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Zoom in the Time of Covid

0104 - Zoom in the Time of Covid

How Covid drove the creation of new media.

The pandemic sped up many tech trends and took others in new directions. The adoption of Zoom video meetings is one technology that saw immense growth. I had already been using Zoom for years in my work as an instructional technology advisor for a California State University teacher credentialing program called CalStateTEACH. This program with teacher candidates and faculty located all over California made good use of Zoom to provide distant communication. The program has teacher candidates, often military spouses, joining from Europe or Asia.

Zoom during Covid provided a way for office workers to continue to work and students to continue to study. Zoom is not a replacement for real life encounters but will continue to be used as a way to avoid travel, even to the office. Some companies plan to never return to the office while others are considering partial or full returns. Without the forced use of a technology like Zoom, virtual meetings would not be considered an option for many. I think as people begin to place a higher value on their time and environmental impact, more will consider video conferencing over distant travel. Part of that requires people to use the technology well.

Zoom affected how we professionally present ourselves, how we communicate with other individuals, and with small and sometimes large groups of people. It has created new business opportunities for some and new forms of entertainment for others.

Personal Professional Video Presentation

Zoom affected how we communicated with others remotely. At first, most people muddled by with whatever setup they had. Companies selling webcams and lights quickly sold out.

Now many people have created their own home based studios with good sound and video, cable news is using those home feeds for on air interviews when interviewees may previously have needed to go to a studio.

Home studio appearances have led to a popular Twitter feed that critiques their look. Room Rater has posted thousands of ratings with a bias toward plants, books, stairs, good lighting, good camera placement, and progressive subjects. They have a book coming out in June of 2022 called How to Zoom Your Room.

Building Community on Zoom with Office Hours

Early in the pandemic, Alex Lindsay, who has been creating remote video experiences for many clients for 15 years, decided to start a daily show about remote production. He used the Zoom webinar format and invited anyone interested to join in. Since that time, he has been holding Zoom meetings that start at 6am Pacific time every day, 7 days a week since March 25, 2020. This daily event attracts participants from around the world.

Many of the people joining in are folks with special skills in graphic design, media design, production, performance, streaming, and postproduction. They are learning from the group and often lend a helping hand to each other either through Q&A sessions on the show or the Discord group they share.

The show is called Office Hours. Anyone can join at no cost. There is no advertising or email solicitation. What you get for joining is an email every morning at just before 6am Pacific time giving you the link to the Zoom meeting. If you just want to watch, you don’t need to do anything special. If you want to participate, you need to come into the meeting by about 6:30 and set your audio level to be certain you can be clearly heard. There’s also an expectation that your image will look good. From 7-8am Pacific there’s a general question and answer session with anyone submitting questions with the panel answering. On most days, from 8-9am Pacific, there is a presentation and discussion of a particular media topic. The topics range include discussions of audio and video technologies, lighting, business development, and graphic design for media.

Alex's effort is working toward improving remote participation while building a community. If you skim one of the shows, most of them are available through the site on Youtube, you’ll notice that audio levels are consistent, and the framing of participants is also consistent. While some complain of ‘Zoom Fatigue’, Alex’s belief is that a lot of that exhaustion comes from many participants on a Zoom call not paying attention to their setups, leaving viewers straining to hear, see, and follow the conversation. You may also notice that, for the most part, people don’t interrupt each other. The lack of interruption is due to mutually agreed on behavior and a Q&A system Alex’s company has developed called Mukana. Mukana allows people to submit questions which are voted up, or not. The question list is watched by a moderator. Participants can volunteer to answer questions and the moderator directs the session. That way, people don’t generally step on each other and the conversation usually flows in a useful, uninterrupted manner.

A number of events have come from Office Hours.

My early participation in this group gave me the confidence to help my children’s former K-12 school create a totally remote fund raiser in the Spring of 2020. We created a live show called Desert Bloom with everyone remote. The event was a success at building community and raising money.

Office Hours developed the Belfast method of media production described here by NPR. Members of the production crew operating lighting, camera setups, audio mixing, and video switching may be anywhere in the world doing their jobs over the internet. This method is named for Belfast because it was first used by a band named Revue, playing in Belfast, Northern Ireland at the Accidental Theatre.

Another Office Hours project was the live streaming of a Rocket Launch of a 1 meter rocket on March 19, 2022 outside Las Vegas, NV. The team included participation by people from Finland, Australia, New York, Illinois, Washington, California, and Nevada. Some went to Las Vegas while most did their parts from distant locations.

New Media Businesses

The pandemic eliminated the possibility of having large live audience events. Immersive Design Studios of Montreal architected a new approach to such events that has proven to make this kind of event often better than in person. Their proprietary Canvas software allows the projection of tens of thousands of participants in a 360 degree video environment where the event host can interact with a whole group, any sub-group, and any individual.

Pre-pandemic, author and motivational speaker, Tony Robbins, had a very successful business hosting live events at large venues with thousands of participants. In these events, Robbins often interacted directly with audience members making even a large, live event feel personal and intimate. How could he connect with an audience online and be able to reach out individually to participants? The answer came from Immersive Design Studios. Robbins tried out this virtual delivery method early in the pandemic and liked it so much that he had a studio for this kind of event built for him in Florida.

This new method of doing business proved so successful for Tony Robbins that his current calendar shows about half of his events are virtual from his Florida studio while others are held in person at his resort on Fiji.

Immersive Design Studios’ CANVAS software powers studios in Las Vegas, NV and Monterey, CA for large Zoom capacity. Charity Water, a 15 year old charity that drills and maintains wells for villages in Africa, used the Monterey facility to raise $4 million in an hour from high-net-worth contributors.

Online Entertainment Using Zoom

Jury Games is a new form of entertainment was created during the pandemic. A group in London developed an online party and team building event during the pandemic with the premise of a murder trial where the Zoom participants play the jury. Jurors can ask questions of the defendant and examine evidence in pursuit of a verdict. Because of the online aspect, participants can be anywhere in the world. As pandemic restrictions lift, they have started offering an in person version of the game while still offering the online service. I participated in a public online session and was impressed with the cleverness of the game structure and live acting. Jury Games currently offers 3 games: Jury Duty, The Inquest, and Office Party.

Nowhere Comedy creates online comedy events. For a fee of $30 I attended one with John Cleese of Monty Python fame (along with about 130 others). He told stories and answered fan questions. After the main event, people who had paid a $100 premium (about 30) got to continue with Mr. Cleese in a longer Zoom and have more personal interaction.

Another interesting use of theater in virtual space is “The Present”, a magic show by Helder Guimaraeãs. Audience members receive a package by mail and they are asked not to open the package until the show starts on Zoom. The show started running in early 2020 and is currently sold-out with a conclusion in October of 2022.

Out of the experience of Covid, many things have changed. Many will go back to the way they were. Many will be adapted to new ways of working and being with others.

Tips to up your Zoom Game:

  • If possible, use a direct, wired connection instead of WiFi to connect to the internet. WiFi is often the source of video and audio glitches in Zoom calls. It wasn’t designed for the kind of continuous data flow required for video conferencing.

  • Rather than using a fake background, consider straightening up your room. Unless you have a professional chroma key background, your image is likely to tear and look unprofessional.

  • Before you join a meeting, start a meeting on your own and test your audio using the Test Speaker and Microphone option that appears when you select the up-arrow just to the right of the Mute icon. It allows you to be certain you can hear and be heard before you join or start a meeting.

  • Always use headphones or earbuds to listen to the call. Zoom allows you to use your computer’s speakers but for this to work, it has to work really hard to prevent feedback and reduces the audio quality coming from your microphone.

  • Place your camera at eye level. Often this means putting your device on a box. This angle is most complimentary.

Michael Slade

(West '73)


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