Creating a Portable Zoom Room

Since the start of the pandemic, I and many other people have become accustomed to meetings on Zoom. Whether for business or personal gatherings, Zoom has been a great way to safely stay in touch.

I recently attended a family reunion that normally convenes every summer. Because of the pandemic, we had not met in person since 2019. With current conditions, we decided to go ahead with it at our usual location, a municipal park with a pavilion. Because some family members would be unable to travel to the event, I wanted to see if we could include them by using Zoom. For the benefit of anyone else looking to do this, here is how I managed to make it work.

There were a few constraints that I had or wanted to meet:

  • Internet access would be entirely dependent on the quality of the cellular service at the site.
  • I wanted people at both ends of the connection to be able to see and hear each other comfortably.
  • I needed to be able to use my primary laptop for other tasks, such as email or data lookup, during the event.
  • I didn’t want to blow up my data usage more than necessary.

Initially, I considered using an old spare Mac running Linux as the Zoom device. Fortunately, an audio hardware issue prevented me from doing so. Otherwise, I might have had two devices using my cellular bandwidth.

Instead, I did everything on the laptop. Here’s what the final configuration looked like:

  • For display, I used a 24-inch monitor with an HDMI connection. It was set up at one end of the pavilion facing the opposite end.
  • Although the monitor had sound output, I instead used a decent external Bluetooth speaker with an AUX connection, placed slightly in front of the monitor. Output sound quality and volume were fine for the outdoor setting.
  • For the camera, I used my iPhone on a tripod directly behind the monitor. I used the free version of Reincubate Camo to make the iPhone act as an external webcam for the laptop.
  • The iPhone also provided network access via USB to my laptop. The same connection provided power to the iPhone.
  • For audio input, I used the built-in microphone on the laptop. Its pick-up was surprisingly good.
  • In order to use my laptop for other things, I kept the screens unmirrored. This worked fine, although it was tricky trying to manipulate the Zoom app unless the screens were facing the same general direction. Next time, I’ll probably just set them up in line with each other.

The camera had a good view of most of the pavilion, and people on site had a good view of the monitor. Sound worked reasonably well in both directions.

A brother at the event joined the event with his own iPhone and iPad working in tandem. He was able to provide more flexible access to people at the cost of audio lag and some feedback. We were able to make it work for the most part, but we learned that it’s necessary to coordinate the muting of microphones and speakers to minimize audio problems.

The cellular signal was about 2-3 bars which proved sufficient. I haven’t seen exactly how much data I used during the process, but I estimate that a single Zoom device would use roughly 1 GB per hour, which is about how long we were on Zoom.

Now that I have all the pieces figured out, I expect I’ll be doing something like this again, with or without a pandemic.

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