When you talk to someone, and they talk to you, there's a whole lot that happens behind the scenes: eye blinks, gazes, turn-taking, shifts in tone, changes in speed, interruptions, facial expressions, not to mention the dynamic mimicry of all those variables in real-time. These are just a few of the things that our brains know how to do during conversation. And they know how to do it in an instant, completely outside our conscious awareness.

If you think about it, it's pretty amazing.

We're a socially obligate species, so for us that means that conversation, which we mostly take for granted, has been finely-tuned over eons of evolutionary change. 

For our ancestors, these were high-stakes social encounters, where they learned friend from foe, and whether or not someone was part of the alliance. It was a strong selective pressure because if someone didn't do it well, they were at risk of becoming a social pariah--or worse. 

For us in today's work environment, when the conversation flows between people, we feel a sense of connectedness--that things just click between us and our colleagues. Psychologist and professor Maya Rossignac-Milon calls this "shared reality." Rossignac-Milon defines this as the "perception of sharing thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with an interaction partner about the world." 

The better and more shared the reality, the better the outcomes for all involved.

Trying to have conversations virtually 

When things are normal, we don't really notice the elegance of our social and conversational skills. It's only when things become non-normal, so to speak, that we start to appreciate the basics of a social exchange. 

We've all been there. After all, there is nothing more non-normal than a Zoom call with a group of people in a "room"--flat two-dimensional floating heads pasted on black tiles, all trying to exchange ideas or vent frustrations or share stories, while trying not to interrupt each other. It's a conversational nightmare. 

We're dealing with two opposing stories though. First, we know that the hybrid and remote reality isn't going anywhere anytime soon, so virtual meetings are here to stay. Yet, all things equal, we actually prefer to meet and talk to others in person. It's our adaptive default setting. So how do we square this? Companies like Microsoft are using digital solutions to do the next best thing: Simulate real-world conversation in a virtual setting.

Imitate the real world conversation, with tech

The remote work conferencing solutions such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have done a decent job these past couple years of adding features that help alleviate some of the awkwardness of a non-normal virtual dialogue. From moving tiles and room layouts, to automatic gesture recognition and suppressed background noise, things have certainly improved. 

Microsoft's latest test adds one more feature: spatial audio cues. One of the things our brains do remarkably well is orient our attention to changing sound cues of sound in space. In a normal in-person conversation, we know who's speaking and their general direction, and from that we know when it's a good time to talk next.

All of these cues get lost in virtual meetings. That led Microsoft principal researcher Kate Nowak and her colleagues to hypothesize that adding spatial audio to typical 2D meetings would help turn-taking and perceptions of closeness between group members. 

To test their prediction, Nowak and team did an experiment with groups of workers at the same company, and asked them to solve problems together during a virtual meeting. As reported, "In one meeting, spatial audio was turned on; when a colleague on the right side of the screen was talking, audio would come in from only the right headphone. In the other meeting, it was turned off--the sound came through both headphones."

Participants with spatial audio felt psychologically closer, saying that they perceived the meeting and problem-solving session to be more interactive. 

With amazing usage of technologies like this, the hope is that our virtual meetings will get a little less awkward and a little more enjoyable. 

Now we just need something to solve that overly chatty colleague of yours.