By now, we all know how the power of the voice can influence and have a positive effect on virtual meetings, but what about the rest of your virtual experience? This is something that Alisaun Fukugaki, the co-founder of the Straylight collective, has pondered and solved. She takes us through the ins and outs of her most recent project, Tonari.no, a virtual communication technology platform set to change the future of virtual communication.
What is Tonari?
Tonari is a technological service, a wall-sized installation that allows you to see a life-sized image of the person you’re communicating with, and they’ll be able to speak to you eye-to-eye. A lot of work was put into the software layer so the lag with Tonari is imperceptible, making the flow of conversation you experience very natural.
In this age of global nomadism, it makes you wonder why the technology isn’t as good as it should be. Tonari aims to change all that and make the experience of conversation on their installation as close to real life as possible, while allowing people to be in two different locations.
Does Tonari’s 60fps increase the quality of interaction?
60fps (frames per second) is the movie industry standard, it’s really smooth, you don’t experience any jerkiness that comes with regular data transference, so it does feel more immediate and more real.
The feedback received with the first pilot is that the users have become more empathetic and understanding, and the interactions are much more rich and emotional. Managers have had a really positive response as they feel their team members are actually reacting to what they’re saying so there’s an improvement of communication skills in the workplace.
This life-sized scale of interaction provides a space for more of the other person’s environment to come into play, providing more context. One of the concerns regarding traditional virtual meetings is that you never know when you can interrupt the person on the other side, perhaps they’re really busy and it’s a bad time, but it’s really hard to get context. With Tonari, it’s very easy to tell, you don’t dial in, it’s always on.
What does Tonari mean by “always on”?
The screen is a physical permanent installation, the projector is also part of the installation, so there’s the hardware and software set-up, but the design of the room is also taken into consideration so it’s easy for people to pull up furniture into the space.
What hardware does a Tonari set-up consist of?
The different hardware components really come together as well as the loose furniture to add to the experience of making two spaces feel like one. Architects and designers make the spaces look as cohesive as possible, so the Tonari meeting spaces are more open and loosely designed leaving room to have your meetings the way you choose.
What business problems does Tonari solve?
Tonari’s mission is to:
- Build this frictionless communication platform, one that not just connects, but strengthens teams and communities.
Enable people to feel closer no matter where they are, and to create a world where opportunities like work and education can be accessed anywhere.
- Besides making it easier for teams to just work and ideate in virtual conferences, Tonari also aims to create the potential for great quality virtual learning to happen even in rural areas such as those in Japan.
- Limit the amount of aeroplane travel and reduce the amount of environmental damage as there’s a strong desire by many to connect more but not overburden the planet.
How’s the auditory experience with Tonari?
With visuals of 60fps and lag time of under 150 milliseconds, the next natural question would be, “What about the sound quality?” The installation is about 160cm across and the length is pretty much floor to ceiling, so what you see is limited to those dimensions, allowing you to fit in 2 to 3 people maximum.
Tonari is experimenting with adding more microphones and also examining the software layer in order to take out as much of the background noise as possible. The aim is to learn how much of the background noise to suppress and where to increase focus, such as the sounds of relevant voices. Pose detection is something that’s also being refined.
How would lighting affect the image?
At the moment, the positioning of Tonari still matters, there’s a lot that can be done in the software layer where colours and brightness can be amplified. A darker setting is better but then the person’s image also appears darker, so lighting is still tricky and this is one of the areas that Tonari is addressing.
How does Tonari plan to improve?
One of the more immediate things is the separate share screen where people can share presentations or take notes, make drawings and more. The share screen can also become a helpful tool for people who are in the midst of creating a prototype, or even for chefs and teachers.
This form of virtual teaching allow teachers to be more hands-on with children, allowing them to really zoom in and be creative in their virtual classroom. There’s a lot of frustration with the communication tools we have access to in the current space that we’re in. Integration with other virtual communication platforms is in the works, but which platform will be used is something yet to be determined.
What about Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality?
Using Ar or VR could be useful in the office setting as well as in the educational sphere. There have been suggestions regarding augmented reality such as adding hats or funny cartoons so kids can feel free to interact with one another. If people don’t know each other that well across communities or offices, it could be helpful to in the future be able to include individual’s names so they pop up above their heads, and you can then see who to call out to when you need to address them.
Who is Tonari’s ideal client?
The early adopter who decides to install Tonari would need to have a goal for what they want to install Tonari for. It really needs to solve a long-distance communication problem between their teams. They need to want to reduce travelling or have a system in place for times like the COVID 19 pandemic where you may not be able to travel.
The Future of Virtual Meetings
Tonari provides a natural setting for communication in a virtual world and is a way better solution for conducting virtual meetings and even conflict resolution in the workplace, or perhap pre-work workouts to get your team motivated.
Tonari is currently doing pilot programmes and is comprised of a small team, so they’re currently only conducting pilots with organisations in Japan, with their sights firmly set on growth into the rest of Asia. There are also plans for further expansion in the future, which means the future of virtual meetings is set to be very interesting indeed!