At Home with Tech

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Tag: Skype

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.

#1
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.

#2
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!

#3
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.

#4
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…
Hands-free!

How to Boost Your Smartphone’s Signal Strength

Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean your smartphone is.  And even though you’re trying to get away from it all, you probably still want to receive that important phone call…

Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean your smartphone is. And even though you’re trying to get away from it all, you probably still want to receive that important phone call…

This past week, I’ve been adjusting to the sad reality that summer is behind us. All that’s left are the fun memories, a thousand photos that need organizing and a few cautionary tech tales.

Like what to do when you find yourself more disconnected than you originally planned…
(Cue “The Twilight Zone” music…)

Losing It at the Log Cabin
It was billed as the perfect vacation getaway…

  • A road trip up to the Berkshires
  • A little log cabin in the woods (with ‘most’ of the comforts of home)
  • A babbling brook nearby (okay… it was more like a roaring river)
  • Time set aside for a little R&R at a little lake in Great Barrington, MA

It was supposed to be perfect.

Until I asked the day before we left if there was decent cell phone coverage at the house.
(Granted, it was a little late in the game to be asking.)

The response:
“You can probably get one or two bars on the back deck.”

Hmmmm….
That sounded decidedly like code for a different answer…

When we arrived, I whipped out my iPhone and discovered the truth.
There wasn’t a morsel of a signal bar on my phone as I walked around the entire house, grounds and deck.

I was cut off!!

…and I started to panic.
Think.
Think. Think. THINK!…

Aha!
I spotted the broadband modem in the kitchen.
We were not entirely in the digital dark!

Skype to the Rescue?
Yes, at least there was Wi-Fi in the house.

So, we got the modem working,
(First, we needed to reboot the frozen box, downed by a recent power outage.)

I immediately tested my Skype app.
Success!

So now people could Skype me, but I was still concerned I couldn’t receive an old-fashioned phone call.

The irony here is I had forgotten all about my online Skype number for my iPhone’s Skype app.
I was so proud to acquire it a couple years back, but the reality is I’ve rarely used it.
(D’oh!!)

That would have solved the problem, as long as I stayed on my Wi-Fi tether.
(and if all my friends and family actually knew about my Skype number…)

Waiting for the Phone to Ring
So I kept searching for a solution to ‘MacGyver’ my phone to somehow access incoming calls to my mobile number.
(I could still receive texts via the Wi-Fi network.)

But if someone called me,
(like my 81-year-old father)
I really wanted to be able to pick up the call.

After a little Googling, I discovered the truth is out there.
You can actually create a few bars for your mobile phone using your Wi-Fi network.
But pulling the trigger on the solution would have to wait until I returned from my trip.

How to Generate Signal Strength
It’s called the AT&T MicroCell, and this little device acts like a mini cellular tower.
You simply plug it into a broadband modem via an Ethernet port and voila…!
You’ve got your very own cell bubble to use!!
(You do have to set it up first online, and you can register up to fifteen different AT&T Wireless cell phones.)

And how much for this slice of magic?
$150.00.
(Available at your local AT&T store… I couldn’t find it online.)

MicroCell

You can take the MicroCell with you wherever you go as long as you plug it into a broadband DSL or cable network and update your location change online.
(and as long as it’s within an AT&T wireless authorized service area)

And if you’re wondering, …
Yes, Verizon offers a similar product with its “Wireless Network Extender.”

Don’t Get Cut Off on Vacation
No, this isn’t a cheap solution, and I think the MicroCell probably is purchasd more to solve signal strength problems at home. But it certainly would have done the trick at our log cabin in the digital wilderness.

I’m not sure how many of you would want to pack a MicroCell with your socks every time you head out on vacation, but if you plan on receiving calls on your smartphone using your regular mobile number, you might need it!

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