Artificial Intelligence Will Change The Way We Work Once We Get Back To The Office

Have you given any thought how the post-pandemic workplace might look and function? Our working practices have changed dramatically since the pandemic struck, undergoing one of the biggest shake-ups since the industrial revolution and bringing the wheel full circle with many of us returning to home working. 

Overnight, many of us turned from being office-based commuters to stay-at-home knowledge workers. Now we liaise remotely with colleagues as we work on projects, deliver great customer service or simply manage the work of others. We’ve done all this remotely using our webcams and laptops. It’s a massive change that would ordinarily have taken a decade to achieve but which has now happened in an instant because of a virus.

Thankfully, effective vaccines are being rolled out and some sort of end is in sight. The pandemic has shown large corporations that remote working is viable and, in many cases, can increase productivity. Many of us prefer this new way of working. As a result, some companies will downsize offices and rely on hot-desking to make best use of available space. Of course, there will still need to be some sort of central hub for workers to meet because some people enjoy office life and face-to-face contact is still essential for some kind of work.

Remote working has worked well, especially with colleagues who already had a working relationship before the pandemic struck. All they needed to do was continue their working relationships remotely. Unfortunately, it’s’s not so easy for workers joining companies since the pandemic. Many are working alongside team members who already know each other. This is where video conferencing can help and why some companies encourage workers to hold social activities online after-work using Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Another change triggered by the pandemic is the shutting down of business travel. We now depend on video conferencing to liaise with overseas colleagues. The days of hopping on a plane to make a presentation halfway around the world are at an end. In my own world of journalism, most trade shows, product launches and interviews are now conducted by video. I haven’t had to travel this past year and it’s done wonders for my productivity and carbon footprint.

Eventually, though, the day will come when we return to a more blended way of working with some time will be spent at the office and the rest of our time working from home. How will we adapt to this more mixed way of working when we’re not in front of our personal webcams? This is a question Logitech thinks it has an answer to. The webcam and mouse manufacturer also makes high-end video conferencing equipment. It’s teamed up with Zoom, the developer of one of the most popular video conferencing software being used this past year, to shake up the market.

Both companies have collaborated to develop a new style of video conferencing. They’ve realized that when we return to our offices, we’re going to be using video much more because we’ve become so used to using it at home. We find it a much better way of communicating than a voice call.

Because we’re now used to making webchats in solo mode instead of being grouped around a conference table, it’s clear our approach to video conferencing will have to change in the office. In the past, big corporations had video conferencing rooms filled with expensive equipment and reserved for the senior management. Now we’re all used to being able to see as well as hear the people we’re calling.

The old exclusive way of video conferencing has its origins in the days of expensive 128kbps ISDN lines and costly international calls. In the past, the video conference room was too expensive for just anyone to use and was largely reserved for senior management. Now the coronavirus has democratized the whole process and that change must be embraced in the post-pandemic office.

To address this challenge, Logitech has been researching artificial intelligence for use in its video conferencing equipment. In future, video conferencing will be less boring and not limited to static and wide-angle views of a meeting room showing people sitting around a table. We’re now used to seeing people’s faces close up and we can register facial expressions and hear voices more clearly. The old style of video conferencing simply won’t cut it.

There also needs to be changes in the software we use for video conferencing. Zoom’s single-user mode needs to adapt to the office environment of teams. This is where Logitech and Zoom have been working together to create a new experience. Recently, I spoke with Scott Wharton, Logitech’s Vice President and General Manager for video conferencing, and Oded Gal, Chief Product Officer at Zoom. They explained how both companies see the professional end of the video conferencing market changing as we come out of the pandemic and some of us return to the office.

Scott Wharton explained: “It’s no longer good enough to see people sitting around a conference table in a static wide-angle shot. We need to see people’s faces and reactions. We need to see them close up and hear them clearly as well. That can be a challenge in a larger space.”

Zoom’s Oded Gal agreed. “The video conference room has to mirror the experience workers have had at home with Zoom calls.”

The companies collaborated on a new product portfolio of video equipment called Rally including the Rally Bar, Rally Mini and RoomMate. Each of the new products has been purpose-built to work with Zoom Rooms. Logitech’s native appliance integration for Zoom Rooms has been designed to enhance the user experience while still delivering enterprise-grade video and voice quality, as well as the robust security that companies demand.

The idea of the new portfolio of products is to harness AI to identify participants in a meeting if required and to zoom in on the face of the person talking so the experience feels more like using an individual webcam at home. Logitech has also been working on the sound side of things with microphones that can home in on a voice and ensures that someone at the back of the room is heard as clearly as someone sitting at the front. 

This is a major shift in how we communicate, a practise that has been stuck for so long in a static group-shot mode. The new Rally products can blend two images on one screen to add context to a video call. Wharton says: “It’s a bit like having your own TV studio director in the conference room, adjusting the framing shots while altering sound levels dynamically to create a less static and a more enjoyable meeting.”

The new products offer video resolutions up to 4K and the cameras have motorized pan-and-tilt heads, as well as optical zoom lenses, enabling crisp images and perfect framing. The lens on the Rally Bar has a 5x optical zoom that can be extended to 15x digital for larger spaces. 

Both video bars also feature ultra-low distortion speakers that can fill a room with sound while an adaptive beamforming mic array picks up voices for much clearer audio quality. The microphone array can focus on the active speaker and auto-adjust for louder and softer voices while suppressing any unwanted background noise in a room such as HVAC or any other persistent sounds. Logitech has also included a patented anti-vibration suspension system so speaker vibrations are minimized from being carried through walls, stands or tables.

The new video bars are equipped with Logitech RightSense technology and an AI Viewfinder. This viewfinder works like a second camera but is purely dedicated to computer vision for detecting human figures and can process and track where faces are in the room in real-time. This AI technique enhances the precision of the auto-framing feature and the camera control. Participants are always in focus, whether they are late joining the meeting or moving about while making a presentation.

Logitech has worked closely with Zoom and Microsoft to ensure that the software and hardware work seamlessly together. The company has also developed RoomMate, a dedicated Android computer designed solely to work with the Rally Bar and Rally Bar Mini vas well as USB conferencing cameras such as Logitech’s older Rally Plus, turning them into an appliance. Alternatively, users can bring their own Mac or PCs to a meeting and plug that into the video bar. 

It’s interesting to see Logitech partnering with big names in video conferencing software space to improve people’s experience by tying in the hardware more tightly. The use of hardware and AI can anticipate shots and framing as well as adjusting sound levels for a more enjoyable and productive meeting experience.

However, the tech doesn’t just address the audio and visual side of things. Both Wharton and Gal say facial recognition could eventually be developed to count the participants in a meeting room and then post a notice to an active display screen outside the room indicating if the meeting room is full or being used. Extra participants could be directed to another meeting room where they can join in with the conference. This could be a game-changing feature in an era of social distancing.

Facial recognition also has downsides and both Wharton and Gal were at pains to point out that privacy is at the forefront of their minds and something both companies are determined to protect. My suggestion that facial recognition could be used to conduct a register of attendees or send a reminder to anyone who is late for the meeting was noted but not endorsed. That, they said, would have to be a decision for the company’s employing the technology and the employees who are using it.

It was fascinating to get a brief glimpse into the future of video conferencing from these two giants in the field. It looks like AI could change the way we use video conferencing when we get back to our workplaces. The hardware is ready and waiting in the form of the Logitech Rally Bar, Rally Bar Mini and RoomMate. The software integration with Zoom is also ready and waiting to go. Now, all we need is to get our vaccinations and wait for the call to return to the office.

Pricing and Availability: Logitech Rally Bar is the first from the next generation appliance portfolio that will be broadly available at the end of this quarter. Rally Bar also comes with built-in support for Microsoft Teams Rooms on Android and Zoom Rooms Appliances, with Zoom available immediately. Rally Bar Mini and Logitech RoomMate availability will follow. Pricing for Rally Bar starts at $3,999; Rally Bar Mini starts at $2,999; and Logitech RoomMate starts at $999. Logitech’s portfolio will also work with GoTo, Pexip and RingCentral. 

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