Owl Labs Meeting Owl review: Highly commendab-owl
The Meeting Owl’s all-seeing eye isn’t the sharpest, but it makes huddling around the camera a thing of the past
The most tiresome part of an impromptu video meeting is the setup -- getting the camera, microphones, conference table and participants all in place so that everyone's in shot. The Meeting Owl from Owl Labs does away with all of that hassle: its fisheye lens puts everyone in the big picture, and the clever software automatically zeroes in on whoever is speaking.
It comes as a single unit that works straight from the box, with nothing to configure. We connected the supplied USB cable to a Windows 10 host and the necessary drivers were automatically located and installed.
As well as focusing on the person speaking, the Meeting Owl also provides a 360 panoramic view across the top, and can dynamically divide up the main display to show the three most recent speakers. All of these views are digitally composed from a proprietary 16-megapixel sensor, so there's no need for manual pan, tilt or zoom adjustment.
As to how the Owl determines who's talking, that's down to an array of eight directional microphones distributed around the inside of its fabric-covered cylindrical body. Incoming audio is handled by a single speaker in the base which fires downwards to deliver omnidirectional sound. It's all very convenient and straightforward, but note that there's no option to add extra microphones or an external speaker: the manufacturer recommends that participants sit no more than 3.6m from the Owl.
Indeed, the only connections you get are USB and power sockets, both situated on the underside. Around the base there's two audio mute buttons, two volume control buttons and a toggle to change the speaker spotlight feature from slide animation to straight cut. For further configuration and management, Owl Labs provides free mobile apps for Android and iOS. We tried out the iOS version on our iPad; this connected swiftly to the Owl over Bluetooth and provided options to connect to a wireless network for software updates, view meeting analytics, manually control the camera and lock it with a passcode.
In use, the Owl works well. Its 273mm-high body is tall enough for the lens not to be obscured by open laptops on the table and a large number of videoconferencing systems are supported: we found it worked seamlessly with the Zoom platform, but a few clients can't handle the camera's panoramic view, so check the Owl Labs support site before buying.
During the meeting, the smart display really proved its worth. With three participants sitting around the camera, the Owl switched seamlessly between speakers, taking no more than two seconds to swap from one view to another. The slide animation kept recent speakers in shot, while the panoramic view at the top ensured we didn't lose our connection with the wider room. Audio quality is good, too: we could hear the participants clearly at all times and they reported no problems hearing us.
There's just one fly in the ointment: the Owl's internal sensor captures bags of detail, but the outgoing signal is limited to a resolution of 1,280 x 720 -- far below the 4K sharpness of other cameras. It's good enough to deliver that important face-to-face rapport, but our remote participants found that (for example) they couldn't comfortably read the whiteboard on our meeting room wall.
If you can live with that, the Meeting Owl is an innovative solution that makes videoconferencing easy and even fun. Weighing in at 1.2kg, it feels very well built, while not being too heavy to take on the road (although a protective bag and lens cap would be welcome additions), and at 666 the price is right too. Sure, it's not as sharp as other VC systems, but your meeting participants will probably be too busy marvelling at the Owl's active display to notice.
If you can cope with underwhelming outgoing signal quality, the Metting Owl is a quirky, attractive and highly functional videoconferencing solution with bags of charm.
360° fisheye lens 16-megapixel sensor 720p video Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor 8-microphone array single downward-firing speaker Bluetooth 4.1 802.11n Wi-Fi USB-C external PSU with 3m cable 2m USB cable 111 x 111 x 273mm (WDH) 1.2kg 2yr limited hardware warranty (on registration)