Conference Room Systems Preach Looking Good on Video

CRS web site on hdx4500My long and continuing exploration of the evolution of webcams has reliably turned up a small set of companies that are doing interesting things. Conference Room Systems is one such company. An AV reseller in Pennsylvania they seemed to recognize that A/V tech was evolving beyond its traditional boundaries. It was moving into live streaming, in applications from corporate to churches, schools and community groups.

However, a sales organization is just that. They exist to sell things. Having spent many years in such an organization it’s familiar territory for me. Sometimes they are genuinely knowledgeable, occasionally less so.

Now and again there are things that hint at the real depth of the organization. Their recent blog post, penned by Carly Wilke is one such hint. It’s called, “A Simple Guide To Looking Good on Camera.” It’s more than a little misguided. So much so that it bears examination.

One of the most contributing factors to how you look on camera is the equipment, if your camera isn’t picking up quality video your viewers are not going to see a quality representation of your appearance.

OK, so far…not bad.

High quality video has become the standard, most people don’t bother watching a video if it isn’t 1080p which is why you need a camera with USB 3.0 which is capable of providing such quality video with 4.8 Gbps of bandwidth.

Wait! That bit, while a shaky construction of a sentence, is also very simply, unbelievably, irrevocably, unabashedly, wrong. In two ways:

1. 720p vs 1080p

People watch 720p all the time. Literally every day. Globally some of the major television networks broadcast 720p video. Think Fox, ABC, Disney and the like.

Setting aside broadcasting, Google’s Hangouts and Hangouts-On-Air only support 720p. YouTube Live supports 1080i/p or even 4K, but most YouTube content is still 720p.

Facebook Live supports only 720p.

To take more of a focus on VC/UC, when I was working on a project with Polycom in 2013/4 I made a lot of use of video calling. I had a wonderful HDX4500 that saw use via a Polycom DMX MCU. All of that was 1080p capable, but we literally never used anything but 720p.

In most VC/streaming projects good quality 720p is perfectly acceptable. What we’ve learned in 200 HOA VUC sessions is that there’s typically little to be gained by the added spatial resolution, unless you’re presenting on a very large screen.

2. USB 3.0 Cameras?

Even if you wanted to leverage 1080p, you don’t need a USB 3.0 connected camera to do it. There are a number of USB-attached (is “webcam” still appropriate?) cameras that deliver 1080p over USB 2.0. This is done by encoding the video stream using either MJPEG or H264 compression.

AVER CAM520 & Logitech PTZ Pro

As I’ve discussed previously, this requires that you use software that can take advantage of that capability. Skype was early in this capability. Sparkocam, WirecastvMix, Open Broadcaster and XSplit all deliver 1080p from suitably capable USB 2.0 connected cameras, like the Logitech PTZ Pro or AVer Information CAM520.

As a practical matter, MJPEG is preferred over H.264 for it’s low latency characteristic. Being a codec based upon encoding a group-of-frames, H.264 introduces considerable delay.

Some might argue that either form of compression degrades the image quality. Conceptually, they’d be right. But practically, it doesn’t make a difference for streaming or VC applications.

Insistence upon USB 3.0 implies a desire to do 1080p with an application that does not have the ability to leverage one of those codecs. Such an application can only fetch an uncompressed stream from the camera. Uncompressed 1080p30 doesn’t fit across a USB 2.0 connection.

I would argue that software that cannot extract a MJPEG encoded stream from a USB-attached camera isn’t likely appropriate to the task. It’s trivially simple to do, and has been part of the UVC standard for a decade or more.

If you truly want to work with uncompressed video you should be using a different kind of camera that delivers its output via HD-SDI or HDMI. Then use a capture card (or dongle) to get that video into a computer.

If the camera delivers NDI the stream can be delivered over IP, eliminating the need for a capture card. At present there are no cameras that provide NDI directly. They require a computer or adapter  to encode the video to NDI and offer it on the network.

Lighting?

While making all the fuss about 1080p and USB 3.0 the author completely failed to address one issue that’s critical to looking good on camera…lighting!

More than piling on additional makeup or spritzing your hair, proper lighting makes a huge difference. You want diffuse, even lighting, that’s not all from overhead.

Lighting design for a video conference room should take this into consideration. CRS’s own page on the subject has little info. In fact, none of their online properties, which includes CRS, PTZOptics and HuddleCam, have much to say about lighting or related products.

Of course, very few people give any consideration to the acoustic design of conference rooms. They simply expect the conference phone to deal with the situation. It’s sad, really.

I myself have struggled to achieve acceptable lighting. That is, until I found the Brightlines I/S-22 LED Conference Lamp. That’s basically solved my lighting problem with respect to video calling.

I’d still like to improve the general purpose the lighting in my office. I’m moving much slower on that front. Of course, it’s summer, so the days are longer and there’s less incentive to solve that problem.

Just A Grumpy Old Man

It could be that this article simply slipped through the editorial cracks. Or perhaps, as happens in the political sphere, they live with a different set of “facts” than the rest of us. Perhaps I should cut them some slack. I do take exception to such substantial misdirection as this presents.

CRS are in fact doing interesting things at the intersection of video conferencing, desktop video production and streaming media. They do good work promoting the use of tools like vMix and Wirecast into places where they would not have been considered previously.

OTOH, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. They proclaim themselves as, “The Web Conferencing Experts” which sets the bar pretty high…at least in my eyes.

Sometimes the most valuable thing that we can do is get people to think about things that they might not have otherwise considered. In this case, simple awareness of how you look & sound is a huge step. The first step in any solution is recognizing and acknowledging that there’s a problem.


Also published on Medium.