Online conferences, webinars, Zoom breakout sessions… What are they missing?
Mingling ‘naturally’. The watercooler serendipity of chatting with others while getting a coffee, and then parting ways easily to move around the room and meeting another nearby person.
Enter proximity chat platforms: Two-dimensional online spaces where each person is represented by an avatar, and can move about freely — like at a “real” party.
An interesting quick note: Among Us, the popular online multiplayer social sleuthing game, was among the first video games to popularize the use of “proximity chat". “What makes Among Us such a cool game despite it being so simple? The suspense and friends, right? What the proximity chat mod does to it is add another layer of realism. The mod allows people the ability to chat in the game while roaming a ship, based on how close they are to a fellow player. [...] Basically, the mod makes Among Us way more fun.”
Let’s go back to the notion of a “party,” and what role proximity chat platforms play in that. There’s research that reveals what the average American considers a party: At least ten people. And what’s the magic number of people research finds is the maximum number that an average conversation has before splitting into smaller conversational groups? Four, due in part to cognitive limitations. Herein lies the dreaded Zoom Fatigue: When videoconferencing technology (Zoom, etc.) prevents us from splitting, that is part of what is draining for our brains. It’s not possible to talk over each other or split into smaller groups.
But with proximity chat platforms, you can “walk” around virtual spaces, and move fluidly between groups. As you get farther from someone in the map-based online space, their voice gets quieter. And in some of the platforms, audio is properly spatialized, meaning it more accurately mimics a real-life gathering. The “cocktail party effect” comes into play, allowing you to better comprehend those you are speaking with (the separation of people’s voices in space is what the brain uses to understand multiple voices at once, so you need spatial audio to do so in a small group at a virtual party). Higher quality audio is also statistically more compelling, which makes a big difference when you’re hosting a virtual event.
The rest of the details are often customizable depending on the platform, so let’s dive into some of the options.
What is the Best Proximity Chat Platform? 3 Top Applications
“Skittish is a virtual browser-based event platform. A playful cross between a social audio chat app like Discord or Clubhouse and a cute video game, replete with round, colorful animal avatars to choose from. It’s meant to create an online social space that doesn’t put people on the spot. In Baio’s ideal virtual world, introverts could circle the periphery while extroverts could plunge right in and hold court at the center, just like they might in real life,” Taylor Hatmaker writes for TechCrunch.
They just rolled out a big update of new features, including global text chat, controlling event privacy, configurable channel zones (private audio spaces, allowing you to split a room into multiple separate audio zones, each with their own localized audio settings and up to 150 people talking in each), assigning user roles and permissions, setting open and close times for events, improved video screens, various performance improvements, and more.
In the March 2021 update, they implemented High Fidelity’s Spatial Audio API, so as people move around their virtual spaces, it mimics a real-life gathering. The “cocktail party effect” is fully present and participants are immersed in the environment together, just as they would at an in-person party. “In simple terms, we now send audio streams and positional information to High Fidelity’s servers, where they transform it into a personalized spatial sound collage for every attendee in Skittish. This means much better audio quality, more accurate 3D sound, lower latency, more cross-browser compatibility, many more simultaneous audio streams per room, and a much better experience for everyone.” They also massively expanded their asset editor, moderation tools, stages, video screen focus, and more.
How To Use Skittish
They write in their most recent update: “Over the last month, we opened Skittish to our first public events: a select group of conferences, festivals, and social events that run the gamut from casual hangouts and parties to live streamed talks and film screenings. With luck, this will be the last update before we start sending out invites for people to create their own events.”
Sign up here to be notified.
Gather combines video-calling with a 2D map, and you choose a “character” immediately upon opening a browser link to a Gather space (you can even make your avatar dance by pressing “Z” on your keyboard). “It can be thought of as a mashup between Zoom and an 8-bit video game. It allows you to have multiple separate video chats at the same time. You can enter and exit them, just as you might at a real party or event, except here you navigate a pixelated avatar around one of its virtual worlds,” writes Louise Matsakis for WIRED.
Gretchen Mulloch also has experimented with a handful of proximity chat platforms, and found Gather the most fun. “When I run an event with new people, I hang out near the spawn point on the map as people first arrive to help them get oriented with the space, make sure their mics were working, and so on. It feels like greeting guests as they walk into my home, making sure they know where to put their coats and that they have a drink in their hands. But after that, I set them free to mingle with each other. I've been able to wander around and join different conversations; I didn't have to stay ‘on’ as the unofficial emcee the entire time. Other people seemed to enjoy it too—all of the parties have lasted much longer than the original hour-long slot I designated, and several people told me that, afterward, they decided to make Gather spaces for student groups, birthday parties, and even family holidays,” she writes.
It’s easy to customize the map, change your avatar, and share your screen or video (including live streams). They even have collaborative whiteboards and a bunch of integrated games to play with those you invite to your virtual party. Mobile support is currently limited to outputting audio, not video. Although audio gets quieter when another person moves farther away from you, it is not spatialized.
How To Use Gather
For larger events, check out their pricing plans.
“A virtual venue for cocktail parties, remote offices, online education, networking events, and more," SpatialChat’s website describes. SpatialChat is also browser-based, and gives you an avatar circle with an option for your video in it (you can switch off your video or mute yourself at any time).
“SpatialChat is now adding a special tier and features for teams running town hall meetings and virtual offices and says it currently has more than 3,000 organizations as paying customers, with more than 200,000 total monthly active users. Konstantin Krasov, CPO at Data Souls, who used the platform, said: ‘We had 2,500 people in attendance during a two-day event that we hosted for our community of 50,000 data scientists. SpatialChat enabled us to make a cool networking event, Q&A and AMA with thought leaders in data science,’” writes Mike Butcher for TechCrunch.
You can change your “room” background, pin images in your “room” to view together with friends, screenshare, share live streaming and videos, send text messages, and like other proximity chat platforms, freely move between groups of people to quickly change dialogue. They recommend using a computer, as difficulties may arise using mobile. Similar to Gather, the audio does get quieter or louder depending on how far away you are from another person, but it is not spatialized.
Here is a link to their more general FAQ on how to use SpatialChat.
How To Use SpatialChat
It’s easy to create a space, and their free plan includes up to 3 rooms and 25 people per space (with 3,000 “participant-minutes per day”), screen sharing and collaboration, and sharing of images and videos. They also have standard and pro plans available for larger teams and events that include more customization and branding, with multi-room support.
Proximity Chat and Spatial Audio: A Match Made in Heaven
Here is yet another list from Cofactor that details more options for proximity chat platforms specifically, such as: InSpace, Wonder, Kumospace, and Topia. Again, all of these options have various customizable features, and may or may not include spatial audio so participants can experience the true “cocktail party effect” at your virtual event.
If you’re curious what it sounds like, check out the video below.
“Think about it: in the physical world, all the sounds we hear and process in our brain come from different locations in a 3D environment. When you're at a cocktail party, you can have multiple people talking at the same time and still understand what everyone is saying. [...] The audio quality and how voices are delivered to our ears matters,” explains Stanford University’s Jeremy Bailenson.
These new, interesting ways to attend and create virtual events are becoming commonplace, along with the integration of high quality spatial audio. For instance, Google's Project Starline, unveiled during the recent Google I/O developer conference keynote, uses advanced technology to bring video calls to this next level. “It combines software like computer vision, machine learning, spatial audio and real-time compression with hardware like a new light field display system to create more volume and depth, without the need for AR or VR glasses or headsets. This makes it feel like a person is sitting across from you.” Even Microsoft plans to improve meeting rooms to include larger displays and spatial audio, and don’t get us started on Apple’s recent updates...
Are You Working on Building a Proximity Chat Platform?
Or are you interested to experiment with creating a new web app that facilitates these awesome moments of serendipity in immersive audio? Try signing up for a free developer account below to integrate High Fidelity’s Spatial Audio API. You can get started easily with guides and resources, and join our developer Discord channel (the invite link is shared in the “Welcome” email when you create an account) to connect with others making apps, too.