Lights, Camera, Action – Some Video Conference tips to make you look better !

Over the last month we have all become regular video conference participants, of course very much par for the course for me but the rest of the family are now taking part in online quizzes, community meetups and have become experts in the use of tools such as Zoom, Houseparty, and even Microsoft teams !

In this short post I’m not going to cover the etiquette of video calling (Mute when not talking and don’t multitask it’s rude) rather offer some pointers to making you look and sound good or at least a little better on screen.

Sounds Good ?

At the very minimum you should be able to improve the way you sound to other people on the call. A common thread here will be to avoid using the inbuilt microphone/camera on your computer and instead something a littlebetter. In terms of the cheap and usually rather hidden microphone on your computer a better replacement would be the simple headphones you might use for your phone (with a 3.5mm jack plug).

Better would be dedicated headset even one with noise cancelling perhaps, the great advantage here is that the microphone ends up a consistent distance from your mouth.

I am a big fan on Plantronics devices, but there are many available at most price points, of course you do end up looking like an Apollo Flight Director at Mission Control but hey that’s not a bad thing.

Plantronics headset, perfect for that Mission Control Vibe !

Having a good microphone does make a big difference to the quality of your interaction of course even if you don’t use video so it is worth making the effort here – if you really want great results then a condenser microphone which produces the warm sound of talk radio is the ultimate upgrade. With a condenser microphone such as the Blue Snowball below make sure you put the microphone into cardioid mode which will pick up sound from directly in front of the microphone only.

Snowball condenser microphone

Most video conferencing systems can cope with the duplex problem of broadcasting what you are hearing and thus creating a nasty feedback issue, however I think it’s always best if you can and especially if you are alone to use a headset/headphones for listening to the call.

Camera – it’s all about the glass

So goes the photographers mantra, it is all about the glass, e.g. the quality of your camera lens. Once again your very expense laptop probably has a cheap inbuilt camera prone to poor low-light performance, motion blur, and noise artifacts – otherwise known as looking rubbish.

The obvious step is to use an external webcam, such as the popular Logitech 920 but these have become very hard to find recently with the unprecedented growth of home working.

The in demand Logitech 920 webcam

There are of course many other webcams from various OEM’s but there is a very good alternative already in your pocket..

Use your phone for video conferences

Your relatively expense smartphone actually has quite a high quality front facing camera for taking all those selfies and combined with computational photography techniques produces excellent results when used as a video conference camera.

Most of the popular video conference systems have a phone app for both iOS and Android and allow you to connect using the same links you would use on your computer. Indeed in most cases you can login on your phone for video/audio calls and at the same time your laptop to follow along with slides etc..

Key to success here is positioning your phone, you don’t want to be holding your phone for any extended period of time and of course want to avoid the “up the nose” camera angle if you can avoid it. The solution is to use a small desktop tripod such as the Gorillapod or Manfrotto mini tripod with phone clamp.

Tabletop tripod

Note : most consumer video conference tools don’t support true HD so it maynot be worth trying to gone beyond 720p 30fps if you have the choice !

Try to position your camera at eye level, so with my example above I would aim to put the tripod on some books perhaps to raise the camera or course a webcam on top of your monitor is perfect but remember to look into it, for other on the calls you donlt want to appear distracted looking at something more interesting (unless of course you are commenting on the quality of the proceedings so far!)

And finally lights !

If you have ever visited a Film set or TV studio you will know the importance of lighting, so even in your home office or bedroom adjusting lighting can make a huge difference to how you look on screen.

Most importantly try to avoid backlighting, your camera will try to adjust exposure as much as possible but if you are in front of a window you will always appear dark almost in silhouette as the bright light coming in from the window dominates. So if possible move the camera so the light is behind it.

If you are using artificial lights the same rules apply, move a table lamp or use the bright screen of your laptop to try and light your face. Ideally you want to have multiple lights to provide both key and fill lights to prevent shadows forming on your face. I use some LED spotlights from Ikea above my monitor to achieve this and the results are quite good.

Lights from Ikea

Here are some examples of the difference lighting makes..

No lighting, lit from window alone…
Single light on face
One Key light on face, and two fill lights removing shadows..

So now when the BBC or CNN skype you for your comments on something or another, and yes they are getting that desperate, you may look as good or better than the host !

You wait ages for a bus and then…

A Greenline Bus

So the saying goes, you wait ages for a bus and then an Open Data project comes along ..

I was asked to speak at the launch event of the UK Dept. of Transport Bus Open Data Digital Services (BODDS) yesterday which aims to provide open data for England complex network of buses outside of London.

As a Londoner I recognise that I am very fortunate having up to the minute information about Transport of London (TFL) Buses available to me on my mobile phone using many popular apps including of course Google Maps. TFL after a lot of pressure developed an API to their data feeds in 2015, and I can now sit of my sofa at home and make sure the express bus to the airport is on time and leave just in time to make it to my local stop.

For most of the country this is not the case, the fragmented nature of bus operations in the rest of England even in large cities made the creation and access to open data about buses overly complex.

The initiative launched yesterday is very important because in providers not only a national platform to share bus information but also tools to allow operators to upload data about their operations including initially schedules but also in due course ticketing and the real time location of individual buses.

Leveling up ?

The opportunity here of course is to “level up” access to information and this is an important step, although I would perhaps have preferred the service to make use of more developer friendly formats GTFS rather than those better suited to Operators, TransXChange and NeTEx. There is a difference between data used in running a Bus network and the information you might wish to publish for journey planning and downstream use.

The role of the developer community will be vital, of course the major information platform companies will in due course consume the data and make it available to their customers but there is a opportunity for a ecosystem of smaller developers to build solutions in the form of apps that link public transport to other local services in a much more integrated way.
Imagine booking a appointment to your local hospital with the appropriate bus journey information to get you from your home to the hospital included along with a ticket delivered to your app.

There is a great deal of talk about Mobility as a Service (Maas) linking different modes of transport together to provide a seamless experience for passengers, convenience is all important and if as the Government hopes people will make fewer private car journeys , alternative solutions need to be as slick as hiring an Uber.

The Ethics of Location Sharing..

I listened to the latest podcast in the series produced by The Australian newspaper over the weekend, all are highly recommended but The Lighthouse was of particular interest.

It documents the tragic disappearance of a Belgian Backpacker last May in Bryon Bay a seaside town which is both a popular tourist destination and upmarket residential neighbourhood .

Having spent a few hours at a nightclub Theo Hayez disappeared into the night and has remained missing.

Never Lost ?

As you might expect of any backpacker in 2019 Theo was an avid user of his smartphone, and a key element of the podcasts narrative is an explanation of how his family was able to obtain access to his location history and what information this provided to the investigators of his disappearance both professional and amateur alike.

There is a lot of detail and colourful characters involved and I highly recommend taking the time to listen.

Instead of limited closed circuit television and eyewitness sightings investigators had a minute by minute trace of his movements from leaving the Cheeky Monkey’s Nightclub proceeding across town, through an area of bush before arriving at Tallow Beach where for an unexplained reason location services on his phone was switched off.

A final ping from his phone on a nearby cell site at Cape Byron in the early hours of the following morning was the last communication made from the device.

In the podcast and in the press there was criticism that the location information created by Theo’s phone was not made available earlier in the investigation, actually his family had in effect hacked into his account to obtain his location history by taking over his account using a backup email address.

Under what circumstances would it be appropriate to share someones location to a third party?

This raises an interesting ethical point, under what circumstances would it be appropriate to share someones location to a third party?

If that third party is the emergency services is the question ethically any different?

For very good reasons your location data is perceived as the very sensitive personal information and it’s collection and storage is strictly managed.

There are legal mechanisms in most jurisdictions for this type of information to be obtained by the Police for example, and the New South Wales Police appeared to be followed these guidelines but they do take a considerable time.

Theo was an adult and if he had even thought about it, perhaps would not have wanted his parents tracking his location while enjoying his holiday in Australia ?

Break the Glass protocol

Perhaps what is needed in a protocol for emergency location sharing, in limited emergency circumstances, location information could be shared with law enforcement agencies – formally this could be something mobile phone owners could opt in to using another switch in your system settings… to be clear no such system exists at present.

Of course it is also difficult to identify the circumstances that would be appropriate… there may be occasions when anyone might just want to “go off the grid” and indeed how might such a protocol be initiated ?

Informally of course we can make our own individual arrangements, most common smartphones today have a built in mechanism to share your location with chosen friends and family but usage on such systems is limited, as for many people they are just too creepy!

Another approach might be to share your login details with someone you trust for use in an emergency – only open this sealed envelope if something bad has happened ?

There are no simple answers, and of course the outcomes for Theo and for others who go missing every day might not be any different if timely location data was made available, however we should I think discuss the options ?

What do you think ?

GPS2K? GPS Week Rollover April 6th 2019

Does not quite have the same significance as 31 December 1999, but I’m sure someone in the mainstream press will soon draw the parallels with Y2K with stories of Airliners getting lost or Trading systems failing due to timing errors, April 6th 2019 is the date when GPS systems reset !

Actually for the second time the week code broadcast as part of the GPS signal is resetting back to zero.

The GPS system uses 10 bits to store the GPS Week Numbers starting from 6th January 1980, so every 1,024 weeks (approximately every 20 years), the GPS Week Number rolls over from Week 1,023 to Week 0, this is known as a GPS Week Number Rollover. This has already occured on August 21, 1999 but that was before the explosion in the use of GPS is smartphones, drones, buses etc.

There are efforts happening across industry to make sure that disruption is minimised, but there may be issues with older GPS receivers and smartphones .

With modern connected devices firmware updates can be applied without to much effort, I remember because I’m had one Garmin and Magellan sending out RS-232 cables and CD-ROMS to update their receivers in 1999 !

In summary look out for firmware updates and “Don’t Panic !”