After 2020, we've all become well-versed in the Zoom tango. Quickly tidying up your background, remembering to take yourself off mute to speak, and trying desperately to not just stare at your own video feed. It's a dance that's become both exhausting and unavoidable.
The future of video chat won't always look like a Zoom grid. The future of video chats will be a lot more personal. Fun, even, say experts who spoke with Inverse.
The reason why Zoom exhausts us, but we can hunt for fossils with our friends in Animal Crossing for hours, is that the game takes advantage of new social opportunities in the digital environment (e.g. digitally fishing together) instead of trying to make the environment fit into a preconceived notion of social interactions (e.g. boardroom meetings).
Tom Boellstorff, a professor of anthropology at UC Irvine who studies online spaces, tells Inverse that dynamic, game-like platforms are likely to become more popular this year and next. It's all in service of ensuring that our online interactions can still be as emotionally and psychologically fruitful as they are in person.
Whether people start hosting a conference in Second Life or meeting up with friends on Animal Crossing, the future is likely to hold even more diverse options for digital connection.
The background — Video conferencing is not a new innovation. Zoom's predecessor, Skype, was founded in 2003, but it has reached new audiences during the Covid-19 pandemic, ranging from grandparents to school children.
Ten months into the pandemic, they have now become the sole source of interpersonal interaction for many.
This sounds like it should be a good thing — after all, video chats are more life-like than phone calls — but Boellstorff says it's this attempt (and failure) at life-like conversation that can make video calls exhausting.
"If you're in a room with 20 people, it's unusual that you can see all 20 faces at once," says Boellstorff. Research has shown that processing this many social cues at once can be draining and can lead to people disengaging or shutting off their cameras.
And while grid-based platforms like Zoom may try to imitate physical social interactions by adding reaction emojis, Boellstorff says there's still unstructured social time that's missing.
"Whether it's a conference or a class... so much of what happens [socially] in these environments has to do with talking in the halls on the way to the bathroom [or] grabbing a cup of coffee," explains Boellstorff. "Zoom is almost like a phone call in that sense, where you miss all this other activity, and that's part of what can make it exhausting for people."
What's new — Instead of trying to shoehorn physical social interactions into a static platform like Zoom, Boellstorff suggests there's much to be learned from massive online multiplayer role-playing games like World of Warcraft, or even video games like Animal Crossing, the latter of which is the subject of a study Boellstorff is currently conducting about virtual cultures during the pandemic.
Part of the success lies in the use of avatars instead of video screens, which allow people to experience digital proximity to each other without being too fixated on other users' facial expressions, as you might be on Zoom.
How this can be used — While corporate America may not be ready yet to hold meetings in World of Warcraft, there are emerging "spatial" video conferencing apps right now that are looking to improve upon Zoom by including several of the characteristics Boellstorff mentions. (As for Boellstorff, he'll be hosting lectures this semester in Second Life.)
If you're looking for a video conferencing platform that will incorporate more water cooler chat, Gather Town or Kumospace may be the solution for you. Designed to spark the kinds of conversations you might have between sessions at a conference or in a college dorm, both platforms feature a (limited) open world that users can customize and explore on their own volition. This means that instead of being all stuck on the same Zoom screen together, guests on a call can wander through the environment and "walk up" to join a new conversation (or walk away if a conversation gets boring).
Kumospace does this by creating little video chat bubbles that users can control while Gather Town uses a mix of avatars and video bubbles that pop up when you've entered a new conversation. Unlike Kumospace, Gather Town also offers in-platform games for guests to play. Both platforms were founded in 2020.
But if this more laid-back way of connecting online isn't right for you, stepping into a virtual reality conference room using Spatial might be the answer. This platform was originally designed in 2016 as a way for colleagues in different countries to connect on projects. It also uses virtual reality to create life-like avatars of users that can interact together in a 3D space — even moving files and documents through the air like Tony Stark.
Spatial's CEO and cofounder told Wired that they experienced a 1,000 percent increase in customer interest in 2020. To answer this demand, they released a free version that can be run out of a web browser, incorporating 2D video feeds as well as 3D avatars in a single space.
What this means for the future — But what happens to these platforms after the pandemic is over? Boellstorff says they may leave a more permanent mark on the internet than we think.
"It's going to be a middle ground," says Boellstorff. "We're not going to snap back to exactly how it was before the pandemic."
Boellstorff imagines that platforms with benefits that stretch beyond the pandemic — for example, conferences with digital feeds that automatically run closed captions — are going to be the ones that last.
When it comes to the question of whether we will completely forgo traditional video calls in the coming year and transform ourselves instead into faceless virtual beings, Boellstorff says it's more likely that we will instead adopt a more diverse use of these technologies. Zoom might be perfectly fine for a quick one-on-one chat with a colleague, but organizing your university's progressive zine might work better in an environment like Gather Town.
In the future, Boellstorff speculates that platforms like Zoom may even have options to enter a more dynamic, game-like mode depending on user needs.
The Inverse analysis — The growing diversification of these video conferencing platforms is proof that a one-size-fits-all approach to connecting virtually during this pandemic is not sustainable, as you might realize during your seventh Zoom meeting of the day.
Becoming comfortable with new ways of communicating online will hopefully be a skill we bring with us into the future. It also could bring down implicit accessibility barriers of physical gatherings and help fight travel-driven climate change as well.