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News & Ideas

Zooming Your Best Self

Headphones sit atop a laptop
Photo by Adobestock

The COVID-19 pandemic has indisputably changed a lot of things, not least the day-to-day lives of American office workers. Many people still find themselves working from kitchen tables or living room couches, which means remote collaboration—with video chat as the main vehicle. And while some may indeed be feeling the dreaded “Zoom fatigue,” the technology may be here to stay: recent reporting suggests that a number of large companies are embracing remote work and plan to downsize their office spaces.

For the composer and engineer Tina Tallon, who also happens to be hard of hearing, video chat is preferable to the telephone—she relies on lip reading because she lost the ability to hear higher-frequency sounds—but the technology has its limitations. “Not everybody thinks about the compression algorithms that are destroying their sound over Zoom,” she says. So while the occasional unstable connection may be unavoidable, Tallon employs some additional technologies to ensure a higher-quality audio signal and improved intelligibility for her students and colleagues. She starts with an external microphone for the best-quality signal. “I do use a high-quality microphone, and I’m privileged to have had the resources to buy one and the training to know how to use it,“ Tallon says. “These are nontrivial things that take a lot of time to learn, and not everyone has that access.” And she always wears headphones: “It prevents the types of compression, noise cancellation, and signal processing that Zoom has to do, which inevitably is going to degrade the quality of the sound.” Not engaging those features allows for the clearest sound quality.

Tallon adds that good-quality audio aids yet another technology that promotes inclusivity: auto-captioning. “There’s less of a chance that the AI involved in auto-captioning is going to misidentify words—that’s another type of intersection here between audio quality and intelligibility.”

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