My favorite urban myth involves NASA and a multi-million-dollar space pen.
The myth contends that while the U.S. space program in the 1960s spent millions developing a pen that would work in zero gravity, their Russian counterparts simply used a pencil.
Unfortunately, the story isn’t true–both nations used pencils at first until a private inventor came up with the space pen–but the idea of inexpensive simplicity winning out over science is a nice fable nonetheless.
It’s one the team at Webaround might enjoy.
While the past few years of development have thrown up several webcams and webcam software packages that can digitally replace your background during a video call, Webaround has instead produced a physical, portable webcam background screen. It’s a webcam background without green screen technology, and it’s no more advanced than a stiff picnic blanket. It’s a pencil-simple idea that can provide an instant clean background for any smartphone video call, while also giving you the perfect basis for some real green screen wonders…as long as you have time to frame your shot.
Ultimately, however, Webaround’s long-term place in the webcam world is dependant on digital background replacement hitting a permanent technical snag, and that’s not likely.
Webaround’s Portable Webcam Background Screen
There’s no complicated science behind Webaround’s idea, so we’re not going to get bogged down in the details here. The company produces collapsible screens of neoprene, nylon, and spring steel in three colors and four sizes that you mount on the back of a chair to block out your surroundings while using a webcam.
You can use it as a way to shut out the world around you, or as a canvas for projecting classic green screen digital imagery. You can see its portability in action in the video below:
The problem is that the screen forms a very tight circle around your chair so you have to zoom in carefully to make sure your entire background is removed. And, of course, as the screen is attached to your chair, any movement will destroy the illusion, dragging the screen away from the static camera’s view.
As the clip below demonstrates, that can be annoying.
Still, it costs only $50, you should be able to set it up in seconds, and it provides a crisp surface for green screen projection without the hassle of lugging around a six-foot stand-and-scroll piece of equipment.
However, if your webcam itself can block out your background then there’s no need for any additional apparatus–no matter how portable.
Video Conferencing Background Replacement
Green screen technology has been with us a long time–it’s been powering your local news weather report for decades. Using a process called chroma keying, the sensors in a camera can single out a specific color in an image and then make it transparent, allowing a second projection to fill that space. (If you prefer to learn new things from precocious teenagers you should try this video link).
It’s a process so familiar it has started to come as standard within webcams. Razer, for example, has embedded Intel RealSense hardware into its now discontinued (but still available on Amazon) Stargazer.
If you missed out on those options, you can use a free app to do the trick for you on your desktop screen, such as Chromacam’s free download.
All that availability, plus the fact that background replacement or green screen tech is generally going to target gamers, bloggers, and telecommuters who are sedentary in their online habits and so more likely to favor a permanent, rather than mobile, solution, means there’s a possibility the Webaround webcam background screen may not have a long shelf-life.
Things will get worse once green screens go mobile.
Smartphone Green Screens Are the Final Frontier
Smartphones have yet to take off as green screen platforms. There are several apps that will help you change the background on static photos, and just about every phone and messaging app has its own version of digital avatars that replace your online video calling face. Green screening during a video chat, however, hasn’t really caught on. Perhaps it’s the small screen size, or perhaps the fact we accept that smartphones are going to be used in alternate (read: busy and distracting) environments. Whatever the case, the continued evolution of smartphone cameras and camera arrays is surely going to put the tech in your pocket soon.
Once that happens, there’s no need for a fabric background replacement. Webaround is nicely collapsible, but it’ll never fit into your purse or pocket, and that’s the new definition of portable technology.
On the other hand, as we’ve often discussed on this site, working from home is a trend that isn’t going away. This is the digital age, after all, and the benefits of telecommuting for employers and employees are too great to ignore. That, in turn, means that simple, low-tech fixes to a common problem–video conferencing from a busy co-working space or in your messy living room–could prove tempting. If you’ve got $50 to spare and an ugly stain on the wall in your home office, you could do worse than invest in a Webaround solution–especially if you prefer straightforward answers to life’s little problems.