At Home with Tech

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

Tag: FaceTime

How to Fix Four Home Video Conferencing Problems

If ever there was a time to make sure what you CAN control is under control… it’s now. Here are four ways to better handle your family’s growing live video streaming needs.

We’re clearly in the middle of a radical evolution when it comes to using video communication tools at home.

Sure, Skype, FaceTime and other personal video communication platforms have been around for years. Yet, most people haven’t been practicing video chatting and video conferencing as a daily activity.

That’s changed… and quite suddenly.

As we’re now sheltering at home, live video streaming has become a tool of necessity across any number of situations, including work, school and family communication.

So, if you’re the designated tech support rep for your family, you’d better make sure you’re addressing your family’s video streaming needs.

Here are four challenges I’ve already had to confront and the best ways to handle them.

There’s not Enough Video Streaming Bandwidth
For your Entire Family

I thought we had plenty of bandwidth at home for all three of us to be on separate live video streams simultaneously. I found out last week that wasn’t necessarily the case. It was painful to experience our internet service sputtering throughout one afternoon.

Assuming you pay for an internet plan that ‘normally’ provides enough bandwidth, consider this when things still glitch out and turn your day into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

  • Move your video calls to cellular connectivity via your phone
    If your cellular plan can handle the data load, you can easily do video conference chats on your smartphone. I’ve done it on my iPhone using Zoom, Skype, Google Duo and, of course, FaceTime.
  • Activate the mobile hotspot plan for your phone
    Once you’ve got that in place, your phone can also rescue your stranded computer that needs an alternate tether to the world.

You Don’t Own Enough Gear
To Handle Your Family’s Video Communication Needs

This issue can crop up with younger family members who don’t yet have their own dedicated computer or smartphone.

The good news is you probably have some retired gear lying around that you can put back into service. That’s exactly what I did.

I repurposed the camera in my old iPhone 6 Plus for my fourth grader to use. He had a virtual playdate over the weekend where he was challenged to play old-school ‘Battleship’ with a friend over FaceTime.

My old iPhone no longer works as a ‘cell phone.’ It had passed that baton to my newer iPhone years ago, but it’s still fully functional with FaceTime video over my home Wi-Fi.

Their virtual-Battleship execution using FaceTime on my old iPhone 6 Plus and two separate game boards worked perfectly!

There are Wi-Fi Gaps in your Home

Since your entire family may be home now, they’ve probably had to spread out to create some privacy and not interfere with each other’s video calls. As a result, those Wi-Fi ‘dead zones’ may have become more of a problem.

If so, then it’s time to extend your home Wi-Fi signal with a “Mesh” system where you can use multiple nodes to create whole-home Wi-Fi coverage.

That’s what I did with Netgear’s Orbi system I bought on Amazon.

Your Zoom Video Shot Looks Terrible

From what I’ve seen, Zoom is now the de facto tool for family and friends to maintain their connections. A phone call isn’t enough. People need to see each other. So, whether you like it or not, it’s time for your close up. And so you probably should pay attention to how you look.

If you’re not happy with your Zoom shot, there are two likely culprits:

  • Your webcam is peering up at your face
    Reposition it to be more level with your eyes. That will create a more flattering shot. If you’re using a laptop, that may mean placing it on a stack of hard-cover books to create the right angle.
  • Your face is too dark in the shot
    You need more light in front of you and less light behind you. A bright window that’s lurking in your background is a common framing error.

On the other hand, if you’re facing a window, the outdoor light can provide the illumination you need, assuming the sun is not hitting you directly.

Alternately, you may want to consider buying a soft light made for webcasting.
That’s the solution I recently went with.

At Home with Your Tech 24/7
If you’re like me, your role as the ‘Family IT Guy’ has just been thrust into the spotlight. Whether that’s a legacy title or you’re new to the position, you really need to keep your tech working right now.

You can do it. Just prepare for the unexpected and then work your streaming problems as they arise.

Good luck and stay safe.

How to Prep the Shot for your Next Video Call

Your smartphone suddenly comes to life. It’s an incoming FaceTime request! Are you really ready for your close up?

Remember that innovative ‘PicturePhone’ room on Space Station V from “2001: A Space Odyssey?” Well, it wasn’t long until that crazy sci-fi videophone idea actually became a reality, but you certainly didn’t see many landline videophones in homes over the following decades.

The concept took it’s time gaining wide acceptance. And it required now mainstream computer and mobile apps like FaceTime and Skype to help the general population break through the video barrier on phone calls.

It’s such an obvious ‘upgrade’ to be able to see someone too, and where the bandwidth allows, it feels like many people today freely use their video-calling apps.
(If they’re not texting each other instead)

But let’s face it… lots of other folks still aren’t that excited to be surprised by a sudden video chat request.

And why is that?

The Power of Video
There’s always been a certain anonymity to voice-only calls. Nobody knows where you are, what you’re doing or what you’re wearing… or not wearing.

You can also multitask while on a voice-only call.
…or so I’m told.

Now, you add video into the equation, and BAM… you’re right there in front of someone!

On the upside, mobile video calls can bring the caller right into your surroundings… If you’re walking in a parade or waiting on line at a ski lift, those types of environments can provide rich texture to what you’re up to in that moment. It’s the ‘location’ bonus that makes your video chat that much more interesting.

A Video Chat Isn’t Always a Random Moment
But when you’re at home and those FaceTime tones chime, you may have to scramble to put together an acceptable ‘visual presentation.’

So I think you need a plan for how to appropriately prepare, especially if it’s for business…

No, you don’t need to build a little TV studio set in your living room that you’d run to.
(Like Kramer did on “Seinfeld”)

But it wouldn’t hurt to take a few ‘reasonable’ steps in that direction…

Choose Your Shot
You should definitely decide and test what your ‘shot’ is going to be.
You don’t want to look like you’re in your own hostage video. Nor do you want to reveal that basket of unfolded underwear and socks waiting for your attention.

Think about your background. You may have to stage a few of the items and remove some of the clutter.

Using a desktop computer or even a laptop for your camera probably won’t give you the flexibility you’ll need to create your desired shot. That’s why a more portable device is the way to go, if you have that choice.

But holding a smartphone or tablet in front of your face for a half hour or more is logistically challenging.
(Plus, your unstable shot will likely make the viewer seasick!)

To create a more stable shot, you can certainly pile up a bunch of books for a good height and position for your propped-up device.
(I’ve done it.)

However, that definitely falls into the category of ‘wonky,’ and it’s never perfect.

There’s got to be a better way to more easily mount your smartphone or tablet into an exact position to get the ‘perfect’ shot.

Well, of course there is…

Lock Your Shot with a Flexible Mount
There are a variety of gooseneck smartphone/tablet mounts on the market which will solve the problem. You simply grip and tighten the gooseneck’s base to the edge of your table or desk. And then you move the gooseneck into the exact height and position you need.
(A little higher is usually better for the angle towards your face)

And… voilà! Your hands-free solution is in place!

I decided to go with the Mingo Gooseneck Tablet Holder and Desk Mount for $26.99 on Amazon.

It provides three different mounts that screw onto the end of the gooseneck. Those options will keep you covered for both smartphone and tablet use.






The Mingo is a little more expensive than the competition, but the reviews suggest it’s more durable over time. I also like that its 28.7” gooseneck is longer than most of the choices. That makes it easier to pull it into the perfect position on your desk.

Give Your Face Some Light
You’ll also want to find a little soft lighting to help remove any harsh shadows on your face. One option is to simply position yourself in front of a window.
(As long as you’re not in direct sunlight)

If that doesn’t work with the angle of your planned shot, you can hang a portable light in front of your face. A really inexpensive solution is to use a round, hanging paper lantern.

This 17 ¾” diameter shade made by Ikea is a good choice.
It sells on Amazon for $16.99.

Then, you attach the shade to a bulb mount and power cord.
This one on Amazon costs $9.99. It’s 20 feet long and sports an on/off switch.

It’s a really simple solution, and it’s actually used as a remarkable lighting hack by some professional TV and video lighting gaffers I’ve worked with.

Look at the Camera!
And now that we’ve come this far to create a professional-looking shot, there’s one more thing…

Always focus your eyes on your device’s camera dot… not at your own image. Otherwise, you’ll always appear to be looking somewhere else as opposed to the person you’re video chatting with!

And that just becomes annoying.

Your Smartphone Should Give You the Best Shot Possible
So, the next time you need to do an important FaceTime or Skype session with someone on the Kubrickian ‘Space Station V’ or perhaps with a business contact in a more terrestrial location, now you’ll be prepared to look your best…

The Price of Staying Connected

Warning. This is not a drill. My iPhone will no longer function as a cell phone after crossing the Andes. Wi-Fi is my only lifeline to home. And it’s all my fault.

In my last post, you may recall I was preparing to fly to Chile for a work project. My plan was to dumb down my iPhone and only rely on its Wi-Fi capability and use both Apple’s FaceTime and Skype to stay connected with my life in the northern hemisphere.
This is my story…

Not in Kansas Anymore
My Delta 767 has just touched down in Santiago.
Two hours late.
It’s the back-up plane. And what happened to my aircraft?
It had equipment problems and was pulled out of service.
The cause?
Its entertainment system wasn’t working.

I had scheduled my first meeting in Santiago with a two and a half buffer of flex time for me to chill out after I was to arrive at my hotel.
Unpack. Take a shower. Maybe go the bar and try a Pisco Sour.

But not anymore. It’s going to be tight. Really tight.

As I wait in line at customs, I turn on my iPhone, prepared to begin my little experiment. And suddenly it hits me.

I feel a shiver as the adrenaline shoots through my body. I’ve forgotten to forward my normal cell phone number to my new Skype Online Number.
D’oh!! It was the last thing I was supposed to do.

So now I have a choice. Either leave my cell phone number behind for the week, or open up my device’s defense bubble and try to forward my cell phone number in an unfriendly roaming jungle.

Yes, I know I could live without knowing if anyone actually called my cell phone number while I was away, but I had worked so hard to put my plan in place.
I just had to know how it was all going to work.

It’s like building a rocket ship.
If you don’t go anywhere in it, what’s the point?

Cut to ninety minutes later.

I walk into my hotel room. That meeting is now twenty-five minutes away, and I haven’t showered in thirty hours after two flights totaling eleven hours.

Pop Quiz: What do you do? What do you do?!
Yeah, I forget common sense and instead pull out my iPhone to make the fix in search of truth.

I go to Airplane Mode and flick it off.
I feel like I’ve activated Skynet.

My phone immediately receives a Chilean carrier signal.

It’s a text warning me about international charges. It’s like they were waiting for me.
I’m not sure how this is possible as I still have data functionality turned off.

No time to think. Must continue. Fast.

I go to the call forwarding section of Settings and turn Call Forwarding on.
My Skype Online Number is right there, still populating the field from my earlier testing.
I nervously flick it on.

The phone starts thinking…thinking…. Done.
There it is!

Another text. This one offers my phone a billion texts for a million pesos…or something.

OMG. My phone is under attack! The unknown text costs.!!

Everything starts to move in slow motion.
Must get phone back into Airplane Mode.

Five seconds later, I get the blast doors closed again.

Now what?

It’s twenty-one minutes till my meeting.

Twenty-two minutes later I’m in the lobby.
Showered, shaved, and wearing fresh clothes.
I only got fours hours of sleep on the plane, but the fact that I am connected makes all the difference. I’m ready for the job.

Wi-Fi or Bust
And how did my wireless-less communications strategy perform?

First off, I’ve got to say I did feel a little impaired not having access to my full communications arsenal. I felt like I had gone back in time to 2005.

But with a little planning… the way things used to work, it wasn’t all that bad.

My wife and I set up a video chat in the morning and evening every day with our toddler.

Apple’s FaceTime worked perfectly on the hotel’s Wi-Fi network. Our toddler successfully negotiated time with my wife to share the chatting with me, an impressive new skill. (It’s all part of the sharing thing we’re teaching him.) I’m not sure that he understood why my face was in the screen, but he did say once “When going?”
Which I think reveals he understood that I was far away.
His use of ‘going’ probably meant ‘coming back.’. Very cool stuff.

I tried Skype video calling a couple times, but it didn’t seem to work. My wife never answered.

Where Skype really came in handy though was just making normal outbound calls.
As long as I was on the hotel’s Wi-Fi network, I was set.
And I was able to check my Skype Credit balance to confirm that in fact, my U.S./Canada calling plan covered these calls for free. All for that $2.99/month plan.
It wasn’t too good to be true after all. And I even received inbound calls on Skype.

Pièce de Résistance
Remember my call-forwarding hi-stress maneuver?
Yup. That worked too!
I received a critical voicemail that my work briefcase that was in repair was ready for pick up.
(Yes, the world is now safe again for another day.)
Hey, the point is, my little communications scheme worked like a charm.

Time to Pay the Piper
…Except for the lingering fact that I did have to turn on the wireless function the one time, totally against plan.
Deep down, I knew there would be damages.

As my airplane touched down on American soil in Atlanta on my way back to New York, I immediately released my caged iPhone and reactivated the wireless. It roared back to full functionality as if it never left.

My plane had arrived early, and we couldn’t deplane until U.S. Customs opened at 5:30am. (Good detail to remember when you’re flying on a red-eye.)

We had ten minutes to hang out. So I dialed 611 to talk to the AT&T operator and find out how successful my iPhone lock down had been.
Did I cleverly circumvent the traditional international calling payment structure or had I just rung up $300 in roaming fees?

The operator asked if I had set up an international plan.
No, I said with some small, lingering guilt.

There was a long silence as she looked up my account.
Yes, she confirmed. There was indeed a charge.

My heartbeat started to go up.
She wasn’t saying how much.

“For what?” I asked.

“Text messaging,” she replied calmly.

“How much?”

“Twenty-five cents.”

“Can you repeat that?”

“One international text message for twenty-five cents.”

Hmm. Must have been one of those marketing texts when I opened up the floodgates for the thirty seconds.

“Twenty-five cents? Okay. I can handle that….”

I know.
It’s kind of like being a baseball pitcher and missing a no hitter in the ninth inning.
But if being a parent of a toddler has taught me anything, an almost perfectly executed plan is something to really cheer about!

“Kirk to Enterprise”
I glowed with my little success, as I sat on my next plane headed to New York. Suddenly, I experienced a bonus jolt of mini joy as the rest of the passengers boarded.

I had previously forgotten that Skype video can work on 3G (4G) if the signal is strong enough. And now that my phone was back to normal, I called the ‘fam’ and did a Skype video chat right on the plane.

I felt I was back in time in the ‘60’s in the middle of a science fiction movie about the 1990’s.

There was my boy looking around the plane as I described everything to him.

His face filled the screen.
“Ooooh,” he cried out.

Twenty-five cents?

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