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Guide for remote video participants in a group meeting with Skype

Having a group videoconference, or participating by video in a group meeting (where several people are in a meeting room, and one or more others are coming in via video) is quite useful. It’s much better than the traditional audio conference call on a fancy speakerphone. The audio is much better and the video makes a big difference to how engaged the remote parties are in the meeting.

There are many tools, but right now I recommend Skype, which can handle around 5 remote parties if you buy a one-day premium subscription or monthly. In theory it does 10 but they recommend 5, which means the meeting room and 4 others. Only one party (the meeting room account, typically) needs to have the premium subscription. The instructions for the meeting room are slightly more complex — this is a guide for the remote parties calling in. I also recommend Google Hangout, which handles 10 smoothly.

The advice below is definitely ordered. Even if you just do the first few it helps a bunch.

  • Upgrade to the latest Skype, at least version 5 is needed
  • Know the conference master’s account and have it on your contacts list
  • Get a headset
  • Get a headset
  • Mute your audio when not speaking, and definitely if you ignored the headset bit
  • Have a nice webcam and avoid having the light come from behind you
  • Use Windows over Mac, and your machine with the most CPU power
  • Make sure you can see the chat window so you can do IMs without disrupting the meeting

There’s a bunch of stuff here. It’s worth doing because you will be much more engaged in the meeting. You will know who is speaking and see what’s going on. Your voice will be clear and loud. You’ll be able to interrupt and engage in dynamic conversation. You’ll be in the meeting and not just an audience. You need to do the extra work because the people who physically went don’t want to put up with too much to make it easier for those phoning it in.

Upgrade to your latest Skype

The multi party video works only with version 5 for Mac or Windows. If you have a lower version, or you are on Linux (curse you, Skype) you will only come in by audio. That’s still better than coming in by a phone bridge. If you have Skype just go to the Help menu and tell it to check for upgrades (File menu on the Mac.) Hate to say it, but if you have a choice, use a Windows computer. Skype develops first on Windows and the other versions always lag behind. Some useful features are only on Windows.

So before the meeting, be sure to upgrade, and get to know the new UI if you have not seen it before — Skype changed their UI a bunch from 4 to 5.

Become a “contact” with the conference master.

Make sure you are buddies (contacts) with the premium account that will be the master for the conference. That doesn’t have to be the meeting room, but it usually is. (Optionally you can add other participants to your list.) You will normally get an E-mail with the ID, or perhaps a contact invite. You can also search on Skype for most users.

Get a headset and get good audio. Really.

Skype does a very good job of speakerphone and echo cancellation in two-way calls. But it’s still much better if you have a headset, or failing that, headphones and a mic. The meeting room has no choice but to use speakerphone mode, which is an even bigger reason for you to get the headphones.

When you have a headset, or at least headphones and a clip-on mic or directional table mic near your mouth:

  • The sound doesn’t go out your speakers and right into the mic. That means Skype does not have to echo-cancel so much. When it echo cancels it makes it harder to talk while somebody else is talking. With the headset you can be more two-way, and that gives you more presence at the meeting.
  • Your mouth is close to the mic, so the mic adjusts its level down, and all background noise in your environment is thus not amplified nearly as much.
  • If you use the mic in your laptop, it really hears keyclicks, mouse click and even the fan too well. In fact, you dare not type without muting your mic first.

Do not use a bluetooth headset — they limit you to phone quality if you use the microphone. Hi-fi bluetooth headphones plus an independent mic will work fine.

You might want to test your audio by calling somebody, or calling the “Skype Test Call” address that goes into every Skype contact list by default.

Mute your sound if you go away, or type, or are just listening for a while

The high quality audio of computer calls is really valuable. It helps everybody understand everybody, and makes it much clearer who is speaking. This comes with an ironic curse — it picks up all sorts of background sounds that regular telephones don’t transmit. You would be amazed what it picks up. Mouse clicks. Keyboard clicks. Grunts. Eating. People in the next room. Planes flying by. (It does less of this if you use a headset and manual volume setting.)

If you are going to be sitting back and listening, mute your own microphone while doing this. If you leave your computer definitely mute. If you leave to take a phone call, it’s even more important. I’ve been in calls where the person leaves their PC and we hear them eating, or on a phone call or talking to somebody else where they are, having forgotten to mute. And there can be no way to tell them to fix it because they took their headphones off. Skype has a microphone icon you can click on to mute your mic. It’s red when muted.

If you ignore all this advice and are using the microphone built into your laptop you must not type or move your computer around without muting first. Frankly it’s good to mute to type even with you have that headset, but mandatory if you don’t.

Extra credit if you have a headset: Go into the audio properties and set a manual level for your mic at your normal speaking voice. Then it won’t try to turn up the gain when you are not talking.

Next, consider your lighting

Nothing improves the quality of a webcam image more than decent lighting. Try to set things up so there isn’t a bright light or window in the background behind you, and ideally have a light shining on you from behind and above your monitor. This is worth more than the fanciest webcam. Be wary with laptops, since the webcam pointing up at you often catches ceiling lights.

A nice webcam does not hurt

While the webcam in your laptop will work, and do OK with good lighting, you can do a lot better. The laptop cam is usually low on the desk and looks up your nose. Higher end webcams do much better in bad lighting situations. The Logitech quickcams that Skype rates as “HQ” really are better than the others. You might want to get one if you are doing video calls frequently.

By the way, when the call starts, be sure to make it a video call, or if you are called, “accept with video.” Or you can click on the video button to start your video up.

Possibly turn off your video at certain times

Great as the multi party video is, the more people who use it, the more CPU and bandwidth everybody needs. So if you are just sitting back and not being super active, consider clicking on the “My Video” button to turn off your own video during those periods. Of course if you are going to do some extensive speaking be sure to turn it on again — it’s relatively fast and easy to turn on and off. In practice, unless everybody has fast machines, you don’t want to go above much more than 5 videos, so some people should remain invisible (but still getting HQ audio and seeing the meeting room.)

Optional: Cute video tricks

In Windows, you can turn on the “Dynamic View” and Skype will make the person (or people) who is speaking larger on your window. Handy if you have a big call which makes the individual videos small. Full screen mode (but leave chat visible) is also a good idea unless you want to surf and read e-mail during the meeting. Be warned — we can see you doing that. And your keyboard clicks come through so you may want to mute.

Instead of dynamic view (which jumps around) you can also just click on which video you want to be big. In many cases the best idea is to just click on the meeting room video, which you want to be big because there are many people, and the single-head videos are fine staying small.

Not sending video? Be sure to set a picture in your Skype profile. Others will see this picture highlighted when you talk and know it’s you talking. Even if you are sending video this is a good idea as video sometimes fails.

When problems occur — have chat open

You may get disconnected. The latest Skype tries automatic callback if it was not an explicit disconnect. If you call back the conference master, they have to be careful that they accept your call into the conference, because it’s unfortunately easy for them to just accept it like call-waiting, and put the whole conference room on hold. (This is a bad design, I think.)

Be sure to display Skype’s chat window and be ready for chats and IMs about problems. That way conference problems can be fixed without disturbing the whole meeting. But be sure to mute before you type. The chat window usually goes away in full screen mode, unfortunately, but if you hear little bleeps you don’t understand, it could be you are getting chat.

Hard truth is, some problems in Skype are best solved by stopping and restarting video, or sometimes having a person leave and re-enter the call. Or sometimes even restarting the whole call.

If you are on an ordinary phone

People on phones can join the call. The call manager will tell you one of these methods:

  • The call manager will have a Skype-in number. Just call it.
  • The call manager may have created a traditional conference dial-in number. Call that and do the rigmarole.
  • It is often easiest if the conference manager calls you — if so, make sure they have your numbers. Landlines are better, of course, and vastly less expensive than mobiles outside North America.

In the Meeting room

The situation in the meeting room is different. There you must use speakers with the volume up, and a microphone. Try to put them on the table, particularly the microphone. A quality webcam is much more important here, and the webcam should be up high, at the height of a standing person looking down at the table, so it can see everybody. If you use a laptop on the table the view is dreadful and people block those sitting further down the table. Consider getting USB speakers so you can have two speakers (internal and USB) and configure Skype to send call audio out the USB speakers (which you set loud) but have all other sounds (including Skype call tones) go out the internal audio and speakers which you set down low. Otherwise with the volume way up any PC sounds will drive people nuts.

Special advice for the conference master in the meeting room can be found in the guide for running the meeting room in a videoconference and a discussion of the issues and future features can be found at this article on group meeting video calls.

Review of standalone wand scanner

Back at the start of this blog, in 2004, I described a product I wanted to see, which I called the Paperless Home Scanner. Of late, several companies have been making products like this (not necessarily because of this blog of course) and so I finally picked one up to see how things pan out.

Because I’m cheap, I was able to pick up an asian made scanner sold under many brand names for only $38 on eBay. This scanner sometimes called the Handyscan or PS-4100 or similar numbers, can also be found on amazon for much more.

The product I described is a portable sheetfed scanner which runs on batteries and does not need to be connected to a computer because it just writes to a flash card. This particular scanner isn’t that because it’s a hand scanner you swipe over your documents. For many years I have used a Visioneer Strobe, which is a slow sheetfed unit that has to be connected to a Windows computer. I found that having to turn the computer on and loading the right software and selecting the directory to scan was a burden. (You don’t strictly have to do that but strangely you seem motivated to do so.) The older scanner was not very fast, and suffered a variety of problems, being unable to scan thermal paper receipts (they are so thin it gets confused) and having problems with even slight skew on the documents.

I was interested in the hand-scanner approach because I presumed there had been vast improvements using the laser surface scanning found in mice. I figured a new scanner could do very good registration even if you were uneven in your wanding. Here are some of my observations:  read more »

  • While it does a better job of making an undistorted scan than older hand scanners, it is still far from perfect, and any twists or catches can distort the scan, though not that much. Enough that you wouldn’t use it to print a copy, but fine for records archiving.
  • It’s exactly 8.5” wide. Since it’s hard to be exactly straight on any scan, that’s an annoyance as you will often drift slightly from a page. A scanner for letter paper should really be about 9” wide. I’ll gladly pay the extra for that.
  • Even today with Moore’s law it’s too slow scanning colour. Often the red light comes on that you are scanning too fast in colour. In B&W it is rare but still can happen. Frankly, by this time we should be able to make things fast and sensitive enough to allow scanning as fast as anybody is likely to do it.
  • While it is nice a small (and thus good for travel,) for use in the home, I would prefer it be a bit wider so I can get it on to the paper and scan the whole page with no risk of catching on the paper. And yes, there is always a risk of it catching.
  • It also catches on bends and folds in the paper, and so ideally you are holding the paper with one hand somehow and swiping with the other, but of course that is not really easy to do if scanning the whole page.
  • This particular scanner resets every time it turns off. And it resets to colour-300dpi. I wish it just remembered my settings.
  • In spite of what it said, it does not appear to have a monochrome setting, such as bitmap-600dpi or even 300dpi. That turns out to be fine, and even what you want, for records archiving. Sure, why throw away information in this era of cheap storage, I agree. On the other hand if it allows scanning-super-fast it may be worth it. A trick might be to start in grayscale and get levels, and then switch to bitmap/threshold
  • One huge difference with swipe scanners is they don’t know where the edges of the paper are. You can scan on a black background and have software crop and straighten, but feeding scanners do that for you because they know where those edges are. Again, having a bit of the background there is fine for archiving bills etc.
  • Overall, I do now realize that not having a view of what I scanned is more of burden than I thought. Particularly if you are thinking of disposing of the document after scanning. Did you get a good scan or not? Though it would add a lot to the cost and size, I now wonder if a very small display screen might be in order.
  • Instead of a display screen, one alternative might be bluetooth, and send the scan image to your smartphone or computer directly. Not required, so you can still scan at-will, but if you have your device with you, you can get a review screen and perhaps some more advanced UI.
  • Indeed, the bluetooth approach would save you the trouble of having to transfer the files, or of having a flash card. (A modest number of megs of internal flash would probably do the job of storing until you can get near the computer.)
  • While it does plug into USB (to read the flash card) that would be a pain if you wanted to scan to screen. Bluetooth is better.

Hand swipe vs. motor fed