There is no good device for turning your living room into a video conferencing room, but here?s how to hack together a solution
Photo courtesy of the author
For more than three weeks now, both my partner and I have been working from home to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. I?m grateful to have a job I can do remotely. But sitting at my desk on video calls all day quickly became tiring, especially with my partner doing the same for much of her day, in the same room.
At my actual office, meeting rooms are equipped with video conferencing equipment mounted to TVs. The video quality is much better than a camera on an average MacBook, and being able to sit at a distance makes longer calls much more comfortable. To make meetings from home more bearable, I wondered if I could replicate the office setup using my TV.
First, I looked into buying one of the official Google Hangouts Meet hardware boxes, which come with a webcam and tiny computer dedicated to video calling. But the boxes are difficult to actually buy if you aren?t a giant business: Google doesn?t sell them to individual consumers, and the average cost is about $1,000.
Instead, I decided to MacGyver my home meeting setup out of parts I already had lying around: a Logitech Brio webcam from my former life as a freelance writer and an old Mac Mini I wasn?t using for much at all (you could use any old laptop or PC you have lying around). I wired all of this up in the TV room. I plugged the Mac into the HDMI on the TV, and I made sure to use Ethernet, rather than use the wireless, for call stability.
This improved my video call quality enough that my co-workers kept asking whether I had snuck back into the office. It also allowed me to separate doing actual work at my desk and taking calls at my couch in front of my TV.
The only problem was my microphone. I didn?t have one of those fancy speaker/microphone audio conferencing gadgets at home, and it caused a little bit of echo for people on the other end, which isn?t a great experience. To solve this, I got a wireless gaming headset, the Steelseries Arctis 7, which wires straight into the Mac Mini and allows me to move around if I want to (you could use any Bluetooth headset, like AirPods, of course).
With this setup, my living room suddenly transformed into a private meeting room, where I could take work calls, or hang out with friends on Houseparty, without interrupting my partner working in the office. I can sit on the couch with my laptop and tune into a meeting without having to cram the video call onto my tiny laptop screen, and the quality is much higher because the Mac is wired directly into the internet.
Still, it took some know-how. The lack of home-friendly video calling hardware for the living room is surprising ? especially given that device makers have been trying to make it a thing for years. When the original Xbox One was released, for example, one of the flagship features was being able to make high-resolution video calls with the Kinect camera over Skype. I absolutely never did that back then, but would consider doing so now.
Some TV makers have built in support for external cameras and making video calls over the years, but most of them have been discontinued now, as they generally only supported Skype.
The only reasonable option I could find in modern times was Facebook?s recently released ?Portal TV? device, a webcam and microphone combo that plugs straight into any HDMI port. But in addition to my misgivings about allowing a Facebook-backed camera into my home, the Portal TV only supports video calling on Facebook Messenger, which rules it out for work.
With many people working from home for what increasingly looks like it?ll be months, it feels like this space is wide open for competition. We are going to be relying on video calls for both our social and work needs, so a device like the Portal ? but one that supports a wider range of services ? would likely prove to be popular.
For now, the best way to make all those video calls comfortable at home is cobbling together your own solution, especially if you?re planning to take multiple calls a day for the foreseeable future. The people you?re calling all day will thank you for it, and you?ll appreciate having a comfortable, dedicated space for taking them.