It’s 2016, why is video conferencing still terrible?

After working remotely for ~8 years, I have a love hate relationship with conferencing. I love that conferencing allows us to meet and communicate without traveling. For complex discussions, the quick back and forth of a voice or video call can be significantly more effective than text communication. And screen sharing features can frequently work faster than getting a projector working. But honestly, the experience can still be pretty terrible.

It has been over a decade since Skype added free and simple video chat. Not a lot has changed with the actual experience since then. Sure, the technology has gotten better. Call and video quality have improved through new codecs, higher performance computing, and increased bandwidth. But beyond a certain point, addition of video pixels doesn’t really change the experience. And Skype certainly isn’t the only game in town. But I’m hard pressed to tell you what is really different about any of the alternatives.

What makes audio / video conferencing terrible? Everyone has their own pet peeves. But some common themes come up from my own experience and discussions.

  • The “can you hear me” dance. Far too frequently, at least one participant can not be heard by others. Often this results in a dance of everyone in the call wondering if this is a problem with their speaker or microphone. In the worst case, this dance results in somebody with working audio breaking their own settings. In my past experience in a large corporate environment, using Skype for Business, it was extremely common to spend 5–10 minutes getting everyone’s audio working. And that was an environment where everyone was using one of two laptop options, and one of two audio device options selected by an IT department.
  • Stiff meetings. Conference calls typically end up in a “presentation mode,” rather than fluid discussion. Often 1 person dominates the conference, and participants are hesitant to chime in unless there is a really obvious pause. I believe two factors are key to this behavior. 1) In existing software, interruptions are really jarring. If two people talk at the same time, frequently neither can be understood. 2) Audio delay adds uncertainty on whether somebody else is speaking. Users learn to compensate by simply talking less, leading to lower engagement and less useful discussion.
  • Uncomfortable experience. Video conferencing just doesn’t feel as comfortable as in-person discussions. Many factors contribute. For one, many people don’t really like seeing a video of themselves. Even a tiny video thumbnail can make us feel self conscious. Additionally, the experience does not carry over any of the spatial cues we experience in the physical world. Typically videos are displayed in a convenient, but not meaningful way, such as in a grid. This is convenient for screen real estate, but not physically meaningful. Worse yet, some systems move around videos to highlight and enlarge the speaker. While it is nice to see who is talking, this is disorienting. Imagine a physical meeting, where anytime a new person speaks, they are teleported to the front of the room and grow 100% taller. When the next person speaks, they are teleported back to their seat. (OK, that might be interesting for a few minutes, but after that it would be extremely distracting) To make it even worse, imagine seeing people around the room moving their mouths, but hearing all of their voices come from a single speaker in the wall. Conversations would be impossible to follow!
  • Connection issues. This is an area that has improved, but is still a major complaint. If everyone can’t connect to the call, then it is worse than useless: it’s useless AND a waste of time. To be fair, this is often a result of internet connection issues that are totally out of the control of the software.
  • Pajama time. Many jokes are based on truth. A lot of users prefer audio-only conferencing to avoid having to make themselves presentable. After all, isn’t a more comfortable wardrobe one of the perks of remote work? A downside, of course, is a loss of body language cues which arguably make up 55% of communication.

This is why we are making yet another video conferencing app. It is called Locus (Latin for “room”). A beta version is available at inthelocus.com. We’ve started addressing many of the above pet peeves, and there is still a lot more to be done.

In Locus, conversation takes place around a room or other natural space. And we’ve improved the audio so that you hear people talking from where you see them (like in real life). Accidental interruptions no longer destroy conversation flow, and you can tell who’s talking even if faces aren’t visible. We also auto-hide your own video so you can stop looking in a mirror during meetings and just focus on the conversation. (But of course there is the option to see your own video if you want).

Locus rooms are easy to create and share: just copy the link from your browser. And when you join a room, we verify your audio and video are working, so you can skip the “can you hear me?” dance. Locus is a web-app, there is nothing to download, no login required, and it is free to use.

There is still a lot more to improve upon. Our videoconferencing software should have beautiful, modern design, and Locus is not there yet. Screen sharing should feel more like looking at material together in a room. Locus has a first draft of screen sharing that lets participants see the sharer’s screen and video at the same time. But we also want to make sure the person doing the sharing is able to see the reactions of other participants. And we think whiteboarding should be built-in that is as effortless and effective as standing up and picking up a pen. We think Locus is a start toward improving conferencing, and would love for you to try it and hear your thoughts.

Do any of the above problems resonate with you? Do you already love your conferencing experience and think this is a bunch of garbage? What else do you love or hate about conferencing? I’d appreciate for you to share your thoughts in the comments, or send them to chris@inthelocus.com.

If you like what you read, be sure to 💗 below.

And of course, please try Locus.