360-Degree Video Conferencing Is Here, But Is It Worthwhile?

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360-degree video conferencing

Is your office having a round table meeting? Now a video conference webcam can capture the whole thing–everyone at it, all the way around the table, at the same time. All we need now is a good reason to use it.

Backed by one of Silicon Valley’s high priests, Andy Rubin (one of the creators of Android), newcomer Owl Labs has released its Meeting Owl webcam, which can capture and display all 360 degrees of a group meeting.

It is smart. It is innovative. It looks just like an owl. And it may be nothing more than a really cute toy. That’s because you can render its key feature superfluous by just rearranging the attendees at your meeting so that everyone is sitting at the same side of the table, just like everyone has been doing on video conference calls since the technology was introduced.

The Meeting Owl packs in all the features you could want in a 360-degree video conferencing webcam, but its warped fish-eye view of the world, potentially cluttered display, and near $800 price tag mean it is probably more luxury than necessity at the moment. Let’s look more closely at why.

Meeting Owl Delivers on the 360-Degree Video Conferencing Promise

We at VC Daily have been waiting on the Meeting Owl’s arrival for some time now, and the final product does deliver on what it promised when we first wrote about the Owl video conferencing cam concept last year.

The 11-inch tall device is certainly mobile, and with simple USB setup and compatibility with common video conference apps such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Slack Video, Skype, and GoToMeeting it is convenient. The 360-degree fisheye lens that sits atop its little owl head does indeed capture an entire room, but the smart technology that drives it is far more interesting. The Owl features an eight-microphone array that picks up sound in every direction, and audio beamforming technology that lets the camera automatically focus on whoever is currently speaking.

To convey this trick, which is admittedly already present in apps like Google Hangouts which has an active speaker feature, the Owl splits the screen so that the warped room view is displayed across the top, while the close-up shot of whomever is speaking is displayed below. If two people are speaking at once, this bottom screen splits again to keep everyone in frame. In our minds, that all looks impressive when you’re watching yourselves on screen, but the callers on the other end of your video conference may not be quite so enthused.

How Meeting Owl Performs in the Real World

All those video conferencing apps the Meeting Owl works with are built to accommodate group calls. So just what is this split screen view going to look like once it is reduced to being just one of several chat windows on a multi-party call?

Look at the screen in front of you. If you’re on a conference call between three other locations you can divide that screen into four to see how much room each is afforded. Cut one of them into half again and you’ll understand what little room the Meeting Owl has to present its split-screen effect.

Without the zoom feature, you’re left to deal with the warped fish-eye view of the room, which doesn’t hold up well when compared to a traditional 120-degree or even 90-degree webcam presentation. The Meeting Owl also tops out at 720p presentation. That’s still HD quality, but a step below the now common 1080p.

By arranging the furniture in your huddle room or boardroom you can get better visuals, even 4K ultra HD video conferencing, by all facing the same direction toward a more reasonably priced webcam–about $700 more reasonable.

The Meeting Owl designers are planning on expanding its software capabilities, so there should be more reasons to buy the cute device down the road. At the moment, you’d be getting it because it’s the only webcam of its kind, the only one to offer the 360-degree feature–although that claim to fame may not last long.

The Owl’s Competitors Threaten Its Novelty

The threat to the Owl’s unique status comes from live streaming devices that don’t currently operate as two-way webcams. The Owl’s own backer Andy Rubin introduced the world’s smallest 360-degree video camera in May as an optional extra to his new smartphone product, the Essential. That camera spins through 360-degrees rather than presenting the entire view in a single shot, and it has to be manually scrolled, but it does bring the promise of panoramic video calling on mobile.

The more immediate candidates for webcam conversion are the range of 360-degree live streaming video cameras led by the Samsung Gear 360 and the Ricoh Theta. These handheld devices are currently limited to one-way broadcast across sites like YouTube Live, but they have push button simplicity, and they just need a viewing screen and some fancy codecs to be able to be as dynamic as your smartphone.

They look like fun too, which impinges on another aspect of the Owl’s appeal–its novelty.

The boardroom doesn’t seem like a place that is desperate for 360-degree video calling, certainly not the warped fisheye version, so maybe the Meeting Owl needs to follow the handheld device lead and encourage people to stage meetings outside the office where a panoramic view would come into its own.

Image Source: Wikimedia CC User KarenRubin of Owl Labs Inc (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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