The COVID-19 pandemic-driven revolution in working practices may still be unfolding, but it's clear that the move towards hybrid work will continue to benefit makers of video-conferencing equipment. In particular, there's likely to be a focus going forward on equipment that services the combination of an office-based meeting space and remote workers calling in from home.
Owl Labs, whose flagship product is the Meeting Owl Pro, a $999 360-degree camera/mic/speaker array, has announced a companion in the shape of the $599 Whiteboard Owl. This dedicated camera enhances the Meeting Owl Pro's functionality by focusing on a physical whiteboard in the meeting room and incorporating it into the video conference as required.
ZDNet caught up with Owl Labs' CEO Frank Weishaupt and co-founder/CTO Mark Schnittman to find out more, starting with how Owl Labs – a private company that has so far raised $22m in two funding rounds – is currently progressing.
"We have over 75,000 customers worldwide now," Weishaupt said. "We sell primarily in North America, Japan, the UK and Europe, but our product has made it to all seven continents and 158 countries."
Meeting Owl Pro launched in November 2019, and since then the company has added functionality such as Presenter Enhance (track a presenter as they speak and move around the room), Owl Connect (pair two Meeting Owl Pros to extend video and audio reach), and Digital Whiteboard (use an iPad screen as a whiteboard). September this year saw the launch of Meeting HQ, a $1,799 control screen/dock into which the Meeting Owl slots, turning the combination into a self-contained room system that's integrated with the company's calendar and room-booking system.
"We had explosive growth through the pandemic as, at first, we helped to keep essential businesses and schools online," Weishaupt told ZDNet. "But there are 90 million conference rooms and huddle spaces worldwide, and less than 10% of them are wired for video, so we have a long way to go. Our vision has always been essentially the same, which is to make meetings more inclusive for the remote participant, and that strikes a chord even more now than when we launched the Meeting Owl Pro back in Q4 2019.
"The Whiteboard Owl is the latest piece that we're bringing to the market. The whiteboard is a difficult object to focus in on with some of the standard cameras that are out there, and this [Whiteboard Owl] makes for quick and easy brainstorming; you're able to bring the whiteboard into the meeting without friction."
The Whiteboard Owl is a compact wi-fi-connected device that pairs with the Meeting Owl Pro, allowing it to be seamlessly incorporated into a meeting as required. The Whiteboard Owl will also continue to get smarter over time, Weishaupt noted, as the evolving software is delivered via over-the-air updates (for which you'll pay a $10 a month subscription on top of the $599 purchase price). Key differentiators for the Whiteboard Owl are its simple installation, integration with Meeting Owl Pro, and wider coverage compared to other similar solutions.
"Most of them are fixed atop the whiteboard, so whatever they view is the maximum area they can cover," Weishaupt noted. "Because ours is opposite the whiteboard, it can frame a much bigger area."
The Whiteboard Owl can be mounted on a wall, ceiling or tripod between 7 and 16 feet (2.1 - 4.9m) from the whiteboard. At the maximum 16ft (4.9m) distance, the camera -- which has a resolution of 4208 by 3120 pixels and a 68-degree horizontal field of view -- can cover a whiteboard measuring up to 20ft by 15ft (6.1 x 4.6m).
To activate the Whiteboard Owl, you place magnetic tags in opposite corners of the whiteboard and flip one over to make the whiteboard the focus of the meeting (while retaining the 360-degree view of the room provided by the Meeting Owl Pro). You can also engage whiteboard mode via the mobile (iOS or Android) app, or the dashboard view on an iPad. The Whiteboard Owl is compatible with video-conferencing systems including Zoom, Google Hangouts, Slack, BlueJeans, GoToMeeting and Microsoft Teams.
With the Whiteboard Owl activated, the camera AI makes the presenter semi-transparent when he or she steps in front of the whiteboard, so that remote participants can see the content as it is created. There's only one transparency mode right now, but CTO Mark Schnittman pointed out that the software could potentially be tweaked in future if there was sufficient customer demand. The camera AI also sharpens up the whiteboard content as it is drawn, with visible but not productivity-threatening latency.
"We will continue to work on the software to make it faster," Schnittman said, "but so far in our user testing we're finding that it's able to do the enhancement fast enough that people can follow along and participate more."
A key feature that differentiates the Whiteboard Owl is the ability to download high-resolution images of the whiteboard content that is created during the meeting via a portal and a meeting-specific passphrase. Over time, this content portal will become "a very big part of the overall product experience," Weishaupt said.
The Whiteboard Owl will cost $599, plus a $10 a month subscription for software updates, and is available in the US from 26 October. Other markets will follow shortly, said Weishaupt, once the relevant certification processes are complete.
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