Video chat’s next major feature: physical positioning of participants (“mingle at a party” options) to allow a huge chat to be split into manageable groups!

Background:

With the 2020 COVID plague, work-related video chats have become increasingly full of a large number of participants (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: Video chat software (e.g. Zoom, FaceTime, Hangouts, Meet, Duo, Skype, and more) typically only allows participants to appear in a randomly-ordered grid. All participants are part of the same (single) discussion: there is no easy way to have a “side discussion” and then rejoin the main conversation.

The issue:

Video chats have a problem that in-person office work does not: there is no convenient way for participants of an unreasonably-large video chat group to split off into subgroups.

Instead, every discussion must take place in a SINGLE mega-discussion with all participants, or people need to leave the mega-discussion and start their own exclusive video chat groups. People often get around this by having side discussions over text, but that’s not really a great solution either.

Proposal:

In a physical workspace, it’s easy to have a small discussion: simply PHYSICALLY relocate the individuals in the conversation to an empty lunchroom table or meeting room.

To improve video chat, we simply implement the same feature: instead of each video participant just being a randomly-placed square in a grid, now each participant can also specify their location on a virtual floor plan (Figure 2).

Fig. 2: Left: the old-fashioned style of video chat. Right: the updated video chat, where you can only hear and see participants who are in close physical proximity. In this case, the chat has split into groups A, B, and C (shown here from the perspective of a person in Group B). Everyone in Group B has a normal video chat, but can only faintly hear low-audio-volume chats going on in groups A and C.

Importantly, it’s still possible to see and hear people who are somewhat nearby on the floor plan, but at a very low volume. So you can know that a conversation is going on, and join in if necessary, but it won’t drown out your primary discussion.

Previous Examples:

Some video games implement a system like this (“proximity audio”), in which you can hear voice chat only from nearby players. However, as far as I am aware, this has never been a feature in any office-focused collaboration software.

PROS: This seems like it should actually exist! Maybe it hasn’t been developed before due to the lack of compelling business case for having large numbers of people on video calls.

CONS: Might lead to a tyrannically oppressive workplace in which work-from-home employees are mandated to always be available on video chat and present on a virtual floor plan.