Skype is video conferencing’s gateway drug–and it’ll get you hooked for free. The app long synonymous with video calling is less a serious business tool and more of a social service and a free sample of all that’s available on Microsoft’s subscription platforms.
The latest giveaway is Skype background blur. The feature does as the name implies and concentrates focus on the human video caller while turning the surrounding world fuzzy. The blurring effect doesn’t go so far as to totally remove the background or replace it with a green screen background, as some leading hardware and software solutions do. Rather, it creates an illusion of depth and leaves the background visible but unintelligible.
The result is a serviceable tool that concentrates attention on the person doing the talking without offering any professional-grade special effects. And that’s really what Skype is for now: A free peek into video conferencing’s potential that’s available on just about any device you can buy.
How Skype Background Blur Works
Skype’s version of background blur follows the release of the same tech within Microsoft Teams in late 2018. According to Microsoft, the Skype version is not yet as reliable as its paid stablemate’s, as it comes with the warning:
“We do our best to make sure that your background is always blurred, but we cannot guarantee that your background will always be blurred.”
The feature uses artificial intelligence trained to detect the human form to effectively cut around your hair, arms, and hands and gently dissolve whatever falls outside those parameters.
It’s certainly gentle. Objects that fall outside of what the AI considers to be the human form are still noticeable within the frame of Microsoft’s promotional materials. Anyone viewing your call won’t be able to read the band name on your Metallica poster, but they’ll still be greeted with a big, black, fuzzy rectangle behind your head.
This is Skype, however, and you’re expected to be grateful to get any kind of blur at the price you’re paying–nothing. The limited nature of the function is also made clear by the fact that it’s available only on desktop devices. Your mobile calls are just going to have to remain a clutter of distraction.
If you really want a quality background replacement feature, you’ll have to pay for it.
Background Blur and Green Screen
High-end background replacement and green screen effects are still largely the domain of third-party devices. The current leaders in the field are RealSense and Personify: the hardware-heavy RealSense camera is made by Intel, while Personify, the software version, is accessed as an extra within webcams.
If you have professional reasons for wanting video callers to ignore the space around you, it is going to cost you.
Each tech produces background removal in a different manner. The Intel version uses additional depth-of-field and infrared cameras to trace the outline of a talking head and remove what’s unwanted. Personify, on the other hand, accomplishes the same trick using AI similar to the Skype model–albeit with greater success.
Of course, neither option is free–or even cheap, in the Intel instance–so if you have professional reasons for wanting video callers to ignore the space around you, it is going to cost you. The dilemma hits gamers hardest, as an amateurish background removal does more harm than good.
However, if, like Skype’s target audience, you just want to add a visual trick to your social calls or your chats with work colleagues, there’s not much reason to invest in one of these pricier options.
And yet if you’re looking to avoid investing in video calling, then Skype is a dangerous place to linger.
Skype As a Storefront
Skype underwent a major update in 2017 that effectively drove the final nail into its status as a business product. The resulting platform is more colorful, more fun, and more messaging friendly–it even embraced Snapchat-style photo sharing.
In short, Skype is a free version of Microsoft Teams without all the Office and collaboration functionality.
The change coincided with the addition of a host of free features along the same lines as the new background blur feature. Over recent years, Skype’s free service has added:
- Real-time translation
- Guest login for those without a Skype account
- Third-party add-ons for services like YouTube
- A host of chatbots for automated searching
- Skype Lite for areas with low-performance networks
In short, Skype is a free version of Microsoft Teams without all the Office and collaboration functionality…which would be great, but Teams recently added a free version itself. And so, Skype lingers on as a gateway to video conferencing proper. Just as you’ll be left wanting a higher quality background blur feature after trying this free version, so, too, will your thoughts turn to a more fully-fledged video conferencing service after toying with Skype itself.
The service still has value as a free resource for social calls and messaging. Also, its accessibility on Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android makes it the perfect compromise platform when you need to video call someone on a different paid service. When you are ready for real video conferencing–and more effective background blur–you’ll need to open your wallet…and Skype gets another video caller hooked.