Zoom is not good enough (Ricky Weekly #36)

This is where I share 3 things every week with my friends and anyone else interested.

A picture from my life:

My friends David and Shane celebrated their birthdays on Friday. We all sent different kinds of foods to David via delivery and did a quick Zoom to sing happy birthday. Shane celebrated his by reading “mean Tweets” from his friends.

Thing on my mind:

After almost two weeks of social distancing, I’m even more appreciative of Zoom. I’m also delighted to see how creative people are getting to make our days a bit more tolerable. Snapchat is seeing the most downloads, Houseparty is experiencing a resurgence, friends are making up art, fitness and dance challenges on Instagram, experimenting with all kinds of events on Zoom, or just calling each other randomly.

The problem is that we are only temporarily getting to re-live our teenage lives—trapped at home, bored, and wanting to hang out with our friends. As soon as life goes back to normal and we get back to our old busy and stressful routines, will we still think about our friends as much? Will we be able to call them spontaneously?

I’ve been thinking about the idea of “availability,” like when we used AOL Instant Messenger and being “online” meant something. Social products are usually designed with a younger audience in mind so you can assume they are time-rich and available. For the rest of us, the default is time-poor, unavailable, introverted, and “let me look at my calendar.” The reason why my friends are downloading Houseparty now when they never bothered to before is because previously the idea of showing friends we are “available to hang” did not seem practical, and no one had time to spontaneously get into a video chat that could easily last for an hour. This special moment when we’re all available won’t last, so take advantage!

Another thing I've been thinking about is the limitations of video chat itself. Video chat is a relatively neutral utility like a phone call is a neutral utility. Unlike phone calls though, usable video chat (Zoom) or easy video chat (FaceTime) are relatively new and we don’t have a lot of experience or established norms around them, so it often feels like we’re fumbling around. Can some people dial-in audio-only while others are on video? Can someone join while driving or walking or doing chores while others are focused? The mismatch of expectations here can really affect the experience. One person doing chores while the others are focused could ruin the feeling of connectedness for everyone.

And what happens when video chats go beyond just a handful of people? When the group gets large, we end up muting ourselves or resort to text chat while we take turns speaking because otherwise it’s impossible to hear. More structured interactions like games and performances help, but they feel too stilted and the social interaction feels more like sitting in a circle with a facilitator than a natural group interaction. That’s probably why people think video chat would never be as good as real life but I feel like there’s way more products can do. Zoom was designed for work, and their big group features are designed for conferences. What if you were to design it for the more casual use cases?

And then there’s what I’m now calling the “eye contact problem.” If you can’t make eye contact with someone, you just wouldn’t feel as connected. I’m sure all the video dating experiments or salespeople looking to make sales over Zoom have way more trouble getting people to make emotional decisions without the ability to make eye contact. Eye contact is just one element, same can be said about feeling the other person’s warmth, scent, touch, etc. It’s also about the environmental variables. The temperature of the room, the sound of other people talking in the cafe, the sharing of a table, etc. Those things make us feel together and connected and video dis-intermediates all that. Some people think the answer is VR, but probably not.

I don’t think enough energy has been poured into solving these problems and I hope this experience will help us realize that. Because of the hype around “remote” work, some resources have been poured into the work / professional version of these problems, but not much in the consumer / social realm and that sucks.

Some ideas...

If you can't make eye contact, what if you were to train an AI model to recognize high fives and acknowledge it in a satisfying way during a video chat. That could give us a feeling of extra synchrony, kind of like when you “jinx” and say the same thing at the same time. TikTok already has a few filters that recognize hand gestures.

What if you can actually embed the camera in the center of screen instead of above it? This way you can actually make eye contact. Device makers are experimenting with “under-display” cameras.

What if you can stare naturally at the video chat box, but the AI will “redirect” your gaze to make it seem like you are making eye contact? A research lab funded by Samsung is doing this and you should def watch this demo:

Piece of content I recommend:

I recommend two this week.

Coronavirus: Life inside China’s lockdown by BBC News

Coronavirus: From 93 infected to 0, what did this Chinese City do to contain the virus? by Takeuchi Ryo

The first video is made by two filmmakers who documented their days in Wuhan since the outbreak. Second video is about the impressive things that helped the city of Nanjing contain the virus.

As always, you can find out what I’m thinking in more real-time on Twitter and my essays are on my website. My latest essay is called From Socialcam to TikTok: How we figured out video social in a decade