August 26, 2020 Technology

Video Conferencing 1A

By Jeffrey M. Allen & Ashley Hallene

Partially as a result of the advances of technology and significantly as a response to the restrictions imposed by government respecting the attempt to limit the spread of Covid-19, our society as a whole and most of us as individuals have become more willing to use and, in many cases, more dependent upon video conferencing technology. Accordingly, it made sense to us to give you a short course in how to do video conferencing well in this month’s column. Welcome to Video Conferencing 1A, a lower division course in the basics of video conferencing. Underscoring the relevance and the importance of this technology, we point to the fact that it has grown in all manner of uses from intimate conversations between lovers, to family get togethers, to social gatherings among friends, to business meetings, medical visits, and the practice of law. Simply put, you can’t escape people wanting to use one form of video conferencing or another.

You have many platforms to choose among. For a long time, many (maybe most) casual video conferencers used either Apple’s FaceTime platform or Skype. Skype and FaceTime still exist and get a fair amount of use; but, in fact, we have many, many platforms available to us these days. We thought it would prove clever to ask Google how many there were and report that to you. Note, however that Microsoft has acquired control of Skype in plans to replace it with Microsoft Teams. Rumor has it that Skype will terminate operations effective July 2021. We posed the question, but Google did not give us a number. Instead it referred me to a series of articles discussing the “top” offerings. Just to give you an example, here is a link to one author’s top 91 (we could not help wondering why the author did not just include 9 more and make it an even 100; but it is what it is). https://www.trustradius.com/web-conferencing#products. Although we have a fair amount of knowledge respecting video conferencing, we confess that the 91 included numerous platforms which we have never heard of before. We were familiar with most of the listed platforms, however, as well as a few that did not make this list of 91.

One of the most significant pieces of information is that on the list of 91: Zoom got listed first. Here is someone else’s list of the top seven: https://www.dgicommunications.com/video-conferencing-software/. Again, Zoom got listed first. In this list of 10, Zoom came in at number 5. https://www.techradar.com/best/best-video-conferencing-software. We could go on, but the bottom line: most of the articles we found comparing video conferencing platforms listed Zoom at or near the top of the heap. That information matched our own preferences and proved consistent with our observation that the majority of the personal and professional meetings we have been invited to attend on video conferencing platforms since the beginning of the Covid lockdown used Zoom.

As a result, we determined that we should focus this brief course on ZOOM, with the caveat that most of the information we will impart to you in this article will prove platform agnostic, meaning that most of what works on ZOOM will work on most other platforms as well. Yes, each of the platforms has its own operating and command structure; but basics like background and lighting apply universally.

With these considerations in mind, we thought it would prove helpful to give you a few pointers about looking your best as you participate in a video conference for personal and for professional reasons.

First off, in many cases, if you are attending a webinar, such as a CLE course, you will not show on camera and will not have the ability to speak in the conference. It is a look and listen only operation and, in most cases, your participation will be limited to texting questions to the panelists or speaker.

In virtual meeting situations where you will have audio and video available for your use, you can generally choose to opt out of one or both. Most platforms let you mute your microphone and turn your camera off and on during the conference. In Zoom you have little microphone and video camera icons that appear on the bottom left of your computer window. If you click on those icons a line goes through them or comes off of them. When the line is visible, you have muted your microphone or turned off your camera. When you can’t see the line, others can see and/or hear you. The controls work independently, so you can be seen but not heard or heard but not seen as you choose.

Many platforms (Zoom included) allow you to set an image of your choosing to show when you have turned your camera off. We think you should get a nice head shot and put that into place so that it shows. That works very well and looks professional, even if you have a horrible hair day or have not shaven or changed out of your pajamas. If it is a casual meeting or a meeting with friends, you can always swap out the business or professional head shot for a casual picture. Either way, nobody sees how bad you look that day.

As an aside, you can get small lens covers that will stick on your display and give you a slide that will block your camera lens. That prevents accidentally showing you on the screen when you don’t want to be seen. It also prevents the bad guys from capturing your camera and taking a video of you without your knowledge. We leave ours in place all the time and only open the slide to let the camera work when we want to be seen in a video conference.

You want to use some judgment about what you allow people to see. You need to remember that when you appear on the screen, so do some of your surroundings. If you set up in a room that looks like a tornado handled the decorating, people will see the mess and form whatever opinions that causes them to form about you. That has importance for personal and social meetings and more importance for professional meetings and court appearances. With most platforms you can see what you and your background look like on the screen. We recommend that before you do a video conference, you turn the platform on and look at yourself and your surroundings. If you see a mess, you may want to clean it. Alternatively, move it far enough off to the side that the camera cannot see it.

If cleaning up requires too much effort, consider using a real or a virtual background. Real backgrounds have the advantage of hiding whatever you put behind them and offering no video lag problems, even if your Internet speed works slower than you would like. Virtual backgrounds hide everything but often will have a lag problem that results in portions of the illusion momentarily revealing a glimpse of the man behind the curtain. In truth virtual backgrounds work best if you put a green screen or the equivalent behind you. That way nobody sees behind the curtain.

You can also improve your video appearance by investing in a better, fancier, higher resolution camera than the one that came with your desktop computer, laptop or tablet. While many of those cameras are excellent, some are not. Look at how you appear on the screen and consider whether a better camera might help. If so, you can buy a stand-alone camera that will connect to your computer through a USB port and upgrade your appearance. We have seen webcams for under $100 and well over $1,000. We do not have the time or space in this article to do a rundown of webcams for you; so we will cut right to the chase: we think that Logitech gives you the best image for your money. If you want to buy a webcam, we think you should opt for 1080p resolution. You can get good Logitech cameras for pretty reasonable prices. We have seen the Logitech C920S for $69 and the C930e for $129. We like both of them, but they have grown increasingly hard to find during the pandemic. If you are lucky enough to find some available and you get a choice between the two, we recommend that you spend the extra money for the C930 as it comes with a Carl Zeiss lens. For those of you not into photography, Zeiss has a reputation for outstanding lens quality.

Your audio presentation offers another consideration. If you use a good quality computer or a modern iPad and have reasonably good Internet speed you should be fine for most purposes using the microphone built into your device. In fact, most devices do not use the world’s best microphones, so you can always improve the sound you transmit by acquiring a separate microphone. You have many microphones designed for podcasting and the like to choose from. Also, if you upgrade your camera, many of the better webcams also include a pretty fair microphone. The Logitech C930, for example comes with a decent (not great) omnidirectional microphone.

If you opt for a stand-alone microphone, one of our favorites comes from the folks at Blue; they call it the Yeti. It has been around for a while, but still does a great job. You can find it through Amazon, among other places, for less than $200. Other microphones to consider include products from Samson and Shure. Samson has a very decent device called the Q2U. We just checked on Amazon and found it for under $70. We don’t like it as much as the Yeti; but it also costs less than half as much. On the other end of the spectrum, if you want to spend more and get an excellent device, look at Shure’s SM7B. It will set you back a bit more than $300, but it is pretty much professional quality.

Seriously, we do not recommend that you overbuy. Sometimes too much comes down to just too much. We think most people who have a decent computer, or a modern iPad can probably get by with the internal mic and built in camera. If you want to upgrade, the Logitech camera with the omnidirectional mic should do the trick. If you just want to upgrade audio, we would go with the Yeti. If you want to buy more than you really need, that’s up to you.

No matter how good a camera you get, it won’t resolve the problem created by bad lighting. If you know anything about photography, you know how important light is to the ultimate image. Video conferencing involves, among other things, basic photography issues and lighting heads that list. Bad lighting makes for bad pictures and bad video images.

In looking at the lighting for your conference consider the following:

  1. Insufficient light makes for dark unsatisfactory images.
  2. Too much light makes for washed out unsatisfactory images.
  3. Lighting from behind creates dark spots and shadows and can even demonize your appearance.
  4. Side lighting can work very well.
  5. Front lighting can also work well. It makes your image look good but can make it harder for you to see what you need to see on the screen.

We prefer side lighting but try side and front and see what works best for you.

If you need extra lighting, you can go inexpensively and add a portable lamp (like a desk lamp) to the mix. If you want, you can buy lighting packages for under $100 that will improve the image you project. You can also spend a lot more. If you opt to by a lighting package, we particularly like the Lumecube (www.lumecube.com). They make lighting for still and video cameras including those mounted in mobile phones. They also offer a Video Conference Lighting kit currently on sale for $69.95 ($10 off the regular price). That setup to mounts using a suction cup to the back of a computer monitor or a laptop screen and provides front lighting. You can get creative and find a way to make it work from the side if you try hard enough. They also sell a Broadcast Lighting Kit currently on sale for $129.95 (a $5 discount). The Broadcast Lighting Kit mounts the light on a tripod allowing you easy flexibility in locating it. We have tried the Video Conference Kit and like it. We have not tried the Broadcast Kit but can see liking it even more. Go for it if you want to get the extra flexibility and spend the extra money (we didn’t).

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Authors

Jeffrey M. Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California, where he has practiced since 1973. He is active in the ABA, the California State Bar Association, and the Alameda County Bar Association. He is a co-author of the ABA books Technology Tips for Seniors,Technology Tips for Seniors Volume 2.0, Technology Solutions for Today's Lawyer and Technology Tips for Lawyers and Other Business Professionals.

Ashley Hallene is a Texas-licensed attorney and a Petroleum Land Manager at Macpherson Energy Corporation in Bakersfield, California. Prior to moving to California, she practiced Oil and Gas law, Title Examination, Due Diligence, Acquisitions and Oil and Gas Leasing in Houston, Texas. She frequently speaks in technology CLEs and is Editor-in-Chief of the GPSolo eReport and Chair of the Senior Lawyers Division Publications Board.  She is co-author of the ABA books Technology Tips for Seniors and Technology Tips for Seniors Volume 2.0