sharing virtual spaces

Microsoft rolled out a new feature for Teams – “Together Mode.” This is a variation on the custom background feature that Zoom had before Microsoft. That capability is essentially green screen without a green screen – the app figures out what is the person and either blurs or replaces the background.

Together Mode tries to go one step further to put all participants in the same background. The core technology is the same, it apparently just uses the same background for every user and distributes people into appropriate regions of the screen. The goal is to make people feel more like they’re actually sharing a physical space. In practice – time will tell but hard to avoid a variation of the “uncanny valley” effect (more general info here, more specific application here).

Various mixed reality developers have been working to try and create shared virtual spaces (e.g. Mark Bolas’ or Evan Suma’s work). Turns out to be a challenging proposition for a combination of technical and social reasons. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft’s implementation plays out, but expectations need to be realistic. Telepresence has been chased for decades and remains elusive. The forced uptake of virtual collaboration tools may be the push over the edge needed to drive more experimentation and bring the virtual truly into reality.

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