How do we humanise WFH tech so no one gets left behind?

Moving Brands, Google and Uniform share their ideas for our collective future working from home and how new technology might help better connect us.

Date
13 October 2020
Reading Time
6 minute read

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From crappy wifi stifling fluid communication to Zoom fatigue making us all crave real-life human interaction, the widespread issues of working from home and their impact on our creativity and unity have been much discussed. So, instead, we set out to find projects that are envisioning how technology might make this whole scenario a little more human.

While Facebook and Oculus have seen the huge opportunity in the future of work by investing in Infinite Office, its VR home office software, Google technologists have developed a way for video conferencing software to detect sign language users as the active speaker. Uniform, a studio known for its R&D into the future of creative work, sings Miro’s praises, while Moving Brands is investigating how a more creative approach to sound might significantly alter our video call experiences.

Moving Brands sound design concept video; headphones recommended. (© Moving Brands, 2020)

Moving Brands has been spending the pandemic building tools for remote communication, focusing lately on the use of sound in video calls. They put together a concept video about how sound could be utilised to offer “a more human-like” experience – for example effects that give a sense of space; audio emojis for celebrations, acknowledging errors and giving feedback; a “knock” on the door from digital waiting rooms; customised entrance sounds; ambient background noise; and directional sound that follows a mouse cursor to replace a finger point during presentations.

Dave Cameron, creative director of experimental design, came up with the idea and created the video as the starting point for discussion and development. “Our experience of designing virtual spaces, along with a frustration of using today’s video conference platforms, led us to think more about the role of sound to improve the way we communicate virtually,” Dave tells It’s Nice That. “The image quality of a video call is often the focus of attention, but sound has the opportunity to transform video meetings and virtual workspaces, creating experiences that are more natural and nuanced.

“We’re exploring ways to create a sense of space and distance with sound, creating a more graceful and intuitive entrance for attendees of virtual spaces. We use sound to create a sense of place, offering different environments to meet the needs of teams or attendees, whether they need to be focused, inspired, or just hangout. Directional sound also offers the opportunity to point at something in virtual space. All of these interactions make for a more natural experience with one another.”

Dave says the film, at this point, is a “provocation” that captures some of the ways the studio is exploring and using sound in projects for its clients. Many of these clients have been pushed to close physical spaces as a result of Covid, and had to quickly find and build new digital settings to connect with their audiences. This has seen MB design, build and launch virtual platforms as long-term solutions, not just quick fixes. “We also see a wide range of benefits to other audiences, for example helping educators to share content in more detail and create more playful interactions with their students, or giving artists tools to set the scene and play with acoustics in virtual performances,” Dave adds. “We think about these virtual settings as more than a website, instead as a physical space that can elicit a range of experiences. When creating these virtual settings, we explore a range of modalities, including motion, touch and sound, to create a space for people to more intuitively connect.” He also notes companies such as Mural, CiviSignals and Spatial are also doing exciting work in the realm of shared, virtual environments.

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Maayan Gazuli, an Israeli Sign Language interpreter, demonstrates the sign language detection system (© Google AI, 2020)

As an interesting point of difference, a team at Google has meanwhile been looking into how sign language users might be faring in the virtual work sphere. Research intern and PhD student in sign language processing, Amit Moryossef, writes on the Google AI blog that “video conferencing should be accessible to everyone, including users who communicate using sign language,” and yet most video call apps automatically switch ‘active speaker’ mode to those who speak aloud. This, he writes, “makes it difficult for signers to ‘get the floor’ so they can communicate easily and effectively.” In response, the team recently presented a prototype model that detects sign language and switches the person signing to active speaker.

The prototype specifically recognises sign and ignores anyone who might be using their hands to gesture or scratch their face, for example. It then triggers the active speaker function in various video call apps by making an ultrasonic audio tone – a noise outside human hearing range that the software recognises as sound, which “fools the application into thinking the user is speaking,” adds Amit. A demo version of the model is available to try out online.

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Miro screenshot (© Miro, 2020)

Brand agency Uniform has long been at the forefront of investigating how tech can be integrated into our lives and work, and in 2018 came up with The Future Agency as a research project to put forward theories on the subject. During the pandemic its own focus, like much of the creative industry, has been collaboration – or the lack of it. “Nothing beats the collaborative energy of working with other creatives around a pinboard of ideas and concepts for a project,” says design director Neil Sheakey. “It’s the best way to explore, interrogate, and validate your thinking. But it’s a totally different experience when you’re WFH. Removed and remote, constrained by screen sizes, internet connections, screen-sharing and files and folders, the ability to collaborate in real-time and in person is so much more challenging.”

So Uniform is now a strong advocate of Miro, an online whiteboard where individuals can draw, add sticky notes, visualise ideas and add to them as teams. The agency’s creatives all use it now in conjunction with video calls, which Neil says has “broken down the barriers of working in isolation,” and bolstered elements of its studio culture while adjusting to the new normal. “Everyone can dip in and out, contributing in their own time or all together in more structured project team sessions, whether that’s with big ideas or just some quick feedback. It lives there as an organic record of our creative journey, our decision making and it’s an expression of our creative process. And the bonus is we don’t have to take anything down once we’re done either.

“It has also allowed us to instantly see and understand exactly what each person is talking about as we present and collaborate internally. We’re editing, filtering and building out our ideas and thinking in real-time, allowing everyone to be on the same page (or board in the case of Miro). And it isn’t just liberating for our own teams, we’ve seen the power of collaborating through Miro with clients at all stages of our projects too, from strategic workshops to refining final stage designs.”

Even if we are soon able to return to the ‘old normal’, research has shown that many of us – if given the choice – want to work from home more. A New York Times feature on office culture recently reported that just one in five workers wanted to go back to the office full-time. So it seems that there are plenty of opportunities for the creative industry to cater for the workers at home, and for those of us privileged enough to be able to, there are myriad ways to adapt our processes and mindsets to make it an altogether more inclusive and communal experience for everyone. We’d be keen to hear more about your ideas for our working future, so please do get in touch by emailing jb@itsnicethat.com.

Meanwhile, read our advice article on pitching remotely, in which Stink Studios, DixonBaxi, Engine and Anyways share their experiences and advice for successfully presenting ideas over video call.

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Facebook and Oculus: Infinite Office (© Facebook, 2020)

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny joined the editorial team as It’s Nice That’s first news editor in April 2016. Having studied 3D Design, she has spent the last ten years working in design journalism. Contact her with news stories relating to the creative industries on news@itsnicethat.com.

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