Remote work has oodles of benefits for employers and employees alike: a larger talent pool, less overhead, flexible scheduling, and more.
There are some drawbacks, though, especially for hybrid companies with a mix of remote and in-office workers: potential communication issues, isolation for remote people on in-person teams, and culture challenges.
To address such drawbacks, of course, we have the now-ubiquitous video meeting. And while the technology’s come a long way, it’s still tough to replicate the feeling of being inside an office, from casual catchups to in-person meetings. Open offices, despite its many, many, many flaws, do offer a major benefit: the possibility of open dialogue between team members at all times.
Now, the race is on to build video technology that replicates constant communication between teams. Here’s a look at some interesting contenders.
Owl Labs: Meeting Owl 360-degree smart camera
Have you ever been on the remote end of a call that’s got 12 people packed in a distant, echo-y conference room with a corner-mounted camera so they all look like tiny smudges and you can’t tell who’s talking? If you plan to stay remote while your coworkers head back to the office, this unpleasant experience is in your future.
That’s a problem Owl Labs is trying to solve with its line of Meeting Owl cameras. There are two models—the $799 Meeting Owl (designed for small rooms) and the $999 Meeting Owl Pro (designed for large rooms)—which both look like… well, owls, if they’d been designed by Isaac Asimov. Their neatest trick (aside from being adorable): capturing videoconferences in 360 degrees.
That might not sound super exciting at first, until you realize that you can see everyone in the room up in a video strip that runs along the top of your window, and then a larger spotlight video section below that intelligently focuses on whoever’s talking. Better yet, if multiple people are talking, it’ll slide them in and out of the main video section, making it feel more like you’re in a real-life meeting.
The cameras integrate with popular videoconferences services such as Zoom, Slack, GoToMeeting, and others, and can be connected in pairs if you need to cover cavernous conference rooms.
Around: Bring Your Own Camera
Not everybody has the cash for an $800 owl-shaped camera, of course, but camera-equipped phones, tablets, and laptops sure aren’t hard to find.
The idea behind Around—which is currently free in public beta—is that sometimes the best camera-and-mic setup is the one closest to your face, regardless of where your workspace is located.
Imagine a team that needs to jump into a war-room of sorts to hammer out last-minute details on a launch. Everyone fires up Around, and people in the group show up in little video circles that block out distracting backgrounds and follow people’s heads as they speak. It makes collaborating via video easy because it gets the actual video part of it out of the way.
Around leverages AI to frame your face in a small circle and to auto-mute common unwanted background noises like sirens, pets, and HVAC noise. It integrates with Slack and is available on just about every major platform as well: Windows, Mac, and Linux, plus iOS and Android, and directly via popular web browsers.
The company says it’ll always offer a free option, but paid plans look set to roll out later this year, so get in now while the gettin’ is good.
Video Window: Always-on common spaces
OK: you’re in the office and you need to speak with your remote co-worker on the double. Email’s too slow. Chat won’t get the context across. Phones are too old-timey.
Walk up to your company’s Video Window, which streams a constant view of the office for remote workers, and tap on the image of the remote worker you need to talk to.
On the remote worker’s end, the Video Window Remote app is up on a secondary monitor or tablet with the video turned on and the audio turned off. This way, he or she can see what’s going on in the office and notice when someone’s walking up to chat.
The remote worker can also just unmute to try to get someone’s attention or tap the “knock” icon, which makes a knocking sound on the office Video Window. Multiple in-office Video Windows can be connected together as well, making for quick site-to-site communication, and there’s a cool-looking whiteboarding feature.
Now, this is a software-based offering from the company Collaboration Squared, but you’ll need to supply some slightly-specialized hardware for an office-based Video Window: namely, a touch-capable display, computer, and webcam.
Obviously the bigger, faster, and higher-resolution the better—the company recommends a 65-inch or larger touch display (which cost thousands), Intel i5 or up processor, and 4K webcam—but does mention that it’ll run on commodity hardware, even using just a mouse and keyboard instead of touch if you’re on a budget.
Pricing is a flat $2,400 per office device, per year. The Video Window Remote app, which runs on standard tablets, phones, and computers, is free.