Building virtual bridges

We have all had to quickly find new ways to connect, collaborate and share experiences across different locations under COVID 19. Our current solutions are limited to today’s tools built for remote communication, with the likes of Zoom and Google’s G Suite of apps, which we have been using and re-appropriating in an attempt to build virtual bridges across different locations for various needs. We’re in a phase of prototyping and user testing solutions at a global scale – and we’re rapidly discovering these existing tools are not fit for purpose.

The ‘boom of zoom’ has helped to connect friends, families, teams, classrooms and customers. But we need more. We need better ways to connect with one another. We have the opportunity to design and build virtual settings that can augment a range of previously ‘in person’ experiences in the future, as the world looks set to change.

A key to creating the right solution lies in the way we design these virtual settings — new tools require new approaches. ‘Traditional’ digital product design won’t cut it. We need to take a hybrid approach that recognizes physical and digital worlds are no longer separated. We should be designing for spaces, not screens. By drawing from a blend of practices from interior architecture, interaction, gaming, sound and digital product design, we can design for human behaviors and needs in physical and digital spaces.

We’ve seen glimpses of how today’s tools can meet human interactions in the physical world with recent updates from Meet and Zoom. In April, Google Meet matched Zooms ‘grid’ view – a feature that nudges a classic video call closer to an experience of sitting in a room full of people who can more easily communicate as a collective. Zoom’s much-loved backgrounds enable users to create their own (virtual) setting, changing the space they are seen in. Who doesn’t enjoy transporting themselves to a different scene in Zoom? It’s often the only glimmer of joy in headache-inducing conference calls.

But we need change beyond updated features in existing tools. We need to build new tools to create virtual settings that augment ‘in person’ experiences. By focusing on spaces, instead of screens, we can begin to radically rethink new environments to meet our needs. Imagine calm, open deserts for meetings that require focus; planning or policy meetings overlooking cityscapes or even the globe; abstract spaces with form, color and motion that represent our identity or how we feel. I’m not suggesting this all relies on us grabbing VR headsets and permanently moving into a new virtual world — a sense of space can be created by audio alone.

It’s less about replicating physical spaces, but instead designing for natural human experiences and exchanges elicited by different physical spaces — creating virtual settings that help us talk, discover, draw, debate, learn or plan together. Spaces that allow for serendipity and the nuances in human behavior, from chance water cooler conversations to planned conferences in an auditorium.

When we get this right, we can rethink the way we connect beyond the COVID pandemic, using these new tools to replace and improve some existing in-person experiences with significant benefits — reducing travel to improve the climate and give us time back, to provide new experiences that are more accessible and break silos to reach more diverse audiences.

Written by:

Dave Cameron is a Creative Director in Experimental Design at Moving Brands - a fast-moving design and innovation team helping the world’s biggest companies make leaps into the future. The Experimental Design team have recently designed and built of a range of tools to connect businesses and their customers separated by location.