Virtual coffee rooms using proximity chat
17th Mar 2021
Are you sick of Zoom? Yes, it’s great for some things, invaluable even. All Cofactor courses currently use Zoom, and it has made it possible for us to connect with participants and enable them to discuss and work together.
But you may, like me, have experienced this frustrating feeling: you see a friend on a Zoom call and you really want to talk to them without everyone else hearing. But the only way to reach them is in a private message, and sometimes not even that. If this was an in-person meeting you would catch them as they are walking out of the door and have a quick word. But that’s not possible in Zoom, is it?
In Cofactor’s online courses, Zoom breakout rooms help get participants talking, but I wanted to offer something more. You attend a course not just to learn from the trainer, but also to meet other participants and learn from them, get to know them, find new mentors. Breakout room discussions aren’t enough for that – you need a chance for one to one conversations with the people you choose to have them with.
It’s the same for bigger groups. Online conferences have so far been series of webinars, where you just turn your camera off (and probably your brain too) and let the speaker drone on while you get on with your emails. I go to conferences for the networking, to make new contacts, get the gossip that isn’t being talked about on the main stage, even make friends. And don’t get me started on Zoom parties – they just about work if the only person who gets to talk is the one whose birthday or leaving do it is, but they are no fun at all.
What is the solution to this? Since 2020, a few startups have been working busily on the problem, and come up with a new type of software called proximity chat.
What is proximity chat?
A proximity chat platform is a two-dimensional online space in which each person has an ‘avatar’ representing them. Avatars can move around the space, and when your avatar gets near to someone else’s, you can hear and see them on video. When you move away, you no longer hear them. This means that a large number of people can be in the room at once, but they can talk in pairs or small groups, rather than everyone having to listen to one person at once. And if you’re in a conversation that you aren’t enjoying or that has too many people in it, you can move away and find another.
As soon as I heard about proximity chat, I realised it was what I had been missing. The ‘mingling’ part of conferences, the informality of parties, going into a corner for a gossip with your friend – all this can now be replicated online.
So I’ve been trying out various systems in various situations, including as a way of providing a virtual ‘coffee room’ for Cofactor’s online courses. Course participants have valued the chance so far to ask me and the other trainers questions one to one and to chat informally with each other.
The platforms differ in quite a lot of ways, and different ones will suit different people and purposes. Below is a summary of how they compare, and I’ve also tabulated their features in a Google Sheet.
My favourite all-rounder: Spatial Chat
Like most proximity chat systems, Spatial Chat gives you an avatar with your video in it. Like all of them (and Zoom), you can switch off your video or mute yourself at any time. If someone sends you a link to a Spatial Chat space you click on it, check your camera and microphone settings and permissions, type your name, and enter the space (no log-in is needed). You find yourself looking at a photo or abstract pattern in which your video is in a small circle, perhaps next to other small circles.
It is simple to get used to moving around by dragging your avatar with your mouse, and easy to see how other people’s voices get quieter as you move away from them and eventually disappear (their video then disappears too, and you get their initials or profile pic). There is a column on the right that shows either a participant list or the chat. If you click on another person’s name you are instantly teleported to right next to them – or even on top of them, which can feel a bit weird!
As a space admin it is very easy to set up a new space – you don’t even need to do anything! You get a link to send to others and a different one containing your password to use to log in as admin. There can be multiple rooms in a Spatial Chat space and they can be set up differently. You can change the background image to one of the many examples in the gallery provided, or you can upload your own. You can ‘pin’ pictures or YouTube videos – the latter is great for having background noise or music, because people can move closer or further away depending on how loud they like it. I like to pin a video of waves breaking on a beach or birds singing in a woodland, which make the space really relaxing.
Participants can also share their screens, and multiple people can do this at once. The screen shows up wherever they want to put it, and they can make it bigger or smaller. Luckily the admin can prevent others from doing this, as it could get rather chaotic! There is also a ‘megaphone’ so you can be heard by everyone within a room (but not between rooms). Hosts can ‘broadcast’ to all rooms at once, which is good for announcements.
One limitation of Spatial Chat is the lack of private text chat, and of the ability to send messages just to those near you. It would be good to be able to ‘nudge someone’s elbow’ to suggest moving away from a group for a private conversation, and sometimes you want to share a link with those you are talking to but not everyone in the space.
Another limitation, common to all these platforms, is that only Google Chrome is fully supported. It may work on other browsers, but there is no guarantee. I’ve found that it works well enough on mobiles and tablets (though pinned videos aren’t always visible or audible), and on Microsoft Edge.
I recently attended an online conference that used Spatial Chat as a networking space. It beautifully replicated the feeling of conference networking, especially as the organiser had used pictures of BMA House, London, where the conference usually takes place, as background images. Some rooms were used for workshops, where participants worked together in small groups to solve a problem (with shared Miro boards or Google docs). While not all conference delegates tried out the networking rooms, those who did seemed to find them an excellent opportunity.
Something completely different: Gather
Gather was actually the first proximity chat system I tried, and I think it has been around the longest. It is great fun and has far more features than the others, but it therefore takes considerably more work to set up and it is not as intuitive for users as Spatial Chat.
The background in Gather is more like an old-school computer game, made up of a map of tiles. The avatars are separate from the videos and are little video game characters (you can choose your character from a selection with different colours and styles of skin, hair and clothing). You use your keyboard arrow keys to move left, right, up and down at a fixed speed. When you approach another avatar, their video appears at the top of your screen.
The space isn’t just one continuous area, like in Spatial Chat, but can have impassable tiles (e.g. walls or tables) that divide up the space. Multiple rooms are joined by doors or portal tiles. Within a room there can be private spaces, in which everyone can hear everyone else and they are isolated from those outside. This enables something that only Gather can do (out of the platforms listed here): you can have a private conversation that no-one else can disturb.
Gather is reasonably easy to use as a participant in someone else’s space, though not as easy as Spatial Chat. However, both the power and the difficulty come when you want to set up your own space. The easiest place to start is with one of the many templates provided. Spaces can be big, with some replicating entire college campuses, beaches and castles. I have found the conference venue templates the most useful, and I’ve removed most of them to make a compact set of rooms. If you are proficient in digital design, you can make your own background images.
You can still customise templates a lot without too much technical skill. You can connect rooms together, and add or remove walls, furniture, decorations and private spaces. One powerful feature of Gather is the ability to add embedded websites, games and videos – several games are provided, such as Checkers and Sudoku. Any such element can be added to an object (furniture, a plant, some text, whatever), and participants are prompted to press a key to interact with it when they get near it.
You can also replicate a whole conference or training session in Gather, because you can add a link to video calling software such as Zoom. You could do this in a ‘plenary room’ and then have other rooms for breakout discussions and informal chat. The megaphone feature is replicated by using a special tile where you put your avatar to talk to the whole room. Text chat is pretty good: you can chat privately, to those near you and to everyone in the space (though not to everyone in one room).
Gather doesn’t currently work well on mobile devices or tablets. This feels like a major limitation to me, as many people use a phone or tablet as their main computer. Like Spatial Chat, it also doesn’t work well on non-Chrome browsers.
I’ve gone into some detail about Spatial Chat and Gather as they seem the most mature platforms and illustrate the range of functionality that is currently available. But more platforms are appearing all the time, including the four below and a some more distantly related ‘table-based’ ones.
InSpace is remarkably similar to Spatial Chat, but it is intended for educational institutions and has a few features that will be particularly useful there. There are more accessibility features, such as the ability to move around with your keyboard rather than a mouse, or pin someone’s video so that you can watch them signing. You can easily add breakout rooms within a room, where the audio is isolated from those outside them, and remove them with a click. Shared screens appear at the top of the screen, and it is assumed that only the teacher will do this. You can only have one room in a space at a time, with a maximum of 50 people in it. Also, anyone who joins your room has to set up an account, unlike most of the other platforms.
Wonder looks like Spatial Chat at first glance, but instead of holding your avatar with your mouse to move it, you click where you want to go. You can define areas within your space with different labels, and the space can expand depending on how many people are in it (there is only one room in the space). It has chat facilities for private, groups near you and everyone. Conversations are held in ‘circles’ that can contain up to 15 people, and you can only hear the people in your circle.
Kumospace looks like a hybrid of Spatial Chat and Gather, in that your video (square not round) is in your avatar, but spaces are made up of rooms where you have an overhead view. Users can pour themselves a virtual drink, which automatically empties over the course of 10 minutes – this feels like a gimmick to me, but it may be a hint of more powerful functionality yet to come. There are only eight room templates.
Like Gather, Topia has the video at the top of the screen, and your avatar is a little character, in this case a simple figure with no distinguishing features. The backgrounds are beautiful line drawings rather than photos or tiles. Admins can add a lot of features to spaces, such as ‘DJs’ that play music audible only when users are nearby. Topia could appeal to those with an artistic mind, and it seems to be aiming at the virtual festival market.
As well as the ‘map-based’ proximity-chat platforms described here, there are also ‘table-based’ ones in which people can jump from table to table and talk to those on their table. An example is Remo.
See also this list of proximity chat platforms (compiled by Star Simpson and Devon Zuegel, as of mid-November 2020, not being updated).
The platforms are experimenting with pricing systems, and many of them have been free in their initial development phase. Wonder and Kumospace are completely free at the moment. Gather is free for as many spaces as you like as long as you have fewer than 25 participants at a time, and you can book events for larger numbers. Spatial Chat has a free package that is currently quite generous but that might change soon. It measures ‘participant minutes’ and gives an upper limit per package, but any time with four or fewer participants in a space isn’t counted towards the limit. InSpace has pricing designed for large institutions, with annual fees from $1000 upwards and no free version, only a free trial (pricing information isn’t on the website; this was provided to me by a representative). Topia has a relatively good free offering and a ‘Community’ package with a much lower monthly payment than Spatial Chat.
Comparison table of proximity chat platforms
I’ve summarised some key differences between these platforms in this Google Sheet. Please let me know if you find any errors in it.
Having had a couple of months obsessed with Gather, and having been put off InSpace solely by their pricing, I am now a convert to Spatial Chat. I’m hoping that Spatial Chat will bring in more accessibility features and private chat, and all platforms need to expand the range of devices and browsers on which they work. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this fast-moving field generated exciting new players very soon.