It's Zoom's world, we just live it.
That phrase has been uttered a lot over the past few weeks, as businesses around the world have turned to the video conferencing app to connect for meetings. Indeed, a number of folks we've queried in our #WFH Diaries series have reported being on Zoom essentially all day long.
Throw in some Zoom happy hours, and Zoom wine nights, and Zoom card games, and it can be a bit much. Matt Reed, a creative technologist at Redpepper in Nashville, was certainly feeling the strain, anyway.
"My number of Zoom meetings has gone through the mesosphere and is currently on Mars," Reed writes on his agency's blog. "There’s barely even time for bio-breaks, Reddit, or actually getting work done. It’s as if Zoom has turned into the Oasis from Ready Player One, where everyone spends every waking hour of their day inside."
So, Reed flexed his creative tech chops and came up with an amusing solution. He built a digital A.I.-powered twin of himself, named Zoombot, and had the clone show up for the Zoom meetings in his place.
Zoombot uses advanced A.I. speech recognition and text-to-speech tools to actually respond to other people in the meetings. Also, Reed didn't warn his colleagues he was doing this—and their reactions in the video below are priceless.
Initially inspired by a tweet that showed up in his feed, Reed tells Muse that he and some co-workers were joking around about ways to get out of Zoom calls so they could do other things.
"The idea of a digital twin of yourself came up," he says. "We also knew we wanted to do something to bring a smile to people, and the digital twin that awkwardly handled your Zoom meetings using overused meeting jargon could do just that. At the worst, it could stall for you while you take a bio-break, and ideally it would handle your entire meeting from 'Hello' to 'Bye' without anyone noticing. Oh, but they noticed."
Reed had already been working with Artyom.js, a speech recognition and text-to-speech library, for another project. So, he knew it had the capability to listen for key phrases and speak back anything you program it to.
"It's basically a library to build your own custom voice assistant using standard web technologies," he says. "The best part is, you don't have to give it a wake word like 'Alexa' or 'Siri' to get it started. It listens for just the command phrases like 'How are you?' or 'Are you OK?' or 'Could you send that?'—which triggers a chain of commands like cycling through the stills of my face and speaking back the response text."
Among the prompts/replies Reed set up:
• "How are you?" replies "I'm doing great thank you for asking."
• "Did you get that?" replies "I'm having trouble hearing you."
• "Bye" replies "Talk to everybody later. Be safe."
Artyom also has limited voice options—Reed chose a British accent for added humor. Zoombot took about four hours to build, and Reed spent about another four hours setting up Zoom meetings and recording his colleagues' real reactions.
"That was the best part, honestly," he says of his colleagues' attempt to understand just what the hell was going on. "The trick is leaving the meeting right before the funny wears off, because Zoombot can be endlessly annoying once you get into its infinite loops of 'Let's circle back' and 'I can't hear you, could you repeat that?' But they're hilarious for a while."
So, what has Reed been doing with all his free time? "Making that coffee whip stuff everybody is making," he reveals. "Stuff is delicious."
Want to build your own Zoombot? You can get a copy of it here and customize it. "Talk to everybody later. Be safe," Reed says.