Can smart cameras make return to office efforts less awkward?

It was supposed to be better than this.

The long-awaited return to office was expected to lead to a rush of excitement as employees reconnected with colleagues, met numerous not-so-new hires in person for the first time, and generally got back to the business of interacting with co-workers in real life.

The reality, however, has been different for many workers. Ironically, it’s been more of the same experience that they’ve had while working from home for two-plus years: sitting on their computers doing Zoom, Teams, and Webex calls, often by themselves.

So, what happened?

Part of the issue, clearly, is that ingrained habits have been formed during the pandemic, and it’s a bit harder to break out of them than many initially thought it would be. The bigger issue, however, is that companies aren’t really prepared to handle the realities of hybrid work.

As I discussed more than nine months ago, it’s a bigger problem than many first imagined.

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Some of it has to do with the fact that partial returns to the office can create more scheduling problems than usual, because it may not be abundantly clear which people are in on a given day (and, if there’s hot desking involved, where they might being seated). Tools like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365/Office 365 are being updated to address these realities, but not all companies have deployed the latest editions.

Another big problem is that most companies still don’t have enough meeting rooms to encourage more interactions, and the ones they do have likely haven’t been updated with recent videoconferencing hardware. That makes setting up and running a meeting with even just one participant harder to do in the office than it is at home, which leads to, well, recreating the home experience at the office.

Plus, even if you can get everyone connected, you’re likely to run into the awkward scenario of having multiple people in a room and multiple remote participants on the same call.

While that might sound OK in theory, the reality of that type of meeting for most is generally pretty terrible. In fact, it’s so bad, there are some people who’ve started to claim that hybrid work is a pipe dream that will never really work if your job requires regular interactions with a number of people.

The issue ultimately boils down to figuring out how camera technologies and videoconferencing platforms can accurately capture and recreate (or even improve) the one-in-a-box experience that most of us became quite accustomed to during the pandemic.

Thankfully, progress is being made on this front – though there’s still a lot of work to go.

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The key will be what a few companies have started to call smart cameras. These are video cameras that have intelligence built into them and automatically adjust how they focus and on whom based on the environment. Traditional videoconferencing companies like Poly, which HP recently announced it intends to purchase, have offered products with some of these capabilities (such as the Poly Studio P and X lines) for well over a year now.

In addition, both Apple and Microsoft have started talking about the concept of smart cameras embedded in monitors and videoconferencing hardware.

In Apple’s case, the company highlighted some of the smart camera capabilities in its new Studio Display monitor. This high-end display includes the equivalent horsepower of an iPhone 11 to power features such as the ability to follow an individual around the room.

Microsoft made a splash a few weeks back with the debut of its Surface Hub 2 Smart Camera, which adds new capabilities to its 55” and 80” smart conference room devices. Specifically, the new camera offers a number of capabilities to automatically shift the focus and reframe the image depending on who in the room is speaking and/or moving. (This new camera will also replace the original videocamera that shipped with Surface Hubs and will eventually become the standard option on Surface Hub 2s). As with the Poly and Apple products, Microsoft is using AI to do the real-time video adjustments.

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What’s interesting about these capabilities is that they imbue something akin to a director’s style to each camera. In other words, the manner with which the smart cameras on these different devices zoom, cut, and perform other motions creates an interesting pattern that, once you recognize it, is a unique characteristic of the device. As companies further develop the algorithms behind these “styles,” they will undoubtedly change and improve in an effort to be more effective at overcoming the challenges of mixing remote and local meeting participants. Ultimately, though, they are a very interesting example of a software-based differentiator for camera hardware.

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Workers in a co-working space.

As important as these developments in smart cameras may be, however, what no one has yet to crack is the ability to create multiple individual images of each person in the room from a single camera feed. Companies like Zoom and Cisco (who makes Webex) have demonstrated some early prototypes of this critical capability, but no one has yet to deliver a shipping version.

This is absolutely essential, because while improving the static image coming from a single camera in a conference room can help to some degree, what’s really needed is multi-lens cameras and additional software refinements that can generate multiple high-quality video streams of individual meeting participants. Based on conversations with a number of vendors, important progress is being made here, but it will likely still be a while before we see commercial products.

In the meantime, here’s hoping that industry standards can be developed that would allow multiple low-cost cameras placed in a room to function together as a system and generate the kinds of individual video streams we’ve all gotten used to. Similarly, as we’ve started to see with the collaborations between Webex and Google’s Meet platform, it would be great to see more interoperability efforts across the various videoconferencing/collaboration tools, particularly with regard to the sharing of these multiple video streams.

Achieving high-quality hybrid work methods that can truly incorporate the best of remote and in-person employees is a very challenging task. Given the likelihood of hybrid work environments existing for many years to come, however, it’s going to be incredibly important to make the effort.

Smart cameras won’t be able to solve all the challenges, but they certainly look to be an important first step in the right direction.

USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Amazon, Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.