Little Tech: Will ‘Zoom Fatigue’ Make Teooh’s Avatars a ‘Next Big Thing’?
Technology, like the humans that create it, has had a knack for intervening with a clever solution just when we are faced with a particular level of panic/emergency. And so it was that “Zoom” (along with “social-distancing,” “PPE,” “isolation,” and so on) became one of the inescapable buzz terms of 2020, as the pandemic forced millions of people across the globe into sudden work-from-home situations—and the video conferencing app conveniently allowed them to carry out meetings at a distance.
Like most personal technology, however—even that which is employed in business situations—Zoom never really rises above its general mediocrity…which hardly needs explication here if you’ve actually used it. But the bar had already been lowered so far (with most people actually having convinced themselves that iPhones were something more than just expensive, very glitchy grownup toys), we just went with it.
Eight months on, and “Zoom Fatigue” is already a thing, with nearly everyone fed up with trying to look presentable on camera, whilst sitting at their kitchen table and fending off the over-eager pooch.
And so along comes Teooh—which, as you’re surely wondering, is an acronym for “Turning Event Organization On Its Head.” What it allows the user to do is to become an avatar, enter a room full of friends or associates, and carry on doing whatever it is they can no longer bear doing on Zoom.
One gets to choose wardrobe and hairstyle, assuring your avatar will always look as good as you wish you could be bothered looking in real life, especially this far into a long semi-quarantine. The actual spaces are rather artfully designed, indeed almost *Wallpaper magazine worthy; and moving within them is quite easy and—dare we say?—kind of fun. In essence, you could carry on an entire meeting as avatars sitting across the table from one another—or even meet several friends for an evening hang, without anyone having to see how much booze you’ve actually consumed.
After a few test sessions, we engaged Laura Woodhead, Head of Brand, and Co-founder/CTO Jon Hibbins, for a discussion on how Teooh got here, and just where it might take us.
What first sparked the idea for Teooh?
LW: While in San Francisco, networking and event hosting was a fundamental part of our Co-founder/CEO’s life and career. His resulting career growth became the catalyst for Teooh. He wanted to create an easier, more accessible way for people to establish game-changing connections and grow their careers as he had.
Have you been a regular user of Zoom? What would be your criticisms of it?
LW: It’s difficult to avoid Zoom in 2020. I think it’s been valuable for people and continues to be so; but video conferencing, in general, can be pretty draining. The novelty is wearing off, and we’re starting to see the downsides: people are tired of being on camera and having their personal lives and homes broadcast to the world. Video calls with more than four or five people are difficult to manage. And for people who are more introverted, video calls are particularly stressful and anxiety inducing.
What were some of the problems you encountered in the development process?
JH: Developing Teooh was always going to be challenging. On a basic level: enterprise scale, service architecture and security are always going to require an amazing team in order to get it right. We are very pleased with our team’s work, and there are lots of new tools and infrastructure to support us.
The more difficult challenges have been related to developing on the cutting edge of technology, requiring us to invent things that didn’t yet exist—including lots of concurrent users, custom avatars at scale, spatial sound, and real-time screen sharing using hardware encoding and decoding. We have a lot of unique tech in our stack that is proprietary and we continue to invest in these areas.
Can you elaborate?
JH: Like how audio is not a “solved problem,” as almost all audio stacks are unique, and we too decided to have our own. This gives us greater control to provide an amazing audio experience, but also take advantage of improvements at the hardware and software level, including Machine Learning for things like echo and background noise removal. We are also building our tech stack on many platforms—Apple iOS, Android, MacOS and Windows—and any device anywhere, everything from mobile phones, tablets, desktops and eventually into VR and AR. So keeping the quality and consistency is very important to us. [This way] there are no barriers to being in a room with others, and the experience is first class for all.
Another challenge is making sure safety, diversity and accessibility are considered at every step. We give extra time proportionally to work on these areas; and while this presents some difficult problems to solve, we think it’s the right thing to do.
Avatar “culture” hasn’t really caught on in a big way. What do you think some of the philosophical/practical obstacles are to people embracing themselves as avatars?
LW: Avatars have actually been gaining in popularity for a few years—read: Bitmoji! It’s true, though, that in the past, avatar-based apps and venues have been a trend among gamers and early adopters. However, most of us have never been faced with circumstances that would prevent us from being with other people. The pandemic changed all of that. The notion that we could wake up one day and not have the option to meet our friends for happy hour, or even to go into the office, is sadly not a foreign concept to us anymore. As a result, virtual gatherings and meetings have been normalized. And so, naturally, avatars are going to start catching on with people who might typically have never given the technology a second thought. We’re also experiencing the unexpected social phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue,” a consequence of the performative nature required while constantly interacting on a video. Avatars provide a fun and fresh solution, especially for those who may need a break from video or who can’t access it at all.
That being said, another obstacle in terms of adopting avatar apps is accessibility. For the most part, you need gaming software or a headset to enter these virtual worlds. However, Teooh was built specifically to solve that problem by offering a virtual world that is accessible to anyone with a mobile device or computer.
In using Teooh for business meetings, what are the upsides and downsides to not seeing the real person?
LW: Although it can feel nice to put a face to a name, with Teooh you don’t have to worry about how you look or what the lighting is like—participants can focus on the content rather than on the camera. You can also speak directly to one person or a small group, rather than being broadcast to everyone. It’s less performative, in general, and you don’t have to worry about where you are, or if your dog and kids are running around in the background. It also feels more realistic and 3D in a way. People love the instant visual feedback of the emoji, such as applause, meaning you no longer feel like you’re speaking into a muted video call void. We’ve also had feedback from users who state that using Teooh is a way to showcase that they’re forward-thinking and innovative to clients, colleagues and friends.
Do you think it can act as a night out for people who live at a distance? That people can “hang out” with their friends in Teooh?
LW: Absolutely! We’ve had people throw birthday parties and networking events on Teooh. You can host trivia nights and play pub games. People always get a kick out of seeing their friends as a 3D avatar. If you’re someone like me, who has missed dressing up through lockdown, it’s also a way to get creative with different looks…whilst sitting in your gym gear.
How many “areas” are there to choose from?
LW: The number of areas is evolving, so the most important thing to take note of is the usable spaces that make contextual sense. We have a boardroom, various-sized meeting rooms with breakout tables, places people can host quizzes and gather socially, as well as huddle rooms.
What were the concepts behind the design of those areas?
LW: The circular tables allow for an easy flow of conversation. The TV screens are placed strategically, so that regardless of where an avatar is in the room they can easily find a screen. The small tables are ideal for 1-on-1 conversations that can be had in the same room, but stay private. We also designed the rooms so that avatars can jump around to different tables to chat and network.
Is there a plan to adapt Teooh to AI?
LW: As mentioned before, Machine Learning.
How would you ultimately pitch Teooh to someone who is a regular Zoom user?
LW: Teooh is the next best thing to being in the room with someone. It’s a valuable platform and a unique experience that solves a lot of the issues people are increasingly finding with video conferencing: fatigue, accessibility…..even just having to look presentable at 8am! We’re an alternative to nonstop video calls that is interesting, dynamic, creative and innovative. The use of avatars is only going to become more popular from here on out, but it’s still pretty cutting edge, which means people enjoy using Teooh as a way to be innovative and unique in front of clients, friends and colleagues.