Microsoft is fixing a major videoconferencing faux pas with artificial intelligence

  • On Thursday, Microsoft rolled out a bunch of updates to its Office 365 productivity suite, focused on collaboration.
  • Microsoft Teams, its workplace chat tool and Slack rival, now has a free version. There’s no charge for up to 300 users.
  • Otherwise, Microsoft introduced a few other nifty new collaboration features in Office 365: A background blur feature, for instance, turns the background of your video call into a nondescript blob, solving a major headache for lots of users.
  • Microsoft also launched Whiteboard, a cross-platform sketching app that seems really handy.

Microsoft made a bunch of new updates to its Office 365 cloud productivity suite for businesses today, most of which hinge on the concept of collaborating with your colleagues.

For instance, Microsoft announced a free version of Teams, the workplace chat software bundled into Office 365, which competes with $US5 billion startup Slack and $US15.8 billion Atlassian’s Stride.

Now, any group can get going with Microsoft Teams, though there’s a 20GB file storage limit and it’s capped at 300 people. If you want to go beyond those limits, you have to pony up for Office 365 at a per-user cost of either $US5/month or $US12.50/month, though that price includes the whole Office suite of apps and services, too. Having a free version will get Teams into more people’s hands, intensifying its rivalry with its smaller competitors.

Teams is also getting a super-handy new feature in the form of so-called background blur, which uses artificial intelligence to cut down on a common videoconferencing faux pas. Basically, if you’re on a call, flip on background blur and the messy bedroom or bustling coffee shop behind you will fade into a indistinct blob. It can save you a little embarrassment.

Microsoft teams background blurPlay GIFMicrosoft

For my money, the coolest new addition to Office otherwise is a new Whiteboard app. It’s on Windows 10 today, coming to iPhone and iPad very soon, and in beta testing for the web. It’s what it sounds like: You can sketch on a touchscreen or with a mouse, and it will show up in real-time on your coworkers’ screens.

It’s simple, but there isn’t a whole heck of a lot like this out there at the moment: It’s simple, but potentially powerful, and includes support for simple charts and other graphics. It’s free for anyone to download and use, but some features require an Office 365 subscription.

Microsoft whiteboardMicrosoft

The company is also putting its artificial intelligence smarts to work, too. Office 365 is getting a new feature that lets companies broadcast events, like all-hands meetings or keynotes, to their employees. Microsoft says it was actually inspired by CEO Satya Nadella, who wanted something like this for internal use, but it didn’t yet exist.

Those meetings are archived after they air, at which point the AI scans the file and starts automatically transcribing what was said into a searchable archive. Better yet, Microsoft promises that it can distinguish faces and voices in its transcriptions, so you can jump straight to the CEO’s comments on, say, tax reform, at 12 minutes and 34 seconds.

Further to that end, Microsoft is adding new features to its Workplace Analytics product, formerly known as Delve. Previously, the product could scan your Outlook calendars to help you see how much time was being wasted in lousy meetings.

Now, it can start to “nudge” you if you show signs of bad habits, like e-mailing after work hours or scheduling so many meetings that you don’t have any time left for focused work. Microsoft calls it a “Fitbit for meetings.”

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