You Talkin to Me?

Posted by / February 27, 2017

For many organizations, video communication has become a mission-critical business tool. More of us than ever use videoconferencing on a daily basis to collaborate as a team and to communicate with our business partners and customers.

The benefits of videoconferencing are more than financial. Sure, videoconferencing can save time and travel cost and yes, cloud-based solutions cut down the cost of collaboration even more. But more importantly, videoconferencing makes it easier for your team to work together at any distance. 

The Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Videoconferencing

Unlike phone calls, emails, or text messages, videoconferencing preserves one of the biggest benefits of a traditional in-person meeting: face-to-face communication. Along with other remote collaboration tools, videoconferencing has fueled the rise of remote work in an ever-increasingly globalized economy by allowing teams to collaborate at any distance without sacrificing regular human interaction.

Still, videoconferencing comes with some challenges. The biggest is that many times, it just feels… weird.

I know plenty of people who hate videoconferencing because it makes them uncomfortable to see themselves on a screen, or because it feels unnatural to talk to a screen at all. And yet that discomfort doesn’t undo the real benefits to using videoconferencing to enhance your workflow, especially if you or others on your team work remotely.

With that in mind, let’s look at the biggest step you can take to dial down the “weird” factor and make you next videoconferencing feel more natural.

My Eyes are Up Here

While the research is divided on exactly how much of communication is nonverbal, there’s no doubt that body language plays an important role in face-to-face conversations. In a videoconference, where the majority of your body language comes from facial expression, eye contact is critical. And yet it’s one of the most difficult things to get right.

Imagine you’re videoconferencing from a standard laptop, with the camera centered just above the display. Typically, the camera will be below eye level—which means you have to look even further down, below the camera, when attempting to make eye contact with others in the conference. Unfortunately, on the other end of the call it will seem like you’re looking down at the floor—which is awkward and distracting at best, and at worst makes you seem disengaged and distracted yourself.

To explore this problem further, we have to get just a little bit technical.

What’s Your Angle?

This eye contact problem is the result of something called the parallax effect. In the case of videoconferencing, the parallax angle is formed between your line of sight and the camera’s field of view.

Simply put, we want to keep that parallax angle less than 5 degrees, which simulates looking directly at the camera while allowing you to look at the faces of the people you’re videoconferencing with.

In the illustration of the problem below, the gray line represents the proper 5-degree angle from the camera’s line of sight in blue, while the red line represents the actual viewing angle outside of the ideal range.

videoconferencing parallax problem

So to simulate eye contact and eliminate some major videoconferencing weirdness, we have to fix the parallax problem.

Things are Looking Up

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to fix the parallax angle with a simple adjustment to your videoconferencing setup.

First, you want the content you’re viewing as close camera as possible. If, as in most setups, your camera is just above the display, it’s as easy as arranging the video feed towards the top of your screen.

If you’re not using a laptop, or if your webcam sits higher above the screen, you can also move your chair away from the camera until the angle is right. It shouldn’t take more than a couple feet of adjustment to bring the parallax angle into the ideal 5-degree range.

Here’s another diagram to demonstrate how this works in practice:

videoconferencing parallax problem solution

As you can see, by moving the screen forward a bit you can form the magic 5-degree angle needed to simulate eye contact. Checkmate, parallax!

A Lucky Problem to Have

No technology can perfectly replicate an in-person, face-to-face conversation (at least, not yet). But videoconferencing is close—incredibly close compared to other options.

While there’s no denying the “weird factor” that many users experience, there’s also no denying that this problem is manageable. It’s really no different than the uncomfortableness many people feel when talking on the phone (which results in articles like this).

Compared to the old obstacles to effective videoconferencing, mild discomfort is much easier to overcome.

There used to be few solutions that allowed for quality video and audio at an affordable cost. But thanks to advancements in audio and video technology and the advent of cloud-based systems, it’s never been easier to find relatively inexpensive videoconferencing solutions that work well.

So yes, the “weird factor” is real. But it’s also manageable. Adjusting your setup to achieve better eye contact is one of the best steps to take, especially if you often videoconference from your laptop.

When it comes to setting up videoconferencing in the workplace, it’s ideal to get in touch with an AV integrator who will make sure you end up with a dependable solution you’ll actually enjoy using. Beyond that, you can surely count on becoming more comfortable with videoconferencing the more you use it.

As far as problems go, we’ve had it much worse.

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