As I mentioned last time at 451 Research part of S&P Global Market Intelligence we are doing what we can to help track the impact on the world and as a reminder we have this free resource should you need it. It also seems that now everyone is working from home we have a lot more video conferences both from clients, companies we cover and internally. Zoom, Teams et al. throw ourselves and our office backgrounds into view. Different people and different contexts have varied thresholds of expectations for privacy and for showing off too. One tool in the arsenal, now available to almost all, is an element of Augmented Reality, the image filter.


I am very happy with my office backdrop, I have had it for a while, with the odd rearrangement. It has books, including my own Reconfigure and Cont3xt. Martial arts references, Predator figures (I am @epredator on most social and gaming systems), Apollo 11 memorabilia, a stack of old phones, game controllers, previous VR headsets, some board games and a bunch of collectable (empty) Jack Daniel’s bottles. I have to say these have always been in my office as all these, along with other gadgets not in the backdrop, inspire me. On the odd occasion, pre-lockdown, we switched to video it was always a moment of conversation and helped people remember the conversations “in” my office in much the same way we do in virtual worlds. I did have to do one client video where I was asked to make sure I had an interesting background, but they decided it was too interesting and I had to rebuild a set to create a book only backdrop (still some way out there books and lots of sci-fi though). Now I notice that many more people are discovering some of the fun that can be had with video. Lots of the tools offer both backdrop blurring and also backdrop image replacement. Teams recently a few more interesting backdrops this month, previously only having blur. It is quite a complex thing for a webcam to spot the person and not the background so you get a lot of varying effects, but people are adjusting to the concept quite quickly. It is not regarded as unprofessional to silly to change a background. Of course the best was to ensure a backdrop change is done well is with chromakeying, putting a green screen behind you and letting the software take care of the rest. It’s a common TV and film technique. Putting up a green screen is extra work and certainly a barrier (literally) to entry.

One Cam to rule them all

With each web camera communication application you have to manage where and what the replacement images are in different ways. Teams only currently allows you to pick form a set range, others have different library or importing functions, and some still have none. That is where a virtual camera comes into its own. These are software based cameras that pull a feed from you webcam, do some work and then you select that soft webcam as the feed into your Zoom, Teams, Google Hangout etc. This provides on consistent library of effects and imagery. Easily switching from a “serious” work backdrop to an amusing one depending on who you are talking too. One such soft webcam comes from Snapchat. Building on its success on mobiles it has brought its camera lens manipulation to Mac and PC. It seems to do a great job on background swapping, in part because it is doing a lot more work to understand the face of the person looking into the camera. Here is where another, or indeed the main, feature of things like snapcam come into their own in video conferencing.

 Let’s face it – this works

Snapcam is using image recognition on a moving video image to work out the geometry, in 3D of the face it is seeing. Knowing that it is then able to apply extra imagery to that face. As it is in 3D it is able to wrap images and objects to the face and move with it. This is not just a gloating image stamp. It can also alter the base image warping and twisting it. All that can then be fed into any live web chat. Snapchat is full of weird and wonderful lenses, companies are creating them, such as Universal, to help turn people into characters from its Trolls on Tour animated movie. Make up companies can provide looks and samples that are almost as accurate as looking in a real mirror. The level of branding and giving things to be played with or used and shared is increasing as enterprises wake up to the virtual, especially now.

Build your own

Snapchat also provides a free (but warning it is suitably complicated) Lens Studio that lets anyone build and publish their own lenses. Facebook has its own too with Spark AR. I created, using existing content, a set of virtual glasses with our company logo translucent on them, just as an experiment to be used on a working from home team coffee get together we have regularly. All the AR tools are full 3D authoring engines with chained physics, animation controllers, triggers, marker detection and so on. Like much digital content, the tools are very easy to get hold of, relatively easy to use if you have a bit of experience, but they require clever ideas and also, in the case of 3D, significant talent to be able to build content. Libraries of 3d content in various forms exist but it’s tricky for those not from a game development background, or a 3d design one, to get to grips with the terminology and the requirements. Natural 3d movement, even a little dangle of a chained earing, is tricky. That said, lots of people, lots of time on their hands and lots of potential to break the monotony and even depression of fellow workers on calls with just a little tweak to a camera here and there. That is why when we were having a coffee time teams video call and the subject of driving around came up, I replaced me with a traffic light avatar. My lovely office backdrop remained intact. Obviously I wouldn’t do that in a “serious” meeting.

Wrap it up (digitally)

Avatars and backdrops should be considered in the same way clothing and office decoration are. They can be effective, provide memorable moments in time for people looking at the same screen in the same home office day in day out. Of course… they used to sit in a remote office day in day out so maybe the thing that will change is the general attitude to digital expression. Great tools, a chance for creativity and art, all of which can be shared with people across the world at the click of a button. Go and play!