Tens of millions of people are working from home. Zoom use has exploded as we’ve turned to video chats—even though they’re exhausting. And whenever we do go back to our offices, we probably won’t all go back. To enable social distancing, more people will work in shifts, and remotely.
So, do we need to settle for the Zoom-from-the-couch home office we have today? Not necessarily! The design firm Argodesign has created a concept called the Square. It’s an artificial window, created from an LCD screen that goes on the wall next to your desk. When you raise the shade, you can see a coworker, or two, working right there next to you. You can strike up a conversation, or ignore them. You can gossip, or hold a productive meeting. Just like a real office.
“We focused on not just the availability of telecommuting but the feel of it,” says Mark Rolston, founder and chief creative officer of Argodesign.
The Square is just an idea, rather than a real product, but it’s grounded in established technology. The frame hides four small cameras, which combine their images to create a 3D version of you rather than a flat Zoom frame. That allows for far more immersion than your standard screen. As you look at the screen, it tracks your gaze, shifting its perspective through the parallax effect.
What that all adds up to is a true sensation of presence. The Square presents people in 1:1 size, with a scene that has true depth. Done correctly, it would actually feel like a window, complete with eye contact.
“This isn’t just for a conversation, this is a desk mate,” says Rolston.
“The amount of human emotion this thing could convey would be great,” adds chief creative technologist Jared Ficklin. “There have been a lot of reports lately about the energy effort and stress to engage our cognitive senses in telepresence. It’s exhausting. One reason I’d postulate is that you’re missing the nonverbal feedback.” Cognitive researchers agree that this so-called Zoom fatigue actually exists. A mere second delay in answering someone on a typical video chat—which would be perfectly normal in person—can be perceived as a slight, or as a sign of lack of mental engagement. As impressive as Zoom is, we’re all on edge during these video chats in a way that a more naturalistic window to someone else might mitigate (even if it’s completely simulated through technology).
I personally thought the Square was just a neat idea until I saw its “pod” mode, which blends the video geometry between not just two, but three people, creating a convincing simulation of a small meeting room. In this view, the Square went from interesting to essential, from a video chat to a virtual architecture that morphs the home office into a true coworking space. (Though, it should be noted that the Square could be set up with a more typical chat view for larger groups.)
Argodesign imagines that the Square wouldn’t need to be a premium product. Given that 4K televisions start in the hundreds of dollars today, it’s feasible that the Square could go on the market for $500 to $1,000. And as companies would be requiring us to work from home, it would be the sort of accessory a business might provide to an employee, almost like a perk. In this regard, the concept is completely feasible. It would require sourcing a display, adding some cameras, and developing the visual processing and teleconferencing tools to glue it all together. Any interested party who might want to actually complete the software development and build the device is welcome to reach out to Argodesign.
Of course, it’s easy to see the Big Brothery twist of owning such a device too. One wonderful thing about working from home is the option to go on a walk around the block or wear sweats without getting the eye from a peer or a manager. The Square would put you back on display, just as you are in a real office. This is a valid criticism. But then again, Zoom culture is already demanding a lot from us by activating cameras in our homes. At minimum, the Square could live in a fixed place, at a fixed angle, that would set up boundaries in your home as to where is work, and where is walk-around-without-pants-on space. Just be sure to pull down that shade when the day is done—just in case.