Virtual Backgrounds Online Can Be Cheesy, Professional & Fun

After I wrote the post Effective Green Screen Gear You Can Buy Inexpensively, many people asked me about where I get my virtual backgrounds for usage in Zoom so I’ve added links below.

I thought I’d toss up a few screenshots of me using a few of the backgrounds I’ve downloaded. While the first one in the upper left of the image above is a composite one I created in Photoshop from two others, all the rest were downloaded from free sites like these:

But it’s not just Zoom that offers virtual background capability. Many other virtual meeting software offerings are scrambling to offer virtual background capability since people love the feature. Here are links to a few popular offerings with direct links to their virtual background help pages:

Surprisingly Google Meet or Hangouts does not offer virtual backgrounds (yet).

Hopefully it will ship before my next scheduled webinar, but the $295 Blackmagic ATEM Mini will help me go to the next level. This device will enable me to input up to four HDMI inputs (like all of my good cameras) as well as HDMI out from my laptop, iPad or iPhone.

One of the best features of this device is that it will also enable me to input virtual backgrounds directly in to the switcher. So, for example, when I switch from my laptop presentation to my live camera feed on me, its output is as a “webcam” so will show me over the virtual background of my choice. In addition, every app that accepts a webcam will see me overlayed on a virtual background.

If you’re interested in the ATEM Mini (or the ‘Pro’ version) you might want to check out a few of these videos on YouTube.

Don’t look or sound like you are using a computer, smartphone or tablet for the very first time when you’re in a meeting! Even if it is your first time, practice with someone beforehand and, at the very least, LOOK AT YOURSELF so you can come across well online.

These tips are the best ones I’ve found yet on YouTube, and thought you might enjoy it:

Good luck and stay safe.

Cord Cutting is Devastating Comcast. Will They Be Disrupted or Save Themselves?

A site I follow, Cord Cutters News, had this interesting article today about a Comcast Executive Vice President gave a warning to investors, “…that the company expects to report losses of 100,000 to 150,000 video subscribers in the third quarter 2017. That is a massive swing of subscribers because just one year ago in the third quarter of 2016 Comcast added 149,000 video subscribers.

Comcast, and other cable companies, are being disrupted by all the online streaming TV offerings and especially DirecTV NOW. Since our family has an AT&T Unlimited Plan, we “cut the cord” with Comcast (plus we’re selling our home and downsizing anyway) and signed up for the DirecTV NOW basic service with HBO added. The total cost is a measly $15 per month.

We also ditched TiVO and their $20 per month DVR pricing so we’re saving well over $100 per month on TV. Yes, we have Netflix, Hulu and a subscription to AcornTV (we love British television) so our total outlay is higher but still under $50 per month.

How could we NOT cut the cord? Especially since DirecTV NOW will soon have a recording capability and a new user interface (sometime this Fall). Our kids are now adults but are classified as Millennials and they, especially, don’t care at all about having cable TV options. They want streaming, on-demand, and binge-watching options and neither of them care about sports options which cable TV companies basically force us all to pay for monthly.


Comcast could argue that they are in this space as they provide an Xfinity Stream app. The issue is that this app’s service pricing is not even close to being competitive to other offerings (e.g., SlingTV; DirecTV NOW) and its pricing is almost identical to an Xfinity cable TV subscription.

Those streaming TV “deals” come with the same old cable TV-like pricing games: You sign up for a “first 12 months” — for what appears to be a somewhat competitive price — only to have it jump by 50% after the “deal’s” first term ends. (e.g., in my home area of zip code 55347, a streaming TV app subscription for 140+ channels is $49.99 for the first 12 months but leaps to as much as $75 per month once the term ends AND you are locked in for that entire term).

On that deals page under the “Add to Cart” button, there is a Pricing & Other Info link. Clicking it reveals this text in the popup:

Offer ends 10/29/17. Restrictions apply. Not available in all areas. New residential customers only. Limited to Digital Starter service. 1-year minimum term agreement required. Early termination fee applies if all XFINITY services are cancelled during the agreement term. Equipment, installation, taxes and fees, including Broadcast TV Fee (up to $8/mo.), Regional Sports Fee (up to $6.50/mo.) and other applicable charges extra, and subject to change during and after the promo. After applicable promo, or if any service is cancelled or downgraded, regular rates apply. Comcast’s monthly service charge for Digital Starter, ranges based on area, from $52.49 to $75.49 (subject to change). Service limited to a single outlet. May not be combined with other offers. Limited Basic Service subscription required to receive other levels of service. On Demand™ selections subject to charge indicated at time of purchase. Not all programming available in all areas. 30-Day Money-Back Guarantee applies to one month’s recurring service charge and standard installation up to $500. Call for restrictions and complete details. ©2017 Comcast. All rights reserved.

So you can see that it’s basically a cable TV subscription but through an app. You also cannot end your cable TV subscription and immediately subscribe through the app (New residential customers only). Also, there will be all sorts of associated fees and taxes — like the “Regional Sports Fee” whether or not you even care about sports — a fee that you do not have to pay with competing services.

My wife and I got sick-and-tired of having to go to the Comcast/Xfinity ‘store’ near our house every six months or otherwise our cable TV subscription would often jump-up by $60 or more. Numerous times over the last decade we’ve suddenly received a Comcast bill that was more than double our “reasonably priced deal” monthly subscription. We refuse to play Comcast’s game so we said goodbye a couple of months ago.

Comcast absolutely could own this streaming TV space but their streaming app subscription is virtually identical in cost to a cable TV subscription, so being competitive (and stopping their game-playing with pricing) means they would have to decimate their own TV business which they’re not likely to do.

Why would Comcast not cannibalize their own cable TV business?

Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen, wrote a best-selling book called The Innovator’s Dilemma (which The Economist named as one of the six most important books about business ever written). Its premise is that successful, outstanding companies can do everything “right” and yet still lose their market leadership – or even fail – as new, unexpected competitors rise and take over the market  (book at Amazon).

The reason Comcast will quite likely lose their leadership (or fail) is because they have so many contracts with TV providers they’d have to unwind, cable TV subscriptions they would lose to cord cutting, and top-line revenue they would have to replace, that it’s probable they will fail.

I, for one, will be happy to say goodbye to the cable TV gaming when it comes to their pricing models (and, hopefully soon, the cable TV company internet-service-provider monopoly, but that’s a topic for another post).

One Guy’s Experience with the New Apple TV


The new AppleTV device is about the best experience our family has yet had with any product like it. Is it perfect and actually the “future of television?” Nothing ever is, and this may-or-may-not ‘win’ the future, but in my view it’s about as close as anything has ever come to date.

For the last 15 years or more I’ve owned and dabbled with just about everything: satellite and cable boxes; TiVo; Boxee, Plex, Kodi (formerly XBMC) and other media center offerings; Roku; and finally AppleTVs (we own three of the ‘old’ ones). My frustration with most mainstream offerings delivering close to what I want—but also missing features I need like access to my own ripped movies, home videos, photos and music—that I ended up with multiple home theater devices connected up:

  • Roku – Mainly to access Amazon Prime and AcornTV (my bride and I are addicted to British TV)
  • AppleTV – for iTunes store, connection to our computers & media, as well as Airplay capability
  • Plex media center to deliver everything else that is not in iTunes on my computer and/or NAS (network attached storage).

Headed to the Apple store on Friday, October 30th to buy the new AppleTV since the Best Buy close to my house did NOT have them in stock yet (even though all news accounts said they would be in stock). The Apple Store Southdale shelves were full so I bought it and headed home to hook it up.

Booting it up the first time the device asked me if I wanted to set it up manually or via an iOS device. Selecting the iOS option I was asked to hold my device close and it sucked off the Wifi settings. Impressive.

Immediately I was surprised to see how much more detailed, crisper and saturated the graphics were on it. That carried over to the videos and games too. That alone made the purchase worthwhile, but obviously isn’t enough.

Buying and setting up a new device is always somewhat of a pain-in-the-ass since, even though one usually uses a backup for a new computer, smartphone or tablet to accelerate the setup process, one still has to connect it up and set up all the accounts and the new AppleTV process is not user-friendly.

atv-remote2I had to use the new, very slippery remote (and replacements cost $79.95 so DON’T DROP AND BREAK IT!) to manually scroll an alphabet to laboriously put in my email address and password for ALL of the accounts. No remote app for iOS is yet available—that would have made this a painless process—and I found myself pissed off that I had to do it. A bluetooth keyboard connection or Remote App for iOS would instantly fix that issue.

Next I launched the TV App Store and added all the familiar apps: Netflix; Hulu; some games, and more. Since there isn’t yet a “Categories” feature in the App Store, the only way to see what apps are in the store is to use that damn alphabet to click “a” to see apps starting with an “a”; “b” for “b” apps; and so forth. What a drag.

podcast-appWas stunned to find a glaring omission too: Where the hell is the podcast app? Especially since Apple was the first company to offer podcasts in iTunes; Google is now offering them so there is competition; and podcasts are accelerating in popularity.

Fortunately, once setup the AppleTV experience was phenomenal.

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Understand What ‘Resolution’ Means

As an amateur photographer, I often try to explain to people why my small Nikon D5000‘s 12.3 million pixels produces a better photo than their smartphone camera or even what could be produced by this new Lumia 930 with its 20 megapixel camera.

Besides the obvious: the lens is bigger, it is that and the sensor in the camera that determines the resolution of the image. I know figuring out resolution, and why it matters, is a challenge so I encourage you to watch this very well presented short video that explains it better than anything I’ve seen yet:

The Bedtime Nooz

For anyone outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis & St. Paul Minnesota, the name of the anchor of WCCO-TVDave Moore, and the “Bedtime Nooz” has no meaning. Add to that people born after 1960 or so either missed it or were too young to stay up late on a Saturday night. My Mom would go to bed about 10pm, even on the weekends. My Dad would stay up so my older sister and I would stay awake and watch the Bedtime Nooz with Dave Moore. Our Dad would make a pizza about midnight which always seemed like some sort of shared secret treat.

WCCO-TV was the leader in the Twin Cities market and Dave Moore was a very serious, accomplished and trusted news anchor. This was in the day when the evening TV news — both national and local — were must-watch TV and just about everyone did. As such, someone like Dave Moore had quite a stature in the Twin Cities so having him perform such a loose, goofy and humorous rendition of TV news was amazing and a magnet for all ages.

Here is a fun look at the Bedtime Nooz. Worth a watch if you’re old enough and even if you never saw it:

TiVO and “Content Discovery”

For all the whining I’ve done about Comcast’s DVR, bundling of shows and more, I must admit being so delighted with my new TiVO — and especially with their iPad app — that it has materially changed the way we watch TV and how much we consume.

As I’ve said before, I’m embarrassed *for* Comcast that they have such crappy DVR technology. Though they continually promised that it would be replaced at some point, that never happened. I was either going to cut-the-cord and dump cable TV…or try something new. I thought I’d give it one last shot and bought a TiVO.

TiVO iPad app screen (click for a larger view)

TiVO iPad app screen

Wow. The interface is what I remember from my TiVO experience in the early 2000s but, of course, better. But I didn’t realize how amazing it would be until I tried the TiVO iPad app. Holy smokes! I can easily select a channel, scroll through two weeks worth of upcoming shows in seconds or choose one to record or get a “Season Pass.”

What I didn’t expect was content discovery. Because the interface is so well done, so easy to navigate through (and even use as a remote control to change channels or start recorded shows) I found about a dozen movies and shows to record the first night

It’s been like that ever since we got it a few weeks ago. Discovering good, quality programming that is mixed in with hours and hours and hours of crap (IMHO).

Makes me wonder: Why can’t Comcast deliver a DVR like this one? Or buy TiVO? Comcast has built out the infrastructure well but, when it comes to using it, all of their human interface and access technologies are a joke.

Let’s (Not!) Play Comcast Monopoly

ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION TV CONSUMERS? If you are, then you have GOT TO SEE the anti-competitive, monopolistic, anti-internet moves that Comcast is making. If you’re not, OPEN YOUR EYES AND START SCREAMING at your Congresspeople and Comcast themselves.

I didn’t fly off the handle and get really steamed today just because…it was this tweet from the guy that invented the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, and it was a link to this page at Marketwatch. Seems that Level 3 Communications, one of the biggest backbone providers on earth, today released a statement about a MAJOR move by Comcast to put a big ‘ole “Collect $200” every time an internet TV company passes “Go!”:

On November 19, 2010, Comcast informed Level 3 that, for the first time, it will demand a recurring fee from Level 3 to transmit Internet online movies and other content to Comcast’s customers who request such content. By taking this action, Comcast is effectively putting up a toll booth at the borders of its broadband Internet access network, enabling it to unilaterally decide how much to charge for content which competes with its own cable TV and Xfinity delivered content. This action by Comcast threatens the open Internet and is a clear abuse of the dominant control that Comcast exerts in broadband access markets as the nation’s largest cable provider.

Are you serious Comcast? I truly hope that all the big kids with really deep pockets line up against you with their Howitzers. Maybe you’re itchin’ for a fight and methinks you’re gonna get one. Since you’ve got such little value-add or customer loyalty (I’d switch in a nanosecond if Qwest would get their sh*t together and drop fiber to my house which is only 1,000 feet away now) that I’d bet most people could care less if you tanked.

I’ve been writing about Comcast’s monopoly moves for a loooong time here and another site I run called Minnov8. See thisthis, this, this, this and this for more if you’re interested (and yes, there are even more posts).

Somehow this company thinks that THEY OWN the internet connection in to your (and my) house. That they get to control what comes over that pipe and that they should be able to charge Hulu, Apple, Google, Boxee, Revision3 or anyone who wants to deliver video content that somehow competes with what they offer.

I don’t care how much Comcast whines about the volume of streaming video bits that people are supposedly downloading. EVERYTHING COMCAST IS DOING IS ALL ABOUT PROTECTING THEIR MORE THAN $2B IN REVENUES FROM CABLE TV and not what they claim all the time: “Oh…it’s all about network management.” Again I call “bullshit” since Comcast is building out HUGE STORAGE CENTERS in Colorado, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Philadelphia so they clearly don’t want any of these other providers to get a foothold before they bring these centers fully online.

If anyone (especially someone representing Comcast in any way) tells you that this isn’t all about Comcast-protecting-Comcast they’re full of sh*t. Also, please oh please don’t comment with one of those, “But it’s good for the consumer” lines of crap. It’s not. It’s all about competition and let’s see if our paid-for new Congresspeople let the free market rein or if they protect their pals at Comcast.

You know what Comcast? I’ll bring over whatever bits I want to and I’ll pay you for your dumb pipe. That said, I really don’t want your crappy cable TV, your weak xFinity service or your on-demand that takes minutes to come up while your worthless and noisy previews run in the background. Your Scientific Atlanta DVR boxes are a joke and are worse than TiVO was 10 YEARS AGO; your on-demand pales in comparison to Netflix, AppleTV, GoogleTV, Boxee, PlexApp, Hulu…shall I go on?; and I’m sick of paying for TV that I don’t watch but have no choice in taking so you can promise households to ESPN and others.

Wow…I had no idea I was so pissed off at Comcast but there it is. What are YOU going to do or say or are you just going to lie there eating chips figuring someone else will figure it out?

Sherlock Redux

PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! has a brand new adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries but brought forward in to the 21st century. What would a die-hard Holmes fan think about a Wifi, mobile phone, GPS and DNA using Sherlock?

Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been fascinated by the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Watching the original Basil Rathbone movie adaptations as a kid were interesting, but Dr. Watson was portrayed as a buffoon which always bothered me. Then my sister/brother-in-law turned on our family to the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes and, for classic fans, Brett is arguably the absolute best embodiment of the character yet. The Granada TV adaptation also was so rich in visuals—and made the viewer feel late 1800’s/early 1900’s London—that I’ve hoped for a BluRay version of this series.

My son playing Holmes in the Sherlock Holmes Museum

Our family loved Holmes mysteries so much we went out of our way during a trip to London to stop at the The Sherlock Holmes pub and head over to the Sherlock Holmes Museum at the (used with permission of the City of Westminster in London) faux address of 221b Baker Street, Holmes fictional home/office location.

Being such classic fans, when PBS launched this new series my wife, daughter, son and I were highly skeptical of any sort of re-do, especially one set in the 21st century. To say we are incredibly delighted with the series is an understatement. Within 10 minutes of watching the first episode we were hooked and thinking this ‘new’ Holmes and Watson are nearly perfect.

Having Holmes leverage all of today’s new technology and techniques could’ve been intrusive and a crutch, but its use surprised us that it didn’t take away from the core mystery. In some ways new tech and techniques take a back seat to the drive Sherlock has in solving the mystery and doesn’t seem to be invasive.

In another way, having Holmes and Watson be in the 21st century solving mysteries does something odd to a longtime Holmes lover: it takes away one troubling feeling that a consulting detective, living in a time when fingerprinting, DNA and other forensic techniques hadn’t yet been invented, was at a distinct disadvantage. This adaptation makes it contemporary and the focus now is on the purity of the characters and the mystery itself.

Haven’t been this enthused about a Masterpiece Mystery! program ever. There are only three episodes in Series I and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that there will be many, many more.

Check it out and, if you miss it, you can watch last week’s episode online or with the iPad PBS application.

NOTE: Ironically, the world’s best collection of Sherlock Holmes items resides here in my home State of Minnesota (see more here):

Comcast’s Xfinity Fail

When Comcast announced their nationwide Xfinity initiative, I greeted it with skepticism and that has only grown over time. Their “Fancast” website, now dubbed xfinity tv, has surprisingly crappy quality and I’m on a 16mbps down/2mbps up internet connection through Comcast. It’s so bad that I would opt for my AppleTV, Mac mini running Boxee, or the Roku box downstairs in a nanosecond before I’d watch this poor excuse for HD.

As an old mentor of mine always said, “Whenever there is great flux, there is great opportunity” and mine is to explore cutting the cable like so many other people are doing. This Wall Street Journal article positions cable cutting as consumers cutting costs in an economic downturn, but I believe it’s because cable isn’t delivering, they’re jamming too many costs down our throat for programming we don’t watch anyway, and there are so many preferable on-demand alternatives that people are cutting cable regardless of whether they have budget woes or not.

In my view, it’s crappy service and experience making most of us want to cut the cable. In my neighborhood we probably have more HDTVs per capita than anywhere in the Twin Cities. Lots of 30-n-40 somethings, bunches of technoweenies, and a demographic right in the sweet spot of a vendor like Comcast, but their nationwide Xfinity rollout is causing us nothing but problems:

  • Digital channels that break up, becoming pixelated with audio dropouts making shows unwatchable (see “Comcast’s Oscar Fail“)
  • A digital video recorder with the worst user interface I’ve ever used, making the first TiVo 10 years ago feel cutting edge like today’s iPad
  • An OnDemand system that is painful to use due to the lag time and constantly running (and loud) “commercial” for movies that plays while you browse with no ability to turn it off
  • The changeover from analog to all digital occurring now (so Comcast can pack many more new Xfinity services over their cable) that takes away HD viewing on TVs without a digital box connected to them AND a whole house distribution system that simply “isn’t available in your neighborhood” forcing us all to hang a bunch of crappy little analog-to-digital boxes on every TV in the house.

The biggest problems? There are two…. Read More