Looking Your Best on Video as You Work from Home

Following up on the Quick Tips for Virtual Meetings we shared last week (link here), I wanted to dive into the topic of looking your best on camera. As pointed out before, much of this is common sense, but you need to think about it from your camera’s point of view.

In the past, it was hard to see what you looked like on camera; now, it is easy. You can open up the camera app on your computer or phone for a quick preview of lighting or placement issues. You may also record the call or use your picture in picture from the app. Viewing these will let you see how others perceive you. How do you look with all the computer and network issues included?

For example, in our all-hands call on Monday, one of our remote workers was a pure black silhouette in our conference room system; in our huddle room he was still a silhouette, but we could make out facial features enough to know who he was. The conference room’s system display uses a hard codec and video bridge to connect the other endpoints, and the huddle room is an LED screen with a soft codec from a PC. This difference in how the image is processed changed how his image was displayed in the different rooms.

How the image is processed impacts how it is displayed.

Another common issue I have seen in recent calls is clutter or other distractions in the background. What is seen behind you is as essential as viewing you. Rather than grabbing a screenshot from a call, I did a quick internet image search online for photo framing to give us examples of things that we should think about when setting up our camera. To me, these images are not business quality, and I have seen backgrounds that were just as distracting on recent calls.

If you can, find a neutral background to sit in front of or if you can, use a green screen effect in your system (Zoom has that ability). My work office has horizontal blinds behind me, and I have strong morning sun that comes in through the window, so I am both silhouetted and have sharp lines behind me; at home, my desk has a similar set up where I am silhouetted, and the background is of a cluttered bookshelf and printer. In both cases, the green screen fixes that for me. I have a beautiful photo of a theatre we recently worked on. When I use it for my background, I always get a positive comment from first-time callers — think marketing opportunity!

In this image it looks like the girl has a pole coming out of her head.

In this image it looks like the man is wearing a medieval crown.

In this image, it looks like water is spouting from her head.

This is a screen shot from a YouTube video that has been floating around for a while. In this case the gentleman is doing a news interview and his young son (in yellow) burst in the room asking him to come play. While it might be considered cute, it is the ultimate distraction.

Way back in 2003, we led an interactive session at InfoComm on “Videoconferencing from the Camera’s Point of View.” That presentation can be downloaded on TA’s website here.

For that presentation, we spent a lot of time on camera placement and what to look for. Remember that was almost 20 years ago. So, a model and a digital still camera and clip art was the norm. But if you look at it, you will see the point of what the camera is looking at.

Yesterday I received an email form an AV system manufacturer that made me laugh.

Camera View Points are often not considered in the room design.

The guy in the video is “looking down his nose” at the folks seated around the huddle table. The guy at the table will have no eye contact with the video subject, and the lady on the left is likely the only person to have good communication contact on the call.

Making eye contact doesn’t always work.

More commonly I see this, a person working at their desk, camera at the top of the monitor, but the person he is looking at is at the bottom of his screen. He thinks he is making eye contact with the person he is looking at on screen, but they only see him looking down. The background is also very cluttered and distracting.

We have used camera placement as part of the experience; we had a Venture Capital firm that did a lot of video calls early on in their research process. They wanted the camera as close to the floor as possible, forcing the prospective that the far end would feel like they are looking at someone from a bench higher than themselves. On another project, for video depositions, we located the camera so it had a view of the door, therefore no one could slip in or out during the deposition without those on the far end being aware of it.

A very good article I came across on this topic of Camera Point of View was by Cindy Burgess in 2016 on How to Frame Your Webcam Video Like A Pro:

She hits many of the points we have in our 2003 presentation but in an updated style!

CNET has another article that looks at it from still another point of view:

Most of this is common sense, but unless you see what you look like to the far end (you’re the near end of a call or meeting) you do not know. When we design rooms for clients, we remind them that any money spent on improving their room is for the far end as they get the majority of the benefit.

The old adage states “dress to impress” the new rule is “Being seen well, is to impress!”

History of Video Meetings

Now that we are working from home or holding virtual meetings, I have seen a lot of interesting images. Back in the early days, the role of video conference systems (VTC) was very different and much more costly. The following is a 30,000-foot look at how Video Calls have evolved. Today’s video calls are the 4th Generation of video calls and virtual meetings:

Gen 1 was the fixed rooms that Peirce-Phelps developed with AT&T in the early 1980s; this is when dedicated rooms with lots of light, good background colors, and great acoustical finishes were standard. While it was not a TV studio, it took a lot of cues from the broadcast world. Calls were very costly from a data point of view and at a much lower bandwidth.

Gen 2 rooms came about in the early ’90s; these were mostly board rooms that had POV considered, but many of the finishes did not fully embrace the needs of the camera or the microphones. This also launched the idea of the roll-about VTC. A large, heavy CRT monitor on a cart with a camera on top and a microphone to string out to the table. The idea was if we are going to invest in this technology, we cannot just put it in one room. It needs to be shared. The funny thing was the systems were rarely shared, and the image was far less than optimal for participants.

Gen 3 rooms came online when ISDN and fractional t-1 connections came down in price and increased in availability. If you were the president, your VTC call was completed at 384kbs, and if you were just the engineers, you only got a third of the band with for a 128 kbs call. CODEC farms were set up and the heart of the VTC experience was the Coder Decoder (CODEC); they were also where much of the cost was in the system. So instead of rolling a cart between dysfunctional rooms, the conference room was up with audio and video, which was routed to a rack holding codecs. The router in front of the codec took the signals and connected them to the network. It allowed codecs to be added as the needs grew.

Gen 4 is a soft codec with fast speeds to your home and work. Remember a one mb connection is three times faster than our 384 connection. The development of Zoom, Blue Jeans, Web-Ex, Go to Meeting, Teams, etc. and the need for a dedicated room and support staff has gone away.