The Virtual Cafe: a better way to hang out remotely

Why don’t we use Skype more?

Video calling technology and internet speeds have made gigantic leaps over the past couple decades, and you can now pretty much just talk with someone halfway around the world. It’s not a perfect replica of an in-person conversation, but it’s a lot closer than writing emails or talking on the phone.

If you went back to the year 1950 and told someone that this “videophone” technology would exist one day, I bet they would expect us to be using it all the time. In an increasingly distributed world where we often live far away from our friends, video calls seem like the ideal technology for maintaining relationships at a distance.

And yet, I find that I don’t use Skype and FaceTime as much as I might expect. I do use video calls with a small circle of close friends and family, but I rarely videochat with many of my other friends and acquaintances. We’ll text or email, and we’ll make an effort to meet up if we’re in the same place, but we just don’t Skype.

The same applies to meeting new people. Imagine you’re meeting a new business acquaintance that lives near you. Which would you prefer: meeting in person over coffee, or meeting over Skype? From a purely logical perspective, Skyping saves you some travel time and the cost of the coffee — but somehow, meeting in person is obviously the preferred option.

The power of social norms

Does it feel more personal to ask someone to Skype than to get lunch? Is it weird to schedule it way in advance? How long is a Skype supposed to last, anyway? Hold on, is my bedroom clean enough in the background?

I think these sorts of nagging questions get at what really prevent us from using Skype. The main issue is not that the technology isn’t good enough — it’s that our society has a variety of unspoken guidelines for social interaction which push us away from videochat. We automatically think of in-person time as somehow “higher quality” than time spent together virtually. And when interacting with people we aren’t super close with, it’s a lot easier to break the ice in person.

It’s unfortunate that these barriers prevent us from using videochat to its fullest potential. Of course, in-person conversation is an integral part of our lives, and videochat will never come close to replacing it. But this still limits us to a small geographic sphere of relationships. Think of all the friendships that have faded away simply because of physical distance, and all the new relationships never formed in the first place. A lot of lives could be enriched if it was easier to have in-person-ish conversations with people at a distance.

This problem can’t be solved purely with technology — remember, the tech is already good enough! It’s actually a design challenge: how can we make video calls feel more in-person?

Meet the virtual cafe

A fun solution to this problem would be a virtual cafe, a physical place designed for remote conversations.

The virtual cafe would be an actual, physical cafe, where every table is equipped with state-of-the-art videoconferencing hardware. You and a friend would each go to a cafe in your respective cities, sit down across from each other, order drinks from the same menu, and simply have a conversation.

If you’re imagining a geeky “internet cafe,” this isn’t that. The virtual cafe would look just like your local hipster cafe, and the technology would seamlessly fade into the background: a large high-resolution display, a hidden webcam, and a speedy internet connection. It would even use eye contact correction software to make it feel like you were actually looking at each other.

The experience wouldn’t feel exactly like a real conversation, but it wouldn’t need to — just close enough that the established social norms of in-person conversation would kick in. The act of changing out of your pajamas and going to a public place to chat would make it feel totally different from Skyping at your house.

A Japanese company ran an ad where they set up a virtual restaurant, and it did a great job demonstrating this concept. Notice how the atmosphere is completely different from sitting down for a Skype call:

The virtual cafe would be the perfect place for any remote interaction where you want to really feel like you’re face-to-face: a business meeting, a date, or catching up with friends. You could even use it to chat with your grandma who doesn’t know how to use a computer. At night, it would turn into a virtual bar so you could get drinks with your old college friends.

When you’re in the same city as your friends, you don’t just have conversations; you also do things together. So the virtual cafe could even include a variety of activities you could do together, like watching movies and playing board games.

What about VR?

You may have heard about Facebook’s prototype they demoed last year for hanging out with people in a full-on virtual reality world.

It was a cool demo, but the virtual cafe would have a leg up over that experience in a couple ways. For one, there’s a huge difference between seeing a cartoon avatar and actually seeing the nuanced expressions on someone’s face. I can’t imagine having any sort of deep or important conversation with a 3D model of my friend.

Hanging out in VR is also going to require the development of a whole new set of social norms. There will be fun new things you can do in VR that you can’t do in real life, but I suspect it will be limited to gimmicky activities and games, at least at first.

In contrast, the virtual cafe would simply piggyback on our existing social norms for meeting in person. It would be more inconvenient than Skyping — you would have to leave your house and go somewhere — but that would be a feature, not a bug.

By creating the feeling of just meeting at a cafe, perhaps the virtual cafe would help push us towards a world where you can maintain rich relationships with anyone, no matter where you live.

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