EYE CONTACT DEVICE
Look more trustworthy while videoconferencing. By Don McLane
Services like Skype let you videoconference for free,
but it never feels like a natural conversation. You see
the other person staring down at the screen rather
than looking at you. We humans are wired to look
each other in the eye, and when someone doesn’t,
we naturally wonder if they’re hiding something.
Here’s a setup that I use to make videoconferencing
feel more like real face-to-face communication.
The Teleprompter Principle
My device is simply a box, open at each end, with a
piece of glass splitting it diagonally and a hole in the
top for a camera. It follows the same principle that
teleprompters use to display text.
Size the box to just fit around your computer
screen, and make it as deep as the screen is high.
I used 3" particleboard shelving material, dowel
pegs, and glue. Center a hole in the top that’s large
enough to give your webcam an unobstructed view
of the mirror, and coat the interior with flat black
paint to eliminate reflections.
The reflective pane should match the width of
your screen, and be √ 2 (about 1. 4) times as tall. To
hold it, I cut diagonal slots with a table saw about
¼" deep into the sides of the box, on the inside.
I also drilled holes and ran a dowel along the bottom,
to keep the mirror from sliding out. To cushion it,
I tucked a strip of pipe insulation underneath.
For the camera, USB webcams are best for family
conferencing, since their wide-angle lenses will
include everyone. For conferences between individuals, a camcorder lets you zoom in; WebCamDV
software will route the camera’s Fire Wire output to
your videoconferencing application.
Photography by Don McLane
You can point the camera straight down, but I now
use an SLR camera spy lens (right angle adapter)
to fold the optical path like a periscope. This has the
additional advantage of righting the image.
With your computer screen in back of the box and
your camera on top, you’re ready to go. Your friends
will see you looking directly into their eyes. Yes, it’s
clunky, but no more so than those CRTs that we
used not so long ago.
Computer the one you videoconference from
USB webcam, or Fire Wire camcorder and WebCamDV
software This $20 utility from Orange Ware
( orangeware.com) turns a DV camcorder into
Headset or echo-cancelling speaker/microphone
Audio will be a problem without one of these.
Box-making materials to make a box that’s sized
to fit your computer screen (see tutorial at left)
Dowel This runs across the bottom of the box to
hold the mirror in, and you may need additional
length to cut into pegs for joining the box.
Videoconferencing software such as Skype,
NetMeeting, Gmail, or Ekiga. I use AccessGrid,
which is open source ware for group conferences.
Semi-reflective pane sized to fit in your box
diagonally For best results, use half-silvered glass
or plexiglass (see telepromptermirrors.com), but
a regular clear pane will also work, for one-tenth
Flat black paint
Lazy Susan (optional) nice for changing position
Spy lens for SLRs (optional) if using a camcorder
Drill and drill bits
Hole saw big enough for your camera to see through
the hole without obscuring its view
Don McLane develops lab experiences at the University of
Washington Tacoma that are (hopefully) educational and
(hopefully) not life-threatening. He has a bachelor’s degree
in physics and a master’s in electrical engineering.