I'm the man in the box. - Alice in Chains
We’ve all been forced to talk about how we interact with each other on the internet since that’s all we’ve been able to do for much of the last 2 years. Some discussions have been more interesting than others (looking at you “remote = vacation” folks 😡), but the most exciting have been about the changing landscape of tools that let us still feel human online.
While we were building Macro, Ankith and I often got funny looks when we told people we were “making video chats more human”. It was obvious that most folks thought it was a hokey way of explaining a product that they fundamentally didn’t understand. As months of pandemic turned into years, we started seeing those same people coming back and signing up as users. What started as the need for a short-term fix turned into something much deeper (and frankly emotional). When a large percentage of your time interacting with other people is in person, it’s easy to deal with a Zoom call (kludgy UI, cat filters, and all) every once in a while.
When it’s almost all online, we crave something that brings more connection and fun. Without the joy of deeper, human connection, remote turns into a lonely and depressing world. The amazing thing about the last few years is that many people are working on this problem and the products they are churning out are more fun than ever!
Here are some of the most exciting things I’ve seen and used:
anti-skeuomorphic conference calls
If the internet gives us near infinite freedom to build new experiences, why do we decide to copy a physical conference room when meeting online?
Yes, there is a pink deer mount on the wall of the conference room wearing an Oculus…
The idea that anyone working from their home office would want to slip on their VR headset just to sit around a table in an office building in the Metaverse is mind-boggling. At least go sit up on that mountain back there in the outside Metaverse! Maybe they don’t have their Metaverse sunscreen or Metaverse hiking backpack.
A few awesome companies are bucking the trend of these skeuomorphic representations of meetings or video calls. mmhmm shows this off perfectly with our OOO product.
Instead of sitting around a table in a
jail cell office, participants can float and move around in bumper copters or go for a soak in a monkey onsen. While this might seem gimmicky at first, what otherwise would have been a dull sync becomes an opportunity for laughter and fun. Giving people a way to express themselves both by their physical appearance (thru filters, shapes, etc.) and by the environment they chose to meet in opens up a workplace to being more inclusive and joyful for everyone involved.
Companies like MakeSpace and here.fm are doing similar things, allowing people to truly customize their space to collaborate with others online in a fun and productive way. With large-scale A/V companies opening up their video SDKs, startups will be able to use off-the-shelf technology paired with in-house, top-notch design and UI development to make more of these products over time. No need to sit stuck in your boring rectangle any longer.
the pokémonification of video chats
To take the anti-skeuomorphic strategy to more of an extreme, companies like Gather have changed the entire video chat experience into a game.
As far as I know, you can’t catch Pokémon or duel each other (yet), but users of Gather get to pair a cartoon avatar with their audio / video feeds to move around a fun virtual world. While competitors like Teamflow are still living in the skeuomorphic with their representation of a physical office, the Gather world can simulate something entirely different and customizable like a dungeon or an amphitheater. Products using a completely new environment will continue to win as younger generations (and people in general) desire more outside-the-box, whimsical experiences in the remote workplace.
Although it seems like a good chunk of people are using Gather for their day-to-day office interaction, another big use case is for conferences or events. Instead of sitting in a waiting room on a webinar with hundreds of attendees on mute, you can literally walk your character around to interact with others. While I don’t know how much time I’d want to spend in Gather Town every day at work, turning what was a dreadfully boring experience (virtual conferences and classrooms) into a game-like experience is definitely the step in the right direction. If they are already going this far, I’d recommend adding actual gameplay to the experience as well. Hopefully that’s in the works!
tiktok as edtech
For years, teachers and professors have been restricted to a certain set of tools. In a physical classroom, overhead projectors and PowerPoint slides augmented an educator’s presence in the room. In the digital classroom, the possibilities are endless but the talking head dictating a boring deck remains the status quo for most.
As a drastic leap away from that paradigm, some teachers are turning to TikTok for short-form lessons. Instead of forcing an age-old strategy of lecturing with slides behind you, these educators are meeting kids where they live the other 90% of the time they are not in school. Companies like Learnreel have followed this trend, creating a platform specifically for lessons given in under a minute. There’s just something special about receiving a face-to-face lesson from someone in what feels like a FaceTime session with a friend.
MasterClass innovates from a different angle, keeping with the longer form lecture but immersing the viewer in an amazingly engaging virtual environment. Instead of watching Herbie Hancock at a podium for an hour, you see him in his element at the piano. In both his MasterClass and his YouTube videos, Joel Zimmerman (deadmau5) brings you into his studio for what becomes a completely immersive experience.
Compare that to the hell that is sitting on a 100 person Zoom call with a professor trying to keep 10 people from falling asleep at any given time. I won’t go as far as saying these innovations will make online learning the most fun thing in the world, but it would definitely be a big step forward.
authentic expression + environment
All these products have a common core: they use new, natively virtual experiences that allow people to authentically express themselves in new environments. They eschew the need for the skeuomorphic in exchange for something that brings people into a safer, more expressive, more fun place than any office or classroom has been before. And the best part? We’re only 2 years in to this enormous paradigm shift in how we interact over video. The next 20 will be amazing to watch.
As always, if you’re a founder working on a fun product or know of any awesome companies that fit into this category, send them my way at email@example.com. I’d love to meet and include them in a future post!