As the COVID 19 crisis moved billions of people online, both for work and socialising, most of us were extremely grateful to live at a time where video conferencing allowed us to meet our colleagues, students, family and friends, cheaply and easily. Within a couple of weeks, however, people were noticing that too many video calls in a day was extremely tiring and the term ‘Zoom fatigue’ was born.
In UCD School of Computer Science, QxLab researches user experience of video and audio technology in order to better understand and improve user satisfaction. CS PhD Student, Phoebe Sun, and QxLab PI Andrew Hines use Quality of Experience (QoE) to build models that can interpret the listener’s environment and adapt to their audio needs in real time. Their award-winning software ViSQOL was developed with funding from SFI, Enterprise Ireland and Google. It is used in production for YouTube and Google Meet and the production ready code has been released as a Google maintained project. ViSQOL can be used for measuring the quality of speech, music and audio and even spatial audio.
Drawing on their research expertise and knowledge of how we hear and process sound through technology, Andrew and Phoebe have written a guide for best practise during video calls. Simple tweaks to your environment and on screen behaviour will make a big difference to your friends and colleagues’ video call experience.
Zoom fatigue: how to make video calls less tiring
Many new phrases have entered our vocabulary as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. “Zoom fatigue” refers to the mental exhaustion associated with online video conferencing.
We can change how we interact on video calls with adapted social behaviours such as scheduling shorter meetings. But theories from audio and sound research tell us that a lot of what determines how fatigued you become is based on what you are listening to.
The voices transmitted through the internet in real time are unedited and therefore crude to our ears. That is why we can wile away an hour listening to a podcast interview but feel drained after a video meeting – even if we didn’t have to contribute.
The good news is each one of us can contribute to reducing Zoom fatigue. You can change some simple things to improve everyone’s video meeting experience.
Unnatural, unexpected and annoying sounds invoke a response in our brains and force us to concentrate on them. In a conference call or video meeting, your voice is transformed by the microphone. High pitch frequencies will be amplified, resulting in a squeaky, “Mickey Mouse” effect.
Subtle sounds such as key tapping and swallowing sounds will be captured and amplified through the system. Squeaky chairs, eating crunchy snacks and slurping coffee can sound to the listeners as if you are chewing in their ears.
If you want to limit the negative effect your voice might be having on other callers, the problem is you don’t know what it actually sounds like on their devices. Face to face we can hear ourselves in the same environment as our audience hears us and we adjust accordingly but that’s not possible online.
Step into your listener’s shoes: record a meeting on your own and listen back to understand how others hear you. Something as simple as adjusting the position, distance, or direction of your microphone could make a big difference. Switching from a laptop’s built-in microphone to a headphone microphone can mask a lot of environmental noises such as keyboard clicking or room echo.
Your new social space
While the content and topics of our video conversations may remain the same, we are constrained by the technology. Listening to group chats can be exhausting because we have lost the ways we use “back-channel” sounds to give turn-taking feedback.
This nuanced “meta-communication” involves using verbal and non-verbal sounds, such as “yeah” or “uh-huh”, that show attention, understanding, or agreement, distracts and interrupts the flow in a group conversation. Network delays can confuse things even more when the talker’s speech and the back-channel response arrives out of synch or with long delays and can completely stall the conversation flow.
Network problems can also impact speech clarity. Data loss in the audio feed can cause unnatural sounding voices and missing sounds. Our brain needs to do extra work to fill in the gaps. We use energy concentrating on unnatural voice changes that divert our concentration from understanding the message.
We must acknowledge the technical limits of video chats and adapt by cultivating new conversation etiquettes. Mute your microphones after saying hello and using text chat to interject or raise questions in group conversations. Articulate your own speech clearly (don’t mumble) and turn on closed captions to aid your comprehension. And make sure someone else in the house is not consuming all the bandwidth for Netflix while you are having a video conference.
Arrange your space
Conversations in a household environment bring background noises as well as echoes and reverberation due to room acoustics. Typical background conversations in open-plan offices can easily be filtered out subconsciously by our brain due to its ability to separate sounds by their location or direction.
These spatial cues allow us to focus on a single speaker in a crowded room. This is one reason why side-conversations held in parallel to the main discussion do not work on a video conference. Without the aid of directional information background noises and speech become a lot more intrusive. Rooms at home can produce reverberations that can reduce your ability to understand speech.
To make your home video environment more accommodating, close the door to at least keep pets out, even if it cannot stop kids interrupting. You may not want to convert your living room into a recording studio by putting egg cartons all over the wall but you can make the acoustic environment more “voice friendly” by reducing reverberation and echoes with soft furnishings like blankets or pillows instead of plain walls. The bookcase in the background is not just a pretty prop but also a good acoustic baffle.
Just like social distancing, improving the quality of your video call experience relies on a community effort. As many of us won’t be going back into the office for a long time, we must all work to reduce Zoom fatigue and make calls less of a strain for everyone.