Can You See Me Now?

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How do we have a good video meeting?

The answer is the same as for a face-to-face meeting-we need to hear and see well in order to communicate and meet effectively. In terms of videoconferencing, how do we set things up visually to support that goal? This is a challenge on almost every project. For the sake of argument, let's just say the audio is already perfect (nothing to it, right?). Now let's talk about how to make the video perfect as well.

What is important to the video image? Color, resolution, size? Yes, they are all important, but what is the most important aspect of a meeting, whether face-to-face or video? Eye contact. You want to look someone in the eye to see what they are really saying, and to let them know you are listening.

Next on the priority list: proper size of the far-end image. We have all seen video meetings where the far end has the camera in the corner looking down. While that is an extreme example, where does the camera need to be? How do you place the camera to show people at their best and optimize eye contact? It can be done, and for the sake of a good meeting, it should be done.

Think of your experience watching the evening news. As the reporter reads the teleprompter, he or she has powerful eye contact with you, the viewer. The reporter is obliged to look at the lens while reading, and that lens is your portal into the newsroom. If the reporter misses the cue to shift to another camera, he or she is no longer "speaking" to you. We want to replicate that face-to-face intimacy in our video meeting rooms.

A meeting room teleprompter is one possible solution-you will likely see one of these on the exhibit floor at InfoComm-because it induces people to look into the camera, and provides a reflected image that helps them to make eye contact. It works best for small meetings and costs less than systems that provide life-size presences.

It's mostly in the camera placement. A common default setup is to have one monitor displaying your PowerPoint, another transmitting the far-end image, and the camera in the center. This will work if your subjects are far enough away from the display and the camera-but if the placement of people and equipment is off, you won't have a good visual connection between the parties. Ditto for set-top box videoconferencing units. It is convenient to have everything in a single unit, but it imposes certain geometries on the situation. When we experimented with a set-top box positioned atop a display, the far end stated that we were not "looking" at them. When we put the camera at the bottom of the display, they complained that all they could see were nose hairs.

Most events, attractions, performances, and presentations-concerts, movies, live theatre, dark rides, broadcasts, political rallies-balance a hearing component with a visual component. We have the luxury of taking this for granted when we are passive consumers. But the situation changes when we are participants or producers, and today's technology puts more and more of us into those roles. To get the real benefits of videoconferencing, we must think like camera operators.