dinner and seeing a play tonight with friends.Mostly, none of us will be leaving the house.The kitchen Facebook Portal chimes. The little one runs in and answers it. “Hi Gramma!” My in-laws read an interactive book to the kids from their Portal in Massachusetts, the augmented reality distorting their faces and voices to the children’s delight. We got the Portal during the pandemic, and it quickly became a lifeline to connect the spread-out family.
After the first five months of sheltering at home, when it was clear that social distancing would become a long-term part of our lives, I reached out to a bunch of technologists for advice on how to upgrade our home setup, and what to expect in the months, which turned into years, ahead. We ended up buying two more Portals, and a slew of peripherals, since Stanford computer science Professor Keith Winstein said that some simple and inexpensive new gear would drastically improve the quality of most of our video meetings. Two years later, the major videoconferring software has gotten a little bit better. Many of the improvements happened in the first six months of the pandemic — nothing juices innovation like a crisis. Bandwidth issues remain, but we’ve learned tricks to deal with them.
Mostly, video just feels normal.
When we sit down to eat breakfast, the smart camera on the Portal pans and finds everyone, zooming in dramatically on whichever kid is being the loudest. I yell goodbye to my in-laws as I run out the door to drive my son to school.
Back at home (and work), I check my schedule on my Apple Watch, ignoring the reminder to get more steps in today. My first meeting is in five minutes, so I head to the garage. When it first became a makeshift office, it was awful. Terrible internet connection, fluorescent lights that made us look ill in every Zoom meeting. But we’ve made some improvements: got a Wi-Fi range extender, switched out the bulbs, positioned the desk to catch the natural light from the open garage door, added a rug to dampen the sound on the concrete floor, and an external mike and a better webcam. We also keep “Zoom shirts” out here to throw on right before meetings. We probably spent less than $200. There are still power drills and boxes everywhere, but all the video software has virtual reality backgrounds now, so we can hide it all.
Seth takes the kitchen desk, where he keeps one eye on the toddler and uses an aging MacBook to navigate his telepresence robot.
As the leader of a research lab, he needs to help students conducting experiments, but in an effort to minimize how densely packed with people the wet lab is at any given time, on days that he doesn’t have his own experiments in the works, he stays home and uses a robot from Double robotics to roam around, peering into petri dishes and coaching on how to pipette. It mostly works well, though occasionally he has to Slack his students to ask them to rescue the bot from wherever it has lost connection.
This usually happens when our home internet is overloaded from every single human in the house uploading video at the same time through chats, which all get stuck in a queue. There’s not really a way to fix that, so we try to stagger meetings, and even do some calls over mobile 5G.
The most annoying part about virtual meetings is just navigating all the software options. My clients all use different tools. This meeting is with a company that uses Microsoft Teams for everything.
Teams was the first to mainstream the use of virtual rooms, which Microsoft calls Together Mode. Microsoft engineers built the tech in three months, leveraging existing virtual reality technology they’d developed, and shipped it in the middle of the national lockdowns. Even people who don’t use Microsoft 365 for work are familiar with Together since the NBA used it to show virtual fans during its games in the Orlando, Fla., bubble.
I’ve never met these clients in person, but in Together Mode, our upper bodies and faces are all chummy in virtual seats next to each other in a grid. I can look down to speak directly to the woman whose face appears below mine. We’re like the Brady Bunch, but negotiating deadlines. You can also pick how the room looks — boardroom, library, classroom. The novelty of this virtual space has worn off at this point. This computerized room is just … where we work. I’m surprised in the middle of the conversation to learn my main collaborator lives just up 19th Avenue in the Richmond District; I’d figured he lived far away.
“Let’s have our next meeting as a walk-and-talk along the Great Highway,” he suggests. The street never reopened to cars after COVID and has become a cherished walking spot for families and co-workers. I say yes, but I know we probably won’t do it. That would require putting on real pants.
“Mama! Mama! Where my bike?” my son screeches. The Teams algorithm employs noise cancellation, which keeps the intrusion to a minimum. But we’ve all grown accustomed to each other’s families and lives being in the work frame at this point.
“Your bike is behind mom’s desk,” I hear my brother say from a Portal screen on a side table next to the desk. I nod in thanks and stay in my meeting.
My brothers, who live thousands of miles away, sometimes stay called into this Portal throughout the day. I got the idea from the way Facebook employees used Portals during the pandemic. When the company sent everyone home to work, it shipped Portals to employees so they could do their video chats on a dedicated screen. I rarely have meetings with people who use Facebook Workplace software, which integrates with Portals, so I don’t have meetings on the device. But since my brothers are both writers as well, we use it to brainstorm.
We’re just there in the background of each others’ days, almost like our own little newsroom. It feels kind of like how Gchat used to be back in oughts, or AIM in the ’90s. That’s sort of what Google Plus was supposed to be, said Stanford’s Winstein, a way to announce that you were hanging out and casually connect with someone without scheduling a call. I remember scoffing at the idea when Google Plus launched, but as with so much else, the pandemic changed my perspective.
Next is a Zoom webinar I’m moderating. Some panelists are local academics physically together in Berkeley, and others are folks who fled the Bay Area for more affordable climes during COVID times and never returned. The Berkeley people have an Owl Labs smart camera on their conference table that uses AI to keep the speaker in frame, pans to show a group view and follows people when they get up to use the white board. It works with most videoconferencing software. They’ve got the 2020 model, which retailed for $799, and was back-ordered for months during the pandemic, as companies and academic institutions anticipated that some form of dispersed workforce would last. The audio is high quality, and it makes it way better for remote participants to keep track of who is talking and what they are demonstrating. I record the session and send the file to myself to upload later to YouTube.
Green light: Most of the tech needed to boost our video lives is available today, meaning non-draining Zoom meetings are real. Plus, the pandemic is pushing innovation. It’s only going to get better.
Ping! Time for my son’s doctor’s visit. First-line visits ever since COVID are often telemedicine. The clinic sent a video link via its own app, so I have to log in to find it. I can’t tell from the link what the software is, but it says it’s HIPAA-compliant and end-to-end encrypted. I send the link via Signal to my husband, who does the appointment in the kitchen.
Our 2½-year-old has lived his life via videoconference. He started crawling, took his first steps and turned 1 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both his birthday parties have been over Zoom, and almost all his interactions with his grandparents have been via Portal. He can’t speak in full sentences yet, but he can say “Hey Portal, call Gramma,” and he’s better than any of us at looking into the camera directly to make eye contact on video chat.
When I go into the kitchen to grab a snack I can see him squirming on my husband’s lap. The doctor asks him to open his mouth to look at his throat, but he’s half out of frame. Of all the video chats the family will have today, this one is probably the most important, but also the lowest quality. I can’t imagine the doctor can really see much. She occasionally looks pixelated and we have to refresh the browser twice. This may be because my mom is called into the Portal on the kitchen counter, stealing bandwidth. She keeps trying to ask the doctor questions. It’s always funny when someone on one screen is trying to talk to another. The doctor is very confused.
Prognosis is good, and afterward my mom plays a game with the little one. From her kitchen in Idaho I can see her pretending to catch animated objects my son is throwing from San Francisco.
In the afternoon, I’m supposed to watch a government hearing streaming over Cisco WebEx, but I can’t handle another video right now so I listen via the C-Span app on my phone while walking to pick my son up from school. Fresh air! Steps! “Are you happy now, Apple Watch?” I think. In response it sends me push alerts from Twitter. Thanks a lot.
The 6-year-old’s guitar teacher moved to Colorado, so the lesson is via Google Duo. I can never remember if it’s called Google Hangouts or Duo or Meet, so it takes me a minute to find the right app. We’re late for the lesson. But the music syncs up pretty well on Duo, and it uses AI to anticipate and complete the sound when the audio lags, which it’s been doing for years.
During dinner, the kids Facetime with my dad. The streaming quality is great, but he’s holding his phone at such an extreme angle that we only see the top of his head.
After we put the kids to bed, it’s time to go to the theater. Back in 2020, Winstein’s group and a bunch of other engineers and performers at Stanford were working on a high-quality way for actors to put on a play even when they were in separate rooms, using bespoke video and audio gear with advanced processing that cut down on lag time. Partially it was a way to demonstrate to the big tech companies and industry groups that determine things like the back-end codecs and web algorithms that process audio and video that something radically different and better was possible. That project didn’t lead to immediate adoption by Silicon Valley, but a local repertory house uses the tech for its experimental theater.
We know one of the actors in tonight’s live show, and all our friends across the country are in a Facebook Messenger Room that we have up on the living room Portal so we can watch together.
I was raised to never ever speak during a play, but it’s 2022 and I’m at the theater in my sweatpants in my own living room, so 20th century rules no long apply.
The play is entertaining, but I fall asleep. My eyes hurt. It’s time to call it a day.
Emily Dreyfuss is a Bay Area writer. Email: [email protected]
Emily Dreyfuss is a Bay Area writer. Email: [email protected]