Since last year the number of virtual classes and conferences has increased by a lot. As I wrote last year in my post Live virtual training, I'm happy to have the option of giving remote classes and conference talks.
Since then, I got many questions about my setup, which I will answer in this post.
The video conferencing software
I probably have used nearly all video conferencing software over the last couple of months. In general, they all more or less provide the same thing, video, and audio of multiple people to make you feel you are sitting next to each other. On average, I found that the video and audio quality is often the same or at least good enough regardless of which software you are using. There are two things that stick out to me, and that's why I prefer zoom:
- non-verbal feedback
- breakout rooms
Let me explain both briefly. I experienced that it is sometimes hard to find the right time to ask a question. This is true for in-person events but gets more difficult when we go virtual. One reason is the audio delay we have. The delay can lead to situations where one person, without intending to do so, interrupts the other because both started at nearly the same time. This gets even worse if people have switched off their video. Nobody can then read body language to tell whether another person is taking a deep breath for the next question. Polite people then tend not to ask questions because it is impolite to interrupt somebody else. This is where non-verbal feedback has so much to add. Zoom comes with features like "hand raise" where one can simply indicate to me, and all the other participants that there is a question, clarification, or something else. The great thing for me with zoom is that the list of participants starts with people who have their hand raised. Zoom also takes care of sorting the list such that the person who raised their hand first is at the top of the list. That way, I always know who has its hand up the longest. Not having to raise your physical hand for 5 minutes is another nice benefit.
The second feature is breakout rooms. This allows me as a trainer to split up the participants into smaller groups. We can do pair-programming with that. It is easier for a smaller group, say, two people, to communicate via video conferencing than with ten. Opposed to leaving all participants in a single big room, participants in breakout rooms can chat about their solution or can team-up and solve an exercise together. This is a very valuable aspect to me because it models the in-person class very closely. If questions arise, participants can call me in their specific breakout room and come back to the main room and ask their questions there. One more thing that the breakout room gives participants is a better feeling for the time. When I hand out an exercise, I tell people, let's spend 10 minutes on it and then discuss the result. The issue is that participants often remember that there are only 10 minutes planned but don't remember when these 10 minutes started. A totally understandable situation. With breakout rooms, I can set the duration for such a room, and the remaining time is always displayed to the participants.
The (virtual) background
I do not have a shiny office to work from, simply because before COVID, I was at the customer's office. No need for your own office. One of the first things I did was purchasing a green screen. To be honest, I was too late. I had to wait a couple of weeks for it to arrive. I chose the Elgato Green Screen. It is like a roll-up, it can be set up and put back in no time. One thing I can tell you is remembering to unfold the mainstay! Very important! I'm happy with that choice.
The green screen enables me to put some picture as background. A nice side effect is that it allows my partner to walk behind the green screen without being in the picture. A green screen is one piece to the puzzle. Another is software that supports a green screen and a virtual background. Zoom does and was surprisingly good even without a green screen. I use OBS Virtual Camera together with OBS Studio. It did a fantastic job across all video conferencing software solutions and added the virtual background feature to solutions that still don't support it. I must say I used that plugin for OBS because just recently, OBS integrated it as part of OBS in OBS Studio 26.1.
OBS Studio is another building block for my setup. Sometimes conferences ask to record a talk in case of networking or other issues to be still able to provide participants with a good video afterwards. This is when OBS Studio does a great job aside from being my virtual camera.
The next item is the screen or screens. I do all my talks and training classes with my MacBook. It runs a local instance of Compiler Explorer and C++ Insights, which at in-person events ensures that I'm independent of network connectivity. However, in a live virtual class, this is less important. But I have a dedicated presenter account on the MacBook with all the adjustments needed for a good presentation. So I have the screen of the MacBook, along with two additional external screens. I use the MacBook screen as a presenter screen where I can see my notes and timing information. Usually, this screen is in the middle. I then have a 27" LG 27UD88-W and another older 21" model. This allows me to have my slides or for live parts Compiler Explorer and C++ Insights on the left screen. This is the audience screen, and the participant list, chat, and video are on the right.
Turn on the lights
Lights and lighting is a topic on its own. At this point, I like to thank all the hard-working tech people who do set up the lights, camera, and audio at in-person events. This is something I'm not enjoying, and I'm looking forward to a time where professionals take over that part.
Light is obviously important. A video where I'm in the dark does not help much. For lighting, I use Elgato Key Light. It creates a great light and is controllable via network. This allows me to adjust the light during the course of the day to the current daylight. And come on, a wireless controllable light is just awesome. However, I realized that I now own a lot of gaming products because the Key Light as well as the Green Screen are made for gamers. Anyway, aside from making great lighting the Key Light comes with an extendable mounting, which makes placing it easy.
Another piece to the puzzle is a webcam. Here I use a Logitech C920 HD PRO Webcam. Since COVID started, the price for that camera has roughly doubled. I was late with this purchase again. In the beginning, I tried various approaches in mounting the camera. At the top of my MacBook, put it just on the desk or putting it on a pile of books. Nothing was like I wanted, so I purchased a Webcam Stand. This one is quite robust and flexible at the same time.
I can't hear you
All the pieces are mostly together, and all are important, but the sound may be the most important one. Listening for several hours to a person requires good audio on my side. I decided from the beginning that I like to walk around as I do in in-person events. The microphone I use is the RODE RødeLink Filmmaker Kit. The reason why I pick that is that it runs with 2 AA batteries or via USB. I always power the receiver with USB and use batteries only for the sender. That way, I can reduce the chances that my batteries die in the middle of an event. Batteries are key here. I use rechargeable to reduce my environmental footprint. With that microphone, I use a speaker headset. The experience is the same as when I'm on a real stage.
I searched a long time for an earpiece. In the beginning, I used the same Bluetooth earpiece that I use for sports. However, the battery run-time was not sufficient enough for an eight hours training class, and the audio quality was also not satisfying when I used it for a whole day. I purchased the Anker Soundcore Liberty 2 because it has, with 5 hours, a long battery run-time and a good sound quality. The case allows quick charging, and so far, it did not let me down.
Aside from all the technical stuff, there is the posture. What follows is my personal opinion. We are used to sit during meetings. I think mainly because of they only last one or two hours. In a class or conference set up attendees do sometimes sit for a much longer time, but the speaker usually stays. This makes a great difference. The posture of one that stays is different to one that sits. While staying walking around is possible. A small step to the left and then back to the right help that attendees stay focused because there is some movement. For me, my voice goes down quite fast when I have to speak a lot while sitting, which is another reason for me to prefer staying over sitting.
Other software (all Mac)
I make all my slides with LaTeX, which generates a PDF. I use my own app on Mac Projektor to present it. Over the years, I added the features I needed for in-person classes, like freezing a slide while searching for another slide or preparing the answer to a question while the students do an exercise described on the frozen slide.
Almost equally essential for me is another app I build Mirror Display Control. This app ensures that my display is never mirrored. I very much dislike it to share my private screen, which may have confidential information on it. I use a dedicated presenter account while giving talks or training classes. But even there, I sometimes have a WLAN password from the company where I'm giving the class or some credentials for some of these streaming platforms. As a bonus, this app automatically sets a background image of my choice for every new external screen it sees.
Another app I really appreciate is ControlPlane. It brings context and location awareness to my Mac. One example is that ControlPlane automatically turns off the MacBook's WLAN if an additional display is attached. This and other actions help me automatically setup the presenter environment.
Before the live virtual classes and talks, my presenter account was more or less 100% offline. That's why I have my own local Compiler Explorer and C++ Insights instances. However, in a virtual setup being offline is not an option. That's why I will now create another presenter account with the purpose of being for virtual classes and talks.
- Elgato Green Screen
- OBS Studio
- LG 27UD88-W
- Elgato Key Light
- Logitech C920 HD PRO Webcam
- RODE RødeLink Filmmaker Kit
- Anker Soundcore Liberty 2
- Mirror Display Control
- Stay up!
I hope that information helps you with your own setup. Please note that all the product links are affiliate links.