If you’re getting tired of Zoom meetings and Houseparty get-togethers, a London company called Teooh has introduced a new way to connect with colleagues, friends, and family that looks more like a video game than a virtual conference room.
Teooh’s software invites anyone to set up a digital event in a set of spaces ranging from a wood-paneled lounge to an auditorium complete with virtual chairs. Rather than adjust your webcam and make sure you’re in front of a professional-looking background, you tweak an animated avatar that represents you in the meeting, customizing your hair, skin tone, body shape, and other features as you want to be seen.
The meeting environments look like they were taken from games like The Sims or the virtual environment Second Life, but CEO Don Stein emphasizes Teooh intends the platform—which launched in beta on April 1 and can be used through a computer or iOS device, with Android in the works—to be accessible to anyone, not just gaming fans.
“Gamers have been doing this for a decade in World of Warcraft and Second Life,” he says. “We can now do that for the everyday person who may not own an Xbox, or a gaming PC, or a headset.”
When I spoke to Stein and some of his colleagues in the platform, I spent a few minutes on my Macbook customizing my appearance, roughly approximating my body, and selecting a haircut I might aspire to once barbershops reopen. Then, with the click of a mouse, I was ushered into a virtual environment, where I joined some of the Teooh staff to sit at a small roundtable. We could talk to each other through headphones and our computer microphones, and react to comments by tapping a standard set of reaction emoji that would be displayed and exuberantly acted out by our avatars, but we couldn’t see each other in real life.
That’s part of the benefit of Teooh: There’s no need to fuss about attire or backdrops or stress about shaving or putting on makeup since you can customize your avatar to look as polished or scruffy as you want. The drawback, of course, is that you don’t see the full range of emotion on other people’s faces and might struggle to use emoji to react to particularly significant news or comments. As Stein spoke to me, his colleagues frequently responded to his statements with reaction emoji, and their characters’ movements came to feel a bit repetitive, but it might still be less awkward than watching bit players in a videoconference struggle to maintain their poker faces.
The controls were relatively simple, especially for anyone who’s played video games in the past, and since the range of avatar movement is pretty narrowly constrained, it’s hard to imagine making an embarrassing mistake. Stein says that’s the goal: While there is a bit of a learning curve, there’s no need to be a gaming fanatic to use the platform.
“It can’t be something that’s only built for virtual reality pioneers,” he says.
Another important aspect, says Stein, is that the Teooh environments can be used to host a wide range of virtual events. The animated film festival Animayo recently held an online conference using Teooh, using virtual rooms designed for panel discussions, complete with digital screens that can show slide shows or even video clips.
Attendees sitting in Teooh auditoriums can turn and talk to the avatars seated next to them, finding out information about each other with a click or tap. It’s similar to how two conference goers might have shaken hands in the pre-coronavirus world. When they speak to each other, the sound carries through the space to other participants in a simulated version of the acoustics of a real auditorium.
“We’ve done a good job of building an audio engine from the ground up that recreates what it’s like in real life,” says Stein. He quickly launched into a demonstration, positioning both of our avatars around the auditorium, showing how our proximity affected how loudly we could hear one another, or whether we could hear each other at all. And naturally, speakers on a virtual stage with a digital microphone are more audible than those sitting in the audience.
For privacy’s sake, Teooh is not completely true to life: Discussions at private meeting tables on the sides of virtual meeting rooms are only audible to those participating, so it’s possible to hold a private conversation without worrying about eavesdropping.
Stein says the company plans to roll out additional types of rooms based on user demand. Already, it’s seen a wide variety of uses for its virtual spaces amid the pandemic, he says.
“We have people hosting birthday parties—personal birthday parties with their family,” he says. “We’ve had people hanging out with parents in here. We’ve had a pub quiz.”
While Teooh will continue to offer free hosting, it also plans to offer premium plans with greater customization. Users might have more options to customize their avatars, similar to the premium options in blockbuster free games like Fortnite. And corporate customers could similarly tweak conference rooms to their liking, adding their logos to the walls or picking out the ideal seating arrangements, lighting schemes, and virtual upholstery.
“The way that we built the product is essentially Lego pieces,” says Stein.
The company is also working on ticketing systems to allow users to offer paid, or otherwise restricted, admission events. Of course, public events come with greater risks of malicious users harassing others, so Teooh is also working on tools to let users report people behaving inappropriately and will likely default to requiring event attendees to sign on with an outside platform, such as LinkedIn or Twitter, so they’re linked to an external identity. “You know that they feel that social pressure to behave in an appropriate way,” says Stein.
Beyond truly inappropriate behavior, it’s not clear exactly what acceptable behavior looks like. While I tried to make my avatar look like a professional version of myself for our interview and demonstration, would I choose something more whimsical, like longer hair, virtual high-top sneakers, or even green skin, for a casual trivia night? How many reaction emoji is the right number to cheer on a colleague or boss giving a presentation? Is it weird to use the heart reaction in a professional setting? Does the fact that nobody can see your distracted face mean it’s okay to multitask?
When the pandemic eases, Teooh may not be able to compete with real-life events. But in the meantime, it provides a nice break from thinking about what to wear and where to sit for your next Zoom call.