Zooming in...and zoning out: Can AI help with video call fatigue? - Hindustan Times

Zooming in...and zoning out: Can AI help with video call fatigue?

Jun 07, 2024 10:03 PM IST

The memes are true: Virtual meetings are leading to boredom, fatigue, stress. AI now offers hacks: Summaries, transcription, better sound. Can tech bail us out?

It’s been four years since the world stalled without warning, and some things have never been the same.

There are simply too many meetings in our calendars: some that are endless, others without agenda and still more filled with tech glitches that have sparked a frenzy of memes. PREMIUM
There are simply too many meetings in our calendars: some that are endless, others without agenda and still more filled with tech glitches that have sparked a frenzy of memes.

Among those is the office meeting. Virtual meetings can be quite convenient. They can also feel endless. They can be both boring and overwhelming. There’s the long wait for everyone to appear; the anxiety of “Can everyone see my screen?”

There’s the e-meeting that should have been an email, the e-meet that should have been a text, the weekly pre-set meets that shouldn’t exist at all. Is there a way to do this right?

First, the problems

It is generally agreed that there are simply too many meetings in our calendars, since Zoom, Teams and the rest took off globally in 2020. There are items overlapping on crowded schedules; key people “dropping off” to rush off into another virtual conference room.

The background noise, breaks in connectivity and other technical glitches add to the strain, states a global study released by technology market research company Dimensional Research in 2022. The study featured participants at different seniority levels, in small, medium and large enterprises across Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and Australia-New Zealand.

Since the pandemic, the report adds, these annoyances have been magnified by the fact that most hybrid workers (60% of respondents) said they spend at least two hours per workday in video meetings.

Now, the impact

Amid the bustle and disruptions, two rather contradictory emotions have been linked to virtual meetings in study after study: Boredom and fatigue.

In a study titled Virtual Meeting Fatigue published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology in October, researchers at Finland’s Aalto University and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health tracked precisely how the human mind and body react, by monitoring heart rate during virtual meetings and during in-person meetings, by attaching monitors to 44 knowledge workers across 400 meetings.

They found signs of virtual-meeting fatigue, characterised by symptoms of exhaustion. And the researchers found that many experienced drowsiness, likely a result of mental “underload” and boredom.

“Studies suggest that (virtual-meeting) fatigue may result from increased cognitive demands, when individuals are required to pay constant attention to the screen, and be constantly presentable,” Niina Nurmi, assistant professor of organizational design and leadership at Aalto University, states in the study.

Meanwhile, when cameras are off, those participants not directly engaged experience a sense of boredom. Over time, they typically respond by multitasking, the study found.

While some level of stimulation is beneficial for the brain, as with in-person or camera-on meetings, this kind of “forced multitasking” during camera-off meetings can circle all the way back to stress and exhaustion.

The solution to the problem of “Zoom fatigue” is to encourage employees to meet in person, and limit the number of meetings they attend, the paper states. The in-person alternative offers flexible conversational flow and rich social and nonverbal cues that “may enable participants to stay engaged and more energetic”.

Could more technology help?

It is inevitable, at this point, to ask if artificial intelligence might offer effective ways out too. The answer, as with most things AI at the moment, is maybe.

Zoom’s AI Companion, rolled out late last year, summarises meetings in multiple languages, offers highlights for those who were napping, multitasking or simply had that experience of brain-freeze that seems universal at such events. (The AI Companion is available to paying users, with the 1,100 monthly Pro subscription.)

For basic issues of quality of experience across platforms, Google is looking to its new Gemini AI models to reduce ambient noise, increase sharpness of sound and picture, and moderate lighting during Meet calls. Microsoft’s AI is looking at ways to improve voice isolation, background rendering and speaker recognition on the Teams app. (No, it’s not just you; it is often almost impossible to tell who has just spoken.)

Microsoft’s big bet, the Copilot assistant, will help Teams 2024 offer 3D environments, meeting transcriptions and summaries and collaborative notes for all participants in a call.

Interestingly, there isn’t yet talk of an AI assistant standing in for the user, participating in virtual meetings, attending on our behalf. But that is the dream: A future in which one is asked, “Honey, how was your day?” and the response could be, “I really have no idea. Let me check the summary notes.”

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