People hate meetings. That’s been a core theme of “Dilbert” since Scott Adams started that comic strip many years ago.
But what people hate more than meetings is being forced to do those meetings online, over streaming video connections, and displayed as talking heads like the opening credits of “The Brady Bunch.”
During the COVID-19 era, the prevalence of what’s increasingly known as “Zoom fatigue” has grown by leaps and bounds. This malady is not limited to that specific brand of online service. I’m fine with Zoom, and it is one of many well-designed, intuitive, and even fun remote collaboration solutions on the market. But even the most loyal customers of these products are increasingly tired of being forced to use them in lieu of the in-person business meetings they once claimed to loathe.
The root causes of “Zoom fatigue”
Is there any practical solution that can lessen the anxiety, exhaustion, and listlessness associated with “Zoom fatigue”? The problem’s root causes are not amenable to technological quick fixes.
The deeper issue is how these services, no matter how well designed, impact our quality of life, both in a work context and in the growing range of uses in our personal lives. The factors exacerbating the fatigue include:
- Boredom: Users have to endure unbroken video conferences of indeterminate length involving droning conversations and presentations by disembodied talking heads.
- Indulgence: Users must grin and bear it while other conference participants try to show how clever they are in playing with virtual backgrounds, on-screen captioning, and other bells and whistles of these channels.
- Impatience: Users must accept the fact that a substantial portion of the time on these conferences will be wasted waiting for people—especially those who are new to the medium--to dial in, configure their cameras and mics, and otherwise figure out how to use the technological tools.
- Irritation: Users must try to stay focused in spite of poorly lit video, intermittent screen freezes, distracting background activity, inadvertent muting, ambient noises, audio delays, weird echoes, occasional dropped connections, and other technical issues during calls.
- Forbearance: Users must stay seated for the duration of the calls and avoid wandering from our seats. We must refrain from multitasking while on the conferences. And we must remember to keep our video off and mic muted when we’re not speaking in order to avoid disrupting others in the conferences.
- Embarrassment: Users must face a phalanx of faces that all seem to be staring right at us. We must overcome the anxiety that comes from experiencing excessive amounts of close-up eye contact. We must accustom ourselves to the constant self-consciousness that comes from seeing your own face on these conferences. And we must be aware when we ourselves are on camera and avoid doing anything we might be ashamed of.
- Perplexity: Users must glean all we can from the verbal back-and-forth among participants on these calls, recognizing that opportunities for side chat may be distinctly limited. And we must accustom ourselves to the uncertainty that comes from on-screen pauses in other people’s speech that are difficult to interpret absent physical gestures that you can see.
How advances in team conferencing exacerbate user fatigue
Fundamentally, today’s ubiquitous team conferencing solutions are having a deleterious impact on “digital wellness” throughout the connected global economy.
As they make their solutions more addictive and also more complex, today’s remote-conferencing solution providers are inadvertently contributing to the fatiguing of global society. What’s driving user fatigue is the need to participate in more streaming conferences while also having to master user experiences that grow more cluttered with technological bells and whistles.
This trend is evident in two recent Microsoft product announcements.
Last Fall, Microsoft announced many enhancements to Teams that bridge the productivity gap between remote workers and those who may choose to operate out of traditional multiperson offices. Most of these features help to make multiperson conference calls easier for enterprise administrators to set up and manage.
The following new Teams features may contribute to team productivity in some abstract sense, but they’re also sure to ramp up the fatigue quotient -- or at the very least, the cognitive overload -- experienced by individual participants:
- Support for as many as 1,000 participants per meeting with the full meeting experience and scale to support 20,000 participants in a view-only mode with live captions;
- Automation of attendee registration through e-mail and generation of a postmeeting reporting dashboard to analyze attendee engagement;
- Generation of postmeeting recaps with the recording, transcript, chat, and shared files, then archiving them in the meeting’s Outlook calendar event entry and in Microsoft 365;
- Splitting of participants into smaller groups, thereby facilitating brainstorming sessions and workgroup discussions;
- Allowing of presenters to switch between breakout rooms, make announcements to all rooms, and close them to return everyone to the main meeting;
- Transposition of a presenter’s video feed onto the foreground of the slide they’re showing;
- Placing of all participants in a shared background no matter where they are, while defining default backgrounds for all meeting attendees;
- Scaling and centering of meeting participants’ videos in their virtual seats, regardless of how close or far they are from their camera; and
- Provision of a streamlined calling view that shows contacts, voicemail, and calling history at once, while enabling single-click initiation and return of calls.
And, several weeks ago, Microsoft announced Mesh, a forthcoming Azure-based mixed-reality (MR) platform that works with its HoloLens devices and that it plans to integrate with Microsoft Teams and Dynamics 365.
Mesh incorporates such standard MR features as avatars, telepresence, and virtual reality. But its centerpiece is “holoportation,” which Microsoft describes as allowing “high-quality 3D models of people to be reconstructed, compressed and transmitted anywhere in the world in real time.” When combined with MR gear such as Microsoft HoloLens, Mesh lets users see, hear, and interact with remote people in simulated 3D environments as if they were all actually present in the same physical space.
The vendor offered a foretaste of the Mesh announcement last fall when it launched a private preview of a new MR service called Azure Object Anchors, which can recognize an object in the real world and dynamically map relevant instructions or visuals onto it. Microsoft also launched Dynamics 365 Remote Assist, which allows people in different physical locations to collaborate and solve problems in a shared MR environment.
Though fascinating to demonstrate, these features could also fatigue conferencing users with a surfeit of technological cleverness that contributes little to meeting productivity. Mesh’s MR features are harbingers of a new conferencing user experience. They may strike many users as fun and engaging. But they also threaten to transform these sessions’ formerly simple user interfaces into something that resembles a video game gone wild.
If you find it annoying to sit through people’s too-clever-by-half ramblings about their custom backgrounds, just imagine how precious it will feel when Mesh users gush over how they’ve customized their Mesh avatars to “project yourself as your most lifelike, photorealistic self … to interact as if you’re there in person.”
If anything, this approach suggests that future online conferences will degenerate into elaborate shadowplays involving deepfaked selfies.
Likewise, users will be inviting “uncanny valley” squeamishness if they overindulge Mesh’s ability to deploy personal avatars that engage in “eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures so your personality shines.”
And let’s not even dwell on the “VR motion sickness” that many users will feel when trying to orient themselves in these dynamic 3-D environments.
Of course, Microsoft is not the only MR vendor that’s going this route. A year ago, Facebook announced that it plans to enhance the MR functionality to better enable telepresence and dynamic labeling within distributed collaboration sessions that involve its Oculus devices. If nothing else, users may feel fatigued from having special headgear to participate fully in next-generation videoconferences.
Using AI-automated conference quality tweaks to reduce user fatigue
Artificial intelligence is a key component in promising approaches for mitigating “Zoom fatigue.” Before long, no commercial conferencing solution will expose users to the quality issues that come from raw video and audio feeds that have not been smoothed and augmented through sophisticated AI.
Nvidia’s announcement last fall of Maxine shows how a “new normal” in AI-tweaked real-time multiperson conferencing may work. Nvidia’s new GPU-accelerated remote collaboration solution introduces several levels of AI-driven manipulation into real-time streaming user experience.
For starters, it relies on GANs to optimize the quality of how a person is being rendered online in a video call. Specifically, it uses GANs to adjust participants’ gazes, relight their faces, enhance resolution, upscale and recomposite frames, reduce jitter, and cancel noise. It analyzes facial points and then algorithmically reanimates and modifies those faces in real time on the stream that’s displayed at the far end of the connection.
Second, Maxine uses GANs to improve the social experience on a call beyond what participants would experience if they relied on raw video feeds. It does this by automatically adjusting the rendered video to make it appear as if people are always facing each other and making eye contact during a call. Also, Maxine helps participants to stay attentive to each other by using GAN-based autoframing, which enables the video feed to automatically follow a speaker even if she or he moves away from their screen.
Last but not least, Maxine allows users to employ GAN-generated photorealistic avatars whose real-time rendering responds to vocal and emotional tone. These AI-powered virtual assistants can use natural language processing to take notes, set action items, and answer questions in human-like voices. They can also perform real-time translation, closed captioning, and transcription to boost participant comprehension of what’s happening on a call.
As remote collaboration vendors incorporate AI-driven conference quality features into their offerings, the “deepfake” stigma attached to this technology may begin to wane.
However, no amount of technological wizardry can address the fatigue that stems from users having to rely on online meetings in lieu of in-person get-togethers. Also, the alienation and depersonalization inherent in all-digital media can put a damper on quality of life, especially if users regard avatars and the like as a pale imitation of “real” interaction. Furthermore, online meetings, especially in work-from-home pandemic conditions, may exacerbate the blurring of work-life boundaries that many people need to feel balanced and happy.
Nevertheless, even if we can’t address the underlying cultural causes of “Zoom fatigue,” the conferencing industry may be able to reduce the technical factors that often make online conferences an ordeal to sit through.