Cheap and Cheerful Video Conferencing
Though Idealware is based in Portland, Maine, I work from Portland, Oregon, which means we do a lot of videoconferencing. LIke many orgs, we struggle with the best setup for the technology. Lauren Haynes, IT Manager for the Ounce of Prevention Fund in Chicago, kindly wrote this guest post for us about the “cheap and cheerful” video conferencing setup her organization threw together to make it easier for staff to participate in online conferencing from anywhere in the office.
If you had to guess how much it would cost to build an easy-to-use, relatively open video conferencing system, what would you guess?
What if I told you the whole thing could be built (and loved) for $1,500 - $3,000?
We had a board member that wanted to videoconference in to a meeting. He suggested we purchase an iMac so he could join the meeting via FaceTime. As much as I appreciate board members driving technology usage, we weren’t about to drop $1,300 at a minimum on an iMac for a 21 inch screen.
So we built this instead:
Here’s what you need to build a sweet, fairly cheap video conferencing cart:
- Cart - $450
- A flat screen television (in our case, a 46 inch tv) - $575
- Web Cam - $100 - $200
- An HDMI Cable - $25
- 4 port USB extender - $10
- Wireless Keyboard and Mouse - $60
- Surge Protector - $10
- Ethernet Cable - $10
- Laptop (optional) - $1500
Total Cost: $1,240 - $2,840
Why this rocks:
- Mobility – this will work in any room assuming a power supply and an Ethernet connection are within reach of our cables (WiFi is fine, but you get better audio and video quality generally if you are plugged in). The footprint is a lot smaller for storage and movement than the Polycoms we have in the office.
- Flexibility – the cart can be used as a “projector” or sharing screen even if you aren’t using videoconference, and it’s not tied to any one room or location.
- Maintainability – Each piece can be replaced interchangeably. You can always buy a new, better webcam when the TV still works. No more buying $700 microphone pods from Polycom.
- Open – Skype? Check. Microsoft Lync? Check. Google Hangouts? Check. Facetime? Check (if you plug in a Mac Laptop). Whatever new hipster videoconferencing comes out in three months? Check.
Cables: Make sure your laptop has a port for the HDMI cable, which will enable you to connect the laptop to the TV screen for both video and audio. If it does not, there are various adaptors or other cable types you can use.
Microphones: We tried out a couple of “serious” microphones (lavalier mics, for example) and found the sound quality wasn’t as good as the one built into the $100 USB Webcam, even in some of our larger rooms.
Connections: The Ethernet cable, surge protector, USB extender, and wireless keyboard/mouse are all optional. Our setup has it so you only need to plug two things in to the wall—the surge protector and Ethernet cable. The dedicated computer means we’re not constantly fussing with power cords. The USB extender just makes it a bit easier to get from the web camera to the computer, and allows an open port for the wireless keyboard/mouse if you do have other things plugged in. A few cable ties and everything is kept neatly!
Software: We set up dedicated accounts for the cart for Google, Lync, and Skype, and posted a sign on the cart with login instructions about how to log into the laptop, and login credentials.
Hardware: You don’t NEED to buy a new laptop for this. If people in the office have laptops, they can just plug their own into the cart and go.
The cart: Get something with a shelf that will hold a laptop. We use Safco Products “Impromptu 46-inch TV stand.”
Webcam: There are essentially two options here. The simple version, which provides decent audio but lower-resolution video, and the more complex camera with a remote that allows you to pan/zoom—which is more like the expensive Polycom systems. The simple version, like this Logitech webcam, costs about $100. The more expensive version, like Logitech’s conference camera, is about $200, but allows you to tilt/zoom pan the camera. In our experience, mounting the web camera on top of the TV allows you to get a wide-angle view of a fairly large room so no one is left out.
The TV: As long as your TV is compatible with the cart mounting system, the size of the TV or the type of the TV really doesn’t matter.