A Solution for Zoom Fatigue May Be Near

Virtual-presence tech is increasingly affordable




2 min read
Illustration of person looking out the opened door of a zoom grid screen.
Illustration: Greg Mably

Illustration of person looking out the opened door of a zoom grid screen.Illustration: Greg Mably

A lot of us have recently become familiar with what what’s being called Zoom fatigue—the drained feeling that follows hours spent performing before coworkers or clients or superiors, all while scanning a sea of faces that for some of us evokes the opening sequence from “The Brady Bunch.” Seeing only disembodied squares of video, you have to work hard to make out the social cues that might reveal anyone else’s feelings.

Some people have retreated to using the telephone, which allows you to relax in a way that videoconferencing doesn’t. Even professionals with significant experience in television broadcasting never truly relax when they’re on camera. If we don’t want to melt down under such stresses, we need tools better suited to meeting one another remotely.

Practice, practice, and more practice remain the only answer to video stage fright. But the solution to mental strain during Zoom meetings could be at hand.

Back in 2016, I got a boxing lesson from a world-famous coach in a converted warehouse in Los Angeles. Only he wasn’t really there. His three-dimensional likeness had been captured elsewhere using a technique called videogrammetry (or confusingly, holography, even though it has nothing at all to do with coherent light or interference).

Encircled by banks of high-resolution cameras, that coach offered an aspiring boxer advice on stance and balance and what makes for a good right hook. Vast cloud-computing resources crunched those high-resolution images, extracting depth measurements from their different perspectives (much as your eyes do).

Peering through VR goggles at my end, I saw a 3D representation of the coach. He was just an animated video sculpture—less resolved than in the flesh—but it still seemed almost as if he were standing next to me.

Because I sensed his physical presence, I subconsciously shifted my pose and balance to mirror his. That’s human behavior at its most empathetic: following cues embedded in another person’s posture or movements—things we don’t typically perceive when videoconferencing.

That demo blew my mind: I knew I’d experienced the future.

And just a few months after my go in the sparring ring, Microsoft revealed its Holoportation demo, a real-time videogrammetry system using its Kinect2 depth cameras and HoloLens AR displays. Data from an array of Kinect2s was piped through a room full of high-powered servers for real-time image processing and compression before being sent to the HoloLens. The technology gave a tantalizing preview of the possibilities, but with a hefty price tag, making it just too difficult to pull off this process well.

Today, we have lidar-equipped iPad Pros and Azure-connected Kinects available by the cartload—an infrastructure for videogrammetry making everything that was once pricey and difficult now cheap and easy. We’re at a moment analogous to 2014, when two Google engineers used a pizza box, a pair of plastic lenses and a bit of software to create Google Cardboard, instantly giving the world a path to a half billion VR systems that were good enough for many applications.

The moment is ripe for another such innovation, one that gives us the sense of human presence that we often can’t safely offer to one another in person at the moment. We need to be there without being there, to touch without touching. Videogrammetry, however imperfect, will bring some much-needed depth—figuratively as well as literally—to the experience of meeting remotely.

This article appears in the August 2020 print issue as “Being There, Virtually.”

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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