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Video: So Much to See

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Someone working from home
Image: REDPIXEL - stock.adobe.com
Had this pandemic hit a decade or two ago, working from home would have been much more difficult. It’s incredible how far enterprise communications has come. It has benefited from cloud-delivered services, improved speed and availability of broadband networks, open standards such as WebRTC, ever more powerful devices and browsers, and ubiquitous camera-ready devices.
 
It’s been a tough year, but a great time for video communications. The technology clearly has arrived for most knowledge workers. I find more of the people I communicate with are now defaulting to camera-on. Video technologies have really improved over the past few years. Features like HD resolution, join links, browser compatibility, improved sound, virtual green screens, and many more have made video very effective. And it’s still getting better!
 
Widespread adoption this year has reinvigorated investment. Video is expected to remain a huge market, and providers are very interested in growing their share of it — and that requires new features. Here are some of my expectations on near-term video improvements.
 
Image Improvement
The camera supposedly adds 10 pounds, but it doesn’t have to. In fact, the trend is we will look our best on video. Zoom currently has a feature called "Touch Up My Appearance" that provides an airbrushed look by softening the focus. Features like this can reduce “presentation fear” in video meetings, and more image-enhancing technologies are coming. Several apps offer background manipulation (such as blurred backgrounds and virtual green screen), but why stop with backgrounds when it’s the foreground that matters?
 
A common problem with lighting is the silhouette effect caused by a bright background, but image technology is rapidly improving. For example, Logitech RightLight monitors for bright spots and can automatically adjust camera settings (spot metering, low-light saturation, low-light boost, and video noise). RightLight is currently in its second generation.
 
Google Meet claims to use AI algorithms to detect bad lighting and leverages the advanced camera controls on Android smartphones. Low-Light mode enhances subjects in dim light. I won’t be satisfied until the AI technology is used to make me look younger and thinner.
 
Smarter cameras are great, but actual improvements in lighting are even better. We still tend to think of our displays as something we look at, but they are increasingly looking at us. We need to think of a display device as a mirror as most have better lighting. Even the mirror on my car’s sun visor has a light. Future monitors will likely have lighting built into the bezels and will also probably have built-in mic arrays and cameras.
 
Or, we skip all this image improvement and just go back to avatars, but not those emotionless Second Life cartoons. One of the more interesting advanced approaches is Apple’s Animojis. These generic icons use facial recognition technology to come to life. They are a bit playful but could be more realistic. They convey personalized, recognizable expressions without actual video.
 
Eye Contact
According to comedian Larry David, the eyes are a surefire way to tell if someone is lying. Making eye contact is a natural part of face-to-face interactions. However, video solutions today are not the best at facilitating direct eye contact. The problem is we tend to look at the faces, not the camera lens. It’s been a problem for decades, and as displays get larger, cameras are even further from the center.
 
Microsoft’s Surface Pro X laptop is getting the new AI-powered “eye contact” feature as part of its next Windows 10 Preview Build. It uses AI to adjust the image and make it appear that one’s eyes are always looking at the camera. It is intended to work with any app that uses the front camera in landscape mode. Apple has a similar feature called FaceTime Attention Correction that is expected with iOS 14. Both solutions will be limited to ARM-based devices.
 
The old school teleprompter approach is still valid but effectively limited to textual displays. Teleprompters reflect text onto the camera’s lens. I expect that someday we will have displays that have cameras built-in behind the displayed content instead of above it. That technology doesn’t yet exist, but that’s what they said about wireless charging for decades.
 
More Engaging Video Features
There’s a big gap between video production applications and video meeting applications, yet we increasingly record and share meetings. A new startup called Mmhmm is addressing this gap by providing video effects controls that can be used with any conferencing application. Mmhmm provides granular control over the background, foreground, and shared content. For example, while presenting slides, the speaker can be reduced into a corner or made partially transparent.
Everyone is a director these days, so more control over the visual and audio content is a reasonable evolution of meetings software applications. Especially during the pandemic, but before too, we are seeing video meeting applications used regularly for television interviews.
 
Audio
Audio has come a long way in conferencing. Many systems have improved picking up the audio that we are supposed to hear and filtering out the noise. For example, Poly’s Noiseblock detects and actively filters keyboard typing, paper shuffling, and wrapper crinkling. It also mutes out background noise even if no one is speaking.
 
One of the big differences between small screen television and big-screen theaters, besides the screen size, is the audio. With TVs, all the audio comes from the same place regardless of where the sound should be coming from. In theaters, the explosion off to the right is heard off to the right. I’m talking about more than advanced signaling than stereo, but many rooms today don’t even have that.
 
Dolby is working to bring its audio expertise to conferencing applications. Currently, Dolby Voice offers Spatial Audio. It gives every speaker a perceptible, virtual location through sound. Spatial audio generally requires stereo headphones for the full effect, but I expect it or other technologies to improve the room experience with open speakers.
 
Many room solutions already use multiple microphones and mic arrays. It seems reasonable that these can be better leveraged to the point that even with eyes closed we could naturally face the person speaking.
 
4k Video
One of the biggest improvements in video meetings over the past decade has been HD-video quality (720 and 1080 resolution). What’s next? Many of the displays and cameras already in use support 4k ready. Yet, meeting services aren’t there yet, and don’t blame it on the networks. Netflix and other content providers already stream 4K content.
 
However, I do expect this feature to emerge first on premises-based conferencing solutions. Cisco has a clever approach of keeping video content local, even with its Webex cloud service. Cisco seems like a logical vendor to introduce 4K video conferencing. They actually already support it on content.
 
Security
Zoom made unfortunate headlines earlier this year with some security challenges that have mostly been addressed, however, the industry as a whole has made security too difficult. The problem is getting worse because video meetings increasingly include content and transcription, which means more searchable content. Most conferencing applications support encryption, and this is useful and important. For additional security, some applications support end-to-end encryption (E2EE), including Cisco, Lifesize, and Symphony. I expect E2EE will become significantly more important over the next few years (unless made illegal). This includes more companies offering it and also making the feature easier to use.
 
Better Hardware
We have seen significant improvements in room systems, and I expect this will increase as we head back to the office. We are also seeing many new desktop devices. Cisco launched its Deskpro last year, Zoom just launched a home desktop device, and Microsoft has new dedicated Teams devices. I haven’t tried any yet (that will change soon), but I strongly believe that dedicated video appliances, in rooms and on desktops, will be very popular.
 
Bottom line is video innovation is just getting started.
 
Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.

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