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

During a virtual event on Tuesday, the company showcased its vision for the future of hybrid work with a preview of new features coming almost six months after Windows 11 launched.

The tools are largely focused on productivity, with AI-powered features like quieting background noise like lawnmowers and babies crying, and auto-framing so the camera follows the speaker’s movements. There’s also a feature that subtly raises a speaker’s eyes to appear as if they’re looking directly at the camera during video calls, and a security tool that limits phishing.

However, some of the most notable features focus on inclusivity with a subset of tools developed in part by Microsoft (MSFT) employees with disabilities.

For example, the new live closed captions feature began as an idea from Swetha Machanavajhala, a deaf senior product manager at Azure Cognitive Services, who said she struggles to keep up in meetings. She needed a device to read subtitles created by a human captioner and a computer to take notes while she focused on the presentation. The pandemic has increased the need for change, she said.

“Meetings were extremely daunting and required a lot of eye coordination between the presentation content on one screen and the captions on another screen. I often lacked information and felt left out,” Machanavajhala told CNN Business. “I could not be as productive as my colleagues.”

During a hackathon, she led a team of 10 Microsoft employees to deploy universal closed captioning on the Windows platform, allowing any type of audio coming off the computer to be captioned in real-time—regardless of whether it’s a Windows product is like Teams or other services, like YouTube, a podcast, FaceTime, or a website. She later introduced 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 and provide the user with closed captions when speaking 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 often feels overwhelmed by the barrage of notifications when working from home and is looking to help Microsoft find ways to reduce distractions.

“As someone with ADHD, the way my computer behaves in a day affects my mood, my productivity, and my energy levels,” Kane said. “This was more evident in 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.”

Now users turn on a “Do Not Disturb” button in every notification, allowing them to silence alerts, emails, and other messages for a specified period of time. While the company told CNN Business that it was already interested 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 notifications are their affect productivity.

“I now use the focus timer throughout my workday when I feel like I’m really overwhelmed; it helps me organize my thoughts in a structured way,” she said. “These functions will extend to everyone, but are especially important for those who are neurodiverse.”

During the event, Microsoft announced that it is also introducing a tool to pin favorite files, content and websites for quick access. A new feature called Windows 365 Switch gives users the ability to more easily switch between their cloud PC and local desktop.

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

The company said the latest software will be available for download later this year.

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