As remote working booms around the world in response to the coronavirus crisis, demand for video calls has surged dramatically.
But despite the fact that video meeting software is now more reliable and user-friendly than ever, setting up and joining a video call can still feel intrusive and somewhat of a chore.
Typically it requires workers to divert their full attention to a discussion with one or more colleagues, with the video chat client taking over their entire computer screen. While this makes sense for important meetings, it also sets a higher bar for more casual interactions and makes it more difficult to take notes or otherwise share focus between the video chat and other apps.
This week, a start-up called Around unveiled its video chat software, which features a less invasive interface and could offer way to enable “always-on” video for remote workers.
As noted by TechCrunch, Around — currently in private beta — is a lightweight group video call platform that has raised $5.2 million in seed funding to date. Rather than taking up the entire screen, it automatically crops video streams of workers into “floating head” circles that are grouped together as an overlay that leaves most of the screen visible.
Around uses AI-based camera framing to detect a participant’s head, following them as they move while simultaneously cutting out their background. It also automatically mutes background noises to avoid further unwanted distractions. The app will eventually be sold under a freemium licensing model when it launches; you can apply for early access here.
In a blog post on Medium on Wednesday, Around CEO Dominik Zane said that the app lets users focus on getting work done by allowing them to collaborate around tasks as the focal point of discussions.
“[W]e took video and made it less,” he wrote. “Less traditional, less formal, less bulky, even less realistic. Less about blowing up people’s faces on a 70-inch HDTV, more about focusing and doing. Around is there for a quick session to supercharge all future-of-work applications. It’s just enough to be present but makes space for what’s important: the task at hand.”
While Around is not specifically billed as an “always-on” video platform, it has potential for pervasive low-level interactions, with continuous video feeds connecting colleagues throughout the day.
The concept of always-on video has been around for a while, with businesses seeking to connect workers in different locations and enable them to engage in impromptu conversations. Sneek is another example; it lets users easily start a video call with a co-worker by clicking on a regularly updated “still” photo, thereby avoiding constant recording and broadcasting.
Always-on video could help alleviate some of the challenges remote workers face, such as disengagement from co-workers and company-wide initiatives, said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, an analyst at 451 Research.
“Implementing ‘always-on’ video meetings could help organisations address this problem, bridging the communication gap for remote teams or teams that include a mix of remote and in-office workers."
There are drawbacks with always-on video, to be sure. Aside from potential resistance from users to a constant video uplink, there are technical and security considerations. As the number of remote workers surges, for example, greater strain is put on internet bandwidth.
“It will require addressing technical issues to ensure that bandwidth is not a constraint for delivering the service; it will also require security features such as an automatic screen saver that kicks in when users are not active, for privacy and security,” said Castañón-Martínez.
For more details on the network bandwidth issues that could accompany always-on video, see Network World’s “Coronavirus challenges remote networking.”