For everyone tired of picking the perfect real or illustrated Zoom background, a startup called the TMRW Foundation is releasing a videoconferencing alternative called Room, which places participants in a video game-like 3D environment.
Founder and CEO Cevat Yerli says humans have evolved enough to interact in 3D spaces, not only to look at Brady Bunch-style images of each other in typical video chat software.
“It’s a tiring experience, as opposed to video games, which are engaging experiences,” says Yerli of traditional video conferencing tools. Yerli previously cofounded the software company Crytek, which developed the Far cry and crysis games and the CryEngine video game platform.
“We are tapping into the gaming background,” he says. “I believe if something mimics human nature, it will win eventually because it’s more fun, it’s more natural, it’s more easy.”
TMRW spent three years developing Room, which is powered by its own graphics engine. The software is able to run in ordinary browsers on desktop and mobile devices without the need for an app download. Still, it uses device cameras to capture real-time videos, which are dropped into realistic environments ranging from a simulated swanky coworking space to a tranquil beachfront to a virtual talk-show set handy for interviews. All include a high level of detail—“You see my reflection on the table,” says chief product officer Stefanie Palomino during a demo for Fast Company—which enables users to look around at their colleagues and other features with a drag of the cursor.
“If you’re the host, you pick a room that fits the mood of your meeting,” Yerli says.
TMRW isn’t the first company to offer game-like alternatives to meetings on platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. Other companies have built environments reminiscent of ’90s video games, and Facebook parent Meta offers a VR work environment using its Quest 2 headsets. Zoom and Teams also offer views that show meeting participants side by side overlaid on a virtual background rather than in a grid, but those backgrounds are two-dimensional and lack the interactive elements of Room. Yerli says that TMRW’s engine will capture the sweet spot of enabling realistic 3D environments and motion without requiring specialized hardware, such as a VR headset.
The Room team already uses the technology for a variety of scheduled and spontaneous meetings, including holding daily standup meetings and playing puzzle games together, says Palomino. The company intends to keep the software free for anyone joining meetings and then provide a variety of payment-plan tiers with different features for business users hosting meetings. A free tier lets anyone host meetings up to an hour long with up to three participants.
The virtual environments also include features like whiteboards to draw on, virtual sticky notes to post, and screens on which to show presentations and other material. Those are based on an app framework that the company intends to make available for others to build upon; developers will also be able to build and sell access to their own designs for 3D spaces.
Through this marketplace for virtual spaces, Yerli hopes to tap into the creator economy to help Room grow. He’s optimistic that despite the head start platforms like Zoom and Teams have, the 3D realism of Room will still enable it to win over users and businesses.
“I believe if something mimics human nature, it will win eventually because it’s more fun, it’s more natural, it’s more easy,” he says.