Connecting to work in a different way
When Steve Jobs was designing Pixar’s new headquarters, he famously designed the layout to make employees walk long distances to the nearest bathroom in an effort to increase collaboration, serendipitous meetings, and chance encounters. An office isn’t just a place where people work in isolation at desks or meet in conference rooms—it’s also the way they bump into each other between these tasks, which can lead to idea generation.
The first generation of remote work replacements for meetings involved video conferences. Usually, that means one person looking at a gallery of faces, which is an inaccurate reflection of how meetings work and doesn't do anything to recreate other aspects of in-person work, like casual chats in the breakroom or bumping into someone on the way to another meeting. Gather.town is a video chat service that tries to build casual serendipity into the interface.
Instead of logging in to a general chat, users control an avatar that can navigate a virtual room, and when they get close to another user's avatar, a video chat begins. While some workers enjoy remote work—a commute-free workday and a pajamas-based dress code have their benefits—many have discovered that there are aspects of in-person work they miss.
The creation of a different virtual design
With Gather Town, since users can design the virtual space themselves, they can build and adjust it as needed. Users can test out their design and rearrange it as needed, giving them the job of an architect with the iteration speed of a software engineer. The cartoonish avatars have another benefit: they help avoid the “uncanny valley” phenomenon: some designs and digital art copy life so closely that the few flaws that remain are disconcerting, often in a way that’s hard to articulate. A software interface that looks like a real-world analogue, but doesn’t quite work like it, forces the user to put more effort into processing the metaphor. By keeping some interactions lo-fi and simple, Gather Town dodges this limitation.
Gather Town is one of several companies in this category. Another, Huddle, was founded by a former Uber engineer: he argues that he's still in the same business he was in at Uber, but that “the future of transportation is no transportation..