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Tag: video chat

Video chat’s next major feature: physical positioning of participants (“mingle at a party” options) to allow a huge chat to be split into manageable groups!

Background:

With the 2020 COVID plague, work-related video chats have become increasingly full of a large number of participants (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: Video chat software (e.g. Zoom, FaceTime, Hangouts, Meet, Duo, Skype, and more) typically only allows participants to appear in a randomly-ordered grid. All participants are part of the same (single) discussion: there is no easy way to have a “side discussion” and then rejoin the main conversation.

The issue:

Video chats have a problem that in-person office work does not: there is no convenient way for participants of an unreasonably-large video chat group to split off into subgroups.

Instead, every discussion must take place in a SINGLE mega-discussion with all participants, or people need to leave the mega-discussion and start their own exclusive video chat groups. People often get around this by having side discussions over text, but that’s not really a great solution either.

Proposal:

In a physical workspace, it’s easy to have a small discussion: simply PHYSICALLY relocate the individuals in the conversation to an empty lunchroom table or meeting room.

To improve video chat, we simply implement the same feature: instead of each video participant just being a randomly-placed square in a grid, now each participant can also specify their location on a virtual floor plan (Figure 2).

Fig. 2: Left: the old-fashioned style of video chat. Right: the updated video chat, where you can only hear and see participants who are in close physical proximity. In this case, the chat has split into groups A, B, and C (shown here from the perspective of a person in Group B). Everyone in Group B has a normal video chat, but can only faintly hear low-audio-volume chats going on in groups A and C.

Importantly, it’s still possible to see and hear people who are somewhat nearby on the floor plan, but at a very low volume. So you can know that a conversation is going on, and join in if necessary, but it won’t drown out your primary discussion.

Previous Examples:

Some video games implement a system like this (“proximity audio”), in which you can hear voice chat only from nearby players. However, as far as I am aware, this has never been a feature in any office-focused collaboration software.

PROS: This seems like it should actually exist! Maybe it hasn’t been developed before due to the lack of compelling business case for having large numbers of people on video calls.

CONS: Might lead to a tyrannically oppressive workplace in which work-from-home employees are mandated to always be available on video chat and present on a virtual floor plan.

Never be concerned whether or not your household electronics are spying on you! This new repurposing of the “ON AIR” sign will save you from fretting!

Background:

It seems that nearly every electronic device with a camera or microphone is now Internet-enabled and can wirelessly send video and audio to the world.

The issue:

Due to the preponderance of electronic hardware in a modern household, it can be difficult which (if any) device is spying on you at that exact moment (Figure 1).

This is a relatively new phenomenon, since it used to be the case that:

  1. Cameras were relatively large
  2. Non-CIA recording devices generally needed to be physically wired to a power source and network cable.

Fig. 1: One of these devices is currently streaming video from the user’s house—but which one? Video-enabled devices sometimes have a recording light (but not always: e.g. phones, tablets), but checking these lights is still annoying and time-consuming. And audio recording generally has no indication whatsoever!

Proposal:

The classic solution to the “are we recording right now?” question is a lit-up “ON AIR” sign [see examples] that can light up whenever a TV station is broadcasting.

This same concept can be applied to modern devices: a person would buy a new piece of “ON AIR” hardware (this would essentially just be a WiFi-enabled screen). This ON AIR sign would connect to the household WiFi network light up any time it detected video being sent out to the Internet.

Detecting that streaming is happening could occur in two ways:

1) Network traffic analysis can generally identify data as “this is a stream of video / audio.” This is a solution that would probably work in most cases.

2) Each video/audio-enabled device can talk to the ON AIR sign over WiFi and notify it that streaming is occurring. This would be on the “honor system”: well-behaved software would periodically report that it was streaming. One benefit of this opt-in method is that streaming devices could send additional metadata: e.g., instead of just “ON AIR (Some computer is sending video),” the user would see “ON AIR (Joe’s PowerBook G4, streaming video over RealPlayer for 4:34)”.


Fig. 2: Thanks to this lit-up “ON AIR” sign, the user knows that there is some device recording them, and exactly which device is responsible (in this case, the “smart television”).

Of course, neither of these methods is a 100% guarantee of detecting live video being streamed: for example, a phone that was using its cellular data to stream would not be detected.

Conclusion:

This could probably be a legitimate product!

PROS: Would be a good value-add option for a router manufacturer. “This router will light up if it detects outgoing video/audio!”

CONS: Might cause the user to become extremely paranoid upon realizing that their watch, tablet, computer, phone, external monitor, fitness tracker, headphones, and dozens of other devices could all be surreptitiously spying at any time.

Fix your “webcam eye contact” issues with this incredible new “swivel camera” laptop idea! Your conference calls will feature totally natural and not-at-all-unsettling eye contact from now on.

Background:

Most laptops include a built-in camera, typically located just above the top edge of the screen.

This type of camera is generally marketed as a “video chat” or “conference call” camera.

The issue:

When a person is on a video call, they tend to look at the image on the screen instead of directly at the camera. (Of course!)

So from the camera’s perspective—and the perspective of the remote video chat partner—the person using the webcam isn’t making eye contact, and is instead looking down semi-randomly.

Proposal:

We can solve the “video chat participant is not making eye contact” scenario by reducing the angle between the camera and the screen.

There are two straightforward ways to do this:

  • Solution #1: Move the laptop much farther away, so the camera and display are at nearly the same angle from the video chatter’s perspective.
  • Solution #2: Move the camera so that it is in front of the display. This is the solution we will be exploring.

Implementing Solution #1 is impractical with a laptop, since it (in most cases) needs to be relatively close to the user.

But Solution #2 is easy: we can put the camera on a swiveling arm and allow it to swing down to the middle of the screen (Figure 1).

Eye contact problems solved!

2-laptop-eye-direction.png

Fig. 1: Left: a normal laptop camera. Even though the chat participants are both making eye contact with the image on their screens, they are actually looking down from the perspective of the top-mounted camera. Right: now that the camera has been “swiveled” to the center of the screen, the chat participants are making eye contact in a natural manner.

PROS: Solves the weird eye gaze issues inherent to video chatting.

CONS: Adds a new fragile plastic part to snap off your laptop.

Bonus Part 1: A simpler solution:

  • Solution #3: The camera doesn’t actually have to move in order to have its viewpoint moved to the center of the display: the same result can be achieved with a small periscope (or fiber optic cable) that hangs on the laptop lid and redirects the camera view to the center of the screen.

One could imagine that such an aftermarket attachment could be manufactured extremely cheaply. Perhaps this is a good crowdfunding opportunity!

Bonus Part 2: Overly complicated solutions:

  • Solution #4: Create a partially-transparent laptop screen and put the camera behind it. This would probably require a new and highly specialized LED panel manufacturing process.
  • Solution #5: Edit the video feed in software, changing the user’s eyes in real time to always point directly at the screen. This is probably feasible, but it could be somewhat unsettling. (See also the related “touch up my appearance” face-smoothing feature on Zoom).

Related Idea:

See also: the laptop camera prism idea for including multiple people on a single machine on a conference call.

Solve your conference call woes with this one insane tip! Never lean your head weirdly in front of a laptop camera again. FINALLY.

The issue:

During a conference call, it can be difficult to position multiple people in such a way that everyone is actually in-frame.

Usually, either:

  1. Only one person fits into the frame, or:
  2. Everyone is extremely far from the camera, so 95% of the screen area is taken up by a conference table.

Figure 1 illustrates this common scenario.

conference-call-1-without-prism.png

Fig. 1: When multiple people are sharing a laptop during a conference call, usually the video looks like the example on right, where only one person is actually fully visible.

Proposal:

An inexpensive prism can fix this problem once and for all (Figure 2). A prism can be placed directly in front of the camera to split the image into multiple horizontally-spaced parts.

Now everyone can participate in the conference call without needing to move the camera around!

conference-call-2-with-prism

Fig. 2: The prism attachment makes it easy to fit everyone into frame. The prism could attach to the camera by means of either a magnetic clip or some sort of suction cup (probably the best solution for laptop screens).

PROS: Encourages conference call participation by people other than whoever happens to be directly in front of the camera.

CONS: Might result in an unflattering “fun house mirror” effect in the final image. (Although this could be fixed in software, or by a more complicated prism setup.)