Ericadriver_10By Erica Driver with Henry Dewing

In early December I blogged about my first experience using the Microsoft RoundTable video conferencing solution for a multi-hour meeting in which I was a remote participant. That meeting was a one-way video and Web conferencing experience . I didn’t have a Web cam at my desk. I could see the participants in the main conference room but they couldn’t see me. My takeaways after this meeting were that I could concentrate better than I had been able to in similar meetings where I didn’t have the video stream from the conference room; I felt connected to the others even though we weren’t together in the same room; and non-verbal communication had been preserved. I was so excited about my experience that I went out and purchased a Web cam, thinking that two-way video would enrich my remote meetings even further.

A few weeks later I had another multi-hour conference call during which we used Microsoft RoundTable and Live Meeting. I hooked up my shiny new Logitech Web cam and it all went downhill from therer. Being a newbie with Web cam-based video conferencing, I found that having a camera on my end felt highly unnatural and significantly detracted from, rather than added to, my experience in the meeting. Here’s why, and what my colleague Henry Dewing, who covers video conferencing for technology product management and marketing professionals, has to say about it:

·         I spent too much mental energy paying attention to whether – and how – other participants could see me. Maybe this is due to being a Web cam newbie, but I wasted way too many brain cycles making sure that the participants in the main conference room could see me okay and that I was communicating with them visually. I could see my own video stream in a little corner of my screen, which was very distracting. I tried to regularly look up at my Web cam to anyone who was looking at my video stream that I was listening and interested — which took my eyes off the materials we were discussing and my keyboard where I was taking notes and focused my attention on the 2-inch black sphere of my camera. And I had to remember to close the privacy shade on my camera while I was eating lunch (which didn’t synchronize with the others’ lunch break due to a 3-hour time difference). Henry’s recommendations: if you are a remote participant using a Web cam, turn off your view of your own video stream.  And remember that the views you have of those in the main conference room are not always head on and that is okay because it is normal in a meeting – the same is true for others’ view of you. Also, practice a bit with your Web cam beforehand so that you don’t choose poor camera angles, weak lighting, or sub-optimal audio configurations.

·         When presenting, I didn’t have the benefit of seeing my slides or the audience. I had a harder time presenting my material than I otherwise would have because while I was talking I wasn’t looking at either the other participants or my slides – I was looking at a camera. My memory stinks so I found this to be quite hard. Even though the camera was just above the top of my laptop screen, when I glanced at my keyboard or computer screen, the other participants saw me with my head down.

·         Eye contact was impossible. In order to appear to the other participants like I was making eye contact with them I had to look into my camera. This might be second nature for a fashion model or movie star but it sure wasn’t for me. And when I was looking into the camera, I couldn’t look at the video images of the other participants on my screen – so I couldn’t even get the illusion of approximated eye contact, which was distracting.

·         The technology didn’t work seamlessly. Another remote participant had trouble viewing the video stream from my Web cam as well as the video streams from the conference room at the same time. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. And at one point in the meeting I could see via the little panoramic image of the conference room that my video image had mysteriously blown up to way bigger than life size – my face was taking up the whole projected screen in the main conference room. The on-site team was able to fix it in a few seconds, but it was a little bit disconcerting. Henry’s recommendation: make sure you set up all the network stuff ahead of time. Get the Web conference, audio bridge, and video conferencing devices all synched up so communication is seamless.

I’ll try it again – this was just my first attempt – but probably not for important, multi-hour meetings with clients where I have to simultaneously view presentation materials, participate in a multi-party voice conversation, take notes on my computer, and perhaps view a video stream coming out of the main conference room. At the very least, I’ll turn off the ability to view my own video stream. Both users like me and according to Henry vendors that offer technologies for video conferencing are on the steep end of the learning curve and that that may inhibit usability for the short term.