Using your lounge room as a pseudo conference room with Microsoft Teams (and an Xbox)

There are plenty of blog posts and videos out there with tips about how to stay health, active, and above all, sane during this strange period in modern history where we are relatively confined to our homes.

There are also plenty of posts and videos out there about how to set your desk up and what tech to use (including some by me).

More so, this post is about being a bit unconventional and using some of the other tech in your house to break out of your daily position.

The challenge

Our new reality of working from home has for many resulted in an increasing amount of calls and meetings. Some of these may have been coffee meetings, some in a meeting room, some by the water cooler, at your desk, wherever. As someone who has already been working from home for most of the past decade, I’ve found that in reality the amount of calls & meetings I have hasn’t really increased, but because I don’t have the option to leave the house and meet people in person I am starting to feel a bit boxed in.

While many people have a decent setup at home with external monitor, webcam, headset, decent chair & desk and the rest, many don’t.

The reality it is that it doesn’t make much of a difference what your WFH setup is, you need a change. And right now, one of the best changes is simply to move to another area of the home.

A relatively uncommon scenario that also applies to me is that I work with my wife on a daily basis, and often we’re in the same meetings together. So, the “solutions” I’ve come up with here make more impact for us.

Method 1: using your TV and webcam as a pseudo conference room

This method is relatively simple. Take your webcam, get a HDMI cable and plug them into your TV. Effectively you’re creating a similar setup to what you may have at the office (hopefully you have a full meeting room system like those from Crestron or Logitech).

In this image below I’m having a call with some colleagues while I sit on the couch, because I didn’t need to necessarily be at my laptop for the duration of this call. Simply select the external camera as the input, the TV as the audio output, and happy days.

The camera I used below was a Jabra PanaCast which is designed for huddle rooms, so worked reasonably well for audio pickup in my lounge room. It wasn’t the best quality because the room is bigger than the average huddle room, but it worked well enough that my colleagues weren’t frustrated by it.

Note, it would be possible to use Miracast to present your screen on the TV, however that still doesn’t address the requirement of having a webcam plugged into your laptop.

Method 2: using your Xbox as a meeting room device

Often in meetings we still want to use our laptops, so sitting right up at the screen like in method 1 is not going to be practical, nor is getting really long HDMI and USB cables so you can sit on the couch but stay plugged in.

This allows you to still use your laptop, as the Xbox becomes the meeting room device itself. Unlike a meeting room system, the Xbox does not have its own account so can’t be invited. All we are doing here is logging into our own account via the Edge browser built into the console. In the screenshots below myself and a couple of colleagues were trying out a game to play together via Microsoft Teams as a way to help with the social cohesion while working remotely.

I was using the same Jabra PanaCast webcam plugged into the Xbox via USB, and in reality any webcam would also work.

If you have a Bluetooth keyboard connected to your Xbox this is easy enough, however using the controller it got a bit tedious. Additionally, in many instances the on-screen keyboard would pop up because it thought I wanted text entry. Given the tediousness of using the controller, I certainly wouldn’t recommend using the Xbox for anything other than joining meetings.

As well as this the resolution of my camera was quite low, despite being capable of 1080p. I suspect this is a limitation of the Xbox drivers for USB cameras.

Some might say that the angle of the camera looking at someone sitting on a couch is not exactly flattering – and they’d be right. I wouldn’t recommend this for important meetings such as those with clients, however with your peers who we have started to become accustomed to seeing in sweatpants or without makeup – it’s perfectly fine.

Additionally, you don’t necessarily need to have a camera at all. In many cases you might just be attending a presentation, live event, or a silent participant in a meeting – so for those you don’t even need a camera.

Given we’re going to be in lockdown for at least a few more weeks (if not months), give it a try!

Empowering home-based workers with corporate-grade conference technology

During office refurbishment or relocation projects, organisations will often spend thousands of dollars fitting out meeting rooms with conferencing technology. Depending on the room size, type and purpose that amount can increase to the tens of thousands.

A small meeting room (aka “huddle space” as it’s called these days) will require at minimum a TV mounted on the wall, with a camera and speakerphone to allow video conferences to occur. A minimum spend for such a room would be easily in the area of $3,000 for a decent quality TV and a conference device such as a Logitech Meetup.

Figure 1: Logitech Meetup mounted underneath a wall-mounted TV

More advanced rooms will include equipment such as a Skype/Teams Room System (such as the Logitech SmartDock) which includes a panel for meeting join/control as well as HDMI cable for laptop display.

While the spend and fitout of these rooms makes sense, the reality is that often these rooms are left unused throughout the day.

The current “future workplace” trend which leverages “activity-based working” and hotdesking concepts, aims to reduce the reliance on staff commuting to a physical location. While this is often messaged as an employee benefit, the reality is that it is generally designed to save on real estate costs. Many organisations these days tend to provide at a maximum 80% desk space for their workforce (some provide even less). For the employee this is sold as a benefit in that they can reduce their commute which cuts down on wasted human time as well as transportation costs, as well as a number of other benefits around culture, environment, etc.

Unfortunately, the reality of this situation is that staff who are ’empowered’ to work from home are often only provided with a laptop and a headset. All the good stuff (ie. multiple monitors, good quality external webcam, mouse & keyboard) is at the office. These are not expensive pieces of equipment, but at the discretion of the employee to source if they want a home working configuration to match what the office can offer.

So, what about video communications? In this modern era where video collaboration is almost the norm, it is all to common to see at least one person in a video conference who is clearly using a laptop webcam.

What about if we provided home-based workers with corporate-grade conferencing equipment? Would that experience be any different?

For some time I’ve been running the Logitech Meetup as my primary video conference system and firmly believe it should be the device of choice for those who are serious about working from home and video conferencing.

In this short video I explain why this is the case. Read on below for a more detailed breakdown.

The video calling experience

In this screenshot below, you can see a few different home conferencing experiences:

Figure 2: A meeting with Microsoft Teams where the Logitech Meetup is used by a remote participant

Above we see on the left side, Jethro sitting on his bed with the laptop on his stomach, top right is myself with the Logitech Meetup, middle right is Darrell at his standing desk using a webcam with headphones and external mic, and bottom right in the small box is Gabe using his laptop. As you can see, a variety of different home conferencing experiences. Both myself and Darrell have the “from my meeting space to yours” experience, while Jethro and Gabe have the “from my face to yours” version.

For a 1:1 video call, having a literal face to face video experience is a little more ‘in your face’:

Figure 3: The view of a remote person in a 1:1 video call with Microsoft Teams, using an in-built laptop camera

Here is what Jethro sees of me:

Figure 4: The view of a remote person in a 1:1 video call with Microsoft Teams, using a Logitech Meetup

As you can see, quite a big difference.

One of the comments from my colleagues during the call is that despite having a 4K camera, my video quality was not the best. The reality is that despite having cable broadband at home, I get relatively poor upstream bandwidth. As a result, Microsoft Teams detects this and lowers the quality of my video throughput to ensure that it flows and is in sync with my audio, instead of sending broken-up high quality video.

As you can see by the below comparison, the left shows me in my full 4K glory while the right shows the reduced-bandwidth (and blurrier) version of me:

Figure 5: Comparison of local 4K image through the Logitech Meetup (left), vs. with Microsoft Teams lowered picture quality (right)

Headset, speakerphone, or Meetup?

In corporate meeting rooms an effort is made to simplify the end user experience by reducing the chords. The Logitech Meetup works well here as the unit contains both microphones and speakers; so there is only a single USB cable to plug in.

For our home environments, this is equally as important. Just because our desk is not visible by our peers, doesn’t mean it should be left messy with cables and devices everywhere.

Many people will already have headsets, however often these are cabled which means we must remain tethered to our devices for the duration of the call. Unfortunately, this hampers our creativity and energy and can also entice us to look at other applications while participating in the meeting – further reducing the quality of our participation and engagement in the meeting. A wireless headset would certainly address this challenge, and it’s something I find using myself often as it allows me to get up and walk around. Another alternative is to use a speakerphone as they offer better quality sound than the microphone and speakers built into our devices- also a good option.

The challenge with having either a headset or speakerphone is that it consumes another USB port separate to the camera. Often on laptops we have 1-2 ports at best, whereas on most docking stations such as a Surface Dock this is only moderately improved with 4 USB ports. Once you plug in a mouse/keyboard and webcam; you’ve already lost two ports. If you have any other peripherals it becomes a challenge due to insufficient USB ports.

This is one area where the Meetup offers savings in that it provides camera, microphone and speakers all through a single USB cable, and all high definition.

Mounting the Meetup on a monitor

The Logitech Meetup is designed to be mounted on a TV in a corporate meeting area, with the ideal placement being below the screen but at eye-line with people in the room. To achieve this, a VESA mounting kit can be purchased as an accessory. Unfortunately for a home office, mounting it underneath the monitor is not practical and would most likely be aimed at the chest. To mount it above the monitor where one might normally put a webcam, I needed to build a custom stand as my monitor didn’t have VESA brackets. This cost me about $30 of parts from the hardware store: a piece of wood, some nails, and some paint. Constructing the mount took me a total of 5 minutes, and trust me – I am not a handy man: all that was required was a bit of sawing to cut the pieces to the right dimensions, some sanding to smoothen out the edges, some hammering to connect them together, and to paint the legs so they blend in with my monitor & riser.

Figure 6: Custom made stand for Logitech Meetup

Figure 7: Logitech Meetup mounted on custom stand, behind monitor

Figure 8: Logitech Meetup sitting above monitor

It is important that a gap is left between the lens of Logitech Meetup and the top of the monitor, otherwise the lens will be obstructed during the device boot-up process (as it moves itself around and re-centres). While it does recover and continue on, I didn’t like hearing the motor jamming sound and thought it best to avoid any potential issue from having this occur every time I plugged in.

Wide angle, or zoomed?

The Logitech Meetup comes with a remote control, allowing the camera to be controlled such as zoom and direction. This is not so much a requirement in a home office where I am the only person on camera, however during the course of setting up the Logitech Meetup in my home I also beta tested a feature that allows the camera to move around automatically and follow me as I move around the room. While I see this as a benefit in a corporate office, the feature is designed for multiple speakers in a room and as such has not benefit when I’m the only person in a room – even if I am making use of all the space.

Allowing the Meetup to zoom in on me would defeat the purpose of using it in the first place at home, as it would effectively revert to showing a zoomed-in version of myself which may not be so pleasant for the participants on the other side of the meeting.

The cost

At a glance, the cost of a Logitech Meetup for home might dissuade some; as ultimately it is a premium device designed for corporate meeting rooms. However, let’s consider the alternatives:

  • a quality webcam easily costs in the order of $100 – $250 (the top end for a 4K camera)
  • a wireless headset that is also comfortable to wear for hours a day starts at a minimum of $250
  • using a speakerphone such as those from Plantronics, Jabra or Sennheiser cost between $200 – $400

Realistically a similar experience will cost a few hundred dollars to have anything of decent quality.

While using the microphone built into a webcam along with external speakers is also possible, the quality of webcam microphones is generally quite poor. Often they will cause an echo as the sound from the speakers flows back into the microphone.

So yes, this is a premium device for a premium experience – and is realistically suitable for those who have video calls on a regular basis.

But let’s think about this from another aspect…

The average cost of a dedicated desk per employee, per year is estimated to be in the order of $5,000 (while there are various factors that influence this, this figure was averaged from a crowdsourced question).

For an organisation that is now saving this cost on a yearly basis from its operational expenditure, it would make sense to kit out its home-based staff so as to enhance their video collaboration experience. The reality is that it’s a small price to pay in order to deliver corporate grade communications capabilities without paying for dedicated desk space and empty meeting rooms.