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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Lights! Camera! Meeting! Videoconferencing Gets a Makeover

This story is part of a collection of pieces on how we work today, from Silicon Valley culture to using productivity apps for off-label purposes to appeasing our robot overlords.

Remote. Also: Distributed. Flexible. WFH. These are all shorthand (and garbage language) for “working from home.” According to Gartner Research, more than 50 percent of global salaried employees will work remotely at least occasionally in 2020, the first time WFH has threatened to tip into the majority. That’s up from just 20 percent of employees in 2016.

Depending on who you ask, remote work is either a positive solution for ever-lengthening commutes and the strains of working parents, or a crime against the efficiencies—not to mention the camaraderie—of having busy bees buzzing alongside each other at the office.

With all this remote working, videoconferencing is having a moment. The technology is supposed to provide remote workers a simulacrum of those in-office, face-to-face connections. You could easily multitask while you’re conferencing in via phone, but during a video chat you’re forced to look your colleague, or roomful of colleagues, in the eye. More recently, world events have been contributing to videoconferencing’s momentum: As one venture capitalist inevitably pointed out, the stock price of video tech company Zoom is on the rise because concerns about Covid-19 have put a halt on business travel.

Even before the threat of a pandemic loomed, videoconferencing was transforming the way we work. “A lot of companies have policies now where you don’t call into meetings anymore. You Zoom call, you https://www.wired.com/tag/skype/, you FaceTime in,” says Riley Stricklin, the cofounder and president of Lume Cube. “You’re already at an arm’s length and ‘remote’ from your coworkers, so we have to do everything possible to enhance that personal experience.”


Lume Cube, which is based in Carlsbad, California, launched four years ago as a maker of lighting accessories for creators—video producers, YouTubers, GoPro-wearing daredevils. Stricklin says that while the majority of Lume Cube’s business still comes from the “YouTube market,” he sees the video chat audience growing, particularly in the realm of remote job interviews. Whether you’re streaming on Twitch, or Skyping into a professional call, “you’re doing the same thing as newscasters. You’re broadcasting yourself,” he adds.

My videoconferencing persona is nothing like a nightly newscaster. In the office, I’d like to think I dress reasonably well—at least wearing pants that are not preceded by the word “pajama”—and that any lateness to meetings is due to truly unavoidable scheduling overlaps. While working from home, all bets are off. (Part of the joy of being a writer is convincing people you require a certain amount of solitude to get the job done.) At home, no questionable athleisure is off-limits. The Zoom link inevitably eludes me at the very moment the videoconference is starting, and the garbage truck thunders by when I finally join in.


At first I thought Stricklin’s comparison between a nightly news broadcast and a Skype call was overdrawn. People are so polished, so darn glib in professional media appearances, whereas at least 40 percent of private video chats are made up of phrases like, “Sorry, go ahead—oh, OK, what I was going to say was—no no, you go.” (Data source: personal experience.) But our new reality involves work chats that fall somewhere in between. Along the way to videoconferencing’s moment, the apps that host awkward exchanges, shoddy audio, the laundry pile in the background, and the cat butt in the foreground became the exact same apps we use for life-changing interviews and international media appearances. Just ask Robert Kelly.

Soon after chatting with Stricklin from Lume Cube, I suctioned a Lume Cube AIR lighting kit ($50) to my MacBook Pro. Its small LED panel was remarkably bright—less subtle studio fill light and more directional glare highlighting my T-zone. Before my next meeting, I attached one of the two diffusers that ship with the AIR kit. It softened the light considerably. A WIRED video producer was so complimentary about my remote glow that I started to wonder how bad my look was before.

For a few hundred bucks or less, accessories like a Lume Cube, a Blue Snowball microphone, or a Jabra Bluetooth speakerphone can do a lot to up your professional videoconferencing games. But increasingly, you don’t need extra hardware. The built-in cameras and microphones on our laptops and phones are only getting better. The real revolution in the way we video chat is driven by software.

Zoom—which offers both freemium and premium versions, and also happens to be the videoconferencing app of choice for WIRED parent Condé Nast—has an overwhelming number of video chat functions. The host of the video chat has access to an “attention tracking” tool, an indicator that alerts them if an attendee goes more than 30 seconds without having Zoom open and active on their desktop. A closed captioning option lets the host type in subtitles for hard of hearing attendees or assign a third party app to the task. There’s also a virtual whiteboard that you can share with participants.

One of the most exciting-sounding new features is the ability to create a virtual background, either by choosing one of the four Zoom presets (Golden Gate Bridge! Leaves of grass!) or an image of your choice. I swiped a photo of laser cats from the internet and uploaded it, only to have the background cut in and out during a meeting—and obscure most of my face—because the real-life cluttered scene behind me was far from green screen quality.

Microsoft has moved into the augmented WFH space as well. Teams, the online collaboration tool that the software giant has been aggressively pushing to its enterprise clients, will also offer a custom background option in the near future. For now the app provides an adjustable background blur, which was helpful when I found myself standing in my kitchen during a video chat with Troy Batterberry, Teams’ lead product manager. It did a great job masking the dirty dishes in the sink behind me, even if the effect appeared to have been designed by a film student who just discovered the Gaussian blur filter.

Some of the more advanced Teams features are only available in the paid version, like closed captioning and “intelligent capture,” which actually makes a host transparent so that the folks dialing in can see what’s being written on the whiteboard. Other features won’t be available until later this year. That includes “audio packet loss recovery”: When the connection is so poor that one out of every two seconds of audio is dropping out, AI will fill in the voice gaps to make it sound like a steady stream of conversation. Another feature called Voice Enhance will eliminate distracting background noises, whether it’s someone clacking on their keyboard (we all know that person) or someone eating lunch. (Do not do this.)

It’s not just voices that sophisticated software can fix. Sometime this year Microsoft’s pricey Surface Pro X tablet will become a test ground for Eye Gaze, a feature that uses AI to make it appear as though you’re looking into your camera even when you’re poring over a shared doc or just browsing Twitter. We’ll see if this feature falls into the uncanny valley. Last year Apple showed off similar eye-redirecting tech for FaceTime chats in a beta version of iOS 13; mysteriously, this feature never shipped.

This is all part of what Microsoft sees as essential to establishing better connections and making remote employees feel like “first-class citizens” in the workplace. “Just coming into this meeting this morning, Lauren, I was excited to meet with you and the fact that I get to see you in person,” Microsoft’s Batterberry enthused. “I’m already feeling an emotional energy that I wouldn’t get if I was just using audio. So I think these technologies can make a huge difference in leveling the playing field, in making a remote attendee have the same level of impact as an in-person attendee.”

My passion for video chatting didn’t quite match Batterberry’s, but he had a point. As a journalist, I’m always trying to jot down notes during phone calls, in addition to recording the calls with permission. During a face-to-face video chat, it feels much more rude to also be typing notes. There’s an app for that too: Both Zoom and Microsoft Teams will transcribe meetings that you record to the cloud.

Videoconferencing is getting smarter, but humans are still humans. We knew this already, but it’s worth repeating: Tech can’t solve everything. We still show up late to remote meetings, can’t find the link, and have to reboot, switch browsers, and launch the app again to get the audio to work.

According to a 2019 State of Work report from Owl Labs, which makes 360-degree videoconferencing cameras called Meeting Owls—picture an Echo crossed with an owl—meeting prep and setup are around 35 percent more challenging for remote workers than for people who are launching meetings from HQ. Video and audio quality are 26 percent more problematic for remote workers. And some of the biggest obstacles for remote workers during meetings are interruptions and dreaded IT issues. Both require an infinite amount of patience, and the ability to fill the dead space with mindless chatter—what was that? No, go ahead. I was going to say … Please, you go first.

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