It’s been around for 50 years and has been known variously during that time as telecommuting, dominetics (a combination of domicile, connections and electronics) and remote working. In its latest and most widespread iteration, it’s known as WFH and the fledgling technology that first made it possible, the personal computer, has grown legs and become both an enabler and a drawback.
Specifically, it’s the video conferencing bit of the equation that seems to be causing the most pain, but sit tight. The tech boffins are on it and plan to turn the ugly duckling into a swan.
"The problem I have with Zoom and other versions of video calls is their fixed focal point. It makes everything so much more formal and prescribed," says industrial designer Will Howe, whose interest in intuitive technology puts him in a better position than most to do something about consigning the stilted video call to history.
Howe is a director of the UK-based tech/industrial design company, Map, and he told The Irish Times that making video calls easier and a lot more intuitive will be a key factor in ensuring people are willing to work from home in the long term.
“Personally, I couldn’t wait to get back to the office because, with a ‘normal’ meeting, there are rituals we all go through that break things up and allow you to express yourself in a more creative and coherent way. You also benefit from those serendipitous moments that take you down an avenue that hadn’t even entered your mind before,” Howe says.
“With video calls as they are now, you’re not looking at the person, you’re looking at the screen or, if you’re looking at the camera, then you’re not looking at the screen. It never feels like a proper connection because you’re not eye to eye. That’s got to change to make remote working more appealing.”
Before the pandemic, Howe was already working with a leading tech company on a new camera to make video conferencing “less painful”. That project has now been accelerated and Howe says the first major change we’re likely to see is the demise of the single fixed camera.
“As the technology evolves, we will see the use of multiple cameras that will represent the environment in a more natural way to capture a more immersive experience,” he says.
“To give you an example, look at how the automotive industry is already using multiple cameras to let you see all around the car while you’re still sitting inside it. It’s about creating experiences that are a bit more natural and derived from other senses rather than just the visual.
“We will see the emergence of more ambient technology where it will be possible to ‘read’ the situation through a series of subtle signifiers that are providing information in a different way, maybe through movement or light or sound.
“From an industrial design point of view, this is an exciting time because we are going to start seeing completely new archetypes for products that don’t exist yet,” says Howe who adds that the tech giants are already pushing ahead with these developments.
It’s not only video conferencing that’s ripe for disruption in this brave new world of home working. Howe predicts that office furniture is also going to get a major makeover as many people need a suitable working surface combined with storage but they don’t have the space for a regular home office.
“We’re going to see micro furniture and furniture that can change mode or pack away so that people are not constantly confronted by work,” he says.
“Another problem that has to be tackled for a better working from home experience is the control of ambient noise and noise pollution. For example, it’s annoying and possibly problematic if you can hear spillover from someone else’s calls or meetings. This sound control could happen through analogue objects, such as noise-absorbing panels or furniture to create more of a secluded zone, or maybe through using the kind of tech already found in noise-cancelling headphones.
“These products don’t really exist yet for the smaller spaces typical of the home working environment.”
The most striking statistic to come out of working from home so far is the exponential rise in Zoom usage. It may not be the perfect way to communicate but its number of active daily users has skyrocketed from 10 million to 200 million in three months.
Tech writer Paul Boutin points out that, although AT&T first demonstrated a video call back in 1927, it took decades for video to catch on as popular means of communication. Early video phone products flopped and one of the suspected underlying reasons was that people felt uncomfortable about being seen while talking.
The ubiquitous camera phone has helped to change that and video has become an important platform that can keep remote workers connected. However, the problem with it Boutin says is that it’s still too much like early Hollywood movies which were shot with a stationary camera.
What will make a real difference is adding advances in virtual and augmented reality (enabled by the advent of 5G) to the mix to create a better feeling of remote presence. This will also overcome some of the technical glitches that currently derail video conferencing so that, as Boutin puts it, “we can at least pretend for an hour that we’re in a real room with real people”.