I recently moved to the opposite coast from W&M, and used the opportunity to learn how to use both Skype and Google Hangout for meetings with folks still in Virginia. I’ve used both platforms over the past few months, and I’m here to share my own quick tips for getting the most out of video conferencing, based in part on other things I’ve heard and read about video chat best practices. Also, if you’re not yet familiar with using video conferencing in general, this post by April Lawrence is a great source of ideas for using Google Hangout.
1. Setting up Your Internet Connection
Ask anyone: there’s nothing more annoying than a video meeting where your audio or video keeps getting garbled, drops out, or you get disconnected altogether. I’ve had calls where I’ve been disconnected five times in the space of fifteen minutes, and it makes me want to smash things. The best way to avoid wanting to smash things is to get the best Internet connection that you can before starting your meeting — and this means using a wired connection instead of a wireless one, and making sure that the fewest possible devices are between your computer and where the Internet comes out of the wall.
First: the wired connection. I use an Ethernet cord to connect my computer for my wired connection. Make sure you have an actual working cord (I can’t emphasize this enough as someone who has tried to connect to the Internet with a dead cable…), and test before your video call that your computer is using the Ethernet connection. To do this, you can check your computer’s network preferences, and turn off your wireless altogether. This will ensure you’re using the wired connection rather than a wireless one. If you have a computer without an Ethernet jack, as I do, you can purchase an Ethernet-USB adapter for about ten dollars that lets you plug the Ethernet cord into your computer’s USB port.
As for minimizing the number of devices between your computer and the wall, this is easy if you’re using the W&M campus network — there’s probably an Ethernet jack in your office or classroom that you can plug the other end of your cord straight into. If you’re using a cable or DSL modem from, say, your home, make sure that your Ethernet cord is plugged into your computer at one end, and the modem itself from the other, NOT the router (unless your modem is also a router, in which case, plug away!). If you have a separate router that is plugged into your modem, make sure you don’t plug your Ethernet into that, just to minimize the number of devices you’re using for your connection. The more devices it takes to make your Internet connection, the more places it can fail.
2. Using a Built-In Audio and Video
Best practices for video calls suggest that you use a headset for your audio and some suggest getting an external video camera for your video. First, the headset: I have tried using a headset and also not used a headset for my meetings, both in Skype and in Google Hangout, and I have to say that I’ve been pleased with the results either way. A headset, of course, is probably your best bet if you have more than one other person you’re talking to, to decrease feedback and ambient noises (like if you did a Google Hangout with several people for a class meeting or the like). But, if you’re just talking to one person, and it’s not too echo-y or noisy where you are making your call from, you will probably be okay using the built in mic and speakers on your computer.
That said, I’ve not really had any problems not using a headset, but I do keep it handy so that I can plug it in just in case. I’ve also used just headphones and the built-in mic on my computer, and find this to be another good option.
As for an external camera for video, I admit that I’ve never used a camera that was not built into my computer for video conferencing. If you plan on doing a lot of video meetings, you could spend under, say, $60 for an external video camera that you connect via USB. This would improve the quality of your video, for sure, but I personally don’t think it’s necessary, unless your computer is more than a few years old and has an older built-in camera in it. Of course, if you’re giving a video call talk, guest-speaking to a class, or recording a lecture for your class, you might want to think about investing in an external device.
3. Good Lighting = Good VideoIf you want your video to look really nice, whether it’s for video conferencing, or recording video, or even taking photos, you must make sure that you have good lighting. This doesn’t mean that you have to go out and get high-wattage bulbs or anything (those will probably make you sweat anyway), but you should at least think about bringing in an extra lamp, preferably with a full spectrum bulb, or having your end of the video conference in some bright natural light. If you don’t have enough light, your video might end up with a lot of noise, or otherwise be otherwise distractingly poor.
Digital cameras (both still and video) have what’s called digital ISO. ISO for film cameras is a measurement of the light sensitivity of that particular roll of film — this means that film with an ISO of 400 is for lower light and has larger particles of light-sensitive silver halide to pick up the image, resulting in a grainier picture, and an ISO 100 would be for bright sunlight with smaller particles, making the resulting images crisper. With digital cameras, the camera will try to accommodate low lighting with digital ISO, which adds noise to the image. This makes for a much less crisp and nice image/video. Adding more light to the place where you plan to have a video conference can improve the image quality by a lot.
Remember too that even if it looks like there’s enough light to you, your eyes have the ability to adjust to low light in a way that a camera can’t — and what seems bright enough to your eyes might not be bright enough for your camera. Your eyes, when working properly, adjust to the amount of light available, and so a large magnitude of difference in the amount of light in the room might not seem as big of a difference to your eyes. So, test it out and see what it looks like before your call!
4. Seeing Your Face is Distracting…
If you’re like me, seeing your own face on your screen can be pretty distracting. Both Skype and Google Hangout by default put the video of yourself up on your screen when you start talking with someone. In some ways this is nice — you can quickly see if you’ve smeared fountain pen ink on your face or something — but all in all, I prefer not to be distracted by the image of myself. Both these video conferencing platforms do have options for hiding or minimizing your own picture on your screen.
In Google Hangout, the most recent version of this Web application now puts your own camera’s image as fairly tiny in the lower corner of the chat window. This is an improvement over the last version, which had a much larger rectangle of video below the image of the person you were talking to. You can also always move your browser window around so that your own video is not visible on the screen — this is what I used to do with the old Google Hangout.
As for Skype, the call window by default has a larger image of the person you’re talking to, then a smaller one of your camera in the right-hand corner. It’s pretty small already, but if you click on it, it becomes very tiny. Easy!
5. Test Your Settings and Have an Alternative Plan
If you’re talking to someone new via video conferencing, or otherwise want to make sure everything will go as smoothly as possible, the most important thing that you can do is to test your lighting, camera, and sound before you do your video call. If you’re doing a video call for the first time, ask a friend to do a test call with you — this way you can see how the whole thing works in terms of what it’s like to make and receive a call or hangout invitation, and you can also find out from them if your audio/video is okay, and see how your Internet connection is. Tell your friend to not be afraid to let you know if your audio is terrible, or the lighting makes you look like you have jaundice or the flu.
The second most important general thing you can do is have an alternative plan agreed upon in case of technical problems. I make sure to confirm when setting up the time for the video conference some alternative ways of connecting, just in case. In my case, we’ll share contact info for both Skype and Google Hangout, and also phone numbers. This way, if there’s some kind of major failure of all the things you’ve set up, just remember that these things happen sometimes, and at worst, you’ll be having an old-fashioned audio-only phone meeting. And, hey, then it doesn’t even matter if you get ink on your face!
Happy video chatting!