Meet Me at the Virtual Water Cooler
For example, in a pre-pandemic office, you run into co-workers and have unrestrained conversations throughout the day – about your pets, your boss, whatever project you were in the middle of. Information will be disseminated, ideas will be exchanged, additional meetings will be scheduled. But on the zoom, moving from one meeting to another means which button to click. There is no buffer for serdipidity and there are fewer opportunities for bonding. Before the epidemic the sales representative dropped in to meet with a customer had to walk through the office and say hi to everyone. The next time a customer needs to buy new customer-relationship-management software, he cannot remember which product has the most security features, but he will remember that an attractive sales representative who went to his alma mater . Now people in sales have to showcase a product on Zoom. Because they have to share their screen, they are not able to take full advantage of their charisma or poetry. The best they can do is to cultivate a relationship, post-sales pitch, send a follow-up email. Maybe a meme.
Before the epidemic, if you were a senior engineer or academic, you could attend a few conferences a year with others in your field. You will wander around the various company booths, pick a giveaway with some logos, get a quick summary of the latest technology or paper at dinner and finally tackle some holiday days. An epistemic convention, by contrast, is a series of 300-person zoom calls in which only one person can ever speak.
It is a testament to the particularity of Silicon Valley that many start-ups dedicated to combating home boundaries have mushroomed over the past year with such work. Hopin, which was established in 2019, gained traction due to thousands of academic and corporate conferences going online; Customers have included United Nations and TechCrunch Discharge. Compared to Zoom or Gather.town, Hoppin requires more preparation and setup: customers have to design their virtual venue by deciding on everything from color schemes and logos to sponsors and schedules. “The example I want to give is to rent a large building for an event,” says Hopin founder and CEO Johnny Bufarhat. “The office floor probably has a living room, which is videoconferencing platforms,” like Zoom. “But then downstairs, on the ground floor of the building, is usually a big venue, and the venue can be turned into whatever you want – maybe you’re hosting a recruiting night; Maybe we’ll see a conference; Maybe you are hosting a meeting. “
Each event begins on the Hopin profile page. The “Enter” button takes you to the virtual-conference home page. On the right, there is a mobile group chat. To the left, there is a banner for the conference and a list of all live speaker sessions. Clicking on one of them takes you to a zoom-like room. Within that room, the audience can vote on questions to put on the speaker. You can also search through an extensive list of conference attendees and invite any of them to a personal video chat.
While Hoppin’s focus is on efficiency, there are other start-ups who seek more actively to recreate workplace chance encounters. Virtual offices created by Teamflow and Branch come with individual desks, common areas, and private conference rooms. On Teamflow, your video appears as a bubble on a virtual office plan, which you can walk into the office by typing on your keyboard. When you want to check up on colleagues, you just “walk” to them. When you are going to your next meeting, you can “bump” into someone.
Much of this blooming inspiration of spatial meeting platforms comes from video games. Yang Mou, the chief executive of Kumospace, was a competitive Starcraft player in college and once the lockdown began, he wondered why it was that he was playing online for hours and hours with his friends and didn’t want to stop, Zoom meetings only relied on fatigue. In creating Kumospace, he was particularly influenced by massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft. “One of the fun is that this is a fantastic room,” he says. “You play games, you run out of stuff to do and then you’re really just walking around with friends.” “It’s like going to the mall,” he says.