I sometimes wonder whether my co-workers think I’m completely batty, and are just too kind to let me know.
Take yesterday, for instance. I was on a group call with half a dozen of them, and we were discussing Zoom videos, camera angles, background environments… all the normal casual chit-chat of today’s conversations.
“But Quentin”, said one of my colleagues, “what’s your profile image like?” She was asking about the new prototype staff pages on the department’s web site; a key topic of discussion at the moment.
I, however, was still in my own little world, thinking about camera angles, so I thought she was asking what I looked like from side-on! (Answer: no better than from the front, and probably even worse.) ‘Profile’, you see, has more than one meaning. So my response to her question about my account on the website was to turn sideways and talk about how sparsely my hair was distributed from any angle. It was only about 24 hours later that I realised what she must have meant, and collapsed in giggles. Everybody on the call was so nice that nobody said, “Eh? Have you completely lost your marbles?” The worrying question, though, is how often I’ve done this without realising my mistake afterwards…
Talking of ambiguity, there was a scene I always liked, which I think was from one of Steve Coogan’s films, though I can’t now find the source. Anyway, he was having a medical check-up, and it went something like this:
Medic: Blood pressure: fine.
M: Heart rate: fine.
M: Cholesterol: fine.
M: Urine sample: outstanding.
C: Oh, thank you very much!
M: No – that means we haven’t had it yet.
Having been a big fan of Zoom and extolled its virtues in the past, I thought it only fair to share a current criticism. (I’m talking about the videoconferencing app, of course. I’m an even bigger fan of the other Zoom and have relied on their products for years… definitely recommended!)
Anyway, back to video calls. I was playing recently with virtual cameras in OBS so I could do fun things like adding lower-thirds titles to my video stream…
or blending multiple video streams into one….
and my friend Nicholas commented that it was very clever, but any text was not actually that readable. At which point we delved into the Preferences > Statistics menu on the Zoom app and discovered that the video resolution was only 640×360; definitely lower than it used to be.
Now, this is perfectly fine for having a conversation with somebody, so for the vast majority of Zoom use, it’s not an issue. And if you turn on screen-sharing, your screen image is sent at a much higher resolution, so that’s fine too.
But it is an issue for some of my colleagues who like using pointing cameras at whiteboards or documents while giving remote lectures, or even if you’re just trying to hold something up to your camera for the person at the other end to read.
If you search online, you can find various references to ‘Enabling HD’, or to different resolutions being possible for Business or Education accounts, but as far as I can gather, these are all currently disabled or have no effect. I think Zoom may be restricting things to manage the load on their servers, which makes me wonder how much actually goes through their servers? At least for a 2-person call, like the one Nicholas and I were in, it really ought to be peer-to-peer. (Like Skype used to be in the early days before Microsoft bought and ruined it.) Still, to be fair, even the otherwise-abominable Teams does do a much better job at the moment when it comes to resolution.
Well, this may resolve itself in Zoom, but bizarrely, in the meantime, if you care about resolution of your camera more than you care about framerate or latency, the solution is probably to show it on your local display in high resolution, and then share your screen.
One of the big challenges facing lecturers in the University here is that, for at least the next term and probably the whole academic year, all of the lectures need to be recorded. Most of the small-group teaching, practical sessions, and so forth will be going ahead — with extensive Covid-prevention measures in place — but there’s no way we can pack big lecture halls full of people in the way we’ve become accustomed to over the last few centuries, so lectures will all be delivered online this year.
One aspect of my University job recently has been to find and evaluate some of the kit people might want to use for recording, either at home, or in the meeting rooms in the department that we’re equipping for this purpose. (At home, the sitting room has been converted into a recording studio for the 21 lectures Rose needs to get on disk!)
I’ve been making videos of some of my tests and experiments, mostly for internal use, but some of them might be helpful to others. If you should be considering purchasing a USB desk-standing microphone, for example, you might be interested in one of my recordings from yesterday:
I’ve been gathering some of these into a YouTube playlist as well:
I’ll add more there in due course, so do subscribe to my channel if it might be of interest.
Today’s very quick tip for improving your video calls.
This one’s pretty obvious, of course. You won’t need to be told this. But perhaps you’ll have a friend who does?
© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser