May 17, 2022

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Virtual meetings are here to stay. Microsoft wants to make it even better

During a virtual event on Tuesday, the company showcased its vision for the future of hybrid work while previewing new features coming to Windows 11 virtually Six months after its release.

The tools put a huge emphasis on productivity with AI-powered features like quieting background noises like lawn mowers and crying babies, and automatic framing so that the camera tracks the movements of the speaker. There’s also a feature that subtly raises the speaker’s eyes to make it appear that they’re looking directly into the camera in video calls, and a security tool that reduces phishing.

But some noteworthy features focus on inclusivity with a subset of tools developed in part by Microsoft (MSFT) Employees with disabilities.

For example, the new live captions feature started as an idea from Swetha Machanavajhala, deaf product manager at Azure Cognitive Services, who said she was struggling to keep up with meetings. She needed a device to read the comments generated by the human commentator and a computer to take notes, all while focusing on the presentation. She said the pandemic has heightened the need for change.

“The meetings were very tedious, involving a great deal of coordination between viewing content on one screen and comments on another. I often missed information and felt left out,” Machanavagala told CNN Business. “I can’t be as productive as my peers.”

During a hackathon, I led a team of 10 Microsoft employees to deliver generic captions across the Windows platform, allowing any type of audio that comes out of the computer to be named in real time — whether it’s from a Windows product like Teams or other services, like YouTube Or a podcast, FaceTime, or a website. She later showed the tool to executives who agreed to make it an official feature of Windows 11. The new tool can also name the audio captured by the microphone, providing captions to the user if they are talking to someone in person.

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Similarly, another new Windows 11 tool called Focus was developed in part by a Windows product manager with ADHD (ADHD). Alexis Kane said she often felt 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 affects my mood, productivity, and energy levels,” said Kane. “This became more evident with default when I didn’t stop using my computer. The number of notifications I received increased dramatically and so did my anxiety levels.”

Users now turn on the Do Not Disturb button from any notification, allowing them to mute alerts, email, and other messages for a certain period of time. While the company told CNN Business it had a previous interest in adding this type of feature to Windows — which is already available in some form on Apple and Samsung software — it was quick to track the concept when Kane said notifications were affecting its productivity.

“I now use the focus timer throughout my work day when I feel really overwhelmed; it helps me collect my thoughts in an organized way,” she said. “These features will extend to everyone but will be particularly impressive for those with neurodiversity.”

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

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

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The company hasn’t provided a timeline for when all of the new features will be rolled out, but inclusion tools and meeting improvements will be available for download later this year.