As you settle in for your next meeting, you reach out to shake the hand of the person sitting across from you. The room fills with the scent of freshly brewed coffee, and when your colleague speaks in a different language, you find that you can understand them.
But it's not that you've been brushing up on your multilingualism during lockdown, and you're certainly not congregating in a local café or even a conference room. This meeting is taking place in your own home, and the other attendees could be hundreds of miles away.
This vision of the future was one set out by Zoom founder Eric Yuan at a Web Summit conference late last year. In an interview with Insider's coeditor-in-chief Alyson Shontell, Yuan outlined how he envisioned the video platform growing.
He suggested that calls could be enhanced by virtual reality and artificial intelligence, with tools in place to re-create the physical experience of meeting in person. Virtual smells, the sensation of a handshake, and AI translators were just a few of the ideas that Yuan hinted at as he predicted how the platform would stay relevant in a post-vaccine world.
In a year defined by stay-at-home orders and a sudden shift to remote work, Zoom's popularity rocketed, and after beginning the year with a market cap of $19 billion, it hit a market valuation of $138.9 billion in October. Yet the company was also hit by privacy concerns, and an oversaturation of virtual quizzes, happy hours, and conferences led many to experience Zoom fatigue. Positive news of vaccine trials also caused "work from home" stocks to plummet in late 2020, with Zoom falling by as much as 20% in November.
Yuan argues that videoconferencing is here to stay, and that by innovating to make online meetings feel more like a face-to-face interaction, the company could continue to grow.
But is this immersive technology something that consumers really want?
Gregor Pryor, a leading tech lawyer and specialist in entertainment and digital media at global law firm Reed Smith, told Insider that immersive tech isn't just a far-away image of the future, it's something that we're already seeing implemented across many platforms. Pryor advises companies on how to leverage their tech and was named one of Wired Magazine's "Top 100 Influential People in Digital Media" after working with innovators on virtual and augmented reality and immersive experiences.
"Games like Fortnite give us a glimpse into the beginning of the metaverse, a shared virtual space where gamers are able to build cities, attend concerts, and meet friends," he said.
Some experts believe that innovations such as sensory technology, which pave the way for more human-like interaction online, is the next natural step in our digital lives.
"If we consider human sociality and the ways in which we form bonds and connections with others, the experience is often multi-sensory," said Selin Nugent, an anthropologist and assistant director at the Institute for Ethical AI, an academic organization that tests and validates AI systems to ensure that they're ethical and fit for purpose.
"Having the opportunity to interact with another person in a three-dimensional space, sense a handshake, or feel objects in a virtual environment mimics opportunities for connection that we miss in video calls or messaging."
Nugent believes that we should be designing communication systems that account for the diverse modes of human communication — something that she describes as being "behaviorally ergonomic"— and that more immersive and human-like technologies open up an opportunity to explore deeper connections in our digital worlds.
But for those who are tired of having to tell people that they're still on mute or would rather that cameras stayed firmly switched off for their 8 a.m. meeting, the idea of technology becoming even more embedded into our everyday lives can be a turn-off.
"I actually think that there are pros and cons to technology becoming more human,"Roshni Raveendhran, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's School of Business who specializes in the psychology of technology and the future of work, told Insider. "It's important for us to understand how people perceive these technologies psychologically before we jump in and say that it's a really bad or really good thing."
With virtual communication still in its infancy, the jury remains out when it comes to impact on wellbeing and bonding. Research suggests that virtual teams struggle to establish trust and miss out on the informal communication that makes them feel part of a cohesive team, and yet virtual communication has also been shown to lead to more efficient conversations and increased effectiveness.
Raveendhran also pointed out that consumers have already welcomed many human-like technologies into their homes and workspaces. Devices like Alexa blur the boundaries between digital and social interaction, and we've become accustomed to communicating with machines or expecting technology to support our day-to-day lives in a fundamentally human way. Even though users might be nervous about the adoption of immersive technologies, perhaps seeing them as a distant vision of the future, we are already comfortable with the idea of devices that are deeply interwoven into our home lives.
Raveendhran has conducted research into whether office workers would choose face-to-face interaction over interacting in a virtual space using avatars, and found that many people felt that immersive digital interaction offered a psychological distance that some employees prefer. She found that people felt less likely to be judged by their managers in a virtual environment, and that managers worried less about being viewed negatively or seen as a micromanager.
"I've heard about some companies that want their employees to be on video all day to mimic the experience of being in the workplace," she said. "But that's not exactly what these technologies should be doing and may feel like intense monitoring. It's more important to think about how we can leverage these new technologies for good and to positively impact our interactions and communications with others."
As companies like Zoom attempt to blend real-life interaction with virtual communication, immersive digital worlds seem likely to become ever-more embedded in how we interact — yet there is still some debate over just how widely adopted they will be.
Some believe that technology such as virtual reality will remain a relatively niche product, with uptake largely confined to the gaming communities currently dominating the space. It's also possible that COVID-19 might cause people to crave real-life experiences, causing the boom in immersive technology to be a temporary fix.
Yet with the market size of consumer virtual reality expected to hit $16 billion in the US alone by 2022 and major players such as Sony, Facebook, and HTC leading investment in the sector, Zoom's immersive vision of the future doesn't seem so far away.
"The pandemic has accelerated many aspects of the metaverse, and businesses need to pay attention because it's likely to be the next frontier to customer interaction," Pryor said. "Human-like technology will allow us to fully unleash the magnitude of benefits the internet has to offer, more than we can currently comprehend."
"Whether it's for the metaverse or meta-worse we will have to see," he added.