Microsoft Thinks It Should Be Easier to Interrupt People During Meetings, and It’s Awesome

If you’ve spent a lot of time in video meetings in the past two years, you might have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, they have made it possible to stay connected at a time when it was not possible to be together personally. During the pandemic, we covered everything from work to school, yoga classes and even family vacations in video calls.

Video calls, on the other hand, are still mostly bad.

Sure, they’re better off not being able to see and talk to each other, but they go a long way in reducing how much time almost anyone wants to spend. Even if you are in favor of working remotely (as I am), you have to admit that video calls are not a good alternative to being together in person.

In part, this is because people are not good at video calls. First, they’re tired. Second, they don’t really facilitate conversation unless you’re ruthless about keeping people busy (which might explain why they’re so tired). In the end, even after two years, most people either don’t understand how to look and look good on a video call, or they don’t care anymore.

But, this is also because the software will never be able to authentically recreate the experience of being together in person. Despite the efforts of tech companies, video calls aren’t much better than when someone first sent you a link to join their Zoom room.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. In fact, earlier this month Microsoft announced Two new features in Teams aim to address some of the ugliest things about trying to talk to someone via webcam and speaker.

First, the company is using some advanced artificial intelligence (AI) to better cancel out background noise. It includes Reverb and Room Echo, which makes you think you’re using a high-quality microphone, even if you’re not. It also improves your sound when you are not wearing headphones with microphone.

The second, far more interesting feature is designed to make it easier to interrupt people, which, when you think about it, is kind of fantastic. Here’s why:

Interruptions are a real thing, especially when people are in a room together. Before proceeding you may want to ask a question or clarify something someone has said. In real life, this is a natural part of having a conversation. Often, it doesn’t even feel like an interruption, just how we talk. Conversations naturally go back and forth between two people.

In video meetings, however, it is no good. Video meetings are fine when one person is presenting, and everyone else remains silent and only talks when they are sure the street is open. When someone else starts talking, everything falls apart.

Mostly, this is because video calls are not good at handling crosstalk, where two people are talking at the same time because the software is trying to intercept the feedback. If one person is talking on a video call, then the sound of his voice is coming out of the speaker of everyone else’s device. If one of those other participants starts talking, their microphone will catch both their voice as well as the sound coming out of the speaker, creating an echo and a feedback loop.

So, unless you’re talking, most video conferencing software essentially mutes your microphone. When you start talking, the software has to recognize your voice and do all the processing necessary to filter out any background sound. It usually results in a while before someone can hear you. During that time, part of the conversation cuts off, leading to the awkward “No, you move on.”

Microsoft, on the other hand, says that it is using artificial intelligence to eliminate echo and make it easier for multiple people to talk at the same time. Microsoft says it used an “AI model trained on 30,000 hours of speech samples to retain desired sounds while suppressing unwanted audio signals, resulting in more fluid dialogue.” Or, in other words, it’s making video conversations more natural and like real conversations.

It is a great thing. I’m not sure anyone really wants to spend more time on video calls, but I think we can all agree that whatever makes them better is a win-win for everyone.

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