Teams just got a snazzy revamp: Together mode. It seems Microsoft decided, ‘Anything Zoom can do, we can do better.’

Together mode is the landmark change. It is inspired by a US talk show host, who was struggling to perform his remotely-filmed comedy gags without audience feedback. Microsoft explains how this “new feature ditches the traditional grid of boxes, creating an environment that users say has a profound impact on the feel of the video conference and provides more cohesion to the group.”

Instead, call participants are placed together in a virtual space, such as a coffee shop, lecture hall, or meeting room.

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An example lecture theatre in Together mode. Photo credit: Microsoft

So, it’s just like a fancy Zoom background?

No, it’s much more interactive. The key difference is that in Together mode, the view is the same for everyone, and doesn’t change as with the standard grid set-up. According to Microsoft cognitive psychologist, Mary Czerwinski, “People can now practice some of the social signaling they would do in real life.”

This involves small but important social cues like leaning over towards someone, making eye-contact with people other than the speaker, and caters to the area of the brain devoted to spatial awareness. The advantage, according to Czerwinski, is that this will reduce the cognitive load of a video call.

Fatigue has been widely reported as a downside of virtual meetings. If Together mode lives up to its hype, it could be a key step forwards. The overall goal is to make sitting alone in your home office feel as similar to a real life human interaction as possible.

A virtual conference meeing. Photo credit: Pixabay

Other steps to match Zoom

Together mode places you in your virtual meeting with up to 49 other people. Zoom’s groovy backgrounds might need an update to prevent them from becoming a one-time gimmick.

Of course, this update might not be popular if you spent your lock-down meetings in pyjamas, muted, camera off, scrolling through social media. With the possibility of an almost virtual reality style meeting, a silent black square hovering in the lecture hall might look out of place.

If Together mode doesn’t do it for you, Microsoft has more to offer. Other features of this latest update focus on the mobile Teams experience. The iOS update allows a grid view of 8 or 9 people on iPhone and iPad, respectively. Microsoft Cortana can also be used to give spoken commands to perform functions like sending files or joining meetings. Android users get an ‘intelligent search’ feature, made for finding documents and other files in a meeting conversation.

Teams also allows for up to 20,000 view-only participants for conferences. That’s a huge number and fits the overall warning message to Zoom. Microsoft might admit Zoom won the pandemic market. That was the first battle, but this update signals they’re ready for the war ahead.

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