Meeting Owl brings new wisdom to conferencing

A conferencing camera promises more efficient meetings

The dirty secret of the technology industry reveals itself every time a remote meeting is set up. Audio is scratchy, dial-in details don’t work, you need to install software and allow pop-ups, people talk over each other or forget they put themselves on mute so they can’t be heard, video can be poor and prone to dropping or stuttering… the list goes on (and on and on). High-end video rooms are great but catastrophically and stratospherically pricey. Fixing all this is taking a long time but one interesting attempt to improve affairs is from a Massachusetts startup called Owl Labs that offers a videoconferencing camera rig called the Meeting Owl.

I met the company in London to see a demo recently and mark UK availability of the system. Owl isn’t trying to provide a revolutionary response to all of the above problems, but its camera/audio hardware is innovative and attractive.

Chief technology officer Mark Schnittman is one of the dozens of alumni of iRobot, the hugely influential robotics company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner, and it shows. Schnittman told me he spent eight years at iRobot and that background is evidenced in the combination of high-technology with consumer-friendly packaging and usability. The hardware designers have undoubtedly made a solidly built (and rather adorably cute, I admit) device that fairly closely resembles the shape and 360-degree rotational head movements of that wisest of hunting birds.

Note again that this is not an attempt to reinvent everything in the meeting experience. The Meeting Owl works in tandem with Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom or any web-based meeting system and its makers have focused on the video and audio hardware and setup elements. My impression was of bright, clear audio that’s driven by eight omnidirectional microphones and a speaker located at the base of the Meeting Owl. The Owl’s head swivels to the active participant who is speaking, and the system does a good job of handling the familiar hassle of more than one person speaking at once.

There are also some nice grace notes that show how deeply Owl Labs has considered the meeting setup process; there’s a simple USB connection with no software required and automatic product updates.

As is often the case, the product was born out of need and bitter experience as Schnittman and co-founder CEO Max Makeev (also an ex-iRobot engineer) had experienced the challenges of working remotely with companies spanning US offices.

“Google Hangouts as a remote employee is fantastic for one-to-one meetings and for a group setting it was not fantastic at all,” Schnittman says. “After I started using videoconferencing I realized I never wanted to do an audio call ever again. But remote working worked and remote meetings didn’t.” One particular session in 2014 that involved him using a MacBook on a rotating stool for a meeting was an “aha moment”.

Schnittman says the all-seeing Meeting Owl’s ability to show all participants through its custom-designed, panoramic, fish-eye lens and split-screen front-end “forces people to pay attention and stay engaged”. Owl says that the setup is good for participants sitting up to 12 feet away.

He can’t recall when the owl metaphor came up but he says that the way the device turns its ahead and that old association with wisdom made it feel right.

According to research commissioned by Owl Labs, about 80 per cent of users are unhappy with their current remote meetings that Schnittman says veer between the experience of a “fly-on-the-wall documentary or witness protection program”. The Meeting Owl, he argues, makes participants “feel like they’re part of the room”.

Of course there have been attempts (Microsoft RoundTable for one) to do a similar job but the price point hasn’t been pretty and this is an area where regular interventions by IT have been common.

Owl Labs is another bright light in the area of technology where smart young people are trying to fix old problems. You might want to bracket it with companies like Nest Labs (now part of Google) or Ring (now part of Amazon) but focused on businesses. With backers including industry luminaries such as Andy Rubin interest is already high, and the company has shifted over 3,000 units so far. If it can maintain early momentum then there should be plenty of frustrated businesses willing to spend £800 per unit – and plenty of acquisitive giants sniffing around.

 

Also read:

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Rant: The agony of conference calls