Most of my career as a designer has been spent working in an office location. Ad Agencies, Communications Firms, Web Design and Production, a large Greeting Card Manufacturer, a PR firm or something similar. At every one of these jobs, I never telecommuted, and was always on location. The advantage of that was I always had some form of IT support that was just a phone call away. Any conferencing and collaboration hardware had been set up and configured by an AV specialist or someone from the IT department. I never had to worry about something not working and if it didn’t, I didn’t have to fix it. Two years ago, that all changed for me.
In June of 2015, I started a new position at Starin in their marketing department and began telecommuting full time from my home office in Kansas City. Starin like many companies today have employees spread out across the United States, but these employees still need to meet and collaborate on a daily basis. This can be a bit of a challenge when those folks aren’t tech savvy, or they are new to using conferencing hardware.
For me personally, the biggest challenge was finding hardware that would work on my iMac, and in Windows that was running in the Parallels virtual machine. My system needed to be able to run both OSX, and Windows for testing purposes, and I simply didn’t want to have two computer systems on my desk that I would be jumping between. Plus my iMac was less than a year old and couldn’t justify dumping it for a new Windows-based system.
At first, I simply used the built-in iSight camera, microphone, and speakers that are built into the iMac. The problem though is that when running software like Skype, the system generated feedback, and echo, making any online meeting a challenge for myself, as well as anyone on the other end. In order to solve the problem, I installed a ClearOne Chat 50 as my microphone and speaker source, ran Skype for Business in Windows on the virtual machine (Skype for business on OSX only allows screen sharing if you are hosting the meeting. Not good when your boss calls and says I want to see what you’re working on) and used the iSight camera for video. While this worked, it wasn’t the most elegant solution.
Both operating systems would get confused about which hardware to choose. Windows would drop the Chat 50, and not recognize the camera on occasion. It would use the Chat 50 for my mic, but the internal speakers for playback. Sometimes the camera would work, but the frame rate was slow low it looked like stop-motion animation. OSX would sometimes see the Chat 50, sometimes it would think it was simply a USB speaker. The bottom line is, the set up wasn’t working and I needed a fix. After a little more than a year of struggling, I decided I needed a better solution so I started looking.
There is a ton of conferencing hardware on the market, but I wanted something simple. It needed to be plug and play. I needed it to work with Skype for Business, as well as Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Slack. All platforms we used to communicate with each other and clients. I wanted something that had intelligent features, and could see more than what was directly in front of my computer. The reason I say that is, my remote office has a conference table in it and there is always the possibility that a second or third person could be working at the table, and needs to be included in the meeting. Everyone cramming in around my desk is not an option.
Over the next twelve months I examined a ton of hardware options, while hanging onto my Chat 50 solution and struggling to make it work on a consistent basis. Thankfully though, at infoComm 2017, a solution was shown to the people from Starin that were attending the conference. A solution that would solve all my issues in an effective, and stylish way. That solution was the Meeting Owl from Owl Labs.
This is truly a plug and play camera that works with all of our conferencing software, plays nice with both my Mac and my Windows running on Parallels, and it looks good too.
Meeting Owl is an intelligent 4K conferencing camera in a well-designed form factor. When I got it, I simply unboxed it, plugged it in, loaded the app on my phone, and then told both my systems to use the Meeting Owl for the camera, microphone, and speakers. I plugged it in, and it worked. No hassles, no messing with multiple settings, no installing drivers, or configuring preference panels. It simply worked, and that is what I wanted. A simple, easy to use high-quality solution that could be up and running in less than 5 minutes.
Meeting Owl’s 360-degree camera shows the remote participant (in my case the parent company offices and other remote workers) a view of my entire office and automatically focuses on the most recent speakers. No more turning my iMac to focus on a white board or another individual. No more one person sliding out of the way so that another can be directly in front of the iSight camera. Meeting Owl sees everyone in the room and the intelligent camera focuses on the person speaking. The same is true with the mic set up. The 8 beamforming microphones and 360-degree speaker allow everyone that is at my location to be heard, and there is no feedback or echo from my audio. One of the problems I encountered with other devices was, if I got up and moved to grab paper work or reference material while I was talking, my voice would fade off becoming unintelligible. With Meeting Owl this is simply not an issue for me. I can walk all around the office while on a conference call. The camera knows where I am, and mics pick up everything I am saying. Oh, and it works every conferencing and collaboration software we use without any kind of special set up.
So far the performance has been great. The cameras function in a variety of light conditions from fairly dark, to a completely light-filled room. My office is L shaped and as I walk around the room talking, even around the corner it has been able to pick up what I am saying and deliver high-quality audio to the people on the other end. The image quality has been great, even when the lights are off and I am working simply by the light coming from my monitor. (yes I like to work in the dark, especially when I am editing video or doing motion graphics work). I will say this when the lights are off, there is a bit of noise in the video feed, but it’s not bad and is to be expected from any camera sensor under these conditions.
The smartphone app is a great addition too. It allows you to take control of the Meeting Owl camera and lock it’s direction so that it can be focused on a presentation or one individual in the room.
Now, since I am a visual designer by trade I tend to focus on a bit more than the technical components of hardware. I want it to look good too. Yes, function is a top priority, but form is what the end user engages with on a daily basis. It is a factor that I feel plays an important role in any piece of hardware that is designed. If it’s boring, or ugly, I’ll usually pass it by and look for something else unless there is nothing else that can do the job. Meeting Owl is neither boring or ugly. In fact, the form factor is really pretty elegant for a conferencing camera.
Meeting Owl is an 11-inch tapering cylinder wrapped in gray fabric with the lens mounted on top. When inactive Meeting Owl looks like a high-end desktop speaker from a company like JBL, B&O, or Harman Kardon. It has a modern, minimalist sculptural quality to it. When it activates, on two sides at the top of the device behind the fabric a pair of eyes light up, and yes this really does look like an abstract owl sitting on your desk. A little cute, but not cheesy or juvenile in any way.
To wrap things up, I’m sold. This is easy to use, does a great job, and looks better than any conference camera solution I have seen to date.