Solo Hybrid

It’s now more than three years since I received the first government text message informing me that I should not leave the house, and so started a period of massive change in the way I deliver my work. There followed an incredibly steep learning curve, the first few months of which were bolstered by the willingness of audiences to simultaneously forgive mistakes and tolerate, as one participant memorably phrased it, “a high degree of frustration.” Through rehearsal and repetition I was able to improve my technical control of a new medium by blending the skillsets I have developed during the last twenty five years with the formal training received from drama school in the 1990’s, and this allowed me to bring a higher degree of theatricality and interactivity to my online training sessions.

The impact of the pandemic on our daily lives may have mostly receded with the majority of our working lives returning to something similar to how they once were, but remote working is here to stay as the advantages of economics, workplace flexibility, global collaboration and accessibility make it far too compelling to give up. The opposing argument that face-to-face is the only way to get proper work done, if true, might suggest that we should always consider a bard to be better than their book, that theatre always trumps film, and recorded music could never be as good as a concert. But writing did become an art form, editing can tell a story and many a mediocre artist has been made a star through the manipulation made possible by technology. Fundamentally most work relies on or is enabled by communication through connection and it always has, but over time the method of transmission has evolved and today it’s not just politicians and artists that have to arc their meaning and impact across distance; it’s us too – but transmission alone is not enough. Reception matters too.

For many of us, whether we like it or not, the workplace is now also a workspace and we can choose the most appropriate, effective and accessible manner in which we connect to it. As always we have technology to help us, but we also need to ‘swipe right’ and choose to engage with new behaviours and mindsets or risk becoming luddites through active refusal or passive indifference. By way of example, picture this scene at work: a training session is booked about some new office protocol that must be delivered by the end of the financial year, but one employee is ill, another is on maternity leave and three more have been temporarily seconded to other offices. In the past the solution would have been expensive and involved cancellation, travel and rescheduling, but now there is a new way. We can put a laptop in the room and include in the session a Zoom call to which the five offsite employees are connected. What happens during the session? It runs as it always has, but with uncertainty about how to include the new element – or elephant – in the room, the conversation flows over and around the laptop while the remote employees strain to hear muffled voices and enjoy an oddly angled view of someone’s face and the ceiling. Shared slides advance without any discernible reason, and any comments and questions they have remain ignored in the chat box because no one is responsible for managing the connection between the technology and room. Their status in the meeting as second class citizens is confirmed, and this is the world of Hybrid meetings.

The online and face-to-face environments, although very different, are whole and self-contained, which means operating effectively in them is a case of using one hand to either pat your head or rub circles on your tummy. Running a solo hybrid session is using both hands to do both at the same time, but what has become the norm is that just like in the scenario described above, one takes precedence over and dominates the other, and it’s actually just a face to face meeting with an added online afterthought, which – no matter how well intentioned – just won’t do. We know from some of the television shows broadcast during the Covid Pandemic that creating a reasonably effective Hybrid environment is possible, but it is a technical and labour intensive endeavour that comes with a hefty  price tag. Obviously having a support team to provide and operate the cameras, microphones and software needed is ideal, but for trainers who deliver their work alone and under tight budgets, being able to offer an effective hybrid workshop without any assistance is a nut that I think is worth cracking, and in the rest of this post I share what I have learned so far about what equipment you might need and how to set it up.

The first section below describes the equipment that I use to run a solo hybrid training session, and the second section looks at the particular way you need to set up your laptop in order to trick Zoom so that it works for you and supports your workshop. Throughout I will use the convention of labelling participants in the room as roomies and those connecting remotely as zoomies.

The image above shows a typical training room equipped with the standard equipment of screen, data projector, speakers and tables set out for participants.

A. I set up my laptop on the lectern or control desk as normal by connecting it to the projector and make sure that I’m using the projector as a second screen, and not mirroring my laptop screen. Once I have launched my Zoom meeting I play my slideshow in windowed mode (as opposed to full screen mode) and share it on the Zoom call. This is really important, as when in full screen mode, all other applications are removed from the screen, leaving only the slides visible.

B. I can then move the various components of Zoom into position on the screen in the room so that my slides are visible to both roomies and zoomies (the slideshow window is edged with a green border signifying that it is being shared on the call).

C. By selecting gallery view for participants on Zoom, I also manoeuvre the camera feed window onto the screen and this allows the roomies to see at least some of the zoomies. As it is a dynamic window, whichever of the zoomies is speaking at any one time will automatically appear at the top of this window.

D. During a presentation I find it hard to keep an eye on my laptop, so I put the Zoom chat window on the screen as well. Experience suggests that zoomies can be reluctant to interrupt vocally, preferring instead to add their thoughts to the chat box, so I keep the chat window occasionally in my peripheral vision as I present, and am more likely to see their questions or comments. It is not uncommon for roomies to notice how difficult this sometimes is for me, and assume the responsibility for letting me know when a new message appears.

E. Notwithstanding the point above, some zoomies will sometimes speak and I will always invite them to contribute to the conversation, so making sure that the laptop is connected to the room speakers means that the audio from the Zoom call can be heard in the room. Any sound from the videos in my slide show will also be audible in the room and, if I’ve remembered to check the audio box when I first shared my slides, on the Zoom call too.

F. In order to feel engaged, zoomies will probably want to see me presenting. Training rooms are typically equipped with ceiling mounted dome cameras, which are designed to give a wide field of vision. This means that zoomies normally experience hybrid calls as something resembling CCTV footage, and so it is important to improve this. I use an AI camera that can be positioned to show the perspective of someone sitting in the audience and focussed so as make me appear in close-up to zoomies as though I were on the Zoom call with them. It tracks me as I move around the room, so I simultaneously retain my freedom of movement while making eye contact with roomies and zoomies at the same time. The tracking feature of these types of camera is reasonably good, but I’ve learned to be a little careful to make my movements more smooth than perhaps is usual so that the camera follows me more reliably.

G. If seeing me as though I’m on the zoom call is important, then hearing me clearly is even more important, and I have noticed that a Zoom audience will forgive poor video sooner than poor audio. Given the landscape of a training room, there is no way to create a good quality of audio on my own other than to wear a tie-clip microphone; the zoomies hear me as though you I’m on the call and not at some distance, and it allows me to keep my hands free. This is a vital component of a good hybrid set-up, as poor audio will alienate zoomies in a matter of a minute or less.

H. For zoomies to hear and see a me as though I were on the call with them goes a long way to bridging the gap in the hybrid world, but roomies are far more likely to interact with me for obvious reasons of geography, and when they do, it can be disengaging for zoomies to see my attention suddenly switch from the workshop narrative to an audience question – unless they can see and hear what’s going on. There are two steps that can help mitigate this, the first of which is to use a second internet-enabled device that includes the whole room on the Zoom call. I position my phone on a small tripod at the front of the room, and use the Zoom app on it to join the call as another participant. Angled correctly, it will show a view of the audience that is visible to zoomies, giving them a sense of who is in the room and what is happening at any particular time. An important note to remember is to join the call without audio on this device so as to prevent any feedback.

I. The second step is to allow zoomies to hear not just me, but the audience member asking a question or making a comment. Of course, I could repeat the question for the benefit of zoomies, but this takes time, is easy to forget and denies the zoomies the richness of another voice on the call, and so equipping each table with a hand held microphone and setting up the convention from the beginning that roomies wishing to contribute should do so using a microphone is something that can be easily accommodated and absorbed into a workshop’s etiquette. 

These steps go a long way to creating as level a playing field as possible for a hybrid session, where zoomies and roomies can see and hear each other, where a presenter is able to be as present as possible to both worlds, and where everyone can contribute equally to the workshop. The technical heart of this system is the laptop, and it needs to be set up in a specific way so that it works correctly and helps you control the two worlds as best you can. Below I have detailed the set up that I currently use.

A. I set up my laptop as normal and have as few apps open on it as possible. In my case I am running Zoom, Keynote (for my visual aids) and Osbot (which controls my AI camera). 

B. The room interface where I plug in the HDMI cable from my laptop. This carries the audio and video signal to the projector and speakers for the room.

C. It is important to keep the Osbot controller open and running. AI cameras usually detect hand gestures which they can interpret as instructions, and I have found that I can inadvertently confuse my camera while presenting so I disable that function and use the controller on my laptop instead. It also detects faces and movement, which is how it tracks me around the room, but it cannot distinguish me from anyone else who may walk into its field of vision, so having the controller open with presets programmed in means I can refocus the camera with one keystroke.

D. Arguably the most important piece of equipment is this small sound mixer. My set up requires a number of different microphones, each set to a particular volume level, but in order to avoid feedback Zoom can accept only one microphone input – so I need to trick it. By plugging all of them into this mixer, I can set optimum levels for each microphone and combine the different outputs into one audio signal which, when connected to my laptop, Zoom recognises as a single microphone.

E. To keep the room free from as many cables and allow for as much movement as possible, this receiver wirelessly accepts the sound from all microphones in the room and then connects them to the sound mixer where they can be individually adjusted for volume and clarity.

What I have detailed in this post is neither the best nor the only way to run a hybrid session, but it is a stable and effective one, and has allowed me to deliver workshops for between forty and fifty people, where about half have been in the room with the rest connecting remotely. They have been well received – as much for their technical architecture as for their content – and I now can convert any of my current workshops to hybrid ones at no extra charge for my clients. It has cost me the time to design and test the system, and an initial investment in technology of less than £800. If you’d like to know more about the equipment I use, please do get in touch.

There will always exist borders between different worlds, and the friction these produce will forever create tension. By attempting to widen as much as possible the bottleneck between the worlds of room and zoom, this design is my attempt to allow hybrid to work as seamlessly as possible.

For someone who has long straddled the divide that can exist between performers and technicians, I find it quite exciting to bring these worlds together, and delivering a hybrid session in the way I describe is perhaps an attempt to be, as Paul Simon might say, both a poet and a one-man band. What’s wrong with that?