In the current COVID-19 environment, the economy may be opening up but some people are still sick or in quarantine. They must move from attending meetings in person to attending them online. This means that more and more meetings are run in a mixed mode — a combination of in-person and online participants. Many people don’t realize that entirely virtual and entirely in-person meetings are both much easier to handle than these newer mixed-mode meetings.
When we hold an in-person meeting with one or two people online, it often happens that either the people in person or the people online — or both — are having a terrible experience. Oftentimes, the people online do the best they can, but the people in person don’t realize that they can’t be seen or heard well enough online. Thus, it ends up being a waste of time for the people online. On the other hand, the value of attending the meeting in person is greatly reduced if you must constantly speak to the microphone. In that case, many will think, “Why did I bother to show up in person?”
In short, simply turning on a “conferencing” app on a phone or computer is not good enough for successful mixed-mode meetings.
In our own community, my wife and I have been preparing for mixed-mode conferencing for our homeschooling co-op. We have vulnerable people who can’t attend in-person and we will probably have some who become ill and must attend remotely later. Therefore, we have been experimenting with low-cost solutions over the summer to make mixed-mode classrooms a blessing and not a curse. Our classes have 8-12 attendees so our experimentation focused on classes of that size.
The underlying challenge for mixed-mode communication is that most communication devices — cell phones and computers — are optimized for person-to-person communication. The typical webcam has a very narrow viewport. If I put such a webcam at the end of a long table, online viewers won’t see the people at the table until about halfway down. You must usually speak directly into a typical microphone to enable it to pick you up. Even in “speakerphone” mode, its range really only picks up sound about four feet away. This is an even bigger problem if you must practise physical distancing (social distance) in your classroom. In any event, most speakerphones aren’t loud enough to be heard at any distance.
The two technological fixes we need for a mixed-mode setting are a wide-angle camera and a speakerphone. Thankfully, you can get technology that works inexpensively nowadays.
Two web cameras I’ve been able to test, which worked really well, are the INMISS 120° wide-angle USB webcam and the Spedal 920 Pro Video Conference 120 wide-angle USB webcam. The Spedal is a somewhat better camera but the INMISS is lower-priced and comes with a mini-tripod (the Spedal can either be attached to the top of your laptop, or you can buy a mini-tripod separately). If you have either of these cameras at the seat at the end of the table, viewers can see participants in the first seats next to the camera.
For speakerphones, I’ve tested out the eMeet M2 and the Anker PowerConf. The eMeet performed much better in situations where there was a lot of background noise but the PowerConf offers overall a much better experience, despite costing less than a hundred dollars. With both of them, participants did not need to speak as if into a microphone — they just spoke normally and the microphone picked them up. In fact, the PowerConf amplified the speakers so that sometimes they were heard better over the conference audio than in person.
I tested the PowerConf when an elderly gentleman with a very weak voice simply spoke normally. The PowerConf picked up his voice perfectly and boosted the volume so that those on the other side heard him very clearly. The PowerConf picked up normal voice tones from 20 feet away.
Overall, neither speaker system tracked simultaneous talking (crosstalk) well. However, as long as only one person was speaking at a time, both speakerphones performed very well. The eMeet M2 was better at filtering background noise and had a clearer sound but did not boost or normalize volumes as well. The Anker PowerConf did a great job of boosting and normalizing volumes so that you picked up everyone clearly no matter where they were speaking from. But if there was too much background noise, that noise could get boosted as well. However, the eMeet M2, probably in an attempt to reduce background noise, would sometimes would cut off someone’s last syllable.
If you are holding regular mixed-mode meetings, I would highly recommend getting a speakerphone and a wide-angle camera. They add only a small amount of complexity to your setup while exponentially increasing the experience of both in-person and virtual participants. They don’t cost much and your participants will appreciate you for it.
Online conferencing during COVID: The COVID-19 crisis has sparked a demand for online conferences. Here’s how to make it work.
Online Conferences, Part 2: Conference Personnel How the people who make it happen work their magic.