Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Making video conferencing work better from a home office



By choice I do a lot of video conferencing.  I moved to a remote area and am on two international boards. I felt it was only polite to people on the other end that I should be as visible and audible as possible. I have spent a lot of time tweaking my home office video conferencing setup using simple, good quality kit that can be bought easily.  There's a lot of interest in getting video to work well as the COVID crisis consumes us so I thought I would share my experience. I have made some small updates since first publishing this post.

Set against the time and money cost of travel in the UK the following upgrades were good value - not the cheapest, but reliable good quality work tools.

Improve the lighting - this transforms the way your camera works, avoiding any need to upgrade that. With decent light your face is visible and you look human, rather than having a yellow cast from domestic lighting. A basic photographer's light shining from behind or alongside the screen you are looking at will illuminate your face.  The modern LED lights in the daylight frequency around 6500K are cheap, last long and don’t give off lots of heat.  This light costs £44.99 a tripod costs £19.99. For smaller desks and more portability try this tabletop light at £25.99  Also don’t sit with your back to a window, cameras can't cope with that and your face becomes invisible.

Use a cable to connect your computer to your router instead of wifi. In my experience domestic wifi isn't robust enough for video calling.  Wiring to the router transforms the stability of the call and makes your speech etc more responsive – i.e. it is easier to get into gaps in the conversation and much more natural. Video usually gets much clearer.  You can just unplug the cable after the call and go back on wifi.  Ethernet cables work up to 100m long which should cover UK houses for home workers. This 50m cable costs £9.99. Modern laptops usually need a USB-LAN adapter like this one and you just plug the other end of the cable into the router and turn wifi off on your laptop, which should then default to the cable.  If you have a locked down corporate laptop ask work IT support and accept my sympathies. The vast majority of home routers require no tweaking to do this and their wifi for the rest of your house should continue just fine.

Use a good headset that connects by USB. This transforms your speech clarity, volume and removes much background noise - by the simple fact that the mic is very close to your mouth and designed to pick up close speech.  If you are standing (say to simulate a lecture or presentation) then, again headsets work best because the mic moves with you and stays close to your mouth.  Position the mic just below your mouth to avoid heavy breathing sounds. The best I have tried is the Jabra Evolve 40 – this also has a long lead so you can move around a bit during a long call and a physical mute button. It’s a lightweight set that you forget you are wearing.  The Jabra Evolve 40 costs £64.

Persuade the meeting room end to get a modern speakerphone (and to hardwire their machine in). Then you can hear people from all around the room as the speakerphone has special microphones designed for that and a good speaker to allow you to be heard. Laptop speakers and mics are not designed for 360 or even 180 degree coverage - just for someone sitting close up in front so are rubbish in meeting rooms. This Sennheiser 20 SP ML is very good at £116 and easily portable. The Clearone Chat 160 is brilliant, but more expensive at around £300. Both of these just plug into a lap top USB port and appear as a speaker and mic in conferencing apps, they require no fancy IT skills or support. I do a lot of work with charities and often buy them a speakerphone.

Improve your internet connection if you can.  Video calls work best when there is very little lag – can you easily interject in natural small gaps in the conversation or not? A meaure of your internet connections laggy-ness is your ‘ping speed’ (or RTT - round trip time) which usually shows up in a speed test.  Broadly speaking this is a measure of the time it takes to send something from your machine to 'the internet' and back.  A ping below 20ms helps a lot with video.   Hard wiring to your router should eliminate a lot of lag due to your wifi.  If your ping is high – say >40ms when wired to the router, contact your internet service provider. Other changes to your package are too complicated to go into here (higher download speeds do not necessarily mean lower ping times) but move to fibre if you can, which tends to be more stable. If you have a friend or relative into online gaming they will likely know all about ping speeds which make a big difference to games too.

Get someone to help you with big group calls. If you are talking to 15 or more people, essentially giving a lecture or presentation then get someone in the call with you to act as your helper so you can concentrate on your presenting.  The helper/DJ/producer person should handle anything arising that isn't your presentation/talk and responses to questions. They should know how to turn off the mics of people who have the TV on in the background or are eating crisps, help people who haven't got the tech working (maybe by telephoning them in parallel) and juggle questions from participants in the text chat feature of your a conference service so you only get the ones you need. Allow five minutes at the start advertised as say a 'Technology Overture' to get everyone set up. Then you can start talking with fewer kit-based interruptions from the audience. 

Use a better video conference service. I use Zoom daily, it is excellent, you just turn it on and it works. It remains to be seen how well it works as the company grows and its network becomes loaded. Zoom is good because it doesn't require the other party to have an account, if you have one.  I also like CiscoWebex a more corporate product that I use with an Australian board and it is excellent – eerily so given the distances. Skype does ok but the interface drives me mad. Google hangouts is great when it works, but always seems quite buggy.

Which of the above you might select depends on the problem you have really.  If video conferencing works really badly for you in a home office - lagging, poor quality etc then first of all try using a cable back to the router, check the ping speed of your internet connection and switch to Zoom. But also check that the problem isn't with your video partner.

If it all works ok but the picture and sound make it all feel a bit of a trial and you wish the call would just end then improve the lighting, headphones and mic. The better the picture and sound, the longer I can endure a call.

3 comments:

  1. Great post. People might also consider their camera position. My otherwise-lovely Dell laptop has its camera bellow the bottom-left corner of the screen. This means I always look over the heads of my audence, rather than facing them. For quick calls, I usually make a joke of this, to explain it, but for longer calls I use an external camera, mounted just above the screen.

    Also, avoid drumming hands on the desk, or putting down ceramic cups or glasses on anything but a soft cork mat - it can sound very loud at the other end! And make sure your keyboard isn't too noisy if you type notes during a call (consider calling a friend and asking them to check this).

    It goes without saying that people who do not mute their mics when not speaking should be shot ;-)

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  2. Good post Will.

    What do you think of Google Hangouts Meet instead of Zoom? I see Google is making it freely available for G Suite users
    https://cloud.google.com/blog/products/g-suite/helping-businesses-and-schools-stay-connected-in-response-to-coronavirus

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  3. Pretty much every webcam these days seems to be good enough even without extra lighting.

    Microsoft Teams puts WebEx and Zoom to shame in my view! And they are big enough to be able to scale up for emergencies which they've already announced. They have also announced how they will keep operations going through any emergencies by distributing staff. Teams supports up to 250 users and I use it daily. There is a web interface as well as Windows, Mac, iOS, Android clients and a new Linux client.

    Teams also has Teams Live Events which supports up to 10k users I think. Though you really do need the support of a "producer" for that.

    Nearly all of my meetings are remote and have been for quite some while (before the current issues).

    A headset is an absolute must as you point out. Your colleagues will thank you and it is much easier for you to listen. Much less tiring to have sound in both ears as well especially if your conference system supports stereo. We use various Plantronics headsets that are hard to beat. Proper conferencing headsets also help protect your hearing for prolonged use.

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