At Home with Tech

It’s time to maximize the potential of all your gadgets.

Category: video

Why It may be Time to Upgrade your Webcam

If you still look like a shadow of your true self in Zoom meetings, you should consider using a more powerful camera.

It’s fair to say we’ll be needing our webcams, well… forever. If video conference meetings from home weren’t already part of our daily lives before the pandemic, well, now they certainly are. And no matter what the future holds, virtual meetings are here to stay.

We’ve had two years to figure out how to set up a decent Zoom shot. If you’re still not happy with it, the problem may be your computer’s mediocre webcam. If so, it’s time to upgrade and buy a dedicated external USB camera for your computer.

Can Another Camera You Own do the Job?
But before you start shopping for a new webcam, make sure you don’t already own another device that you can repurpose such as a camcorder or DSLR-style camera.

You just need to make sure that your higher-end camera can offer a ‘clean’ video output via a HDMI connector. Then you’ll need a HDMI to USB converter like the ‘Cam Link 4K’ to integrate the video feed into your computer.

My New Lumix GH5 II
Recently, I bought myself a Panasonic Lumix GH5 II
with a Panasonic 12-35 mm/f2.8 II lens.
(“Why Barrett, you shouldn’t have!”)

And of course, I immediately wanted to jack this Micro Four Thirds, mirrorless camera into my iMac to see what would happen.

Sure, using a higher-end camera with a serious lens as a basic webcam is way overkill, but it works just fine. And the look is beautiful. In fact, it’s ridiculous.

The webcam on my iMac is perfectly adequate, but when I changed over to my GH5 II, the visual difference was dramatic.

Don’t Buy More than You Need
Now, I’m not saying you should run out and spend ten times the cost of a typical webcam to upgrade your Zoom look.

But if you’ve already got a more powerful camera that can also be used as a webcam, then why not? (Previously, I had been repurposing my old GoPro as a webcam via my Cam Link 4K.)

Your Desk will get Messy
Now here comes the big disclaimer…

Yes, integrating a ‘real’ camera into your desktop computer or laptop will creating an amazing image, but functionally, the process is not elegant. You’ve got to put a tripod on your desk and position it right next to your computer screen, so you’re not looking too far off camera when you take a peek at the other folks in your Zoom window.

Then, you’ve got the HDMI and power cables coiling in front of your screen to contend with. It’s a mess. (You start to feel like a battery person trapped in “The Matrix,” even though the cables aren’t actually coming out of your body.)

Even attaching a tiny new webcam to your laptop involves an extra cable and a webcam mount, and it takes a couple more steps every time you prepare for a video conference. Plus, you’ve got to adjust your webcam and test your shot to make sure you’re framed correctly.

That’s takes work… sometimes a lot of work. One might say it’s an absurd effort. And for what?

Nothing beats the ease of simply clicking on ‘join’ and letting your integrated webcam do its job. Whatever your viewers see, they see. If you’re only partially in the shot, that’s better than nothing, right?

What’s so bad with that approach? (And if you really feel that way, please continue taking your blue pills. Your next Zoom meeting in the Matrix is in ten minutes!)

Can You See Me Now?
Frankensteining any camera into your computer is a bit messy… sometimes very messy. But the good news is it’s not really that complicated.

Do you still make an effort to put on a nice shirt for your Zoom meetings, and have you spent more than a few minutes trying to adjust the lighting on your face? Are you still unsatisfied with your shot?

If so, then you’re a prime candidate to consider upgrading your webcam. (And if you’re already in the market for a nice camera to handle your photography and video projects, you can free two birds with one key, like I did.)

I expect you will not be disappointed with your decision to improve your Zoom look. It’s actually a great New Year’s resolution, and one that you’ll continue reaping benefits from throughout the entire year!

The Best Way to Improve your Audio for your Next Zoom Meeting

As much as computers are designed today to handle many multimedia needs without added accessories, headsets aren’t really optional when you join a video conference.

When I coach people on how to improve their Zoom feeds, most of the time I focus on their webcam shots. I think by now most folks know the visual rules to create a good video-conference look, even if they still choose to ignore them.

And let’s face it, it’s a pain to set up your webcam properly with the right lighting and angle. I know that. And I get it when so many people choose to simply turn off their webcams. Why do all that work to create a professional-looking shot when you don’t have to?

Stop Hiding
Now, of course I feel you absolutely should turn on your webcam. If you’re not projecting your own visual, you’re not truly showing up. You’re just a disembodied voice. Granted, adding yourself to a sea of tiny faces in a stack of little boxes on the computer screen may not fit your definition of being ‘present.’ But it’s what the technology offers. Maybe in the future, we’ll be able to digitize our bodies into 3D holograms. (Then, you’ll really need to dress up again!)

The Importance of Clear Audio
Whether you choose to hide in the Zoom shadows or not, you do need to be heard. That much is not up for debate. And if you sound like you’re in an echo chamber or in a distant hallway, you’re simply not going to be an effective participant in your virtual meetings.

Ultimately, how you sound is more important than anything else. And that can be difficult to track on an ongoing basis. (You can always see your webcam shot, but unless you actively test your audio signal in your settings, you wouldn’t otherwise know.)

How to Improve your Sound
The simple rule you should follow to project clear audio is to always wear a headset or earbuds. Sure, you can rely on your onboard computer microphone, but that’s going to offer a more muffled and distant quality to your voice. So, wear your headset!

And you’ve got to make sure over time that your computer continues to recognize your headset and not default back to its own microphone. (Set-it-and-forget-it is a recipe for “I can’t hear you very well!”)

Headsets have become Invisible
And if you’ve taken the important step to turn on your webcam, you can’t then play the vanity card and leave your headsets behind. Sure, you can choose to wear wireless earbuds like AirPods, which minimize the hardware you’ve got attached to your head. But I think by now, everyone is used to seeing people wearing headsets on Zooms, even when formally presenting to an audience. Hey, TV sportscasters have been doing it for decades. It’s not dorky. It’s fine.

No, headsets aren’t really invisible, but they’re entirely expected under the circumstances.

Can You Hear Me?
If you don’t want to fully show up to your Zoom meetings by not turning on your webcam, that’s your choice. But if you’re projecting bad audio, you just can’t play in the Zoom sandbox with others.

So, please wear your computer headset!

Be Careful what You Say Around your Tech

When your voice-activated tech misbehaves, the problem may be caused by something you said. Here’s a fix to consider.

I’ve just put my old GoPro to work as a webcam, tethered to my PC laptop that I’m using for my job. Wearing my MacGyver hat, I easily connected the GoPro to my computer with an Elgato Cam Link 4K video converter. This adapter can transform many cameras with a HDMI output into a simple USB webcam.

I prefer my GoPro’s shot to my laptop’s built-in webcam, because the GoPro offers a wider-angle view. That framing gives me more room to use my body language when I talk to colleagues on Zoom. And I’ve found that can help me better connect with people I’ve never met in person.

But there was a problem.

Who’s Controlling your GoPro?
A couple days into its new mission as a webcam, my GoPro inexplicably began glitching out. One day it magically kicked into video mode and began recording my conversation. The next morning, it snapped a burst of pictures during a Zoom meeting. Its little blinking red light was the dead giveaway that there was a gremlin in the system.

Or was there?

I put on my diagnostic lab coat to see if there might be a GoPro setting that was causing the problem. I first upgraded the GoPro’s operating system and then poked around the menu. I eventually came to the voice control option. It was set to ‘on.’

Hmmm….

Is your GoPro Simply Following Orders?
“GoPro, take a photo!”

That’s the fun phrase my eleven-year-old son and I love to blurt out when taking GoPro selfie shots during weekend hikes with friends.

Yes… my GoPro can be voice activated. And it has been reliably obedient for selfie shots during our weekend hiking adventures.

So why wouldn’t its audio parlor trick also be in play during its weekday duties? Of course my GoPro was listening to me during my Zoom meetings! I must have said something that resembled, “GoPro start recording,” or “GoPro shoot burst.”

After my big ‘aha,’ I simply deactivated my GoPro’s voice-control mode, and thankfully, my GoPro started behaving again.

Problem solved.

But my reestablished tech Zen was short lived.

What Did You Say?
Uncovering my mistake brought up a larger question. How much of my tech is always listening to me, and how often is it misinterpreting my words and reacting in ways that it shouldn’t?

My Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker in my home office occasionally interrupts me when I’m on the phone or doing a Zoom meeting, because it thinks it heard me summon it. I usually shrug it off and shake my head, both slightly amused and a tad irritated.

Even Siri on my Apple Watch has awkwardly tried to jump into my conversations.

User Error
I’m not exactly sure what to make of all this, except to accept that voice-activated tech can sometimes react in ways we don’t want. Its skills may be imperfect. But then again, so are humans. That combination can easily lead to unexpected and imperfect results.

As more components of our smart homes begin to possess voice control, it will become increasingly important not to forget what we’ve set up to listen to our lives. (And I’m not talking about the whole privacy question. We’ll leave that topic for another day.)

Sure, it’s cool to control your surroundings with your voice. That said, I hope you talk clearly and remember the right command phrases. It would be a shame if your future tech misinterprets your intent and ruins your day… or worse.

But don’t worry. It’s probably just ‘user error.’

Time for an upgrade?

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