For years I’ve been searching for a simple, high quality remote presence device for remote team members. No, not a robot! Not even a Double Robotics “iPad on a Segway”. Robots aren’t simple.
At Pivotal Labs, most of our projects reside in one of our offices, and all team members work from there, but sometimes remote team members join the project. Our projects are extremely collaborative, from full time pair programming to daily standups. We want remote team members to be just as engaged and enabled as our in-office team members.
Here’s the best setup I’ve found: an iPad, a rechargeable iPad speaker case, and a mic. We call it “Tiny Atlanta”.
- Reliable audio/video hardware and software.
- Simple, reliable, high quality 1-on-1 conversation experience for both parties.
- Simple, reliable, high quality group conversation experience for all parties (meetings, impromptu discussions, etc).
- Minimal effort when switching between 1-on-1 and group conversations.
- Portable, with minimal hindrances to portability (cable management, extra parts, etc.)
- Use off-the-shelf components.
- All parties are willing to use it consistently.
Why Most Setups Don’t Work
Video isn’t usually the problem: it’s all about the audio. All stock laptops, computers, and tablets I’ve tried fail to work out-of-the-box primarily for these reasons:
- The remote person can’t hear what’s going on because the device’s microphone is low quality.
- The office people can’t hear the remote person because the device’s speakers are too quiet and/or low quality.
Most solutions to the above involve bulky, wire-laden components. Once you start using unattached parts (bluetooth speakers!), adding cables (powered external speakers!), using components that can only be used in one place (big external microphone!), and requiring a bunch of setup changes when transitioning between 1-on-1 and group settings (all of those things!) then it’s game over. People will grow to hate the cumbersome, error-prone remote presence setup and will stop using it.
After much trial and error we’ve found that a specific combination of iPad, rechargeable iPad speaker case, and a specific iPad-compatible microphone does the trick.
- iPad case with built-in rechargeable speaker: iHome iDM71 rechargeable iPad speaker case
- Microphone: iRig MIC Cast. Bonus: it has a built-in headphone port.
- Headset with Mic: Sennheiser PC Series. Optionally developer can use their personal headphones/earbuds.
- Headphone/Headset adapter: Headset Buddy
- Optional: headphone splitter
FaceTime built in to all iPads. Optionally Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.
Why This Setup Works (AKA: How The Goals are Accomplished)
Let’s go through the list of Goals one by one.
Reliable audio/video hardware and software:
- iPad, Facetime, and other components are solid and reliable.
Simple, reliable, high-quality 1-on-1 conversation experience for both parties:
- Local person can plug their headphones into the available headphone port on the iRig mic. Some people don’t even use headphones.
- Remote person can usually hear just fine using the iRig mic. If not, Headset Buddy allows usage of headset.
Simple, reliable, high-quality group conversation experience for all parties (meetings, impromptu discussions, etc):
- Local person turns on the speaker case. Speaker case volume can be set at a level where the remote can be easily heard and understood.
- Remote person can usually hear well with the iRig, and be heard with the speaker case.
Minimal manual intervention when switching between 1-on-1 and groups:
- With the optional headphone splitter, this is a one-button operation: press the power button speaker case for to turn on for groups; press again to turn off for pairing.
Portable, with minimal manual intervention for portability (cable management, etc.):
- Just pick up the unit and go.
Use off-the-shelf components:
- Everything is available on Amazon.
All parties are willing to use it consistently
- I and my in-office counterparts have used this setup for several years. It has beat every other solution we have tried.
Bonus: The Human Factor
Is it all about technology? Not at all. Just look at those smiling faces. No remote presence setup will work without the support of the team. Something very interesting happens with the barriers to communication are removed for remote people: the remote presence device almost becomes the body of the remote person, and the team cares for them. I am constantly humbled by the generosity of the teams at Pivotal Labs, humbled by the care and consideration they have for their remote team members.
When describing the challenges of our remote team members, someone once said to me, “It’s almost as if the remote team members must cope with a disability. They are geographically disabled.” This struck me as profound. While I would never claim to understand what it’s like to live with a disability, I do know the frustration of being remotely mute and sightless, frantically trying to get the attention of others, while my well-intentioned team members ignore me. A simple, easy to use, effective remote presence helps enable the the co-located team members just as much as it enables remote team members.