Google Hangouts’ Active Speaker Tech for iPhone Works, But Barely Improves a Clunky Experience

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Google Hangouts' Active Speaker Feature for iPhone

The rise–and continued rise–of smartphones as the dominant personal communication device, and their creep into the office via BYOD meetings leaves video callers with one small problem: screen size.

The solution is active speaker technology that tracks the source of whoever’s voice is currently being broadcast and turns over just about the entire screen to their image. When someone else takes the virtual podium their image jumps to the forefront and the previous speaker returns to the smaller windows reserved for listeners.

It has become a common feature of smartphone video calling platforms over recent years, and if your VC platform doesn’t have some sort of voice tracking feature, you need another VC platform.

And its presence in Google Hangouts is also the second-best reason to use the service on iPhone.

Hangouts for iPhone Is No Picnic

Of course, the best reason to use Hangouts on an iPhone is that you can make video calls, and group calls, across devices. And that’s only because Apple refuses to let FaceTime make group calls or venture out onto any device not within its corporate family. It won’t link to Android phones, and it won’t link to desktops and laptops that aren’t of the Mac persuasion.

It’s a failing Google can exploit to expand the use of Hangouts. Barely.

Using Hangouts on an iPhone is a lot like driving in a foreign country where you’re forced to use the opposite side of the road, and sit on the opposite side of the car.

All the mechanics of the car are the same, all the road rules are familiar, but everything is at first cumbersome and a little disorientating.

You have to login to your Google account to launch Hangouts which adds a layer of fuss you won’t face with the baked-in FaceTime, the interface is a little barren compared to the Android experience, and while you’re supposed to be able to join a Hangout without being signed in to Google, if you can achieve the feat on an iPhone you’re doing better than me.

What does work as well on iPhone, as it does anywhere else, is the active speaker tracking, which is a decent consolation prize once you actually get your meeting underway.

Active Speaker Technology

The Hangouts version of active speaker tracking, or audio tracking, is as good as it gets on a free service, and competitive enough with any paid service to mean it shouldn’t be a reason to reach for your wallet.

Even on the foreign terrain of an iPhone it works briskly enough to let a conversation between three or four people flow naturally. I’ve not tried it with a larger group, but we’ve written previously on the U.S. Department of Education’s use of Google Hangouts to open up direct dialogue with the public, and you can see for yourself how well the tracker bounces across a dozen video feeds.

That said, things get a little chaotic if people indulge their desire to talk over each other and interrupt. But, if you’re going to replicate the rhythms of an in-person group discussion there are always going to be a few hiccups. People don’t just wait patiently to speak like customers lined up with a ticket at the deli.

If things get too confusing you can always override the feature and manually click on the current speaker’s chat window yourself.

But when it works, active speaker is the best way to reproduce the dynamics of an in-room group meeting on an iPhone. In fact, the tech has proven so successful some high-end VC hardware setups have been created to capture the same effect within a room. In this instance the camera actually pans and zooms to find the current speaker and give them prominence.

Group Video Calls on iPhone

As we’ve previously discussed, good old Skype actually provides a better iPhone experience than either FaceTime or Hangouts. It’s just easier to navigate, easier to migrate your contacts, and easier to use.

If you’re willing to go beyond the established players, FreeConferenceCall.com will provide you with all the features of Hangouts at the same free price tag, and its method of including callers who don’t have an existing account is smoother.

Sadly, while much of the video calling innovation is coming from the new breed of browser-based VC platforms, many of them won’t let you host a meeting with your iPhone.

In short, FaceTime’s limitations should have you looking for a better way to video chat on your iPhone, and active speaker tracking should always be a feature of whichever service you end up with…but you may have to look beyond Google Hangouts to get the most out of your smartphone video conferences.

Image source: Flickr CC user Robert Scoble

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