In one of last month’s posts I provided some tips and tricks for effectively delivering virtual presentations (see “Presenting online effectively: Experience-based tips for the technical professional“); many of these are equally valid even if you’re solely participating as a peer in a meeting, not actually screen-sharing a slide deck or otherwise leading the session. While I talked about gear in a general sense (webcams, mics, lighting, etc.), I thought it might be helpful to follow up with some specifics on the equipment I’ve personally tried (for better and worse).
As I mentioned last time, and as I write this in early November 2021, I’m about two months away from crossing through a quarter-century of working predominantly from home. So, in a sense, the last couple of pandemic-influenced years aren’t anything new. What’s changed, of course, is that pretty much everyone else is working from home right now, too; a lot of lessons I learned a long time ago are more recent revelations for my peers. And since nobody in the office has regular face-to-face contact right now, I’m no longer the outlier in this regard; unfortunately, for this introvert, it also means that telephone-only meetings no longer suffice. Zoom’s now the norm, and cameras-on is assumed. Here’s how I’ve learned to present myself both audibly and visually as effectively as my ugly mug and monotonous delivery allow. 😉
One of the most common mistakes I see people make is focusing solely on their broadband Internet service’s downstream bandwidth. Keep in mind that when you’re on-camera and on-mic you’re a content creator—not the typical content consumer. Upstream bandwidth is therefore the critical parameter in such situations. It’s fundamentally what compelled me to upgrade to Comcast’s Gigabit plan a bit more than a year ago, both for my own needs and so that my wife (who also works from home) could in-parallel hold her own meetings without either of us needing to worry about tromping on the other’s bandwidth needs.
Keep in mind that the bandwidth potential of your broadband modem will be for naught if your router can’t keep pace with it; GbE LAN and WAN ports are key, along with similarly speedy packet processing inside the unit. And keep in mind, too, that the speed, latency, and overall reliability of the connection between your computer and the router are also critical; an interference-plagued or otherwise inferior Wi-Fi connection just won’t cut it. Fortunately, I’ve got GbE cable running throughout the house, including between the furnace room (where the cable modem, router and primary GbE multi-port switch are located) and my office directly above it. And of course, my computers are GbE-capable, too. Speaking of which…
I regularly rotate among four different computers in my office, three of them laptops. Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, along with my AgileBits 1Password and Mozilla Firefox accounts, help me keep them all in sync. Two of the computers, a 5th-generation Microsoft Surface Pro with LTE (driving two Dell UP2516 25” 2560×1440 pixel QHD LCDs via its docking station, in addition to its own 12.3” 2736×1824 pixel LCD) and a first-generation Surface Pro X with an integrated 13” 2880×1920 pixel LCD, run Windows (10 and 11, respectively).
One of my Macs, an early-2015 13” MacBook Pro, is tethered to a Samsung S22E450D 21.5” 1920×1080 pixel FHD LCD along with its built-in 2560×1600 pixel Retina-resolution LCD. The other, a 2014 Mac mini, mates to two Dell P2415Q 24” 3840×2160 pixel 4K LCDs. Both Macs recently received upgrades to MacOS 10.15 “Catalina.”
My office is…how do I put it…perpetually a mess, as this Zoom-generated view validates:
Therefore, although I realize I recommended in my prior post on this topic that you not use a virtual background, I’m compelled to do so out of necessity. That’s OK, because I’m not solely relying on imperfect computer vision algorithms to differentiate between me and everything else, with “interesting” resultant artifacts when the discernment fails. I’ve also got a “green screen” from The Webaround (which made last year’s holiday gift suggestion list) as needed mounted to the back of my chair as an algorithmic aid:
Even if I used only it, it’d be an improvement:
But assuming my face and torso are well lit (which I’ll cover next), the green-screen assist does a solid job of enabling me to obscure my messy office with a variety of virtual backgrounds:
Work-themed (trust me, it’s correctly mirror-imaged on the audience side):
Or more light-hearted:
Truth be told, both of my Macs are so old that they don’t support using virtual backgrounds unless I also use a green screen (they also don’t support motion virtual backgrounds at all), so going green-screen-less isn’t an option for me even if I wanted it to be. Also, keep in mind that even if you only use Zoom’s blur effect to render the physical background out-of-focus, you’re still relying on those same CV algorithms to differentiate between you and everything else.
In last year’s gift guide, I suggested a ring light to provide even, diffuse illumination of your head and torso regardless of ambient lighting conditions:
It’s still a solid recommendation, at least for many folks, but it’s ended up not working out so well for me. As you’ve likely already noticed from the earlier photos, even though I wear bifocal contact lenses, advancing age and presbyopia have combined to compel me to supplement them with reading glasses. The circular-illumination reflections of a ring light in the glasses’ lenses would be a distracting-to-audience non-starter.
Instead, I picked up an inexpensive (they were on sale for $58.72 when I bought them) pair of LED lights:
I’ve set them up ~30° off axis from me (one on other side) on the countertop behind my desk and pointed toward me. That way, their reflections aren’t visible in my glasses, but they still evenly illuminate me. They’re dimmable, so that I can adjust their intensity depending on time-of-day and other ambient illumination variables. Since they comprise an array of both white and yellow LEDs, their color temperature is also adjustable. And all of this, including all-important on/off switching, is user-managed via an included wireless remote control (there are also hardware buttons built into the lights themselves as backup).
Another, fancier option you might want to consider is a set of Elgato Key Light Airs:
While they’re more stylish (IMHO) than the Neewer units I showed you earlier, they’re also quite a bit more expensive: Each light will normally set you back $129.99 (that’s more than $250 for a pair). They occasionally are available from parent company Corsair refurbished for $99.99 each, and I even picked up a promotion-priced pair of brand-new lights for $186.98 a few months back. As with the Neewer lights, they’re wirelessly controllable, but with a twist (and no hardware-button backup, either, by the way); instead of a dedicated remote control, they leverage Wi-Fi in conjunction with an app running on a computer or mobile device (such as a smartphone or tablet) connected to the same network (initial pairing is Wi-Fi-only).
The three laptops I own have integrated webcams: 5 Mpixel/1080p front-facing for the two Windows machines (the rear cameras aren’t usable for online meetings, perhaps obviously), and 1.2 Mpixel/720p for the MacBook Pro. The Mac mini is USB2-connected to a Logitech C920 Pro webcam (3 Mpixel/1080p):
A note on higher frame rate and/or higher video resolution webcams, of which the Logitech BRIO is a good example: while standard videoconferencing applications like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Zoom may not be able to harness their enhanced video potential (a conscious decision, I suspect, both to minimize per-client bandwidth requirements and processing-and-storage burdens at the “cloud”), other common video streaming applications like OBS aren’t similarly constrained. And regardless, if you’re recording your presentation or other session offline for subsequent upload and playback over YouTube or elsewhere, you’ll likely be able to harness the resolution, frame rate, HDR and other enhanced capabilities of a more advanced webcam. So, for futureproofing if no other reason, buying a more advanced camera than your current situation demands isn’t a bad move if your budget allows.
One downside to any webcam (that I’m aware of, at least) is that regardless of the embedded image sensor’s native (versus software-interpolated) resolution and other characteristics, the lens it’s mated to is inevitably a fixed focal length, and its close-focusing capabilities (not to mention its more general optical attributes) tend to be subpar. The one thing I don’t like much about my green screen is that because of its circular shape (versus a “Wide Shot” rectangular model that the company seemingly no longer sells), I need to sit quite close (uncomfortably, sometimes) to the webcam so that the virtual background’s edges (and real-world mess beyond them) don’t appear in the footage. A camera with an optical zoom lens would address this issue, and I’m prepping to try just such a setup; stand by for more coverage to come on this topic. It also occurred to me as I was writing this that the microphone built into the camera I plan to use might also be an interesting option for my setup’s audio needs. Speaking of which…
As I mentioned in last month’s piece, relying solely on your computer’s built-in speakers and microphone (array, hopefully, at least) is a recipe for (sooner or later) disaster. Not only will the resultant audio quality be subpar even under the best of circumstances, but this approach is also prone to picking up (and broadcasting to your audience) unwanted background noise. Speaking of noise, those around you probably won’t appreciate hearing your meeting soundtrack coming out the speakers, either. And inevitably, that same out-of-speakers audio will eventually leak back into the microphone, resulting in egregious feedback loop whine.
Generally, I instead still stick with a tried-and-true USB headset:
As I wrote a year ago, the digital interface bypasses the computer’s often inferior ADC and DAC stages. The audio output goes right in your ear(s), while your voice goes right in the close-proximity mic, so there’s no feedback-loop potential to worry about. It’s a wired connection, so a nearby in-operation microwave oven or other 2.4 GHz ISM band broadcaster won’t interfere. And since the headset is powered by that same USB connection, you don’t have to worry about batteries dying on you partway through a meeting.
However, some folks just don’t want to have something so obviously sitting on their heads (and potentially messing up their hair, of which I have little anymore) while they’re on-camera. One commonly cited alternative is a USB-tethered microphone, such as one of Blue’s (now owned by Logitech) models:
I recently picked up an inexpensive open-box Blue Yeti as an experiment, although I’m admittedly skeptical. It’s enormous, for one thing, although if the microphone is off-camera, size isn’t so much of an issue. My bigger concern is the lingering potential for a feedback loop, which can be alleviated by swapping out the computer speakers for a wired headphone set …but then you’re back to having something on your head again!
The other common alternative approach is to leverage a set of diminutive Bluetooth headphones with integrated mics, such as Apple’s AirPods Pro units, whose built-in active ambient noise suppression is also handy:
I confess to grabbing my AirPods Pro set sometimes for use in meetings where my consistency of presence isn’t critical, out of convenience. But beyond the already mentioned battery life and interference concerns, I can’t seem to keep my set reliably connected to my Mac! Typically, while others can hear me, I can’t hear them, even if the preparatory “test audio” step has worked fine. Overriding the headphones’ default auto-pairing function—manually disconnecting-then-reconnecting them prior to jumping into the meeting—seems to help, but not always. And it’s not just me, which is equal parts comforting and frustrating.
I hope that my hands- and eyes- and ears-on perspectives on the gear I’ve tried to date have been helpful as you plan, purchase, and hook up your setup. Thoughts on anything I’ve discussed, along with perspectives on other gear you’ve used, are as-always welcomed in the comments!
—Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.