Guide to a meeting room based videoconference with Skype

If you’re going to have a meeting with people in a meeting room and one or more people calling in remotely, I recommend trying to have a remote multi-party video call, or at the very least a high-fidelity audio call, and avoid the traditional use of a phone conference bridge to a speakerphone on the meeting room table. The reality is the remote people never feel part of the meeting, and no matter how expensive the speakerphone, the audio just doesn’t cut it. There are several tools that can do a multi-party video call, including Oovoo, Sightspeed, Vsee and others, but for now I recommend Skype because it’s high quality, cheap, encrypted and already ubiquitous.

While you can just set up the meeting room with Skype on a typical laptop, it’s worth a bit of extra effort to make things run more smoothly in the meeting room, and to get good audio and video. Here are some steps to take, in rough order of importance.

The Basics

  • You should upgrade to the latest Skype. Use “Help/Check for upgrades” in Skype or download from their web site.
  • Create or designate a “conference master” account. (Skype no longer needs a Premium account for this but calls are limited to 4 hours/day and 100hrs/month.) I also recommend you have some money in the Skype account for outbound calling, see below.
  • The conference master should learn the UI of multi-party calling. They must be on Windows or a Mac. (Sadly, for now, only Windows is recommended.) The UI is slightly different, annoyingly. Read Skype’s instructions for windows or Mac. They also have some how-to videos. The hard reality is that the Windows version is more advanced. Don’t learn the UI during the conference — in particular make sure you know how to deal with late callers or re-adding bounced people because it can happen.
  • The conference master should have a decently high-powered PC, especially if having 4 or more remotes.
  • Notify all participants of the name of the conference master. Have them add the conference master to their contact list in advance of the conference. Confirm them as buddies. Alternately, if you know their Skype names, add them and get them to confirm.
  • Create, in advance, a call group for the conference.
  • You may wish to refer the remote callers to my guide to calling in to a multi-party videoconference or a similar document. Send them the master ID when you mail them instructions like these.

Here are the typical problems that we see if the meeting room just uses a laptop on the table for the video call:

  • The camera is low down on the table, and laptop quality. It often captures backlights and looks up at people. Half the people are blocked from view by other people or stuff on the table.
  • The microphone is at the far end of the table, and it’s a cheap laptop mic that picks up sound of its own fan, keyboard and possibly projector. When it sets levels based on the people at that end of the table, it makes the people at the other end hard to hear.
  • You need the sound up loud to hear the remote folks, but then any incoming calls or other computer noises are so loud as to startle people.
  • People haven’t tried the interface before, so they fumble and have problems dealing with call setup and adding new callers or returning callers. This frustrates the others in the room, who just want to get on with the meeting.
  • Some folks have to come in by telephone, but you can’t really have a speaker phone and a computer conference talking speaker to microphone very well.

Getting good audio in the conference room

While all the remotes are advised to use headphones, in the meeting room you will of course use speakerphone. If at all possible, don’t just use the speakers and mic of a laptop. You will end up wanting the volume loud, so external speakers are pretty important.

Strongly consider having USB speakers

It turns out that it’s really useful if you make sure the conference PC has two audio outputs. One (the USB speakers) will be used for conference audio, and you will be turning the volume up high on that. The bad news is that if you have just one audio channel, then everything else will be really loud — beeps and bloops from software on the computer, and most of all ringing tones from people calling in or rejoining the conference. There are tricks to mute those but the easiest thing to do is to have a second audio channel, and to tell Skype to send conference audio to it, while sending ringtones to the computer or laptop’s main speakers, along with all other audio. You can keep the volume on that low, though not inaudible.

You don’t need to buy USB speakers. In most computer stores and for less than $5 online you can get little USB dongles that have a speaker and microphone jack on them, and you can plug ordinary speakers into this. If you are using an HDTV, you can feed the audio into the speakers on the HDTV. If you feed the TV using HDMI, there is usually an audio channel in that to the TV speakers.

Go into Skype Tools->Options and select “Sound Devices” and make sure the “audio out” is your new USB/HDMI device, and the ringing still goes to whatever your system default sound device is.

Some desktops have multiple audio jacks, ie. front and back, and you can sometimes send different audio to different jacks. If so you don’t need the USB.

Put a microphone on the desktop

The little mic in a laptop isn’t very good, and picks up sound from the laptop fan and anybody typing on the laptop. Decent desktop mics are not expensive at all, and of course if you have a high-end mic you can use it. You want an omni mic in the middle of the meeting room table. This is one thing fancy speakerphones do better with their multiple microphones, and some day I expect to see support for that in tools like Skype, but the superior audio of Skype can make up for this. You can get desktop speakerphones made for PCs as well.

Your mic can be regular or USB. One advantage of USB, if well designed, is that the long cable won’t pickup stray signals like the call-connection on GSM phones.

Get a good webcam, and put it up high

The webcam in some laptops is pretty good, but if it’s sitting on the table it’s a terrible viewpoint. These webcams tend to get blocked by anything on the table, and in a large room people close to the laptop block those behind. People really close to the laptop don’t show up at all. It’s frustrating to the remote people.

So get a remote USB webcam and put it up high, where a standing person’s eyes would be, looking down at the table, and a bit back of the end of the table. This will let the remotes see everybody. How far back it goes depends on the field of view of the webcam. Some webcams are wide, some are tight, some can be zoomed. Some new ones are widescreen but I don’t believe that is yet supported in Skype multi-party. (I hope it will be.)

For most laptops, a quality external webcam will improve things a lot. The higher end webcams, which cost about $60 to $100 (less on eBay) such as the Logitech pro models that Skype certifies as “HQ” are actually better. They deal with bad lighting and have a number of positives. They have a USB microphone built in, and that’s better than using the one in the laptop, but a desktop mic is better.

If you do have to use a laptop, at least make a stand for it to sit on so it can be at least at eye level, if not higher. For USB webcams a tripod or easel or other stand can do the job.

As an alternative, if the meeting room and one remote person are on Windows, consider getting the Logitech Orbit camera and the Telerobo program (described below in the 2nd camera section) and allow one of the remote users to control the camera. If you do this you can have the camera be on the table though it only pans 180 degrees, and still should stand on something so it is at eye level or higher.

Check out the lighting

Good lighting is the most important key to good video. By having the camera high and tilted slightly down, you’ve probably done the most important thing — keeping the ceiling lights out of the shot. If your room has a window to outside, try to arrange things so that is not in the shot.

Consider a remote keyboard and mouse for the conference computer

During the call, somebody will have to tweak things, deal with new callers etc. If the Skype computer is in front of somebody, that’s fine, but it often needs to be at the wall or end of the table, so make sure to have an external keyboard and mouse available. You can use wireless, or just USB. See below for configurations.

Get a fast computer, wire it, and probably run Windows

I am reluctant to recommend Windows, but the hard truth is that Skype does its development first on Windows, and the Mac product is always a step behind, and the linux product even further. As of this writing in April, 2011, the Mac version seems to break down too much on a larger conference.

In addition, Windows has drivers for more webcams (though they can be a pain to install) and it has drivers for the Logitech Orbit with pan/tilt, which I recommend. The Windows version of Skype lets you pick whose video should be big, or will automatically make the speaker featured.

Finally, it never hurts to have a computer with lots of CPU — multi-core for sure — and I recommend using wired ethernet if you can, especially for the master computer.

If you don’t have lots of CPU and bandwidth, you will probably run into problems if your conference gets large. In that case, ask people who are not speaking much to stop sending video (they will still receive) until they need to speak.

Use the chat window

Make use of the chat window, which allows group chat of all online participants. (You can also open windows with one-on-one chats and subset group chats, which is quite useful.) In fact, I often recommend everybody with a laptop runs Skype and does chat even if they don’t join the video call.

Chat is very handy for talking to people about video and audio problems, because the other people in the meeting really hate being distracted by working these out. Since you want to have full sized video on the main screen of the meeting room, it is wise to have a 2nd computer to do chat on. (This might also be your 2nd camera computer.) Another alternative, namely the use of two screens on the conference computer should work, but is much harder than it seems, because Skype’s UI doesn’t really handle two screens very well, and it’s pretty easy to accidentally move things in the wrong place. If you want to try that, you must “pop out” the video window, take it to the main screen or projector, and maximize it by hand. (Use of the full screen button will bring it back to the main screen, and there is no maximize button.) That can leave your original screen set up for chat and some call control. This is how it should work but alas, Skype needs work in this area.

Unless you tell participants to be ready for chat, they may not see your chats. They will just be confused by the sounds. Tell all of them to click the word balloon icon to join the group chat. Avoid using one-to-one unless you really need it. Be warned, if they didn’t go with a headset and don’t mute, you will hear back the bloops of chat. (They can silence these but it’s a bit complex.)

How to handle callers who must come in by telephone

If some people can’t use Skype (it is available for many smartphones, especially over WiFi so they don’t have to be at their desks) they may have to come in via ordinary telephone. There are several ways to do this:

  • You can buy a “Skype In” number from Skype, and associate it with the conference master. They just call this number, and you add them to the conference.
  • If they send you their numbers, you can call them with the “Skype-Out” function. This costs per minute, but it’s cheap. You must have money in the account. Create contacts for their phone numbers, and you can then drag those contacts into the conference call. It’s quite easy, and easy to add them again if they drop out.
  • You can set up a standard telephone conference call bridge, and have the master Skype account add it to the call. This can be done with Skype-Out, but several conference call bridge companies now support you calling their bridges with Skype itself, which is superior. Now you have all the advantages and disadvantages of a typical conference bridge. Unlike the first two methods above, you will not get the display of who is talking, you will just know it is somebody on the bridge. Annoyingly, some of them play hold music when nobody else is on the conference bridge, so you are forced to place a fake 2nd call to the conference bridge before you dial into it. Really bad UI.

Having a second camera (and pan/tilt)

It can actually be useful to add another video caller to the call from inside the conference room, to provide a second camera to the remotes. The main camera will show the whole room. The second camera might have a “cameraman” who will point it at people who are talking for any length of time. That way the remotes see the person better — in the wide room view, people’s faces are not very well defined.

Note that if you are pushing the limits of your CPU or bandwidth, a second camera may not be workable.

You can also consider getting the Logitech Orbit or Sphere camera if you have a Windows computer. This camera has pan and tilt motors in it. An $8 program called Telerobo allows a remote Windows user to control the camera and make it move and digitally zoom. You will have to designate one of the remote people as the camera operator.

It turns out the remote people are much more motivated to point the camera than the local meeting room folks are. Being remote is very frustrating if you can’t see who’s talking. The second computer must mute both its microphone and outgoing audio. Ideally it would even not waste bandwidth on getting the video but there is no way to do this yet.

In fact, it makes sense to have this remote control even if you only have one camera.

Other notes

  • When those joining the conference call you, take care in answering to select the option to add them to the conference. Otherwise you put the conference on hold. This option is annoyingly on a menu in the dialog that pops up, not one of the main choices.
  • If you have only one remote party (ie. no group mode) and you need to do a slide presentation, if you do it on the Skype computer, you can use Skype’s screen share mode to show the remote the on-screen presentation. You can also temporarily end the Skype call to the remote and place a call and use screen share from the presentation computer, even if it does not have a webcam. Audio will temporarily come from the presentation computer.
  • Sadly, this does not yet work in multi-party; you will have to point the camera at the presentation.
  • Alternately, e-mail the presentation to the remotes in advance.
  • In certain circumstances, such as when you have only one remote caller, you may want to set Skype to “auto answer” calls and even “auto send video.” This allows the remote caller to call in without any action by the conference master. You can only do this if other random people will not Skype you during the call. (Action in multi-party calls is untested at present.)
  • Skype has the ability to send SMS which can be a handy way to remind people on mobiles to join the call. Likewise the use of chat is handy as you don’t have to disturb others with what you do.
  • The conference master must place the first call, either to just one party to to a group of them. Otherwise, the first caller may become the master.
  • When participants call in, Skype’s UI mostly offers big buttons that will put the conference on hold and answer the new participant. This is a dreadful UI. The button to add the new caller to the conference is a tiny “More” menu you can click and in there select “add to conference.” Take special care to use that, and take care in clicking it, as it is small.
  • Video is known to freeze. Sometimes you or callers will need to stop and restart your video, sadly.

Begin conference master does require some attention to detail. It may be that the best person to be conference master is actually one of the remotes, not the meeting room. The remotes are always at their computer, and may be wearing headphones. They may be better situated to be conference master. If they have a high-speed computer and good bandwidth, and know what they are doing, consider passing the task to them. They can do things like round up participants, connecting to them or accepting their calls without disturbing the people in the meeeting.

If the conference master is remote, most of this advice still applies to the meeting room, but the conference master must understand how to initiate the call and accept new callers and reconnecting callers into it.

Configuration One — HDTV on the wall or projector

I recommend using an HDTV on the meeting room wall. HDTVs are not expensive and are high resolution. They are also good for presentations, so a permanent HDTV on the wall is becoming common in meeting rooms. They are bright and decently large. Usually a video cable and audio cable have been run to the desk for hooking up computers for presentations.

If you can, try to run USB to the HDTV as well, and then you can put the webcam on top of the TV to get a good view of the room. This also makes eye contact work better. If audio has not already been run to the TV speakers, you can stick a USB audio device near the TV as well to feed it audio.

Plug the Skype computer into the video and audio jacks and set it up to display. Use caution about having two displays as windows and dialogs keep popping up in the wrong place. Put a desktop mic into the Skype computer.

The same approach applies to a projector, however you must assure the camera is not near the projector beam, because that beam will look super-bright to the camera. This is true even if the camera is right outside the projector beam, as it would be if put on top of it or to the side of it as you might do with an HDTV.

While most meeting rooms try to pull a video cable to the middle of the desk, it’s also reasonable to instead pull USB to a hub on the desk. In that case, both the Skype computer or anybody with a presentation can just put their laptop on a small table under the HDTV, and then use a remote keyboard, mouse and more on the table.

Configuration Two — roll in HDTV

You may not have an HDTV in your meeting room and a projector may be easiest. However, a large monitor or HDTV that rolls in is also suitable. In this case, you probably need to have the Skype computer near the display since most people don’t have very long video cables. In that case, a USB extension cable with USB hub is a good answer. Using that, you can have a USB hub on the table where you can plug in a microphone, speakers and a keyboard and mouse. The camera should stay near the monitor/HDTV both for eye-contact and to give it a proper view of the room.

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