Illustration: James Provost
Many of us are spending more time videoconferencing than we’ve ever done before. And that situation probably won’t be changing anytime soon.
One thing that’s become painfully obvious to me during the past few months is that some people are more conscientious than others about how they present themselves. The worst offenders position themselves in front of a window, forcing others to view them in silhouette and making me wonder whether I’m in a business meeting or watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
I try to avoid such obvious videoconferencing faux pas. But there’s one fundamental awkwardness that no amount of strategic laptop positioning can solve: not being able to make eye contact with other participants because they, like me, are looking at their screens rather than their Web cameras. Everyone appears to be casting their gaze downward, as if bored or perhaps telling a lie. It’s nearly impossible to avoid that annoying tendency—not without some drastic action.
The action in my case was to construct something I’d seen featured on Hackaday, a gizmo designed by a video blogger that makes clever use of a semitransparent mirror—basically the same strategy used for teleprompters but at a fraction of the cost and with materials I could easily scavenge or order. With such a mirror, you can view the screen straight on while also looking directly at an external webcam. This contraption, which I’ve taken to calling my Zoom Box, allows me to look other people right in the eye while in a Zoom or Webex meeting with them.
Construction began with…well, deconstruction. A dead laptop languishing in the closet finally met its destiny: I pulled its display apart and extracted the built-in HD webcam. That’s because I needed an external webcam that was as flat as possible. Before starting this project, I didn’t realize that webcams scavenged from a laptop can be made to function perfectly well as external USB webcams. And indeed I was reassured to see that the one I pulled said “USB5V” on its circuit board.
Done With Mirrors: The device is basically a foam-board box, some components of which are shown here (though not to scale). You must carve out a pocket in one piece of foam board to house a web camera, extracted from a broken laptop. Other bits and pieces include high-power LEDs mounted on “pucks,” heat sinks for those LEDs, and a piece of semitransparent acrylic. Illustration: James Provost
This camera board housed dual microphones, too, which meant there were quite a few wires coming out of its shorn cable. Identifying the ground wire was easy enough—by checking continuity with the copper ground plane on the board. The +5-volt line was a little harder to figure out: I needed first to identify the voltage regulator, to which the +5-V line was attached, and then do some more continuity checking.
The two USB signal wires coming out of the camera board could be easily discerned—they make up the one twisted pair present. When wiring these signal lines to a USB cable, I just had to guess which member of the twisted pair was data+ and which was data–. As luck had it, my guess was correct: The webcam worked just fine when plugged into the various computers I tried it with, which included two Windows machines and a Mac.
Other materials necessary for completing this project include black duct tape, a supply of black foam board, and a semitransparent acrylic mirror. The mirror I purchased (on Amazon.com) is only 1 millimeter thick, which is good and bad. It’s good because the thinness made it easy to cut to size—just score and snap. It’s bad because, being so thin, it flexes easily. So it needs good support on all four sides to stay flat.
That support comes from strategically shaped pieces of foam board attached to the interior of a rectangular foam-board box I constructed. Duct tape holds the sides together. The box includes an overhang at the back, which with the help of some binder clips is attached to the face of the large monitor I was using for this project.
Seeing Straight: Viewing your computer screen during a video meeting typically results in others seeing you looking downward, as though you were trying to avert your gaze. The semi-transparent mirror in this device avoids that phenomenon, because the web camera, lying flat at the bottom of the surrounding foam-board box, gets a straight-on view of your face. And because the monitor is shaded by the dark foam-board enclosure, the screen remains readily visible despite the losses involved in looking at it through a semitransparent mirror. Illustration: James Provost
Having plenty of foam-board scraps left over, I carved an appropriately shaped opening in a rectangle of foam to house the webcam, placing a small hole in it above the camera’s lens. A second scrap of foam of the same size taped to the first one holds the camera in place.
As a final embellishment to my videoconferencing studio-in-a-box, I added lighting, which helps especially when participating in a videoconference at night—normal ceiling lights are often problematic distractions by either casting weird shadows or playing havoc with the exposure when in the field of view. My solution was to use three white high-power LEDs, ones with a relatively low (“warm”) color temperature. These I wired in series and powered with a 9-V DC wall wart, through an inexpensive pulse-width-modulation board designed to control motors. They are mounted on heat sinks, with one positioned at the top of the box and the other two on the sides.
Okay, perhaps hacking all this together was going a little overboard for the sake of making me look presentable. But we may be videoconferencing quite a bit yet. And as Mark Pesce explains elsewhere in this issue (“A Solution for Zoom Fatigue May Be Near,” Macro & Micro), it’s hard to make out people’s social cues on your screen when peering at tiny images of them. I figure the least I can do for my friends and colleagues is to keep my face well lit and look them in the eye.
This article appears in the August 2020 print issue as “The Zoom Box.”