Zoom and Microsoft plan to shake up hybrid meetings, Cisco doesn’t

Zoom and Microsoft plan to shake up hybrid meetings, Cisco doesn’t

Hybrid meetings are still inferior to physical meetings in many ways. Big players like Zoom and Microsoft are bringing disruptive solutions to address these shortcomings. Meanwhile, Cisco is opting for evolution, not revolution. What future awaits virtual meetings?

Zoom announced this week that it will launch an app for the Apple Vision Pro, slated to release February 2nd in the US. With full conviction, it is stepping into the “new world of spatial computing.” This term has already been adopted by a large portion of the tech sector since Apple’s headset unveiling last year. The Zoom app will put the idea behind the terminology into practice. Users can communicate with each other through so-called “personas,” with hands also visible in 3D.

As hand gestures improve the quality of communication and can let team leaders connect with employees more effectively, this is a logical addition. However, the Zoom app does seem to primarily solve a problem created by the Vision Pro in the first place. While users of the headset can see shared 3D objects and place the app anywhere in a location, regular Zoom users have very little use for it and are seeing an inherently inferior rendition of their Vision Pro-wearing counterpart. Those still stuck with an ordinary webcam and display get next to nothing out of the new app, except that they can still engage with their VR colleague in a mostly regular manner. To let everyone take advantage of 3D (and where possible VR), Teams does things differently.

Teams: 3D meetings for everyone

We recently described the direction Microsoft is pushing Teams. For some time now, the company has been working with partners in various industries to enable meetings on the platform in 3D. This is being done under the banner of Microsoft Mesh, which is being integrated within Teams. Users can easily jump into a virtual meeting room without the need for special hardware. Here, everyone has an avatar within “immersive spaces,” which for most users take place on a normal desktop, laptop, tablet or phone screen.

Those equipped with a Meta Quest headset can witness this 3D meeting room in virtual reality. In essence, hybrid meetings here are as immersive as the hardware on hand allows. It’s a unique approach, and more compatible with reality than the as-yet-unproven Metaverse concept. Mark Zuckerberg still believes in it, but the Metaverse hasn’t really turned into something more substantial than a marketing term (yet). The interpretation needs to be different, it appears, with concrete support for non-VR users.

In niche markets, by the way, other parties still see a chance of success in betting solely on VR: Sony and Siemens want to drive the “industrial metaverse” with a new headset. With it, organizations can easily share 3D models to make certain design choices, for example. Such applications, however, are not intended to persuade the 320 million-plus Teams users to meet differently. Microsoft now does offer an option that is vaguely similar to the more immserive VR-based videoconferencing solutions, although it leaves the choice to adopt it in the first place to its users.

Webex: evolution, not revolution

The Zoom app for the Vision Pro and Microsoft Mesh already differ greatly. However, both options are at least a step towards a full-scale re-imagining of virtual meetings. Things are different with Cisco’s Webex: that platform opts for evolution, not revolution. Today it announced collaborations with Microsoft and Samsung to take hybrid meetings to the next level.

Central to this is familiar hardware and a re-interpretation of physical office space rather than any virtual equivalent. Cisco notes that 98 percent of all meetings today have at least one remote participant. By contrast, 15 percent of organizations have video conferencing tools ready. As a result, the office isn’t seen as a valuable place to converse by employees, the company believes. EVP and GM Security & Collaboration at Cisco Jeetu Patel advocates revamping workplaces to change this. “This means outfitting conference rooms with intelligent video systems designed to bring immersive collaboration experiences to all participants, regardless of their location.”

Cisco itself offers Room Series, which runs on its RoomOS intended for Webex. Now it is offering integrations with Microsoft and Samsung for quality enhancements to this suite of services. A new layout for Microsoft Teams Rooms is called Front Row and supports a variety of Samsung displays. For example, it can be run in 5K with a 21:9 aspect ratio on Samsung’s 105-inch Smart Signage screen or on a 16:9 4K display. It refers to an “inclusive” layout that allows all users to participate equally.

In other words, Cisco is aiming for higher resolutions, a better experience with existing applications and an overall smoother interaction between participants. No mentions of VR or 3D, but instead an emphasis on the well-established 2D screens that have been inhabiting the workplace for decades. Further improvements to the user experience ultimately extend beyond what Zoom, Teams and Webex can affect. Ultimately, it’s a good connection and high-quality video/audio equipment for all involved that play a deciding factor in satisfying users.

Conclusion: is a shake-up really needed?

The fact is that both Zoom and Teams are still innovating with their classic solutions. AI assistance for note-taking, faster-running software and a unified UI show that videoconferencing platforms can still improve even in their current popular form. Webex is not the only solution to stick with the conventional, then. However, significant development time for others is going to as yet niche tools that have yet to prove themselves to a larger audience.

The key for success in this space is accessibility. That means integrations with other platforms, such as collaborations between Zoom, Teams and Webex and support for different hardware. If there’s a chance to take advantage of the unique benefits of hardware, it’s always welcome. Barely anyone will be able to benefit in the short term, but the option has to exist in the first place for it to ever be a viable next step for videoconferencing.

Research shows that video and audio quality still play a central role for users. The priority is still really on ensuring these essential features. For example, the quality of webcam images affects perceived audio quality and vice versa, research shows. Webex is also aware of the crucial role that audio plays for the user experience. These fundamental aspects also determine the quality of the more out-there options discussed above. Improvements for all users will prevail, with niche options in need of a great deal of convincing before the masses see a key reason to switch over.

Also read: What can we expect from Microsoft Teams in 2024?