Life certainly feels limited this year, but if you have access to a smart phone or laptop with a working camera and microphone, it's incredible how much you can still see, hear and communicate. Since the pandemic struck, articles have bamboozled social media explaining why virtual meetings aren't as good for your health as the real thing. (Zoom fatigue is real; with video conferencing you can't read body language/make eye contact, etc.) However, these video conferences, calls, meetings and messages do make the best of a bad situation.
In the age of COVID-19, virtual contact is often the safest and easiest option.
Three academics at the University of Newcastle have been investigating what it takes to be fully present while experiencing virtual meetings and calls. Dr Benjamin Matthews, Dr Zi Siang See and Dr Jamin Day are researching extended reality (real and virtually combined environments) at the University of Newcastle. They are interested in virtual reality, augmented reality and simulated reality. Virtual reality, arguably the most popular, is typically a computer-generated simulation of a 3D environment. People interact with it using electronic equipment like a headset or hand controllers.
"We're saying it's likely that some of the changes in our patterns of communications created by the lockdown experience are likely to persist and have a lingering impact on our practices. It's really important to think about what the implications are of remote presence or having a social presence in another location through digital means," Matthews says. "We're interested if extended-reality-based communication tools can help us have a stronger sense of remote presence."
Some of the changes in our patterns of communications created by the lockdown experience are likely to persist and have a lingering impact on our practices.Dr Ben Matthews
Most digital gatherings and communications with colleagues and friends aren't yet available in fully virtual or augmented reality forms, but platforms and applications are available that allow you to communicate in new ways. They may not be as immersive as virtual reality, but they do allow us to do things our grandparents could never imagine.
Here are some of the most popular apps in use:
A Zoom meeting takes place through the screen of your device. Typically you can see yourself and other attendees on the screen, although anyone in the meeting can mute themselves or keep their screen hidden. Zoom is the go-to app for many businesses for virtual meetings. It's free if you want to have a meeting for less 40 minutes, and up to 100 people can participate. You can have unlimited one-on-one meetings, and you don't need an account to join a Zoom meeting if someone else invited you. People on landlines can join in as well. (Tip: Depending on your device you can put your meeting on "gallery view" and see up to 49 of your participants at once.)
Google Meet and Chat
If you and your friend both have Gmail, you can video chat with them at any time via any device. Millennials might remember G-chatting away in 2009 throughout the work day, although its official title was Google Talk. Google Talk became Google Hangouts, and evolved into a combination of Google Meet and Google Chat in April 2020. Following Google's chat path is quite the journey, but anyone with a Google account can utilise Google Meet and create a video meeting, invite up to 100 participants and meet for up to 60 minutes for free.
Skype is similar to Zoom - you see and talk to others via a screen and there's a free version. Like Zoom, you can record and film calls. Skype has the option for live subtitles. The free Skype plan allows for calls of up to 50 people. For a fee, Skype users can call landlines worldwide. Microsoft Team users and Skype users can chat with each other interchangeably. (Tip: Turn on "background blur" if you have a messy workspace!)
Microsoft Teams also offers video meetings, but it all seems a bit more office-y with workplace chat, file storage and more. Most people who subscribe to Office 365 (a cloud subscription service with Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook) should have access to Microsoft Teams.
Slack is an email replacement collaboration hub. It is probably more known for accommodating written communication. It is made up of different channels in which people communicate often by written messages. Channels can be private or shared and are made up of teams, projects, office locations or whatever else you want to include. You can do voice or video calls and screen shares as well. The free version gives you access to their basic features.
WhatsApp is also primarily used for messaging. It started as an alternative to SMS and now supports sending and receiving a variety of media: texts, photos, videos, documents, locations as well as voice calls. It's primarily for mobile, but you can link it to other devices. They promote their security feature with end-to-end encryption, but in May of 2019 WhatsApp users experienced a major security breach.
Tip: WhatsApp also lets you send voice messages of any length.
Facebook and Instagram are social media platforms you can access on any device, although Instagram is more commonly used on mobile. Instagram is primarily made up of users sharing photos and videos, and Facebook allows you to share articles and create events, groups, photo albums and more. Both have video calls available with easy-to-find fun backgrounds and facial filter buttons. Another social aspect is that you can immediately add the other user to your video call, and Facebook lets you play games while you video chat. Instagram allows you to livestream a conversation while followers look on and react with emojis and hearts. Instagram and Facebook users can only record voice messages for up to a minute.
These tools represent so much more than a new way to call your boss or best friend. For example, musicians and singers simultaneously perform live, and journalists conduct interviews while the world watches. In other instances, a Malaysian man was sentenced to death via Zoom in Singapore, and people now regularly say final goodbyes to loved ones via screens and even have Zoom funerals.
For some, these ways to communicate might seem daunting, and for others, like Matthews and his colleagues, these communication tools are nothing compared to what lies ahead.
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