If you work with other people – and most of us do – chances are you spend a lot of your time in meetings. Before COVID-19, you would expect most meetings to be held in person, and business travel was much more productive than today.
The pandemic changed that dynamic beyond recognition, as both startups and corporates suddenly discovered that many things can actually be discussed and resolved in a video call. Combined with the fact that people are generally reluctant to return to the office, this has ushered in an era of telepresence, where at least 84% of meetings (or even 98% depending on who you listen to) have at least one external participant.
But spending much of your meeting time looking at the screen is exhausting, and the rapport established in a Zoom meeting is nothing like what you might expect in person. In an effort to address this problem, the Finland-based office pod pioneer Framery has just unveiled Framery Contact, an indoor call booth aimed at mimicking an IRL meeting as closely as possible.
Best suited for one-on-one meetings, the Contact is essentially a darkened office pod with a large high-quality 4K screen, strategically placed lighting and a camera with a mirror system that gives the feeling of good eye contact.
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A few weeks before the official unveiling, TNW (represented by yours truly) went to Tampere, Finland to experience the pod and learn more about Framery’s journey leading up to its creation. (Disclosure: Travel and accommodation for the trip were covered by Framery. The company had no editorial influence on this story and did not see it prior to publication.)
Silence is golden
Founded in 2010 in Tampere, about two hours north of Helsinki, Framery started as a passion project of two young boys whose manager insisted on making loud sales calls in their open plan office. One of the guys, the company’s CEO, Samu Hällfors, says the company became the world’s first and largest producer of truly soundproof office pods. From its first single-person cabin, Framery O, the startup has expanded its offerings over the years to include the four-person Q and six-person 2Q models.
In 2021, the company also unveiled Framery One, a version of the single pod with advanced connectivity options, built-in occupancy sensors and calendar integration capabilities, allowing it to be booked in the same way as a conference room. Since then, the Finns have worked hard on the software part of the product, which is intended to give HR or building managers insight into the use of the pods.
Going even further, the team is currently working on a project integrating a heart rate sensor into the pod’s seat, which could potentially provide anonymized and aggregated data on the health and mental wellbeing of its users.
The company, which currently employs about 400 people, will have a turnover of € 154 million in 2022. In 2018, Finnish private equity firm Veela Partners acquired 60% of Framery for an undisclosed sum.
With the new office pod, Framery is definitely focusing on the importance that its customers attach to the presence effect. Hällfors assumes that the first users of the product will be “international companies with offices on different continents”; having a contact person in each of them would make one-on-one encounters more appealing.
However, achieving the desired effect will probably take some time, as the technology may take some getting used to. Unlike Framery’s other pods, Contact has blackout glass walls, so entering it for the first time feels very unusual; it certainly did for me.
Inside the pod, I found a chair and a side table, as well as a small screen on the left that allows you to operate the calling system. The pod software suite runs on Windows 10 IoT with the user interface written using the Qt framework. The custom architecture is based on Scalable Video Coding (SVC) and uses the H.265 compression standard.
A portrait-oriented 4K display takes up most of the pod’s wall in front of the user, with two bright lights on the sides. When Hällfors, who was in the US at the time of the test, called from another pod, I immediately saw his image with the correct depth, although some other people reported that it took them a few minutes to adjust.
The reason is that Framery Contact does not use advanced technologies such as volumetric or light field displays, but opts for a normal 2D screen together with our own mental abilities.
“Remove the environment with black [backdrop] helps your brain actually fill in the gaps and build this kind of 3D representation,” Hällfors explained.
Framery Contact uses only one camera; Karvinen did not name the make or model, but said it is an off-the-shelf part rather than a custom device. The camera is clearly optimized to provide the sharpest image when the person in the pod is sitting upright; however, if they lean forward or backward, their image on the screen quickly becomes a bit blurry.
Combined with a mirror-based system that creates the illusion of eye contact and a seemingly decent audio setup in the soundproof cabin, Framery Contact feels much closer to a personal experience. While it supposedly only needs 10 Mbit/s bandwidth to operate, I could detect a few stutters and jitters during the five-minute call, though it hardly affected the experience.
Done is better than perfect
At the moment there are less than a dozen Framery Contact stands. Most are installed in the offices of the company’s unnamed pilot customers – and Framery is looking to add more of those customers.
As for commercial availability, Hällfors doesn’t expect it to happen sometime next year. The planned price for the new pod is approximately €24,000; for comparison, a Framery Q pod on which the Contact is based costs around €16,000.
Framery’s reveal comes just a few days after Google presented the latest update on its presentation Project Starline, which uses different cameras and relies heavily on AI to create a 3D representation of the person you’re talking to on the screen. The obvious benefit of Google’s approach is that it doesn’t require a darkened pod; however, the obvious problem is that there is no timeline when it would become commercially available. In addition, Google has continually declined questions about Skyline’s possible pricing, suggesting that it will indeed be sky-high.
In addition to corporate offices, Hällfors sees Contact being used in sectors such as telehealth and recruitment, among others. He also said the next step for the company will be to scale up the technology to enable meetings with up to two people on each side.
“I don’t think the Contact will replace all of our products, I don’t think the technology will be useful for all use cases,” he said. “[Framery pods] are also used for face-to-face meetings, hybrid meetings, concentrated work, etc.”
Another feature that will be added in the future is interoperability with traditional video conferencing services such as Google Meet, Zoom or Microsoft Teams to enable a one-to-many usage scenario. According to Hällfors, it is not a particularly difficult task from a technological point of view; the biggest hurdle right now is that none of those apps support 4K video, which is paramount for the product.
All in all, Framery Contact is an impressive feat of engineering that could represent a new technology trend and raise our expectations for online meetings to a new level. However, it’s not entirely clear how much is too much when it comes to creating a true-to-life feel. In the meantime, look out for those black glass booths in a corporate headquarters near you to answer this question for yourself.