Ted on Tech: How technology can enhance face-to-face communication

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While my main occupational activity is technical journalism and a few consulting gigs, it seems to me that I spend a lot of time talking with people. I also use email a lot, and it’s very useful when I need to deal with people in different time zones, but mostly I prefer to talk with someone rather than correspond with them by email. There are probably a number of reasons for this. I grew up during a time when email didn’t exist, and while I had one of the first MCI Mail accounts and had FidoNet Mail with the Fido BBS I ran in the mid ‘80s, speaking with someone has an immediacy that just doesn’t exist with email. And it’s also a lot easier to read voice and facial inflections in a real-time conversation.

I’ve been interested in videoconferencing for almost two decades. Years ago, you had to add a video capture card to your PC to perform videoconferencing. And unless both parties were equipped, it was impossible to conference. That hasn’t been the case for some time. These days, almost every laptop has a webcam, and adding this capability to a desktop is as easy as plugging in a USB cam and placing it at the top of your monitor. Many of the vendors I deal with use Cisco’s WebEx web software to video conference, and it works well both as a broadcasting tool and for real-time one-on-one or one-on-many video conference calling. That’s fine if they are initiating the call — I have a WebEx client installed on my conferencing PC.

If I am initiating the call, I tend to use Skype. The personal version is free, and it’s very easy to use. The person on the other end of the call (or persons if you are doing a group call) also need to have Skype installed, but connecting is as easy as entering a contact and hitting an on on-screen button.

I have a dedicated PC that I use for conferencing. It consists of an HP Pavilion Mini, a Core i3 very small form-factor PC similar to an Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing) and measuring about four inches square and an inch or so high. I have a large Acer monitor plugged into the HDMI video port, and a set of noise-canceling earphones plugged into the PC’s speaker port.

My webcam is from Logitech. Every now and then Logitech sends me goodies to test and review. I’ve had their C920 webcam on my conference PC for a couple of years and have been very satisfied with it. It’s not fancy, has 1080p resolution and a built-in stereo mic, and setup is a no-brainer—just plug it into a USB port. They still sell this model for about $80, but a while back sent me the C922, which is a slight upgrade and a bit more expensive at $100. The C922 also sports 1080p resolution, but is supposed to have better low-light capabilities and the ability to put a live background into the video feed. To be honest, with my setup I didn’t see any noticeable improvement over the prior model, but any real improvement would require that the person on the other side of the video conference have the same model (which they did—Logitech sent two of the C922s). And it probably wouldn’t have hurt to have a top-of-the-line video display. It’s likely that the less expensive C920 will be phased out in the future, but I can, in good conscious, recommend either model if you need a good webcam. Logitech has more expensive models, and if you have a monitor with 4K video capability, you might want to look at the $200 4K Pro model.

Spot on
Another recent item from Logitech is their Spotlight presenter. I’ve used Logitech’s Professional Presenter for years when I give a talk with a PowerPoint or other video component. It works well for controlling the laptop, and it has a built-in timer that I’ve found very convenient. It’s still being sold and costs about eighty dollars, which is kind of at the higher end, but not unreasonable.

The Spotlight is more expensive, at $130, but if you give frequent presentations, it’s well worth it. It looks terrific, but its capabilities far exceed its good looks. There are only three buttons. Two are for navigating and one is for highlighting an area on the screen. You use a gesture to position the cursor, hit the magnify button, and the area you are pointing at is highlighted and magnified. It’s way better than an old-fashioned laser pointer. You really need to see it demoed to appreciate just how cool a presentation device it is. It works with an included USB receiver or you can use Bluetooth, and with Windows and Mac OS presentation applications.

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