There are some inherent problems, however, with this do-it-yourself approach. We have all experienced nagging issues with PC-based videocalls: poor audio quality, poorly aimed video cameras with limited fields of vision, and overly complicated setup and implementation issues. We found a great solution that corrects many of these problems and is economical to boot. The answer is the Meeting Owl by the folks at Owl Labs.
The Meeting Owl is a conical device that connects to your PC via a USB cable. You can use the Meeting Owl with most of the web conferencing apps that are in popular use these days. The Owl handles the video and audio feeds; the web conferencing app that you choose handles the connectivity, screen sharing, instant messaging and other ancillary functions of the conference.
We have been victims of enough substandard videocalls, so we bought a Meeting Owl to see if this device could make our experience more reliable and professional. We were surprised to find the cost of the Meeting Owl was only $799, a far cry from the $30,000 we spent for a videoconference solution a few years ago.
When our Meeting Owl arrived, we quickly went into the conference room to test it out. We really despise complicated setup routines and detest, even more, having to read fine print user manuals. Thankfully, the Meeting Owl was a breeze to set up. It is virtually plug and play, and we were ready to start our first videocall within a few minutes.
The first thing we noticed about the Meeting Owl was the odd design. It has a matte black finish that sort of looks like Amazon’s popular Echo device except there is a 360-degree camera on the top. When you turn the Owl on, there are a couple of status lights that blink on and off and then become solid when the device is streaming video. We finally understood the reason for the name of the device; it does look like an owl. It is, at once, both a little freaky and kind of cool.
We proceeded to use the Meeting Owl to facilitate videocalls using several web apps, including Skype, Zoom and LoopUp. Our experience was solid. We were duly impressed. One of our pet peeves with video and audio conference calls is audio problems due to the limitations of the microphone, especially when one of the call participants is located several feet away from the microphone—for example, at the end of a conference room table. We experienced no such audio failure with the Meeting Owl, even when we tested people speaking who were 8 to 10 feet away from the device. The Meeting Owl offers excellent audio clarity because it is equipped with an eight-microphone array of highly sensitive microphones located around the circumference of the device. Furthermore, the accompanying software that drives the Owl enhances the audio by using a 45-kHz sampling rate and works to cancel annoying echoes. In fact, according to the manufacturer, the Owl has an audio range of up to 12 feet all around the device in full 360-degree wideband mode. So, the microphone array in the Meeting Owl passed the audio test with flying colors. Next, we tried out video with the Owl’s 720p camera. (The new $999 Meeting Owl Pro has 1080p resolution.) Of course, you can view the video image on the connected computer or stream the image to an enabled TV or projector. A nice, distinguishing feature of the Meeting Owl is the ability to see the entire room during the videocall. This feature is particularly useful when multiple people are participating on the call sitting around a conference table. Being able to view the entire room gives more of a sense of being present in the room rather than just on a remote call. The Owl can render this panoramic view by stitching together the images from the 360-degree camera that sits on top of the device. So, everyone within range of the Owl is on camera all the time, allowing the viewers to pick up nonverbal communications from the group. Participants must refrain from checking smartphones or doodling while on videocalls with the Owl. We are convinced this is a good feature; it may help keep calls on schedule and on point.
Another very useful feature is the ability of the Meeting Owl to determine what individual is speaking and automatically focus the spotlight frame on that individual. In other words, what you see in the conferencing app is a panoramic view of the entire room across the top of the screen and a separate frame of the person speaking just below the panoramic view. Unfortunately, in our testing, this feature was a little erratic and didn’t always detect the current speaker quickly enough, especially when there was a rapid-fire discussion among multiple people. The device is supposed to be able to focus on up to three people at once in separate video frames if all three are speaking at the same time. We hope that an update to the Meeting Owl’s internal software will remedy this problem. Software updates for the Owl are downloaded automatically when the device connects to a Wi-Fi signal.
After our testing, we concluded that the Meeting Owl was an impressive solution for videoconferencing in small group settings. We felt like it was well worth the $799 purchase price. We especially appreciate the fact that, with the Meeting Owl, videoconferences are not relegated to still cameras that make the participants look like hostages making forced video statements. Instead, meetings can flow much more naturally with people moving around the room and multiple participants contributing. The Meeting Owl keeps up with the action and delivers solid audio and video performance.
So, if you are looking for an alternative to your stale videoconference presence that has a lot of fancy bells and whistles, you probably should wise up and try out the Meeting Owl.