Nothing can replace being together in person, Karen Krishnapriyan, née Dowling, conceded. Still, “These tools can help us make the most of it while we can’t be together,” she said.
Since the pandemic has squashed plans for face-to-face socializing, the Krishnapriyans are among the many people taking celebrations, classes, office work, and academic conferences to the internet to help them feel virtually connected while they’re physically far apart.
For something a bit playful and flexible, a growing number of people, companies, and universities are turning to Gather, which rolled out in the spring with a retro aesthetic and simple navigation (you move your avatar around by using the up, down, left, and right arrows on your keyboard).
Anyone can use it for free with up to 25 friends, with ready-made spaces that look like a plan view of a castle, New York’s Times Square, the moon, or a space you can customize to resemble, say, your home or a faraway beach. There’s also a paid version, which allows more users and adds features like more reliable service. Though the company didn’t provide specific user figures, it seems to be on the small side: CEO and cofounder Phillip Wang said a few thousand people are joining its online spaces each day, most of them using the free version. The company was initially backed by its founders and is currently supported by revenue from hosting conferences and universities.
Wang explains that part of Gather’s appeal is that it’s more fun than popular video chat services. “It’s not as corporate and soul sucking as being in a Zoom meeting all day,” he said.
Perhaps more importantly, Gather also manages to replicate the sense of presence you get when you’re near another person in real life. In a Gather space, you can only see another person’s video-chat feed and hear their voice when your avatar moves close to theirs.
This kind of experience was particularly appealing to Krishnapriyan, an electrical engineer who lives in Oakland, California, who had previously attended someone else’s wedding via Zoom — an experience she called “kind of challenging.” While Zoom’s video chat feature is helpful for connecting long distance — and, in fact, she also used Zoom during the real-life wedding reception to complement the virtual one — she noted that it’s difficult when people want to have private conversations as they normally would in real life.
To ensure her guests felt comfortable with the technology, Krishnapriyan held some pre-wedding practice sessions on Gather.
“Even my grandma figured it out, which was really impressive,” Krishnapriyan said.
And when the day arrived, attendees at her Gather wedding encountered a custom map that looked like it had been snatched from an ’80s role-playing game: It featured a pixelated church with a link to watch a live stream of the ceremony on YouTube, and a reception room with 20 tables, the colors of which were matched to her bridesmaids’ real-life saris. Guests visited the church and then hung out at reception tables, talking via video chat, and Krishnapriyan and her husband let people know via Gather’s messaging feature about upcoming wedding proceedings, like the cake cutting.
Krishnapriyan said her Gather wedding was mostly a fun event but admitted she overcomplicated things by trying to replicate a real-life experience, complete with a dance floor (Gather avatars can’t actually dance) and Spotify playlist. She and her husband only got to interact with about 20 people, as many had already logged off by the time they got online after the in-person ceremony.
Gather is also being used on a regular basis by professors for teaching classes and holding office hours, and by some companies as well. Chris Neilson, an economics professor at Princeton University and founder and CEO of ConsiliumBots, created a detailed office for his education-technology company on the platform, complete with desks for each worker, a break room, and a tiny digital replica of a painting that hangs in his real-life office. To ensure reliable connectivity to Gather (and add some extra features, which include whiteboards), ConsiliumBots has a paid subscription to the service that costs about $7 per person each month.
Prior to Covid-19, ConsiliumBots employees were spread out in offices across the globe. Since August, however, they’ve been working remotely from home but together virtually on Gather, Neilson said.
Neilson enjoys the nostalgia of Gather’s design, but, like Krishnapriyan, he values its sense of proximity. For instance, during a virtual tour of the ConsiliumBots the office, we bumped into four employees hanging out at a recently installed poker table; it was only when we got very close that we could see their video feeds, in which they were chatting and laughing.
“We’re more together now, sometimes, than we were before,” he said.
Nielson expects everyone to show up online daily, and stick around the ersatz office during working hours. If an employee isn’t on Gather, he said he respects their space and won’t bother them.
Yet while some users are finding Gather useful for special occasions and daily work, it’s not clear whether video chat will remain in high demand when the pandemic eventually subsides. As Jeffrey Hall, a professor at the University of Kansas and director of the schools’ Relationships and Technology Lab, pointed out, before the pandemic, people were largely choosing not to use video-chat technology, despite its availability.
“Gather may explode for the next six months and then disappear if and when a vaccine becomes available, and is safe and effective,” he said.
Neilson, at least, is more sanguine about Gather’s prospects, as far as his company is concerned.
“I think we might use it even if we didn’t have Covid, because now we’ve gotten used to it,” he said.