In 1968, at the World’s Fair in New York, the first attempt at mainstream video conferencing technology was on display. Visitors could spend a few minutes chatting via video and be awed by the possibilities. The Picturephone operated at the mind-boggling speed of 1 frame per 2 seconds. While it was undoubtedly an unforgettable experience for the fairgoers of the time, a few decades of advancements were needed. By the late 2000s, video conferencing became widely used in high-tech and high-revenue industries. Now, as we learn to work and learn remotely, video conference tech has become a must in many industries.
Video conferencing allows us to hold meetings from anywhere in the world, including our kitchens, at any time. With a click of a link, others can join our conferences. It is a great way to brainstorm with your remote team, hold a training session, present to a client or kick off a project. While hosting a video conference is easier than ever, doing it WELL is another thing. A poorly executed video meeting is distracting and wasteful of everyone’s time. Use this checklist to get your hardware and technology right to ensure your online conferences can be engaging and effective.
While the phrase “hardware and technology” does not technically include the location, it is a critical component for a successful video conference. Give serious consideration to exactly where you will sit. The factors of the room can impact the quality of everyone’s experience. A larger or smaller room can affect your audio choices. Windows and the time of day will affect your lighting decisions. An empty room can have a significant echo, which is distracting. Look at it as you would look at the set or background of any other video.
For best results, find a room that you are sure will have continuous quiet during the call. Also, everything within the viewable area should be clean and appropriate for a meeting space. Look for an area with neutrality in the colors and decor. Your family photos and kid’s sports trophies are great, but they should not be in the background of your video conference. A mostly blank wall is best but incorporate a few well-placed items like a painting that isn’t too busy or some plants.
Clear audio is going to be one of the most important things to achieve with your video conference set-up since the entire point is communication. The layout of your space is a significant factor, and some minor adjustments can help. For example, an empty room can create a lot of echoes. The size and shape of your room will affect the sound as well. A rectangular room with a moderately low ceiling has the lowest reverberation of sounds. Strategically placing furniture can help absorb sound to give you better results, too.
When you have audio challenges because of the room, there are a few things you can do to correct that with your audio components and technology. First, use an external microphone. They don’t have to be expensive and usually plug into a computer USB port. There are different mics for various uses, and finding the right mic for your space can make a big difference. If you are moving around a bit during a presentation or giving a demonstration, try an omnidirectional mic. Using this type of mic will help pick up sound evenly from anywhere in the range. If you plan on staying in one spot, you can use a directional mic or one with a “cardioid” pickup pattern. Compare uses of handheld, tabletop, gooseneck and wearable mics to choose the best fit for your audio needs.
The other aspect of audio that might get overlooked is the audio you receive during the conference. You cannot control the mics that your virtual attendees use, but you can use headphones. Using headphones will help you hear everyone more clearly and avoid having the sound of their voices returned to the whole conference in your mic. Some headphones come with built-in microphones, so if you were thinking of using a wearable mic, this could be a solution.
In video and filming, lighting is both an art and a science. Everything we know about good lighting can be applied to your video conferences to make it visually appealing for your attendees. You can create flattering lighting without breaking out the professional gear by being aware of sources and angles. Hopefully, your primary light source can be a bright window that happens to be directly behind your camera.
Admittedly, it is unlikely that the best window will be in the right spot in the perfect room, but there are plenty of other good sources of light for video. Household lamps are versatile because you can place them however near or far you need them to be, and you can use several without much trouble. Adding lampshades (or diffusers, if you have any available) will soften the light. If you have lampshades of different colors, mix them as needed to create warmer or cooler tones. Be mindful of how that works with any natural light coming into the room.
Since the point is to light your face, your largest light source should be directly in front of you, behind or near the camera. If the main light needs to be off-center, try to keep it within 45 degrees. Turn off any overhead lights in the room and close the drapes or blinds if there is a window behind you. Once your main light is placed, you can use your other light sources to add directional lighting. If you want a truly professional look try a 3-point lighting set-up to create balanced illumination.
Some troubleshooting tips for your lighting:
- If your monitor is creating too much light or conflicting with the tones you have created, adjust the settings.
- The closer the lights are to your face, the softer the shadows will be.
- Depending on the time of day, natural light from a window can be too bright for good results.
- Too much light (or too many lights) can blow out the exposure, keep it simple.
Once you have found an appropriate location, the next priority is to make sure that your internet connection will be sufficient. A bad internet connection can delay the entire meeting. Even if you often use your home internet services in a wireless capacity, we recommend connecting directly with an ethernet cable for your video conferences. Doing so will help reduce any signal interruptions. Chances are if you have terrible internet service, you already know. If you are not sure, just type “what’s my internet speed” into your browser and run a quick speed test.
To retain good image quality, you will need a minimum of 1-4 Mbps. Your frame rate will be the main factor in determining whether you have enough bandwidth. The higher your frame rate is, the smoother your video image will be. However, a higher frame rate will also require higher bandwidth. For example, 1 Mbps will work fine for 15 fps at 720p, but 30fps at 4K will need about 4 Mbps. Catch up with a colleague to do a few test-runs and get feedback so that you are not guessing about the experience from the other side.
When looking at your computer set up, one thing to consider is your display monitor, especially if you have options at your disposal. A single computer or laptop monitor is fine for small group meetings. When you have a lot of attendees, though, you may want to use a larger monitor instead or connect multiple monitors. If that will be the case, ensure you have the necessary connection components on hand and give yourself plenty of time to get it right.
For a crisp and clean image, your camera’s resolution is a crucial factor. You will want at least 720p, but the image quality is better at 1080p. Even if you are running the conference from your laptop and it’s got all of the other tech criteria covered, you need to know that cameras have not been a priority in laptop design in recent years. Your cell phone or tablet probably has a much better front-facing camera than your laptop. While the laptop camera might suffice to attend a video conference, you, as the host, should step up your game.
Since the cameras in phones are often touted as a top feature, your phone could be an easy answer. However, a mirrorless camera is ideal because it is designed for professional photo and video results. Using an actual camera instead of a standard computer “webcam” is helpful because you can use a zoom lens or change lenses for the best look. Whatever you decide, it is wise to connect to a power source because streaming a live video will drain your battery quickly. Regardless of wireless capabilities, you should connect your camera to the computer over HDMI or with a standard USB cable. You will get better video quality with the HDMI, but that requires a video capture card that supports UVC to work seamlessly with your streaming application.
Also, as you would for any production, position your camera for a flattering angle to give your audience an excellent visual experience. A small tripod is perfect for this job. The camera lens should be at eye level or just slightly higher. A camera that sits too low can create an image that feels intimidating and casts weird shadows. Be aware of making eye-contact with the camera (and not looking down at the screen) during your presentations. If you decide to use your laptop, these rules still apply.
Organize and deliver
Now that you have everything you need to host a beautiful video conference from home and stay connected with colleagues and clients, you can download your favorite online meeting service. If you have not already selected one, there are many options. Zoom has become a household name. Cisco WebEx, Zapier, GoToMeeting and TeamViewer are common. Be sure you choose one that meets your presentation needs (like screen sharing). Once you have created your account, adjust the settings in the app. Use the mirror effect whenever possible. This is helpful when you need to reach for something nearby without being distracted from the conference. Default to “mute when joining” to prevent accidental embarrassment. Volume auto-adjust can be good or bad, so do a few tests to see what works best for you.
When you are prepping for the actual meeting or presentation, be fully prepared. It is okay to use notes but try to do it in a way that your audience still feels connected. Have a colleague attend a test-run and get their feedback on everything from lighting to camera position to sound quality to the tone of your voice and make a few adjustments if needed. Send your meeting invites well in advance, ask for RSVPs and set up reminder notifications, too. Most meeting apps will have all of this in user-friendly formats to help you stay on track and have excellent attendance for your conferences.
As video conferences become a normal part of our work, the technology and hardware available to host them will continue to improve. At times when in-person meetings are not always feasible, it is a great way to stay connected and communicate with team members and clients for training, presentation or collaboration. Once you have done it for the first time, you will find it to be a great tool to keep your business running smoothly, even when you cannot gather everyone together.
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