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Follow-the-Presenter Tools for DIY Instructional Videos

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the hardest part of making do-ityourself educational videos is the “yourself” part. “Yourself” even makes the “do-it” part harder since there are no teammates to help keep you motivated and on schedule. In 2018, I discussed how teaching is a social activity and a live performance. Performing/teaching to a screen and webcam is an unnatural act and a difficult adjustment. While a good academic video production crew should mitigate that problem by eliciting a natural one-on-one teaching performance through playing the role of the students, they also have the rather banal job of keeping the teacher properly framed in the camera while moving around in the space chosen for the lesson.

Until fairly recently, if a teacher wanted to produce a DIY instructional video untethered to a fixed point in front of a camera, they’d need to remotely control either a pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) head or a multicamera switcher. With the arrival of competent and inexpensive facial recognition software, several consumer videoconferencing cameras now offer automatic framing to allow teachers or other presenters to move around a scene to better engage with viewers and interact with props and visual aids.

Last summer, I reviewed the Owl 3, a camera typically used to capture multiple meeting participants at one site, but that also offers a follow-the presenter mode for following the primary speaker around the room. One camera that is fairly similar to this use of the Owl 3 is the HuddleCamHD Pro. It is available for around $300 in two models: one offering an HDMI output and USB interface for use as a conventional webcam and the other with an RJ45 jack for use with NDI workflows and with Power over Ethernet convenience. The HuddleCamHD Pro, like the Owl 3, is ideal for use cases in which multiple people will be presenting or the presenter may be showing large visual aids, such as a projection or a large chalkboard or whiteboard.

Also like the Owl 3, the HuddleCamHD Pro does not physically move to track the presenter. It punches in on the frame offered by its 4K sensor and 108° lens to track the presenter around the room. It can reframe when a second person begins speaking or if the scene appears to include a screen or board that the presenter is interacting with. It does these things quite well, although the transitions from one framing to another are rather abrupt and jarring, at least on the firmware version that I’ve tested with. This camera is well-suited for recording panel discussions or seminar classrooms, where many people may be speaking and rapidly taking turns doing so.

Two very similar motorized PTZ cameras available at a little below the HuddleCamHD Pro’s price point are the OBSBOT Tiny 4K and the Insta360 Link. Both of these cameras offer gesture-based controls that are impressively functional once you get used to them. The primary gesture function commands the camera to lock onto you when you hold your hand up next to your face. Both cameras will show flashing lights on the  base to indicate that the command was received, so after the lights flash, you can put your hand down, and the camera will begin following you.

Neither camera uses a clock spring or comparable mechanism to allow the wiring to the camera to rotate more than 360°, so the camera cannot follow the presenter if they’re doing laps around it (the Owl 3 would be able to do this if an application genuinely demands it). Both cameras also have a zoom gesture command that you indicate with a “finger-gun up” gesture. The OBSBOT Tiny offers only two zoom positions, so once the camera receives the gesture command and blinks, it will zoom in or out to whichever is the other discrete zoom position. The Insta360 Link can zoom to any amount between its minimum and maximum zoom position, stopping when you remove your gesture. This is a feature that benefits from a confidence monitor.

The Insta360 Link offers a third, very impressive gesture. If you apply stickers to the four corners of an on-set whiteboard and make the V-for-victory hand gesture, the camera will zoom in to the whiteboard and even adjust keystone perspective to fill the frame with the contents contained within the four stickers.

Overall, the Insta360 Link is a superior camera to the OBSBOT Tiny 4K for a fairly small price premium. However, if you’re a teacher who simply wants to free yourself from your desk, the 1080p version of the OBSBOT Tiny 4K is an inexpensive solution.

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