Digital Tools for Global Conversations

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Here at CommsConsult, at least one of us has a conference call nearly every day of the week. We all have our stories of disastrous and frustrating calls and are always on the look-out for smart alternatives.

So I was excited to get the chance this week to attend a one day workshop on Superfast Video Conferencing and Online Collaboration Capabilities at the Academy for Innovation and Research (AIR) building, Falmouth University. The workshop, hosted by Unlocking Potential and Superfast Cornwall, brought together like-minded individuals from across the county to explore and discuss the use of video web technology and online collaboration software.

Successful online, virtual working collaborations are something we endeavour to do on a daily basis at CommsConsult, and all too often we find that technology fails us at the final hurdle, so I was very excited to learn about potential new tools out there that might make our working lives a little bit easier. With experts from Falmouth University on hand to answer our queries, we were asked to answer questions in groups on what we perceived the barriers to effective online video collaboration to be, and what the ideal video conferencing tool would look like. Many of us had the same answers; we experience technical and connectivity issues, data protection and security worries, client software compatibility problems and financial restrictions. So, with all these challenges, what would the ideal platform look like? It seems it would need to be secure and trustworthy, without technical glitches, easy to access from any device (mobile, tablet, laptop, desktop, mac, PC, the list goes on…) low-cost (or free!), internationally available and straightforward to use. Could such a tool ever feasibly exist? Well no, was, of course, the answer! But this could be where some of us were going wrong… “The danger is to get caught in a software trap” said Jem MacKay, Falmouth University’s Lead Technical Instructor for Media. Instead, he suggests, “develop your own suite of tools that suites your style – a mixture of platforms.” Use, for example, Google Hangouts for video conferences but then Dropbox to share files securely. But with so many platforms out there, how do you know which ones to rely on? Off the tops of our heads we listed the following tools our companies had dabbled with:

SharePointvid conf 1

Microsoft Project

Gather Content

BaseCamp

Trello

Google Drive

Dropbox

WeTransfer

Skype

Lean Kit

Webex

Go-To-Meeting

Sky Drive

Prezi

Hip Chat

…but the list could be a lot longer!

The best way to choose which tool is best for your business is to trial it, but with implications on both time and cost involved, how do you know you’re going to see a return on investment? We spent the afternoon trying out three video conferencing and content sharing tools; Adobe Connect (initial license purchasing cost), Google Hangouts (completely free) and FuzeBox Meeting (free with premium costs). We rated each on the quality of video and sound, the add-on tools it comes with (file and screen sharing or chat windows) and how easy it was to get to grips with. There was no clear winner, with each presenting pros and cons, but here’s a quick round-up for anyone wanting to try out any of these tools:

Adobe Connect: This tool gives you a whole range of information sharing options. You can share screens, presentations, images, files, web links, videos, question polls, notes and instant messaging, all alongside your video call. You can also assign all your call participants different hierarchical levels – with the ‘host’ able to change views, swap screens, etc and the other participants only able to watch or listen. Not very democratic for a meeting environment, but just what you need for presentation or e-learning seminars. The video quality remained fairly good when hooked up to four different machines but the sound quality was much better when it was only one-to-one. The number of video callers you can have at any time changes depending on the package you have. Definitely worth checking out if you are looking for a collaborative presentation or lecturing tool.

Google Hangouts: Completely free, which is great! This tool is more democratic – everyone is on the same level and able to join discussions at any time. There is a chat function, but not file sharing. The windows displaying each participant by video swap around depending on who is talking at a given time – this can be problematic if you cough too loudly! The great thing about hangouts is that you can live-stream to YouTube or record a meeting and share it later. Handy for presentations or discussions you want to share with a wider audience.

FuzeBox Meeting: The free package allows you screen and file sharing, 1GB of cloud storage and up to 25 video call participants. The quality of the video connections seemed excellent but again the audio became problematic when multiple machines were involved. With Fuzebox, you have the option of muting other participants while you speak – to reduce the chance of interruption during presentations and there are numerous options for chats, question polling, etc.

vid conf 2

As well as exploring some of the numerous tools out there for conducting virtual meetings and convening online conferences, some fantastic ideas were shared on how to make virtual working more streamlined and compatible with our day-to-day work practices. Erik Goelhoed, who is researching interactive performance spaces at Falmouth University, gave us all a few top tips on improving our online collaborative working techniques:

  • Avoid back lighting when video calling – don’t sit in front of a window! Overhead, bright lighting will give you the best video quality.

  • Take time to look into the camera – not just at the screen. A little bit of perceived eye contact can do wonders for a video conferencing call.

  • Use a headset with an attached microphone for the best possible sound quality, whenever possible.

  • Try to maintain a two-three meter distance from the camera (difficult when working on a laptop!) as it allows participants to see more of your body and thus all important body language.

  • Think about your posture and body language (don’t forget you are being watched by clients or colleagues and behave as though you’re physically in the same room).

It was an interesting day of exploration and discussion which left me with lots of takeaway thoughts on how to tackle our online collaboration needs as a company.

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