In this blog I'm writing about the ins and outs of using a 360 degree camera for video conferencing in my usual random format. This is largely based on the Polycom Centro which was just announced but some of it will overlap with any tabletop 360 degree camera.
360 degree cameras are intended for users to just sit around it and have a meeting. I get it, the goal is not only a good video conference, but you also need to have a good local meeting on top of that. One problem is where to put the displays. If you put them in the traditional spot on the far wall, you're going to end up looking at the sides of people's heads. That's no good. The display needs to be near, in front of or beyond the camera to simulate eye contact.
The Centro addresses eye contact by placing displays on the unit itself, in front of and just below the camera (which per Polycom's data sheet sits at either 39" or 41" off the floor - more on that below). This is good and bad. Data collaboration on this seems useless as the displays are small and are close to the floor. Plus touching any of those displays could make the camera shake. If data collaboration is only via a tablet, it makes sense. I'm unsure about sitting on a couch for collaboration/video chats that are professional in manner though. It seems as this product was designed for and will be marketed to millennials in progressive silicon valley companies where open floor plans are the norm. I won't discuss the poor nature of open floor plans and their lack of personal security here. I'll save that for another blog. One thing that isn't clear however is what happens when one Centro is in a call with another and people start talking all over the place.
Polycom CX5000, Panacast, Fraunhofer OmniCam 360
The CX5000 was intended to go into a traditional small conference room or a huddle room, as is the Panacast. What you end up with on screen is a filmstrip experience where the active participant may or may not appear larger. Anyone who has read more than one or two articles by me knows that I don't care for or advocate auto-switching cameras, especially when the switching is slow.
A year ago I talked to someone who was the head video guy at a large company whose CEO wanted one of these because the marketing materials presented it as a viable solution in regards to eye contact. The guy got it in to work with and the experience wasn't good due to the whole "capture the side of the head" aspect of it and it ended up never getting any actual use within the company.I wonder if the Centro will force obsolescence on it.
The OmniCam 360 sits on a post and isn't for video conferencing. I just wanted to include it in case you, the reader, want more information about 360 degree cameras. There is also the multiple GoPro cameras in a circle thing for VR/360 YouTube applications. Due to a whole host of reasons, it's not for video conferencing either.
The only acceptable camera height is at eye level or in such an installation where the displays are in an odd spot it then should be at the vertical level of the people you are looking at on the display. Anything other than these two locations is inappropriate if you desire any semblance of eye contact. Cameras too high in the room make it appear that you are looking down at the floor or worse, at the chest of someone. Cameras too low make it appear that you're looking up someone's nose.
To sum up, the previous iterations of 360 degree cameras miss the mark wildly, but the new Centro may fit the bill in certain applications. This is just version one of a new concept. Hopefully development will continue on this and create a better experience for everyone.
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