These days Zoom requires no introduction. The video collaboration platform has become nothing short of ubiquitous over the last two years, as much of the world has come to rely on it for work, school, social life, doctor’s appointments, and everything in between. The company admittedly was not ready for prime time when it rocketed from its relatively unknown status to a household name practically overnight. Despite some initial privacy stumbles, I’ve been impressed at how quickly it managed to right the ship, scale up its capacity and remain, relatively unchallenged, as perhaps the most popular platform of its kind throughout the Covid pandemic. Furthermore, it’s grown its capabilities significantly through its organic innovations. I recently got the chance to partake in a virtual walkthrough of the second floor of one of Zoom’s buildings in San Jose, showcasing the last six to eight months of the company’s newest solutions and capabilities. While light on breaking news, the engaging briefing offered a helpful glimpse into Zoom’s vision of the future of hybrid work. Here are a few of my takeaways.
Zoom Rooms Account Executive John Stearns kicked the tour off, making sure to note that the second floor was not a staged showroom for the company—it’s an actual workspace (albeit an empty one now, as Zoom employees are still not back in the office). Instead of being greeted by a receptionist, Stearns led the camera to check in with one of Zoom’s Virtual Kiosks. These kiosks, said Stearns, run a modified version of the company’s Zoom Room software, with the ability to customize logos, background images and messaging to fit your company brand. While Zoom designed the kiosk for virtual reception use cases, Stearns shared that its enterprise customers have begun using them as IT support kiosks. Taking it a step further, Stearns pointed out that it’s not hard to imagine them finding a home in banking or retail settings. The kiosk showcased on the tour ran on a DTEN ME 27” all-in-one capacitive touch screen, though they’re available on several different hardware options.
Scheduling and conference rooms
As Stearns approached a Zoom conferencing room, he lingered outside to point out the Neat Pads mounted by each conference room door. Zoom’s room scheduling software allows employees to use these devices to reserve time slots, check room availability using a map of the floor plan and more. One ingenious feature is the Neat Pad’s side LED bar, which illuminates either green to indicate an open room or red if occupied. This intuitive feature enables employees to locate empty rooms with just a glance down the hall instead of peer into each one individually.
Entering the conference room, Stearns showed off the new Logi Rally Bar, an all-in-one soundbar designed for large conference rooms. Zoom and its hardware partners have extended their conferencing appliance portfolio beyond the small-to-medium huddle rooms to support these larger spaces. Such devices include other Logi Rally Plus appliances, the Poly Studio X70, E70 Dual Camera and G7500 systems and the Neat Bar Pro.
Stearns demonstrated how to pair and identically replicate the Room Controller experience on a personal device for anyone who may be uncomfortable using a touch screen in a common area during a global pandemic, flu season, etc.
Next, Stearns entered another smaller room, or “huddle space” meant to accommodate 4-5 meeting participants. Instead of the Zoom Room Controller on the table in the larger conference room, this room featured an all-in-one interactive whiteboard, the DTEN D7, which includes a built-in microphone, speakers and a camera capacitive touchscreen (available in 55” or 75” editions). Stearns also demonstrated how users could join meetings on this device via voice command and explained that Zoom had integrated Zoom Phone into all its Zoom Room devices, eliminating the need for additional dongles, cables, adapters, etc. that clutter traditional meeting spaces.
Enabling informal collaboration spaces
The camera followed Stearns into a large, open space to show how its technology partners are adapting to the demand for more informal collaboration spaces. This trend was emerging even before the pandemic. Within the space were several couches, comfy chairs and a few workstations off to the side. Stearns demonstrated how new technology from Poly and Neat could sonically cordon the areas off from each other using acoustic “fencing” technology. He pointed out that this capability could also come in handy in places like New York City, where street noise often bleeds into nearby office buildings.
Zoom Smart Gallery
Last on his part of the tour, Stearns took us into a medium-sized conference room to demonstrate Zoom’s Smart Gallery experience. When many businesses were working 100% remotely, gallery view (known by different names depending on platform) allowed everyone to see each other equally, regardless of location and who had the floor. Since many businesses are returning to the office in varying capacities, meetings will often feature both in-person and remote attendees. Remote attendees, with their dedicated video stream, are displayed prominently. Still, for those dialing into the conference room video feed, it can be challenging to pick out individual facial expressions and other nuances of communication.
Using a Neat Bar with a single camera system, Zoom Smart Gallery can send multiple individual video feeds from the same room, in effect replicating the gallery view of a fully remote Zoom meeting. The Neat Bar performs all its computing on-device and contains an integrated microphone array, speakers and camera system. Because of this, according to Stearns, setup takes just a matter of minutes, requiring only power, Ethernet, and HDMI cables to connect to the display (s). It doesn’t get a lot simpler than that. Stearns also pointed out that while this concept of immersive telepresence is not new, it required multiple cameras, multiple screens and multiple codecs—a system that could cost up to $300,000 a room. With Zoom Smart Gallery, the Neat Bar comes in at just under $3,000, a much more realistic option for most businesses.
Zooming in on the company roadmap
To wrap up the event, Stearns transferred the spotlight over to Jeff Smith, head of Zoom Rooms, to tell us about some upcoming releases and the product’s roadmap moving forward. Smith previewed the new Zoom Whiteboard, being careful to note that this is not the same as the company’s original product of the same name. The new Whiteboard, now in Beta, seeks to provide “a virtual space for hybrid teams to share ideas and plan their work.” It functions across the Zoom platform, whether users are in an in-person, hybrid or fully remote.
Smith also highlighted Whiteboard capabilities such as “Infinite Canvas,” which allows users to keep zooming out and expanding to accommodate any design, regardless of how big. Additionally, it’s a persistent solution, meaning users can pull it back up to revisit after the fact or present the product of a brainstorming session at a formal meeting.
Users can also use the Whiteboard to:
· In virtual Sticky Notes anywhere on the board
· Start diagrams, with automatic shape recognition and connection
· Drag and drop images with ease
· Share with anyone who has an account with Zoom
Some may still dream of a day when offices “return” to normal. In reality, the future will look a lot more like what Zoom is preparing for: some people in the office, some people at home, some working from the coffee shop, and everyone likely moving back and forth between these locales. The hybrid work environment was picking up steam before the pandemic hit, though that, of course, turbocharged the changes. Most businesses realize there’s no pulling back from this reality now that it’s here, and they need to be able to outfit their workforce with the technology, software and other tools they need to succeed in this new world. Having attended some early video meetings where the “office-end” was just a room full of people I couldn’t see, I am quite confident that businesses will have to retool their offices.
From Zoom Smart Gallery to the new Zoom Whiteboard, the company and its hardware partners deliver innovative solutions to make hybrid teams more productive—likely even more so than when everyone was working and collaborating in the same building. Is that not the end goal of the hybrid revolution? Zoom certainly has its share of competitors in the collaboration space, with highly entrenched players such as Microsoft Teams still ruling the roost. However, I believe the company’s considerable pandemic headwinds give it a shot at vaulting to the top tier of the pack. I’ll be watching closely.