[Gamification & Conference Calling] ÜberConference Lets You Manage Conference Calls Visually

via Andrew Cunningham @IT_AndrewC, arstechnica.com

“Who’s here?”

“I hear a lot of noise, like someone has a fountain going in the background or something.”

“Let’s all hang up and come back individually so we can figure out who’s causing that echo.”

These are all approximations of actual things that were said on a recent conference call here at Ars. After all of us were finally on the call, it took another few minutes of troubleshooting before we could get to the business at hand—such is the reality of conference calls, even with a modern phone service provider like OnSIP.

These are the problems that ÜberConference, a new (and currently free) conferencing tool from Firespotter Labs, was created to solve. Several of Firespotter’s employees come from the team that developed Google Voice, and their stated goal with ÜberConference is to develop a similarly innovative and useful tool for conferencing. We experimented with the tool to see how much it could streamline the teleconference experience.

Intro to ÜberConference

ÜberConference is a Web-based tool that adds a much-needed visual element to conference calls. As callers dial in, you can see them show up in the ÜberConference window along with their user pictures, which can be clicked to display their profile information. The person who is currently talking will show up at the top of the window, eliminating ambiguity in large calls where not all of the parties know each other well. Individuals can be muted from the ÜberConference dashboard if you don’t want to hear them, or “earmuffed” if you don’t want them to hear you.

Signing up for ÜberConference will get you a special conference phone number, a PIN you can use to join your own conferences, and an “open PIN” you can give out so that people can join public conferences even if they weren’t specifically invited—if conference attendees were invited to the conference and dial in using the phone number the invite was sent to, they won’t need to have a PIN at all. Conferences are created and scheduled from the main ÜberConference window, which will also show you your next five upcoming and most recent conferences. You’ll need both an ÜberConference account and an ÜberConference-provided phone number to make use of the service—unfortunately, there are no plans at present to offer integration with existing phone systems.

These days, even boring old conference calls are subject to gamification. Performing certain tasks in ÜberConference unlocks new features.
To invite people to conferences, you’ll need to add them as contacts, which can be added manually, imported from Google, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, or uploaded in CSV format. Once added, you can also put users together into groups for organizational purposes.

In this early phase of the product’s development, extra features are exchanged not for money but for completing certain tasks. Completing your profile will enable you to record MP3s of your conferences. Connecting to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+ will all net you two additional conference participants each, and importing contacts will get you five additional conference participants (up from the initial five).

Firespotter CEO Craig Walker told Ars that “users would be able to pay for these features as part of a premium service, but can also unlock most/all of the paid features for free as well.” The paid option will likely appeal more to larger offices that just want to use the product, and individuals or small teams with less money to spend will expend the extra time and effort to unlock those features manually.

Other, not-yet-implemented features include outbound calling, custom hold music and background skins, recurring conferences, and the ability to use a local phone number and remove the ÜberConference branding (which manifests in the form of a “this call provided by ÜberConference” message at the front of every call). Getting credit toward these future features is done by sharing ÜberConference referral links to invite friends to sign up for the service.

Putting theory into practice

Creating a new conference. The ability to create recurring conferences isn’t included yet, but should be coming in the future.
After absorbing everything on the ÜberConference site, I wanted to see the service in action—colleagues Matt Braga and Lee Aylward jumped on a call with me, and off we went.

Clicking the new conference button brought up a window where I could name the conference, invite participants, and set the conference as public or private. For private conferences, only people in your contacts list who have been invited can join, but anyone with your conference number and generic PIN can hop on for a public call. Once created, the conference appointment can be downloaded and added to most calendaring software, including Google Calendar, Outlook, and iCal.

Once your conference has been created, your invitees will receive your conference phone number and a PIN created specifically for that conference. As the creator of the conference, I could view who was on the call, who was speaking, and I could also mute and earmuff other people on the call. Neither of my test subjects had yet registered for ÜberConference at the time of our call, but Walker told Ars that ÜberConference users with verified e-mail addresses and phone numbers should see upcoming conferences appear on their ÜberConference pages. They should also be able to see who is on a conference call and who is currently speaking (though the ability to mute, earmuff, drop and add callers, and record calls resides solely with the person who initiated the conference). For users without accounts, then, the service is fairly similar to existing teleconference systems—your callers will all need ÜberConference accounts to get the most out of the service.

If you’re the first person to join your call, as I was, you’ll hear hold music, which by default is a song about being on hold on a conference call (the ability to change this is planned but not yet implemented). As your invitees begin to join, their circles on the ÜberConference dash light up and you can start talking to them. Our (admittedly small) group of callers experienced no lag or call quality problems, and I was easily able to use the mute and earmuff functions as advertised (users who are earmuffed will be told when the earmuffs go on and when they come off). Earmuffed users can still be heard on the call, so it would probably be best to mute them as well so that they aren’t inadvertently disruptive.

Clicking a user’s name in a conference will bring up their contact information. Users with ÜberConference accounts can pull in information from their social networks.

While ÜberConference does a good job of letting you know who is on a call and who is talking at a given time, the conference call problem it doesn’t solve is people who talk over one another. You’ll still run into that, as well as the familiar, awkward pauses that occur when two people are each waiting for the other to start talking again. These may be problems that technology can’t be expected to solve.

Your post-conference summary. You can look at these to find people who are consistently missing conferences, talking too much, or talking too little.

Once the conference has ended, you can view a small conference summary that will show you how long the call lasted, who talked the most, and who talked the least. If you elected to record the call, a small speaker icon will appear next to the call—click it to listen to the call in your browser window or download the MP3.

ÜberConference is still in the early stages of development, but at the moment it looks like an elegant (if not perfect) solution for many of teleconferencing’s shortcomings. I would still like to see ÜberConference let users assign their own conference numbers to ÜberConference accounts, but if you can get every member of your team to use the service, it provides useful visual feedback and features like call recording and call history that make it worth considering—even if you already have a conferencing solution.

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