We Launched a Startup to Combat Zoom Fatigue. Remotely.
The story of how the pandemic boosted the next great unbundling in tech and inspired us to build OneSpace, a platform for video meetings that delivers a sense of presence without a VR headset.
Pinch me, I am dreaming
One morning well into the lockdown my phone beeped with a new message. “You really need to get a headset, man”. That wasn’t an ad, the text arrived from Max Voloshin, a fellow entrepreneur and friend. Back in 2008 Max founded Redmadrobot, one of the first mobile app developers in Eastern Europe, and in the company’s early days I was part of the team as a project manager. 12 years on, Redmadrobot matured into a full-cycle product development powerhouse, Max stepped aside from day-to-day operations to focus more on new ventures and I dived into building tech teams for companies from Fortune 500 list, such as Glencore and PwC.
Over the years discussing fresh product ideas grew into a habit with us. Every so often we used to meet up and brainstorm, but this spring brought an abrupt halt to the normal life as we have known it and deprived us of the luxury of in-person meetings. Coronavirus tore the world apart, and many of us ended up spending long hours on social networks and flocked to video chats. Trying to relieve the days packed with get-togethers that look and feel identical, some turned to multiplayer video games and not solely for the gaming purposes, but to party, date, and brainstorm. We followed the trend and shifted our brainstorming sessions to VR.
If you are someone who tried a current-generation VR headset on, you know how it feels — fantastic and real at the same time. When we were brainstorming in the top-floor meeting lounge of a skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan, I almost sensed the city’s scents blasting on waves of hot air and New York’s soundscape of chatter, horns, construction works and traffic.
I pinched myself. Moscow city towers were rising up to the grey sky.
Which “Brady bunch” character are you?
In Q2 Zoom dethroned TikTok and overpowered all other apps across App Store and Google Play to become the most downloaded app globally. Other video conferencing tools also saw the highest surge in downloads. For millions Zoom had become the default software for work and leisure, from business meetings and classes to hanging out with friends to working out, from weddings to funerals. With up to 100 participants by default in each meeting and up to 1000 with a large meeting license it stood out like an impeccable one-size-fits-all solution.
But the charm turned sour. Apart from modern UI, in the past 10–20 years video conferencing has changed very little, both in terms of underlying technology and user experience. In a nutshell, staring at the grid of Brady bunch-esque talking heads (or black tiles if people opt for audio only) feels unnatural. If you are on Zoom 4–5 hours a day, every day, this starts to take a toll on you mentally.
Scientists offer their explanations. One is that our brain is particularly attentive to faces, and when we see large ones close up, we interpret them as being close by, writes Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, in his WSJ op-ed. When people are exposed to large virtual faces that come close to their own, they literally flinch physically. And when the body is stressed, the nervous system contributes to “fight-or-flight” reflex.
Homo spatius locked in a flat reality
Humans are spatial creatures. Our sense of space helps us explore the world around us, eases wayfinding and social role management. Legend has it that King Arthur’s knights congregated at the Round Table, it had no head, implying that everyone who sits there has equal status — none of Arthur’s barons would accept a lower place than the others. We study perspective drawing because this is what makes a picture gain form, distance and feel real. We establish interpersonal distance preferences that correlate with different levels of intimacy.
Simply put, we sense ourselves in space in relation to all other objects. When shelter in place started happening and our devices converted into gateways to the outside world, one thing became apparent. The software that we use, other than games, hasn’t been designed to mimic normal social interaction and is therefore rather “flat”.
John Palmer, a product designer and software engineer, explained the difference between flat and spatial software very well:
“Spatial software contains a world within its interface. It is characterized by the ability to move bodies and objects freely, in a parallel to the real world. This is opposed to traditional software, which uses some other logic to organize its interface.
In social applications, spatial software has at least three advantages. These three advantages often overlap and blend into each other.
- Afforded Intuition: Our natural understanding of space makes spatial software easier to use.
- Expressiveness: In a spatial interface, more degrees of freedom mean users can interact more creatively with software and with each other.
- Presence: In many spatial interfaces, we can sense other users through the presence of an avatar or figure.”
We don’t necessarily need every piece of software to be spatial, but in certain scenarios spatiality can make applications substantially easier to use and result in novel use cases. This concept clicked with us and the ideas started flowing. One of them was: can spatial software help us reimagine video meetings?
An office in a virtual Skscrpr
As days dragged on, we kept on brainstorming in VR. By the second week we tested a dozen different locations: an island; a coffee shop; a luxurious private jet. Still, the top-floor meeting space in New York topped the list of our favourite venues. At one point a thought crossed our mind: “How cool would it be to make immersive collaboration work for everyone, without a headset?” Is it even possible?
To verify this idea we decided to run an experiment that we dubbed Skscrpr. In real life we book office meeting rooms the same way we create video meeting links on the internet. The concept was as straightforward as it sounds: a virtual skyscraper with digital video meeting rooms that allow for custom designs and are up for rent.
Global pandemic upended office life, but not the need for meetings and project collaboration. How a company works is reflected in where it works (or at least it used to be the case for the last couple of centuries). Business culture and values manifest themselves in the office space and the objects that fill it. The moment you walk through the front door of an office, you get a feel for what sort of organization it is and how likely you are to find common ground with the business and the people. Meeting via video stands outside this pattern.
Video conferencing backgrounds definitely made calls more fun and allowed us to show off some individuality (and also worked wonders to hide the mess and soft-pedal social inequality). But anytime we are on a call with a group of people, we tend to focus on their backgrounds which feels like being in many different rooms at the same time. We also focus on faces (fight-or-flight reflex fires up). In the end, conflicting signals delivered to our brain act as a permanent source of distraction and spoil our emotional and physical well-being. Let alone communicating corporate values or adding extra value to user experience.
But what if we outsmart our brain with a set of simple, yet effective tricks? With Skscrpr we baked in these two main ideas that video meeting participant must be able to:
- Manage the size of video avatars and move them freely in either direction across the meeting space. To mimic how we move about and position ourselves closer or farther away in relation to other people or objects in real life.
- Select from a curated list or create custom backgrounds, same for all meeting participants. To make the virtual space feel like a natural extension of the team’s real office and transform it into a tangible environment. Or to add an emotional touch that would foster a bond with a certain place.
Without any further ado we teamed up on Slack. Proponents of the traditional office setup sometimes suggest that remote workers miss in creativity and problem solving, but that didn’t get in the way of our collaborative efforts.
Within a couple of months the MVP was ready for a closed beta for a select audience. In conformity with the “new normal” we built it in a completely remote manner, not a single face-to-face meeting was necessary.
The dawn of OneSpace
Our initial hypothesis regarding our prospective user base was that digital meeting rooms would benefit SMEs. When we started customer development it returned interesting and somewhat unexpected results.
Along with more “conventional” companies, we tested the MVP with CastingForm, a Los Angeles-based startup that empowers acting talent discovery and outsources auditions for HBO, Amazon, Netflix and the likes worldwide. The product proved to be a hit with the company’s staff, filmmakers and actors. A trademark Hollywood background set the tone for the authentic vibe.
Dasha Timbush, Founder of CastingForm, Los Angeles:
“We absolutely love OneSpace and use it to communicate with CastingForm users, friends, and partners. That works way better than Zoom or Google Hangouts and gives us more creative freedom, which is very important when you build a community in the film industry. The interface is very intuitive and user friendly, all we need just to share the link to CastingForm personal room at OneSpace, and users can get right in without any additional interactions, which is great when you have users of different age groups, who are not very tech-savvy sometimes. The opportunity of personalized room designs sells its best. We can make an audition in the room look like a movie set, an audition room with directors and producers’ chairs, or send them an invite to meet on the top of the Hollywood hill”.
We also collected positive feedback from a community of psychotherapists who relied on psychodrama techniques. The action takes place in a group where role playing and role reversal are key. That requires the ability to change places with others both emotionally and physically.
Andrey Egorov, trainer at the Institute of Psychodrama, Coaching and Role Training, Moscow:
“Psychodrama was born as a group action-based method of psychotherapy, so it is completely different from gestalt or other approaches where you just need to be able to talk to each other. The great thing about OneSpace is that we can build scenes, arrange participants in space, reverse roles with each other like in real life and even add proper backgrounds. All of these allow for psychodramatic action. We found a great tool to teach psychodrama, lead therapy groups, individual clients and international supervision groups online”.
Funnily enough, the freedom to move around a circle with your video avatar, zooming in and out on your face (no pun intended), perception wise, made a huge difference. Therefore we realized that the product appeals to a wider audience and goes beyond digital conference rooms. This is how OneSpace was born.
What are the specific verticals that we target? OneSpace is both a virtual office and a collaborative tool. Basic functionality includes screen sharing and instant reactions. Are we looking to build a one-size-fits-all solution? Definitely not. Nor are we targeting hundreds of participants. OneSpace works best for small to medium-sized teams or one-on-one conversations and currently supports video meetings of up to 10 people. Meetings for product teams, HR, design or sales teams, independent consultants, friendly hangouts and family gatherings are the keywords.
On the technical side of things, OneSpace is an open platform and all the capabilities will shortly be available through our API. We have set our sight on growing a developer community to build brand new experiences on top of OneSpace. In the meantime, we are in a public beta and we encourage you to try the product. Your feedback and suggestions will be greatly valued.
Just like one can’t reduce in-person communication with its non-verbal cues to messaging, a million of things that we suddenly had to do online couldn’t be reduced to Zoom. Zoom can’t match YouTube in terms of profits yet, but it saw its revenue quadruple in the second quarter and raised its outlook for full-year revenues to between $2.37 billion and $2.39 billion. As big platforms grow, so do distinct parts of a larger market. Without a shred of doubt, video conferencing is a breeding ground for new user experiences and business models.
We have been exploring the realm of spatial software and uncovered a whole bunch of interesting projects. Many launched before the pandemic, but overnight shift to remote accelerated a new wave of innovation. Whilst some prioritize building a convenient meeting place for interactive collaboration, others keep focus on multiple integrations with other popular products like Slack, Spotify, Google and Microsoft services etc.
VCs have increasingly been entering the “Zoom for X” space, too. For Loom, a work communication tool with instantly shareable videos, the last round brought total funding to over $70 million. Backers range from Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia Capital and Coatue to co-founders of Atlassian and Figma. Bunch, a social gaming startup for video chats, raised $20 million from General Catalyst. Mmhmm, an app to communicate via video in real-time and asynchronously from Phil Libin, co-founder and former CEO of Evernote, raised $4.5 million in a seed round led by Sequoia Capital and found angel investors in the cofounders of Instagram, Twitter, and Eventbrite. And this is only part of the story.
Real versus virtual: Will it blend? (Spoiler — It’s already been going on for a while)
As the pandemic caught us off guard, we are in the midst of a debate. Where are we now? What are we in for? Are things ever going to be like they were before? We don’t have all the answers yet, but one thing is clear. The world is at a tipping point of a technology shift to mass adoption of VR and AR.
Other realities have quietly been penetrating our mundane lives. Thousands of millions of people are using AR masks across Snapchat and Instagram and memojis. This year’s Burning Man went virtual and separate acts ranged from fully immersive VR to 2D and 3D web-based social spaces. In September attendees of Morningstar Investment Conference could watch it via computer, or put on an Oculus headset and join a VR version of the event. For years VR has been a field of experiments favoured by avant-garde acts like Björk, but this has been rapidly changing too. This spring DJ and producer Diplo began a streaming series on Twitch, Dua Lipa accompanied the release of her new album by playing and commenting live on YouTube. To crown it all, rapper Travis Scott performed a concert inside of the battle royale game Fortnite.
At the recent Facebook Connect event Mark Zuckerberg advocated VR remote working and social applications. He announced the company’s plans to extend its offering beyond Oculus VR to consumer augmented reality glasses and long-term research into neural interfaces. VR is easier on our brain and delivers the feeling of presence with a spectrum of different sensations, but a headset is certainly not your daily collaboration tool yet. There is still a lot of work to be done on foundational technologies.
In the next couple of years we will definitely be meeting on video more often than in VR worlds. According to Transparency Market Research, the global video conferencing market will nearly double over the next seven years and will grow from $6.1 billion in 2019 to $11.56 billion by the end of 2027. Balancing office work with remote work and building a new office culture will pose a challenge for workers and organizations alike. But now that we have gained awareness of inconveniences in the existing applications, we are on the right track to make communication via video less tiring, more productive and feel more real with the tools that are readily available, before we finally transition to mixed reality. At OneSpace, we are excited to be working to ease this transition.
What is your take on spatial software? Do you share our vision that this is the ultimate path to open up new dimensions for remote video meetings and collaboration? Give OneSpace a try and feel free to hit me up on Twitter, Facebook or mail me. Thanks for reading and watch this space!