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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 14 Issue 9
September 2020
Zoom & Skype Virtual Backgrounds: How to Use Them, Do They Work?

The problem

When you're in an online videoconferencing or telemedicine meeting (using software like Zoom.us or Skype), the other people in your meeting will not only see you, but also anything else within view of your camera, including what's behind you. That's fine if you're in a beautifully or professionally decorated room or office, but for many others that view could be distracting or embarrassing.

If your Windows or Macintosh computer (or mobile device) is fast enough to support it, Zoom and Skype (along with a number of other programs) have features that you can use to hide the view of the area behind you. In real time the software separates the live image from your camera into two parts: you (the foreground) and whatever's behind you (the background). It then keeps the live image of you visible and replaces the background with either a still image or a prerecorded video. Zoom calls this feature Virtual Background, and in Skype it's the Background Effect.

While that sounds easy and convenient, getting this feature to work can be a challenge, and even then you might not like the way it looks.

Where to start

This feature is very popular and evolving, so before you explore it, I recommend that you update your Zoom or Skype software to the latest version.

Most of my experience with this to date has been with Zoom, but I am also including what I know about Skype.

Why would you use a virtual background?

Here are a few reasons why you might use a virtual background:
  • It can keep your private space private.
  • It can minimize distractions.
  • It can be a conversation-starter.
  • In a multi-person meeting, if it displays some text showing your name and other information, that can identify you better and more clearly than a name tag that's too small to read.
  • It can display a simple message or topic to inform your viewers.
  • It can set the mood - professional, fun, peaceful and tranquil, a far-away location, etc.
  • It can make the meeting (and you, your story, your business, etc.) more memorable.
Virtual backgrounds without a physical "green screen": The most convenient, high-tech approach, if it works

The ability to take a live video feed and correctly distinguish you vs. what's behind you not only requires clever software that's built into programs like Zoom and Skype, but also a fast processor. The technical requirements are complicated, so the best way to find out whether virtual backgrounds will work on your device is simply to try to activate that feature in the software. In my experience:
  • Zoom: When you go to Settings->Background & Filters and try to choose a Virtual Background, it will tell you whether that feature is supported on your device with (or without) a green screen.
  • Skype: Go to Settings->Audio & Video and look for the "background effect" option, which lets you either blur your background or choose a replacement image. If you don't see this option, it's not supported on your device.
While testing these options on one computer in particular, Zoom reported that Virtual Backgrounds (without a green screen) were not supported, but on that same computer Skype's background effects worked just fine. This implies that Skype is using smarter software than Zoom that also makes better use of a slower processor.

Virtual backgrounds with a "green screen": The less convenient, lower-tech approach

Since it takes a lot of processing power to distinguish you from what's behind you, changing your real-life physical background to (or hiding it behind) a solid color can make that image-separating job easier for your device.

While television studios often use blue screens for their "chromakey" virtual backgrounds (typically behind a meteorologist explaining the forecast while showing a quick series of dynamic weather maps), for various reasons the color green can be a better choice with modern devices using digital webcams.

Here are some common ways you might put a solid green background behind you in the room, in effect creating your own video studio:
  • Set up a screen containing green material (often muslin) mounted on a frame behind you,
  • Hang solid green material behind you, and
  • Paint your walls a solid green color.
Then you would adjust your videoconferencing software. For example:
Zoom: In Settings->Background & Filters, you would turn on the "I have a green screen" option and then choose a Virtual Background.
Skype: As of this writing, it does not support green screens.

Downsides of virtual backgrounds

If this software feature works on your device, you should look closely at the result. Here are some common flaws that (if present) will be visible both to you and to anyone else in a video meeting with you:
  • You may see a "fast flickering" or "watery" edge between you and the virtual background that will move with you as you talk, change position, or gesture with your hands.
  • Parts of you (and the back of your chair) may flicker, disappear, and reappear, depending on changes in your position.
  • If you're using a green screen, you may also see some odd visual effects, especially if it is unevenly lit from the front, there are bright light sources behind it, or parts of it are wrinkled.
Summary of virtual background features and limitations

In general, Zoom and Skype have somewhat similar support for virtual backgrounds, depending on the speed of your device.

Both Zoom and Skype:
  • Windows or Macintosh: You can choose a still image.
  • iPhone or iPad: Tap "More..." during a meeting and if "Virtual Background" is listed in Zoom ("background effect" in Skype), you'll be able to choose an image but not a video.
  • Android: No support for virtual backgrounds at all.
  • Windows or Macintosh: If your computer is fast enough, you can also choose a video background.
  • The Host of a meeting determines whether the Participants are permitted to use Virtual Backgrounds, and whether videos are permitted as well. These settings can be adjusted in the Host's profile on the Zoom.us website, not in the software.
  • No support for video backgrounds.
Alternate approaches

If a particular program doesn't support virtual backgrounds on your device, there is no way to upgrade your hardware (the CPU chip) to make it faster. Other than trying a green screen, here are some options you might consider:
  • It's possible that some other program may support virtual backgrounds on your device, but hunting for that possibility may lead you nowhere.
  • You could put a room divider or partition behind you.
  • You could adjust your webcam settings (or use "virtual camera" software) to enlarge your camera's view (for example, "zooming in" from 100% to 150% or 200%), which would make you larger and show less of what's behind you, but the only easy (and free) way that I've found to get to those settings is in Skype for Windows via Settings->Audio & Video.
  • You could buy a newer, faster computer or mobile device.

While virtual backgrounds (whether computed on the fly or with the help of a green screen) are clever and impressive examples of what technology can do, unless you have a fast computer (and well-arranged lighting), they can end up being disappointing. If possible, your time and money are probably better spent decluttering and rearranging the area behind you, or moving to a different location.

Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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