When I tell people that the solution to better conference calls rests not in some fancy new technology or some expensive pair of headphones but rather in the simplicity of Mother Nature, they usually do one of two things (if not both in rapid succession):
1) Stare at me like I’m a little crazy.
2) Ask me what the heck I’m talking about.
And so I explain about biomimicry, the practice of mimicking Mother Nature to drive technological innovation. The basic idea is that Mother Nature has been operating a laboratory for the past 3.8 billion years that’s full of solutions tested by the most rigorous standard of all: survival. By copying these solutions (unfortunately for Mother Nature, none of her work is patent protected), we can create important breakthroughs that make mankind more efficient and, one would hope, friendly to nature in return.
Examples of biomimicry in our everyday lives are everywhere. Velcro came from copying burrs. A painless hypodermic needle came from copying mosquitoes. Those fancy swimsuits you saw at the summer Olympics in London and Beijing came from copying shark skin. A group of architects in Zimbabwe copied termite dens to create a building that uses 90 percent less energy than a conventional building, and a group of engineers in Wisconsin has copied the honeycomb to create tires that can’t go flat. The list goes on and on.
So when it came time for us to reinvent the conference call, where else did we turn but to Mother Nature. Specifically, we examined the human brain, which has evolved to have a profoundly sensitive response to sounds. When you step into a room, your head quickly analyzes who is sitting where and creates a model of the room in your head. What’s more, your brain also evaluates the acoustics of the room to help you anticipate from which direction voices or other sounds might come.
This is why people who are blind can summon such vivid maps and images in their heads from the sounds they hear around them. The brain’s relationship with sound is spatial and deeply nuanced.
And yet, conference calls as they exist today muddle this evolutionary trait. The majority of conference calls still take place via basic audio bridges that merge everyone’s voice into a single, monophonic audio stream that makes it hard to distinguish one speaker from the next. Even newer applications like Skype create a pureed soup out of the various participants’ voices on the line.
We decided to do it the way Mother Nature intended. We started with an algorithm that mimics the way the human brain processes sounds. As a result, every conference participant gets an individual audio stream that brings his or her voice to the conversation from a distinct place. So long audio soup, hello three-dimensional (3D) sound.
Next, we built in high-def (HD) quality, so that any voice transmitted through Voxeet arrives with unrivaled clarity.
Finally, we created an on-screen virtual conference room with unique avatars for each speaker, which makes it easy to tell who’s talking when. It also means you can arrange individual speakers on your screen — be it a smartphone, tablet or laptop — however you wish so that your virtual conference resembles a real-life one. If you put person X at the outside of the room and person Y in the middle, person Y will sound closer to you.
We call the resulting solution “natural conferencing.” Simply put, it’s the way that conference calls were meant to work. And when conference calls work, they lead to better collaboration, clearer communication, and greater efficiency. That’s something that everyone, especially Mother Nature, can appreciate.
Image credit: biomimicry.net