Virtual meetings are here to stay. Microsoft wants to make them better

During a virtual event on Tuesday, the company showed off its vision for the future of hybrid working with a preview of new features coming to Windows 11 nearly six months after its release.

The tools focus heavily on productivity with AI-powered features like muting background noise like lawnmowers and crying babies, and auto-framing so the camera follows the speaker’s movements. There’s also a feature that subtly lifts the speaker’s eyes to make it look like they’re looking directly at the camera in video calls, and a security tool that reduces phishing.

But some of the more notable features center around inclusion with a subset of tools developed in part by Microsoft (MSFT) employees who have disabilities.

For example, its new live captioning feature started as the brainchild of Swetha Machanavajhala, a senior product manager for deaf people at Azure Cognitive Services, who said she was struggling to keep up in meetings. She needed a device to read captions generated by a human captioner and a computer to take notes, all while she focused on the presentation. The pandemic intensified the need for change, she said.

“Meetings were extremely overwhelming and involved a lot of visual coordination between the presentation of content on one screen and captions on another screen. I often lacked information and felt left out,” Machanavajhala told CNN Business. “I couldn’t be as productive as my peers.”

During a hackathon, he led a team of 10 Microsoft employees to launch universal subtitles on the Windows platform, allowing any type of audio coming out of the computer to be subtitled in real time, whether it’s from a Windows product like Teams or other services. , such as YouTube, a podcast, FaceTime, or a website. He later presented the tool to executives who agreed to make it an official Windows 11 feature. The new tool can also caption audio captured by the microphone, providing subtitles for the user if they’re talking to someone in person.

Similarly, another new Windows 11 tool called Focus was developed in part by a Windows product manager with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Alexis Kane said she was often overwhelmed by the influx of notifications while working from home and sought to help Microsoft identify ways to help reduce distractions.

“As someone with ADHD, the way my computer behaves in a day influences my mood, my productivity and my energy levels,” Kane said. “This became more apparent with virtual work when I didn’t have a break from my computer. The number of notifications I received increased significantly, as did my anxiety levels.”

Users now activate a do not disturb button from any notification, allowing them to silence alerts, emails, and other messages for a certain period of time. While the company told CNN Business it had prior interest in adding this type of feature to Windows, which is already available in some form in Apple and Samsung software, it accelerated the concept when Kane said the notifications were affecting his productivity.

“I now use the focus timer throughout my workday when I’m feeling really overwhelmed — it helps me collect my thoughts in a structured way,” she said. “These characteristics will extend to everyone, but will have a specific impact on those who are neurodiverse.”

During the event, Microsoft said it is also rolling out a tool to pin files, content, and favorite websites for quick access. A new feature called Windows 365 Switch will give users the ability to more easily move between their cloud PC and local desktop.

Other tools aim to proactively combat phishing and targeted malware by identifying and alerting users when they enter their Microsoft credentials into a malicious app or hacked website.

The company didn’t give a timeline for when all the new features will roll out, but the inclusion tools and meeting enhancements will be available for download later this year.

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