On March 11, 2020, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the world had no idea what was in store. Around 19 months later, it’s beginning to feel like life as we knew it is gone for good.
One of the more complex issues that society is now facing is the need to adapt to new communication channels. Almost overnight, we moved away from face-to-face contact to virtual meetings by necessity.
This need precipitated a huge increase in the number of people using video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and Google Meet.
The knock-on effect is that these technologies have had to meet the needs of many more companies and individuals very quickly.
While they have advanced (by necessity), the difference between in-person interactions and virtual ones is still evident.
The immersive meeting
An innovation that aims to bridge that gap, the “immersive meeting”, involves creating visuals that allow meeting participants to appear in a single virtual setting—an office, for example, where all participants are shown in the same “room”.
This feature, now available on Zoom as the “Immersive View” setting, has helped companies to improve their communication. It’s allowed them to regain some resemblance of a unified team, as opposed to individual entities isolated in remote locations.
The theory is that creating a more realistic space will get employees more engaged and set a professional tone.
Immersive View, however, is not the only tool being explored in terms of making virtual communication more authentic and effective.
Different organizations have begun to develop and expand immersive audio, which is meant to achieve the same sense of authenticity and cohesion offered by immersive meetings. This isn’t a brand new invention. But using it to strengthen communication between remote workers hasn’t become the norm—yet.
What does “immersive” mean?
At the center of this issue is the concept of immersion.
Immersive experiences are those that give people the sensation of being surrounded in an artificial environment to the extent that it feels like reality.
Creating such an experience often involves both visuals and sound, hoping to give users a more engaging and authentic experience through both eyes and ears.
Some immersive technology even involves physical elements. Like in cinemas, when chairs move to simulate what is shown on the screen.
When it comes to virtual communication, using immersive meetings tries to bridge the gap between distanced people.
Adding a standardized background has become a valuable tool when dealing with the disconnect among employees. It pushes virtual interactions into a more familiar environment and creates a feeling of cohesion. It also creates a barrier between home and work, making employees more comfortable and less concerned about their privacy.
Rise of virtual communication
It’s obvious that our reliance on digital communication has grown in the past 19 or so months. So much so that terms like Zoom fatigue are part of our vocabulary, and we need to know how to look after ourselves to prevent Zoom burnout. Now, patterns emerging show that the virtual realm is here to stay.
The monetary value of the video conferencing market shot up from $3.85 billion in 2019 to a massive $7.87 billion in 2020.
Are video meetings better than audio-only?
Audio-only virtual meetings have many advantages; despite the misperception that video is more advanced and superior. Some of the reasons are:
- Audio-only meetings are easier to facilitate
- Audio-only meetings are more affordable (there are more free options for audio conferences than there are for video)
- Audio-only meetings are more accessible to participants (video calls use a huge amount of data for those outside a Wi-Fi zone)
The assumption that video trumps audio automatically extends to the immersive meeting features now getting rolled out by apps like Zoom. Even Zoom, however, recognizes that audio-only meetings are valuable in their own right.
Immersive audio – the nitty-gritty
An immersive audio experience is comparable to the use of 3D visuals, such as watching a 3D movie or playing a virtual reality game.
Understanding immersive audio requires some unlearning in terms of how we believe we hear sound. In reality, all the sounds we hear are filtered according to their volume and where they are positioned relative to our ears. A sound coming from your left gets heard differently from one coming from your right.
The issue this understanding exposes is that even immersive visual experiences don’t provide the most realistic meeting place.
Customizing the audio settings can allow users to feel present in a real environment, rather than experiencing virtual interactions as an audience member who is essentially alone.
Those who are familiar with video conferencing will undoubtedly know the frustration of video and audio lag.
In terms of a fully immersive experience, the fact that you can see all participants in a virtual meeting doesn’t make up for the decidedly detached and inauthentic audio component.
Researchers have been working on more advanced audio technology for a long time. But the current state of the world has catapulted that work into overdrive.
Instead of virtual reality only being available to gamers with high-end rigs, every remote worker is spending hours using virtual meeting spaces. While the development of immersive video is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it shouldn’t overshadow the potential and importance of audio.
A project called SONICOM has made real headway in developing audio technologies that will provide users with a far more realistic experience than your usual conference call. While non-verbal social cues play a huge part in effective communication, being able to ascertain someone’s tone of voice is just as crucial.
SONICOM’s research involves using AI to find out how we react to sound and putting that knowledge into practice.
Where to from here?
It’s abundantly clear that virtual communication is here to stay.
The process of migrating from in-person interactions to digital has accelerated due to months of lockdowns and forced remote working.
While many people have enjoyed working from home, it has had an effect on so many areas of our lives. Communication has remained something of an issue—and experience has proved that video alone isn’t the answer.
Technology that can create an immersive audio experience, meanwhile, is being perfected. And it’s expected to revolutionize our virtual meetings and deliver a more authentic experience to all who use them.