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Virtual coffee rooms using proximity chat

Tools

This article is based on a blog post from March 2021 by Anna Sharman, updated July 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 new favourite: Gather

An illustration of a Gather room with 7 people in it

An illustration of a Gather room with 7 Cofactor trainers in it

Gather was the first proximity chat system I tried. It is great fun and has far more features than the others, but this means it takes quite a bit of work to set up compared with the other platforms.

If someone sends you a link to a Gather space, you click on it, check your camera and microphone settings and permissions. You can then type your name, and you can change the little ‘character’ that is your avatar if you like. You can choose from a selection of characters with different colours and styles of skin, hair and clothing, or you can do that later. Then you click ‘Join the Gathering’ to enter the space (no log-in is needed).

The background in Gather is like an old-school computer game, made up of a map of tiles. Your video is separate from your avatar and, like all of the platforms (and Zoom), you can switch off your video or mute yourself at any time. You use your keyboard arrow keys to move around. When you approach another avatar, their video appears at the top of your screen. As you move away from them, their voice gets quieter and their picture fainter, until they eventually disappear. There is a column on the left that shows either a participant list or the chat.

The space can be made up of multiple rooms joined by doors or portals. Within a room there can be private spaces, which are isolated from those ‘walking past’ nearby. This enables something unique to Gather (out of the platforms listed here): you can have a private conversation and no-one else can disturb you.

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). Participants can also share their screens, and multiple people can do this at once if they are in different places. Gather doesn’t currently work well on mobile devices or tablets, which I hope the developers will change soon. It works best on Google Chrome, but I’ve had no problems with Microsoft Edge or Safari.

Gather is reasonably easy to use as a participant in someone else’s space. 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.

You can embed websites, games and videos, and participants are prompted to press a key to interact with these when they get near. You can add a special ‘spotlight’ tile; when your avatar stands on it, you can talk to the whole room.

Having played around a bit, I decided to commission the experts ReuniVous to design a space for Cofactor. Watch out for more about this soon.

Easiest to use: Spatial Chat

An example of how Spatial Chat looks

An example of how Spatial Chat looks, from the Spatial Chat website

Like most proximity chat systems but unlike Gather, in Spatial Chat your avatar has your video inside it.  The background is a photo or abstract pattern rather than a map. You move around by dragging your avatar with your mouse. If you click on another person’s name in the participant list 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! There can be multiple rooms in a space. You can change the background image to one from a gallery or 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 the screen shows up wherever someone wants to put it, as big or small as the sharer wants. 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. Only Google Chrome is fully supported, but it works well enough on mobiles and tablets (though pinned videos aren’t always visible or audible), and on Microsoft Edge.

In February 2021 I 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.

For a while we were using Spatial Chat for networking with course participants, because of its simplicity, but the extra features in Gather have converted me back. ‘

Other platforms

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

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

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

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, but as of June 2021 you can now customize rooms.

Topia

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.

Table-based platforms

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).

Pricing

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. You can also pay monthly if you’d like to use Gather as a virtual office, as ReuniVous does. 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.

Conclusion

I really like Gather, Spatial Chat and InSpace. I was put off InSpace solely by their pricing, so that may be a good choice for educational institutions and large companies. The power of Gather, particularly the private spaces and infinitely customizable rooms, has led me to invest in a specially designed space, so we will be using Gather for courses, meetings and parties from now on. I still use Spatial Chat occasionally because it is so easy for users. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this fast-moving field generated exciting new players very soon.

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About Cofactor

Cofactor’s founder, Anna Sharman, has been a biologist, journal editor and publishing consultant.

She saw that what publishers wanted was different from what researchers submitted, and wanted to help researchers navigate the publication process.

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