Braille Monitor               October 2022

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The Technology around Successful Hybrid Chapter Meetings

by Curtis Chong

Curtis ChongFrom the Editor: If I was asked to identify someone who most exemplifies a Renaissance man, someone who knows a little bit about many things and a great deal about a few of them, Curtis Chong would have to be at the top of my list. If it has a cord on it, he probably knows how to use it and has an opinion about it. The same is true if it is labeled a cordless device. But as impressive as his knowledge is, the more impressive thing about Curtis is that he can communicate what he knows in a way that makes the rest of us feel a little bit smarter and informed. Here is what he has to say about the best way to invite a good hybrid experience into our chapter meetings:

A hybrid meeting is a meeting where members and friends can attend in person or remotely using a platform like Zoom. Not only is the meeting streamed over the internet, but remote meeting participants can raise their hands, speak, and be heard by everyone in the meeting, regardless of whether they are attending in person or remotely.

What technology makes for a good hybrid meeting? First, you cannot hold a hybrid meeting unless you have a reliable Wi-Fi or mobile phone connection to the internet. If you plan to use a laptop computer to host a Zoom meeting instead of an iPhone, a Wi-Fi connection is a must. If, however, you plan to use a smartphone, a strong cellular network connection will serve as a good substitute.

The next thing that needs to be considered is support for audio coming into or out of the meeting through the internet. After all, you need everyone in the meeting to hear the person (or persons) speaking remotely, and the remote participants need to hear anyone who is talking at the in-person location. The internal microphones and speakers on laptops and smartphones simply will not do the job. In my experience, this is because of Zoom’s tendency to suppress background sounds which meeting participants might need to hear, such as someone talking from a distance or music playing in the background.

To build my understanding of how a hybrid chapter meeting might be conducted successfully, I bought two conference phone speakers from Amazon: the Jabra Speak 510+ and the Plantronics Poly Sync 20+; the plus denotes a Bluetooth dongle which, when plugged into your computer, enables a wireless connection between the computer and the speaker. Assuming you have a good wireless connection to the internet or good signal for a phone call, either one of these speakers can connect to a Windows computer, an Apple Macintosh, or your smartphone, and both speakers offer decent audio which a small group can hear quite nicely and a built-in microphone which picks up audio probably up to a distance of twenty feet or so. The electronics in these speakers is smart enough to eliminate the feedback and audio ducking which you often get when you use separate speakers and microphones. Also, having one unit to keep track of instead of a speaker and a separate microphone relieves the Zoom host of having to keep track of yet another device in support of the meeting.

I have tested the Jabra Speak and the Poly Sync in Zoom meetings using both my Windows laptop (with a Bluetooth dongle connection) and my iPhone (using the iPhone’s built-in Bluetooth). Here are my findings so far:

Both the Poly Sync 20+ and the Jabra Speak 510+ have some form of voice guidance built in. I believe that it is easier to hear the verbal prompts generated by the Poly Sync 20+. On the Poly Sync 20+, the voice guidance consistently lets you know when the unit is turned on or off. The Jabra Speak 510+ is not so reliable in this regard.

The Jabra Speak 510+ does not have any physical buttons or controls. The touch controls for this unit are located on a circular ring and are in fixed positions which can be learned with a bit of orientation. A click is heard if you touch one of the controls.

The Poly Sync 20+ uses a touch strip with controls for volume, muting/unmuting, and answering a phone call. Different tones are heard when you touch these controls. The Sync 20+ also has two physical buttons on one side which are used for turning the unit on or off and establishing Bluetooth connections.

Both the Jabra Speak and the Poly Sync have a built-in USB Type-A cable which you can use to connect to a Windows computer. Both devices (note the + in the name) come with a Bluetooth dongle which you can use instead of the USB cable to provide a wireless connection to your computer.

In my humble opinion, the documentation for both products is less than perfect. The manuals can be downloaded as PDF files, but the shapes and meanings of the various touch icons are not spoken through your screen reader.

The two conference phone speakers discussed here are intended for meetings with fewer than twenty participants. Anticipate paying somewhere around $150 for either device unless you are very good or lucky at bargain shopping.

If you are thinking about a hybrid chapter meeting where the room and number of participants is much larger, consider acquiring two Poly Sync 40 units and pairing them together. When you do this, you now have two good speakers and two good microphones, all of which are communicating quite nicely with your computer or smartphone. Place the first unit near the person who chairs the meeting and the second unit at the other end of the room, and you have a winning combination.

I have successfully hybridized one local chapter meeting using the Poly Sync 20+. There were no complaints about the audio. For those of you who use a screen reader such as JAWS or NVDA, you will definitely want to switch your screen reader to another audio device such as an earphone. Fortunately, both screen readers offer this capability on a laptop computer but not so much on a smartphone.

Some final comments should be made regarding Zoom audio settings for hybrid meetings. It is critical to change some of the default audio settings in Zoom. These settings are not available in the Zoom client for the iPhone, but they are available on a Windows or Macintosh computer. Making these changes will help to avoid music not being heard properly (e.g., sounding distorted) or wildly fluctuating volumes when people speak.

If you have any questions about my experience with or thoughts about the Jabra Speak 510+ or the Poly Sync 20+, please reach out to me by email or phone. My email address is [email protected], and I can be reached on the phone at 303-745-0473.

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