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Keep it Together, Microsoft: New mode for vid-chat app Teams reminds everyone why Zoom rules the roost

If you have to play by Redmond's strict rules, people are likely to go elsewhere

Video In an attempt to regain market share from Zoom in the pandemic-driven world of video conferencing, Microsoft today launched a “Together” mode for its Teams software.

The new mode puts everyone into a kind of virtual lecture room where they are sitting in specific seats, and each user feels as though they are both a lecturer addressing the group and a member of the group – you can see yourself sat in one of the seats.

The idea, according to Microsoft’s “prime unifying scientist” Jaron Lanier is that it will make meetings “feel better” while providing “a deeper level that touches on our latest scientific understandings of cognition, social perception, and communication.” Here's Redmond's pitch:

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“People in Together mode know where others are in a shared virtual space," he opined.

"That means your brain can keep track of what other people are signaling or emoting in a natural way, relying on social/spatial perception; people can intuitively signal each other non-verbally. In a grid, you don’t know where other people are on the screen, relative to you, from their point of view, so natural glances and other subtle cues are impossible.

“Together mode creates a shared space in which people are not separated by barriers. Being in overlapping space can lead to silly behavior, as when people ‘high five,’ but there is also a significant benefit. People pay attention to each other more and can gain a better sense of a shared stake in the situation and a shared journey. Constructive behavior signals a level of commitment that isn’t signaled when goofy behavior isn’t even possible. Together mode creates a usable illusion that the eye contact problem has been mitigated.”

If that sounds like a load of old bollocks, it’s because it is. While there is undoubtedly a dislocating effect from what has become the standard people-in-boxes video conferencing approach, the lecture theater idea looks and feels rushed: like an experimental product beta that has been rushed to production because the suits have seen rival Zoom explode in popularity.


“Together mode helps when you must go to a lot of video meetings. Most users report less meeting fatigue,” said Lanier. “Together mode is helpful when a group might have trouble staying attentive, for instance in education settings. Together mode supports presenters who need to ‘read the room’ or get energy from attendees.”

Microsoft has, of course, identified many of the issues and drawbacks associated with video conferencing, as has just about everyone else who has had to be on Zoom meetings every day for months, but it’s far from clear that this new mode resolves or even improves them.

And if there were any doubt that this is a plaster on a wound, they are removed by the fact that what should be an instinctual experience comes with a set of rules defined by Microsoft.

Man eats toast while looking at watch, clearly late for something. Photo by Shutterstock

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First of all, you’re not allowed to turn off your camera. Lanier tried to overcome the obvious immediate response by getting chummy: “But what if you’re shy, and prefer to leave the camera off? I’m often shy too. I ask you to keep an open mind and experiment at whatever pace is comfortable. In our early research, we are seeing people leave the camera on more often in Together mode than in traditional grid designs, and they report that the experience was pleasant.” Sure.

Next you need to make sure that you take over the whole screen with the software – otherwise “people will see you looking to that side a lot, which can look out of place.” You also need to use it on a big monitor and only on one monitor. If you have a multi-screen setup, you have to run the software on the one directly in front of you, or it will look weird.

It’s also no good on a phone “though they can work if you prop them up to face you at a head-on angle and aren’t moved around during the meeting. If you use a phone, please try to get the phone and you positioned so that other people can see you looking straight ahead, into the camera, through the duration of the meeting.”

More instructions

If you want to chat or email while the meeting is going on, you need to do that in the right way too: “If you want to track mail or text chat during a session, try placing the Together mode window at the top of the screen, centered under the camera, with other windows below it. Then people will see you looking down instead of to the side, which works better.”

Oh, and you need to make sure your camera is centered. And your tablet is vertical.

You also aren’t allowed to leave the meeting unless you accept the consequences. “If you leave the meeting, you might come back in a different seat, which will disorient other people who thought they knew where to find you. This might not sound important, but the process of spatial/social perception is not entirely conscious, so the disruption can be jarring. Please try to stay in the call the whole time instead of dipping in and out.”

Maybe some people like being told exactly how to set up their equipment and how to behave in order to fit in with the video-conferencing software maker’s desires but we're willing to bet that most don’t. But, hey, this is Microsoft.

It’s also worth noting that in order to use Microsoft Teams you are required to set up a Microsoft account, and make sure your browser allows third-party cookies, and click on multiple links in multiple emails, and even then if you start to run a session you can see Microsoft’s system going back and forth checking and authenticating the software and user before it launches – yes, that’s how slow it is, you can literally see the URLs used for authentication tick by like you're logging into Hotmail in the late 1990s.

In the meantime, Zoom works and can be up and running in seconds. Together Mode ain’t gonna change that and, based on what we've seen so far, this approach will likely infuriate users thanks to rule constrictions. In your humble hack's opinion, Together is a nice idea, but this was ready for focus groups, not public release. ®

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