How virtual just got life-like

New technology is making virtual meetings look real-life:

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Aug 23, 2023

Take a look at the picture above. What does it look like to you?

Is this a cupboard? No, not really!

A phone box? Warm, but that doesn’t quite describe this either.

A passport photo-taking booth? Getting closer but… no, that’s still not right.

Maybe we ought to rewind a bit.

Not so long ago, TLNT was sent details of…let’s call it the ‘strange-looking object’ for now.

As is often the case with most things PRs tend to proselytize about, TLNT was told in no uncertain terms that this was something the world of HR ought not to miss.

Things are often described like this, but for some reason, this mysterious-looking piece of furniture kind of caught our eye.

With only minimal explanation about exactly what it did (anything more would ruin the surprise), TLNT was assured that the only way to really understand what this is, would be to experience it for real.

And so, so here I am, a few weeks later at a swanky venue in Soho, London, being asked to step inside it.

Introducing what’s billed as the next leap in virtual engagement..!

For the purposes of describing the outsides – I will give it its proper name now: the ‘Framery Contact’ – it’s a very modern looking cubicle.

If you didn’t notice that it had just a single door, this sleek, surreptitious-looking unit could easily be mistaken for being a posh wardrobe. From the outside, it’s what, about 7ft long, by about the same tall and is about 3 or four feet deep.

Ushered in, I had an inkling of what I might expect – after all, Finnish brand, Framery, already sells an impressive range of different-sized soundproof pods and booths that give workers completely quite spaces for meetings/zoom calls even in the middle of a loud, busy office. But despite this I really was staggered.

In short, the Framery Contact pod literally takes virtual meetings to the next level.

Go in, and you’re in total darkness, presented with just a small seat to perch on, and a fold-down table to put your notebook/papers on. You’re facing a screen that shows a reflection of yourself. But next to you is a panel where you can ‘answer a call’.

On cue, the pad lit up, and when I pressed to answer it the magic really happened.

Suddenly, the screen in front of you melts away to reveal the person who is calling. I’m seeing them as I presume they see me – in a blacked-out space, gently-lit with two vertical bars of light either side of the glass that wouldn’t look out of place on bathroom mirror.

But, this is the weird thing. It literally looks like the person is sitting there right in front of me. There’s no reflection on the glass screen I first stared at. In fact, it doesn’t even look like there’s a screen there at all. It’s like the screen has been whipped away to reveal a person sat behind it, who was there hiding all the time.

Yes, I’m totally convinced the person is in the box with me, and was there the whole time before the disappeared screen. He’s actual size; he’s looking straight at me, smiling, watching my reaction, and reacting accordingly, but my brain is doing mental summersaults because…well…he can’t be there. He’s like, three or for feet away, but that would mean he’s outside the measurements of the box I’m sat in. And yet, somehow he isn’t. He’s inside it…but…well, further away than the box should allow for. Help!!

My head’s now telling me I’ve literally stepped into a TARDIS. The box is literally bigger in the inside. There’s a bloke sat opposite me, and he’s having a chuckle, because I’m exhibiting all the reactions every other person experiences.

So what’s going on?

A technological leap

Well, let me tell you. My ‘buddy in the box’ really isn’t in the box at all – despite for all intents and purposes appearing like a perfectly real person, sitting directly opposite me, talking at normal volume.

No, he’s in Finland, sitting in his own Framery Contact pod, but he’s looking straight at me.

We’re connected by an ultra-fast internet connection, but the real magic comes from out-of-sight cameras pointing at me (and similar ones pointing at him) that project ourselves back – in 4k quality – onto a mirror we’re looking into in each respective pod. As Framery says: “A single camera captures your image, with strategic mirror placement amplifying the impression of eye contact.” It adds: “The rest is achieved by your mind! Aided by the pod’s blackout design, including its black backdrop, your brain ‘fills in the gaps’, and builds a 3D representation.”

This isn’t Zoom

Unlike a Zoom call, which – let’s face it – gives not a single crumb of intimacy, this solution feels literally like you’re in a room with another ‘real’ person.

To you your brain, they’re there, just sitting on the other side of the table that you’re sat against.

Once your senses settle down, and they accept what’s happening, it really is hard to explain just how ‘real’ the interaction feels.

It’s not even like you’re chatting to a hologram.

Your eyes are literally telling you that the person in front of you is right there. Unlike on Zoom/teams, where you inevitably watch someone in a tiny box, with their eyes-diverted, looking at a pop-up on their own PC (thus giving a non eye-to-eye experience) Framery’s camera/image capture technology is such that it projects your buddy back looking straight into your eyes.

But it’s the real-life proportions of the person you’re looking at here that boggles the mind. You’re seeing your counterpart looking back at you as if you would expect a real person sat before you to behave. They are 100% life-size – even though they are thousands of miles away. Take a look here if you want to see this for yourself.

Practical applications

When noise-cancelling pod manufacturers first came onto the scene, they were seen by many as the much-needed privacy solution to busy office environments.

Without having to completely redesign an office layout, quiet spaces could suddenly be provided, by installing these acoustically-controlled units.

Some of these early pods came with monitors/TVs hung inside them, to allow traditional Zoom/Teams calls to happen as we all know them. Many still do.

But with this new system, Framery hopes video-calls – or teleconferencing as it used to be called – steps up a notch, to replicate the intimacy of one-to-one conversations, and where more of a personal relationship is needed.

What’s in it for CHROs?

Framery Contact is currently being demonstrated in its showroom in Chicago, and at the Framery headquarters in Tampere, Finland. Full scale production is expected to start soon, after corporates who have already seen it showed strong interest in it on a number of levels.

Some see it as a perfect tool for connecting executives who tend to prefer more of a one-to-one relationship.

Others see it as a new way of delivery mentoring – something which also relies on the sorts of exchanges of subliminal messages that would only otherwise happen face to face. It is even being considered as a more ‘human’ way of connecting heads of HR in one territory with employees in another, if they need to have difficult, private calls.

In-house recruiters and recruitment agencies are also expressing an interest too – for when Zoom calls just don’t cut it, and a more rounded view of the ‘whole person’ is needed for people to form a view about a person.

This latter application could really transform executive level recruitment. Instead of flying applicants over for interviews, applicants could simply go to their nearest recruitment agency and use a booth there by someone in their booth on the other side of the country. Framery says their technology can be used to record meetings, if needed.

And it’s the environmentally-friendly option too. While a single return flight between London and New York emits 1.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide, the combined manufacturing, use of five years, and recycling of a Framery Contact pod emits only 1.4 tonnes.

CHROs need to look to the future

As remote work becomes normalized, but in-person inter-connectivity is valued more than ever, CHROs will increasingly need to look to solutions that bridge this gap.

Framery is just one provider that wants to corner this market – but there are others that smart CHROs should start exploring now.

Just one of these new kids on the block is Katmai – a video communications platform that offers its own solution to Zoom fatigue – by recreating an office environment that remote callers ‘join’ in on (see pictures below):

The technology effectively merges the 3D world and the audio video conference into one and people can literally walk around, and bump into people and have conversations, or knock on someone’s virtual door and be invited in for a chat. Katmai claims to have good buy-in from millennials and Generation Z.

Virtual working is here – but with interactions between people needing to feel ‘real’ still, CHROs have a responsibility to see how they can facilitate better at-work experiences. Technology like this might be one way they can do this.

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