Tuesday, November 13, 2018

How not to do it: Videoconferencing Edition

I had the great pleasure of participating in a group study meeting on the use of videoconferencing (aka telepresence) in the justice system this past week.  One of our good friends from Texas sent me the following story from the Houston Chronicle newspaper from this past February.  While the issues presented regarding money bail release are worthy of discussion elsewhere, I must comment on the technical setup shown in the accompanying video.


As you can see in the video accompanying the article, the teleconference system configuration consists of three cameras, one in each location.  The video is transmitted into three display windows on the respective screens in standard definition (in other words not, HD).  This results in a murky and unclear image.

Let’s discuss each location separately.

1. The judge.  This is the best videoconferencing installation of the three.  The audio is good from this location.  And while the camera is zoomed to fill more of the frame of their window, it is still positioned too high so that it is aimed at the forehead of the judge.  This keeps the detained person from being able to make eye contact with the judge.  Without eye contact between the detained and the judge very important queues that establish trust between persons are absent.

2. The Detention Center.  The camera is mounted much too high and is framed to take in the entire person as well as much of the background seating area.  The person shown is much too small to see them clearly.  And again, there is really no way to either establish eye contact or see the facial expressions of the detained person.  The audio is surprisingly good for a room the size that is being used.  But the sound from the movement of persons in an out of the seating area behind the detained person is very distracting and does not favor the judge's ability to “read” them.

3. The attorney.  For the third time, the camera placement is again much too high, and the person is framed so that they appear too small.  One cannot really see the attorney’s face.

So how would I fix this with no restrictions? 

1. This system needs three monitors, each with a camera mounted directly on top so that they can talk with one another face to face with eye contact.  Computer network bandwidth is good today in most municipal locations.  Therefore, the cameras and monitors can be High Definition (HD) or even Ultra-High Definition (UHD) resolution.  This resolution is not expensive today as I bought my last HD USB camera for under $30 US dollars.

The reason for mounting the cameras on the monitors (or even below if at eye level) is that it is natural to speak directly to the person shown on the screen.  This provides the eye contact that I noted was missing above.  Eye contact allows persons to personally connect with one another.  This, in turn, facilitates communication and even trust.

2. Even better. I would ideally like to have two monitors at each location.  The first monitor would be for the judge and remote detainee.  The second monitor would be for the attorney and to display the most important information regarding the matter being heard.  This gives everyone written and visual reinforcement.

3. I would see if it is possible to position the detention center camera and monitor so that the movement of persons being moved in the room would not create sound or distraction.  I don’t see any benefit for the remote judge or attorney to see the spectator detained persons.  Nor does the sound of their movement help.

4.   I didn't see anything that facilitates sharing documents in the video?  Either a screen or a mounted tablet would be useful in the detention center.

5.   And last, I think that a periodic survey of the participants as to their experience with the system and ask for their input.

Unfortunately, this is not the only videoconferencing / telepresence system that is configured in this manner. While it may be easier to install a system in this manner.  It is not helping the judge, prosecutor to accomplish their jobs nor the detainees to communicate. 

Last, we have many persons who use these types of systems each day.  Please feel free to share your comments or, if you have a good example, perhaps share it via website or social media?

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