Videoconferencing Is Terrible! So What Can We Do About It?

Videoconferencing sucksOK … put down the pitchforks. There’s a method here.

I have had the unique experience of having a front-row seat regarding videoconferencing (VC) over the last 30 years. As I have watched it evolve, I have seen not just WHAT changed but, more importantly, WHY it changed. At the same time, I have also seen what HAS NOT changed. Unfortunately, from my vantage point, I see an issue in that we rarely challenge the status quo/sacred cows when it comes to VC. In most cases, we don’t even seem to know WHY the cows are sacred in the first place! So much of what we do today looks almost exactly the same as what we did 30 years ago. Sure, the quality has gotten exponentially better, the TVs are far larger … but the EXPERIENCE? I think it has (in many ways) gotten progressively worse.

Today, we largely conduct VCs using Zoom or Teams. And while it is completely different than the past, there are many things that we do today that make no sense. We just do them as “we’ve always done it that way” (the six most dangerous words in business).

So to caveat my initial statement, the quality of videoconferencing is incredible and gets better every year. More efficient codecs, better algorithms and cheaper bandwidth have resulted in a ubiquitous mode of communication that is second nature. My children have known nothing but communicating with video, and the quality we see in conference rooms is almost like being in the same room together. Nowadays, it seems odd if we have a meeting that does not include video. However, while the quality has continued to improve every year, I want to put forward that the EXPERIENCE of videoconferencing has worsened every year and shows very few signs of reversing.

This is unfortunate. In a previous role, I started to really look into ways we could improve that experience, and it shocked me how much pushback there was when it came to the videoconferencing room layout. So let’s take a look at where we came from and talk about some ideas about making things better in the future. Fair warning: I will reference two products that my current employer has announced.

Let’s get in the way back machine and head to the early ’90s. The company I worked for at the time was the world’s largest PictureTel (a precursor to Polycom) dealer. We were not successful because we had exclusive products or magical sales folks imbued with unicorn dust … no. We were successful because the company realized it needed customers to experience it. You couldn’t just explain/describe it — they had to live it. So when a customer was REALLY interested, the company would provide a few demo systems in their key offices and let them use it for 30 days. When it was time to pick it up, there was almost always a purchase order waiting.

But here’s the thing — the company didn’t just drop off the system. They installed a SYSTEM. The room was redone from top to bottom. It provided furniture (chairs that DID NOT swivel and a trapezoidal table so the camera could see everyone); they painted the room a robin’s egg blue that optimized the camera exposure and added some lighting that optimized reflections onto the face and minimized shadows. In short, the company ensured that the customer had the best possible experience one could have. Customers fell in love with that experience — that is why the company was so successful. It didn’t sell VC systems; it sold a VC experience. (And it worked remarkably well.)

However, things changed. Costs went down; bandwidth went up. We started putting VC in more and more rooms and we lost focus on the experience in the name of more and more video calls. We went away from small rooms with optimized furniture, so now people could fidget and spin in their seats. And the acoustics! So often just an afterthought. With a regular conference table, the camera couldn’t see one-third of the people in the room! Compare the two designs below.

chris picVideoconferencing experience: -20 points.

And of course, we stopped concerning ourselves with wall colors or specialized lighting or even windows, so now half the calls look like an interview with someone in the witness protection program!

Videoconferencing experience: – 20 points.

Then something else started happening: those truly horrible 30-inch CRT TVs (they were massive — true backbreakers) started to be replaced with flat panels! OK, this one has been good and bad. On the good side, the TV got larger, and they were so expensive that we only used one. We started seeing more in the way of picture-in-picture and other layouts. Some good, some bad (we will come back to layouts in a bit). A bigger image is good.

Videoconferencing experience: +15 points.

However, as the costs dropped over time, we went back to two screens. This is where the experience really started to go downhill.  

So Why Videoconferencing?

Videoconferencing was always intended as an alternative to face-to-face meetings. In order for that to work, we need to be face to face. When this happens with a video system, the most critical part is eye-to-eye contact. As a result, the quality of the experience can be defined based on the distance between the face of the person on the far end and the camera on the near end. The farther those two move apart, the worse the experience is. You are no longer looking at each other! You lose the ebb and flow of a conversation/negotiation/training session based on reading a person’s face and reacting to it. We have all been on video calls where we can’t even see the other face(s). And the larger the displays get, the more apparent it is. I recall doing a training session over video recently, and the camera was a PTZ on top of a large monitor that seemed like it was mounted too high. The end result? All I saw was the tops of heads! Hard to judge reactions and adjust a presentation in that scenario.

Why on Earth Are the Two Monitors Placed Side by Side?

Back when all this started, we placed the two monitors for (at the time) the Near End (horrible full-screen self-view on a 30-inch CRT monitor) and Far end (the other folks) on carts right beside each other. The video signal couldn’t really go that far, but more importantly, we needed the carts to hide all the VC gear. Those TVs were REALLY big, so you just had to put them beside each other. As a result, the dual side-by-side experience was born.

At the time, connecting your computer and screen sharing was really just a small part of a VC (not anything like today). As a result, the only thing we were really focusing on was the people on the far end. And even calls with multiple parties were not really an option early on. Most calls were simply point-to-point. End result? It all worked. We called Bob, we saw Bob and we looked at Bob. The camera was pretty close to his face, and things worked well.

But over time, the monitors got bigger and bigger and sharing our desktop became a bigger part of all this. End result? We weren’t just looking at Bob and Linda; we were trying to read their spreadsheet. So we wanted (needed) a larger TV. And as we always do things the way we always have, we just put two 40-inch monitors beside each other. Then 45 inches, 55 inches, 70 inches and 86 inches! And a few bad things happened.

The first issue is that when I wasn’t sharing content, you were now seeing my face AND your own face full screen on an 86-inch TV. And while nobody should be subjected to my face that big, depending on your configuration, you were also seeing your own face full screen. This alone led people not even to want to do video calls, let alone turn on the camera.

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When I worked at Intuit, we had to create a script to turn cameras back on after calls due to how many people would turn them off. Over time, we were able to set things up so that nobody would ever see their own full-screen face, thankfully.

If I was sharing content, however, we had a conundrum. One monitor had my giant face, and the other had the content, but since the table was not nearly as wide as the room, half the room couldn’t even see that giant TV as there were people sitting in line with it. Loss of sight lines isn’t great.

Videoconferencing experience: -20 points.

The other part of this, which is the part most felt today, is the camera sightlines. When dealing with a 65-inch or larger monitor, there are only bad and worse camera angles. As the TV gets larger, the distance from the camera to the target that we are actually looking at gets worse. Then we have a decision to make: You can’t put the camera too high (above the monitor) or too far to the side (between monitors). Honestly, none of the options are good. It’s just trade-offs at this point. Terrible camera angles are no good.

Videoconferencing experience: -30 points.

So if you are keeping track, that is a whopping -65 points for experience (the scoring system is purely arbitrary for this article’s point). So enough with the doom and gloom.

How Do We Make Things Better?

Here is where we start running into the aforementioned sacred cows. I started getting annoyed by this and looked to see if anyone was doing things differently. It turns out that I wasn’t the only person thinking about this. A while back, the folks at Herman Miller did some research and came up with a clever idea.

Herman Miller Videoconferencing space

Here you can see that they have come up with a different layout for the room. They said, “OK, nobody wants to see a big giant head, so let’s use a 40-inch monitor or so for the people monitor. And then the content needs to be big — but VISIBLE! So let’s put a 65-inch monitor ABOVE the people monitor with the camera in between.

We tried this at a company I used to work for, and everyone who tried it was at first a little confused (which is a frequent reaction to something this subversive!) but ultimately fell in love with this simple change right away. This is an easy change that can totally revamp and reenergize a room. Ultimately, the dual large-format monitors are the biggest enemy to great VC room layouts, and it’s easy to overcome. You just need to try something different. Once you move from flipping your head 150 degrees across the front of a room to a 20-degree up and down eyeball flick, you won’t ever want a room with twin 86-inch monitors again.

Turns out, during the pandemic, the folks at Microsoft decided to take a really hard look at VC layouts as they knew that things needed to get better. And I will be honest, one thing that most of us did not see coming was Microsoft being a thought leader in this space.

In the initial release of Microsoft Teams, the gallery of people was placed at the bottom of the screen — not at the top near the camera! As a result, you are looking at the bottom of the screen (if the content is being shared), and the camera takes pictures of your forehead. Camera placement and getting people close to the camera are key. In larger rooms, we see great options with products like the Jabra Panacast. Besides all the crazy insane cool stuff that camera does (I would install them in rooms JUST for the analytics they spit out! I even talked about this in an earlier article. The unnamed device was the new Jabra Panacast (we were under NDA at the time, so I couldn’t mention it by name). The form factor on that camera is even more awesome. It allows you to have the image down into the monitor’s bezel. In moderate-sized rooms, that reduction in angle from a PTZ camera sitting on top of the monitor is a game changer. We’ll talk more about MS teams in a moment.

There has always been a holy grail that we shoot for as far as camera angles go, but it has never been an option. Put the camera inside the screen. This is something that Oppo has announced for a cell phone (no word on a shipping product yet). And in addition, Jupiter Systems has announced it has an option in the Zavus AM product line. It is a 1080P camera located between the pixels on an upcoming LED wall product. I have been working on this for quite a while now, and while it is a very complex entity, I can assure you that when people see it. They realize that this is the future. 

So we need to look at the monitor(s), we need to focus on room layouts as far as sightlines and lighting go. And, we also need to look at how people and content are laid out.

The Truth About Layouts

Layouts are a big deal. We used to actively think about them before and during meetings, ensuring that the layout was aligned with the nature of the meeting. Part of the reasoning for this was that the layouts used to have to be done on the bridge. In that big box in the data center, but with recent advances, this is now largely done at the local PC level. As a result, we have limited flexibility in this. The focus on making sure the best layout was selected has been largely lost, and we usually just go with what the VC software system presents to us.

In this area, however, a huge shift has just happened. I mentioned Microsoft and thought leadership in the same sentence a few paragraphs ago, didn’t I? In March of this year, Microsoft introduced the biggest shift in VC that we have seen in quite a while. They recognized that two monitors really get in the way of good communications and that with the new remote landscape, they needed to find a better way to work.

Introducing Microsoft Teams Front Row! The major change was that instead of two large 16:9 monitors at the front of the room, they are specifying a single large 21:9 image. A whole new layout that puts all the participants in a front row at the bottom of the screen with a camera located very close to the filmstrip to optimize eye-to-eye/face-to-face communications. This is new enough that it wasn’t even announced when I started writing this article. It is also exciting, as my employer makes the only large format 21:9 monitors in the world. (You really should check out the Jupiter Pana line.)

But what is most exciting is that it’s an experience that is designed to be better. It is not a new feature that improves the codec or anything like that; it is purely designed around making a better experience. And I, for one, cannot wait to see how Zoom and Google and others respond.

VC technology has evolved past its tipping point. I suspect that point of no return was about two years ago when we all started having Zoom “pub nights.” Video is ubiquitous. My children have never known the idea of only making voice calls. They even used to read stories with their grandparents over Skype 15 years ago. And while the technology has gotten to a point where it can challenge broadcast TV clarity, we all have to focus on improving that experience: break the walls, play with alternate placement of cameras and monitors or try crazy things like putting the people monitor IN the room (not at the front of the room). Who likes to be stared at by everyone in the room all day? We have the ability to make massive improvements in that experience. It just takes a little creativity and a willingness to slaughter some cows.