Virtual meetings are here to stay. Microsoft wants to make them better

By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business

    (CNN) -- Microsoft is unveiling new Windows features in an attempt to improve the experience of virtual meetings and make sure the needs of people with disabilities are supported in a new era of hybrid work.

During a virtual event on Tuesday, the company showed off its vision for the future of hybrid work with a preview of new features coming to Windows 11 nearly six months after its launch.

The tools largely focus on productivity with AI-powered features such as quieting background noise like lawnmowers and baby cries, and automatic framing so the camera follows the speaker's movements. There's also a feature that subtly lifts a speaker's eyes to make it appear as though they're directly looking into the camera on video calls, and a security tool that cuts down on phishing.

But some of the most noteworthy features hone in on inclusivity with a subset of tools developed in part by Microsoft employees who have disabilities.

For example, its new live captions feature started as an idea from Swetha Machanavajhala, a deaf senior product manager at Azure Cognitive Services, who said she was struggling to keep up in meetings. She needed a device to read captions generated by a human captioner and a computer to take notes, all while focusing on the presentation. The pandemic intensified the need for a change, she said.

"Meetings were extremely daunting, involving a lot of eye coordination between the presenting content on one screen and captions on another screen. I was often missing information and feeling excluded," Machanavajhala told CNN Business. "I couldn't be as productive as my peers."

During a hackathon, she led a team of 10 Microsoft employees to pitch universal captions across the Windows platform, allowing any type of audio coming out of the computer to be captioned in real time — whether it's from a Windows product such as Teams or other services, like YouTube, a podcast, FaceTime or a website. She later pitched the tool to executives who agreed to make it an official Windows 11 feature. The new tool can also caption audio captured by the microphone, providing captions for the user if they're speaking to someone in person.

Similarly, another new Windows 11 tool called Focus was developed in part by a Windows product manager with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Alexis Kane said she often felt overwhelmed by the influx of notifications while working from home and sought to help Microsoft identify ways to help cut down on the distractions.

"As someone with ADHD, the way my computer behaves in a day influences my mood, my productivity, and my energy levels," Kane said. "This became more apparent with virtual work when I had no break from my computer. The number of notifications I was receiving increased significantly and so did my anxiety levels."

Now users switch on a do-not-disturb button from any notification, allowing them mute alerts, email and other messages for a certain period of time. While the company told CNN Business it had a previous interest in adding this type of feature to Windows — which is already available in some form on Apple and Samsung software — it fast-tracked the concept when Kane said notifications were impacting her productivity.

"I now use the focus timer throughout my workday when I feel myself getting really overwhelmed; it helps me collect my thoughts in a structured way," she said. "These features will extend to everyone but be specifically impactful to those who are neurodiverse."

During the event, Microsoft said it's also rolling out a tool to pin favorite files, content and websites for quick access. A new feature called Windows 365 Switch will give users the ability to more easily move between their Cloud PC and local desktop.

Other tools aim to proactively combat phishing and targeted malware by identifying and alerting users when they are entering their Microsoft credentials into a malicious application or hacked website.

The company didn't give a timeline for when all of the new features will roll out but the inclusivity tools and meeting enhancements will be available for download later this year.

The-CNN-Wire
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