Meeting Owl review: Putting remote workers in the video conferencing picture

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • 360-degree camera, microphone array and speaker
  • Smartphone-class processor
  • Intelligent speaker highlighting
  • Easy setup and straightforward operation
  • iOS and Android mobile apps
  • Firmware updates and meeting analytics over wi-fi connection

Cons

  • Meeting analytics feature not yet available via Android app
  • Moderate 720p video resolution
  • Wi-fi connection may prove difficult in some workplaces

Owl Labs is an IoT-focused startup backed by Playground, the VC fund and design studio headed up by Android co-founder Andy Rubin. Owl Labs' first product, now available in the UK after launching in the US and expanding into Canada last year, is the Meeting Owl, a 360-degree camera, microphone array, and speaker combo that's designed to improve the videoconferencing experience for remote workers. It does this by offering a panoramic view of the remote location and using clever robotics firmware to dynamically highlight different participants as they talk.

According to Owl Labs' research, 52 percent of employees work remotely at least once a week, with sales/business development, product engineering, marketing, and IT/operations departments leading the way. Small companies are twice as likely to hire full-time remote employees, and companies that support remote work have 25 percent lower employee turnover than those that don't. Although remote working undoubtedly improves work/life balance, there are drawbacks -- chiefly staying 'in the loop' with office-based developments. Brainstorming sessions are the most challenging to follow when attended remotely, according to Owl Labs.

A separate UK-based study found that 82 percent of employees waste up to five hours a week on pointless meetings, 77 percent have a hard time staying engaged when joining an internal work meeting remotely, and 53 percent feel their companies aren't doing enough to meet the needs of modern day and flexible remote working.

It would seem, then, that there's plenty of pent-up demand for a product like Meeting Owl. But how does it perform in practice?

Design

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Meeting Owl is watching you...

Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Meeting Owl is a matte-black smart-speaker-style device standing 273mm tall with a maximum diameter of 111mm. It weighs 1.2kg and tapers slightly towards the single-lens 360-degree camera at the top. The product's distinctive appearance derives from a beak-like extension of the camera surround, which is flanked by a pair of eye-like status lights that pulse on boot-up and glow solid when the device is streaming video. It's a striking design, but Meeting Owl can look just a little bit sinister in a dimly lit room.

There are two connectors in the base, for power via a 12V/3A AC adapter and PC connection via a Micro-USB to USB cable (both supplied in the box). Buttons on opposite sides of the device mute the audio, whereupon red status strip-lights appear near the base and a muted-microphone icon appears on-screen. You also get volume up/down buttons and an 'owl' button that toggles between two onscreen speaker-spotlight modes -- sliding animation or straight cuts.

Setup

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Meeting Owl works with Windows 7 or higher, OS X 10.8 or higher, Linux 2.6.26 or higher, and Chrome OS. We tested it successfully with Windows 10 and OS X 10.10.5, using Google Hangouts and Skype. Other fully supported videoconferencing platforms are Google Meet, Go To Meeting, Skype for Business, and Zoom. Among the 'not recommended' platforms are Adobe Connect, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams, Teamviewer, and WeChat (see Owl Labs' website for more detail on platform support).

To set up Meeting Owl, you first need to download the free Android or iOS app and connect to the device via Bluetooth. From here you can focus and lock the camera on a presenter or on any important area of the room, connect the Meeting Owl to wi-fi to receive automatic feature updates, and get an extended warranty when you register your Owl. You can also set a passcode to restrict access to the Owl's settings.

The wi-fi connection doesn't carry any audio/video information, but does send usage data to Owl Labs -- when a meeting occurs, duration of audio/video streaming, the number of people in each meeting, plus diagnostic data. You can see meeting analytics information for your Meeting Owls in the iOS app or via a browser, but it's not yet available in the Android app.

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With a Meeting Owl in your meeting room, remote participants see a panoramic view at the top of the screen, with up to three speakers dynamically highlighted in the 'stage' area below.

Image: Owl Labs

Features

Meeting Owl is designed for meeting rooms up to 17ft by 13ft by 10ft, holding up to 12 people. For best video performance it's recommended that participants sit within six feet of the 360-degree camera, while audio performance is good for up to 12 feet away.

The video camera is a custom single-lens 16MP unit with a native resolution of 3,456 x 3,456 pixels. That information is processed by the Meeting Owl's firmware -- which runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 platform -- to produce a panoramic view of the meeting room at the top of display and a 'stage' below that intelligently highlights the current speaker and up to two other participants. The resolution of the panorama and stage is 1,280 by 720 pixels (720p) at 30 frames per second (fps).

The Owl has an eight-microphone array to capture 360-degree wideband audio within a 3.6m (12 foot) range with acoustic echo cancellation. The 360-degree speaker outputs at 90dB SPL.

Operation and user experience

Setup is straightforward, although you won't be able to connect the Meeting Owl to wi-fi if you have a WEP or WPA/WPA2 Enterprise Network, or an open network with a multi-page captive portal. Owl Labs' advice under these circumstances is either to persuade your IT department to create a subnetwork for IoT devices, or to update the Owl's software by tethering to your mobile device's personal wi-fi hotspot.

Despite its moderate resolution, we found the Meeting Owl's 720p/30fps video a perfectly acceptable trade-off between image quality and performance, given the clever firmware's capabilities. "What's most important is to have a super wide-angle lens and camera, so that people can see the whole room, with automatic highlighting of people as they speak," Owl Labs co-founder and CTO Mark Schnittman told ZDNet. "It's always nice to go to higher resolutions, and that will happen over time naturally. But the experience of having the perspective of being in the middle of the conversation -- if someone gets up and leaves, you don't have to interrupt to tell the remote user who just left -- we really focused on that."

See also: Working from home: Success tips for telecommuters (free PDF)

Similarly, the lack of customisation options for the onscreen layout didn't bother us -- although some inveterate power-user tweakers may disagree. The panorama view at the top of the display gives context for the remote user, and the highlighting of up to three speakers is impressive to watch in action.

"We optimised it [the robotics firmware] for a conference setting with people sitting -- they might move around, but not often," said Schnittman. "It fuses together the audio and video data to get an understanding of what's going on in the room, and once it has that understanding -- which it usually formulates within five to ten seconds -- it can generally switch direction rapidly. But if people are getting up and walking around, or coming and going, or there's a heated debate, it errs on the side of not giving people whiplash on the other side of the call. Until things settle, it takes its time to reassess the situation."

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Image: Owl Labs

Conclusions

The Meeting Owl is an impressive piece of kit, and although it's not cheap at £799 ($799 in the US), it's certainly a great deal more affordable than the only other 360-degree conferencing camera we're aware of -- Polycom's CX5500 (a descendant of Microsoft's RoundTable), which costs around £5,000 (circa $6,500).

Meeting Owl also provides a more satisfying experience for remote workers than, for example, manipulating a pan-tilt-zoom camera at the other end of a call. And in the meeting room, participants have the freedom to move around and interact more naturally than if they had to remain within a regular camera's field of view.

The meeting analytics function should prove useful for IT managers wanting to monitor the usage of meeting rooms -- so long as people don't move the Owls between rooms too much. Hopefully this data will be available via the Android app as well on iPhones and iPads before too long.

How could the Meeting Owl develop going forward -- adding voice control, for example? We'll leave the last word with Owl Labs' co-founder and CTO: "It's a camera, a microphone, a speaker and a cellphone-class processor, and it has a connection to the network -- there's an awful lot you can do and few things you can't do," said Mark Schnittman.

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