Zoom wants your next video call to feel more like you and your friends, family, or colleagues are hanging out in the same room. On April 26, Zoom rolled out a new feature called “Immersive View,” which arranges as many as 25 people against a single big virtual backdrop. In theory, the company says, this will “create the feeling of being in a classroom, a boardroom, a conference auditorium, or your favorite place to catch up with friends,” rather than a typical Zoom call in which participants are separated into a Brady Bunch grid.
But achieving that reality remains a long way off. Immersive View is just as clunky as any of Zoom’s virtual backgrounds. When I experimented with it on my own, Immersive View had a hard time distinguishing between my face and the wall behind me, creating nightmarish apparitions that plagued me no matter how many times I adjusted the lighting in my room or moved to new spots in my apartment.
Zoom is not the first company to try this idea. The pandemic has given birth to a slew of virtual office startups from Gather to Around, all experimenting with new ways to manage video calls and recreate the best parts of meeting in person. But so far, none of these startups have reached the scale of Zoom, with 300 million daily meeting participants and a market cap around $100 billion. That makes Zoom a much more likely candidate to usher in the era of virtual offices.
The new virtual office startups believe they’re offering a better way to work. In a post-pandemic world where business travel is expected to be a third lower than it was in 2019, millions of former road warriors may soon be heading to their next meeting in front of a screen. That’s given Zoom an incentive to design an alternative to standard video calls and a glimpse at what meetings might look like in the future.
But Immersive View probably isn’t that feature. For those interested in accomplishing serious work, it’s not particularly ambitious. While reporting a recent field guide on digital workplaces, I tried products from startups like Gather and Teamflow that designed virtual offices complete with miniature avatars representing your coworkers. Your colleagues might come in or out of earshot as your avatar got closer or farther away from them on its journey through the digital halls. Others, like Around, promised improved audio technology that would allow hybrid teams to stage virtual meetings—with some participants remote and some in the same room—without annoying feedback or echoes.
Immersive View, by contrast, is just a Zoom call where everyone’s on the same background. While it was fun to try with colleagues, the novelty wore off after a few minutes and it just felt like a standard Zoom call.
But Zoom’s attempt won’t be the last given its inroads into homes and offices around the world. “Zooming” has become synonymous with video chatting with friends, family, co-workers, and classmates, and “Zoom fatigue” is shorthand for the collective exhaustion many feel after having to squeeze their lives into the narrow, rectangular confines of video feeds.
Immersive View won’t change any of that. But it shows that the company is open to trying new features that might. And few years down the road, remote work may feel a little less lonely.