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[Science] When You Feel Like Throwing Your Business Phone At The Wall, Blame Physics Instead


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The next time you’re in a teleconference with half a dozen others, wondering why one of them sounds underwater and another keeps breaking up, the culprits are likely time, distance and the speed of light.


Don’t worry: This is not going to be a mind-numbing primer on physics. But it is important to understand that while teleconferencing and videoconferencing perfection may never happen, quality will continue to improve.


“We know through Moore’s Law that computing power will improve and compression algorithms will get better, but the laws of physics are immutable,” said Ken Perlin, professor of computer science at New York University and the director of NYU’s Future Reality Lab. The good news is that the frustrating elements of teleconferencing and videoconferencing will become less noticeable.”


And the character of the call will become more realistic.


No Office Screaming


Teleconference calls are plagued by a host of troubles, including low volume, audio delays, line noise and feedback, static, strange echoes of your own voice, and the uncomfortable feeling that one of the speakers is stuck in a mineshaft.


Because people are used to face-to-face conversations, in which nuances can be gleaned from facial expressions, phone interactions can be strained when the audio is less than ideal. When an important client keeps saying over and over, “You’re breaking up” or “Can you repeat that?” a sense of dread can overtake the speaker. The flow of the conversation is continually interrupted. The tendency is to blame yourself for the faulty technology.


But some things can be done today to limit at least some of these drawbacks. One is recognizing that speakerphones and teleconferencing don’t always work well together, in some instances hollowing out voices and creating echoes. Before the call begins, consider requesting that participants use handsets. Headphones can also help reduce echoes — the less distance between phone and ear, the better.


If a speakerphone must be used, as in the case of multiple people in the same office on the call, minimize the volume. This can help reduce echoing. Ask that everyone sit the same distance away from the speakerphone, so as to maintain the same volume. If that isn’t possible, those sitting furthest from the phone should speak up.


Another idea is to reduce ambient noise by requesting all participants to find a quiet place or at least mute the phone when not speaking. Muting is one of the best ways to minimize echoing. It also eliminates the unpleasant sound of someone breathing heavily into the receiver.


Participants should call out problems as quickly as possible. If there is a glitch, bring it up. Identify what might be causing the trouble and try to correct it.


It also makes sense for company managers to regularly assess the transmission quality and availability promised by the service provider. Providers that rely on private, fiber-based networks are better able to maximize service availability. Some providers, such as Cox Business, also offer assurance plans that make technicians available to quickly repair internal wiring issues.


Getting Better


Perlin recalled an experiment he conducted a few years back when he was privy to new teleconferencing technology that had yet to be marketed. The conversation felt so natural he might have thought it was occurring in real time. But not so.


“Because I’m a nerd, I did this experiment where I spoke the odd numbers from one to 10, and the other party spoke the even numbers right after—so it sounded like we were counting,” said Perlin. “I then timed us. The math indicated a less-than-half-second pause after each one of us spoke.”


The gap was imperceptible to Perlin. Yet it was still there. The reason? Time and the speed of light.


“It takes a certain amount of time to move a signal from New York to California,” he explained. “Through careful design and engineering, you can trim the delay between voices and video images to make them appear real-time. But [if you’re in the United States] you will never have a zero-lag conversation with someone in Beijing.”


New technologies may make things better. But perfection will remain elusive.


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