Zoom is a $1 billion company, and CEO Eric Yuan aims to build the absolute best software for easy video-conferencing. (Yeah, yeah, unlike all those other startups that want to build lousy software.) Yuan's most recent effort to improve Zoom takes it truly into the meetings of the future, adding automatic transcription and augmented reality to the product.

On Tuesday, Zoom announced a handful of product updates at its user conference. Two of the new features showcase where work is headed, in two different ways: Automatic meeting transcripts offload more work onto the software itself -- a robust enterprise trend if there ever was one. And the new integration with a cutting-edge augmented-reality headset allows workers to collectively view and manipulate holograms.

Zoom is flush with the $100 million it raised from Sequoia Capital in January, but the startup is going up against huge rivals like Microsoft's Skype, Citrix's GoToMeeting, and Cisco's WebEx, where Yuan served as vice president of engineering from 1997 to 2011. Zoom relies on a freemium model and generates revenue from subscriptions, the most expensive listed price being $19.99 per month. Companies use the product internally, for employees to communicate with each other, as well as for calls and remote meetings with third parties.

Even Smarter Meetings

Automatic computer-generated meeting transcripts are an addition to Zoom's suite of "smart meetings" features (collaborative whiteboarding was an existing one). The tool is available on the $14.99 subscription tier and up. It can record and transcribe all the speech in a meeting, identify each different person, and allow the transcript to be searched and analyzed. A company representative said that AI capabilities will be added soon.

The resulting transcripts are unlikely to be word-perfect, but nearly guaranteed to be better than nothing. Having a searchable record of previously ephemeral conversations adds to a company's knowledge about itself, and may even obviate the need for note-taking. Easily available transcriptions are also useful in the event that an employee can't attend an important meeting -- they'll be able to read through a transcript instead of listening to a lengthy recording.

Zoom itself proposed a litany of use cases: "Training, content creation, legal depositions, sales calls, shareholder meetings, and more." In the event where a perfect transcript is needed, this reporter knows from experience that it's much quicker to correct a mildly flawed one than to transcribe everything from scratch.

A Whole New World

In a more futuristic move, Zoom also announced an integration with the augmented reality company Meta. This development is less likely to be widely used, compared to automatic meeting transcripts, but it's also a heck of a lot cooler. For those who are unfamiliar, the Meta headset is not unlike a consumer VR offering, except that it projects holograms into your field of vision rather than showing you an entire virtual environment.

When Adi Robertson reviewed the device for The Verge, she wrote, "The Meta 2 may be comically huge and weirdly shaped, but I could look around normally and see a sharp, full image, instead of constantly tilting my head at odd angles" (a reported improvement over the pricier HoloLens).

Meta's AR technology lets users all look at the same 3D model as if it were hovering in the air before them, and manipulate it via touch. The experience is meant to feel intuitive and natural, which is how Zoom itself differentiates from its established enterprise competitors. The AR capability will be bundled into Zoom video conferences, set to launch for everyone before the end of 2017.

The Meta headset costs $1,495 and is currently only available in a development kit, so don't expect to see the gear in every office in America. The price is an obvious downside, but Robertson also noted in her review that "as you walk around," wearing the Meta headset, "objects shudder to the point of disorientation, even if they're beautifully clear when you're still."

Aside from its practical value, which may be mostly hype at the moment, the feature speaks to Zoom's ambition. There are scads of video-conferencing startups -- CEO Eric Yuan is determined to stand out from the crowd, and build a product that's more than just a regular old tool. That's table stakes. What's exciting is to ride the next wave of innovation, hoping to help transform the economy.

Just like a surfer can't blindly throw themselves into the water and expect to stay upright, successfully navigating the swell of new technology requires both vision and discipline. Zoom has to be useful in the here-and-now as well as pioneering for the next decade; the balance of features announced today is a good sign.

This article has been updated to indicate the correct price of the Meta headset -- previously the preorder price was included as well. Also, Eric Yuan served as Cisco VP from 1997 to 2011, not 2001.

Published on: Sep 26, 2017