Microsoft Teams and Zoom have a new challenger (This one's, oh, take a look)

An "awful" Zoom birthday party has led to this, allegedly the most natural and human video conference platform you've ever seen.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Feel that social psychology?


It's "natural." It's "fun." It's "engaging."

Sadly, we're talking about a new video conferencing service rather than, say, a human activity we can actually look forward to.

But wait, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, this one's different. It's a "social-first video platform." And who am I to deny this delightful turn of advertising phrase?

Welcome, then, to Toucan, a, um, SFVP that launches to the public next week. 

I can hear you sigh, yawn and struggle with one or two dangerous feelings. Why, we've already been through the launch of the gloriously named Vowel, which promised it would make video chatting more like Slack.

This made a lot of jaws go slack, before some of those jaws helped to utter phrases like "disemvowelment."

Play with me, though. Let's see what's different about Toucan. Well, its creators claim it's "the social-first video platform designed to mimic human interactions."

You mean it lets you surreptitiously snarl at co-workers you don't like? It lets your innate passive-aggressiveness sparkle?

Oh, stop. This thing is seriously natural, fun, and engaging. It has "social psychology embedded into the product's functionality."

Toucan's representatives tell me "users can participate in the central discussion, or create and move between discussion groups, all while keeping track of what's happening around them."

I watched the company's video to get a sense of what this might be like. "With Toucan, you can host the company Happy Hour online," says the naturally corporate voiceover. "It's just like the real thing."

I see people chatting in small and large groups. I see them walking around the space. And then, the killer feature: You can wave to someone you know. With, it seems, a little yellow hand.

It's understandable why more and more companies are trying to create their own video conferencing services. The market is now enormous. The possibilities seem endless, even if the incumbents seem quite well set.

Toucan seems to be geared more to events, rather than dull old meetings. Its creators claim it can accommodate 250 people at any given time. Yet wouldn't you like to wave to someone you know in your regular Monday check-in meeting? Wouldn't it be bracing to chat to just a couple of your friends in a meeting, while the meeting is happening?

The company says it's worked with social psychologist Dr. Bill von Hippel, who complains about Zoom: "How would you find someone you want to talk to and strike up a conversation if you join a Zoom meeting and there are a ton of rectangles on the screen?"

Rectangles aren't friendly, it seems. von Hippel added: "It's doable, but it requires a fair bit of nerve if you're trying to talk to someone you haven't met or barely know." 

Yes, I can see that's a problem. I tend to stand in the corner with a drink and if no one talks to me, I go away.

How is it different on Toucan? "You can enter an event and meander through the space freely until you find a small group that has someone in it you already know," explained von Hippel. "You can then pop into the group and say hello to your friend, which allows you to meet new people much as you would in ideal circumstances in the real world -- by being introduced by friends."

It does seem like naturally engaging fun, doesn't it? And it all apparently came about when the founders, Ethan and Antonia Hellman, experienced what they call "an awful Zoom birthday party."

I do worry, though, that this thing has a so-called Presenter Mode. Of course, it's well-intentioned. It allows you to make a toast, for example.

However, the company says: "By clicking the orange 'Present' button at the bottom of your screen, you can speak directly to everybody in the event space. Regardless of the groups they're in, every attendee will see your video and hear your audio."

I fear the shouty people may dominate, don't you? Especially if they've had a drink.

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