Center Cam solves webcam eye contact issue

As video conferencing became the norm during the pandemic, we all became aware of a fundamental problem with webcams — even if you’re looking at the other person’s image on your screen, the webcam that’s actually recording where you’re looking is somewhere else, so it’s difficult to to maintain eye contact. On Macs, the webcam is always above the display. So when you look at the other person, they usually see that you’re looking down instead. And if you don’t center the video window, it can also appear like you’re looking to the side. In this example, I’ve placed the video window in the lower-right corner of my iMac’s screen. Terrible idea.

Example of an iMac FaceTime HD camera making eye contact looking at the bottom right corner of the screen

The best workaround is to zoom out on the other person’s preview and position it at the top of your screen, just below the webcam. Watching the other person’s face in this way makes it look like you’re looking directly at them. You can help yourself remember this by writing “Look at me!” on a sticky note and place it on top of the display, just above the webcam. (I also recommend hiding your own preview if, like me, you’re a casual narcissist and can’t avoid looking at yourself.)

Example of an iMac FaceTime HD camera making eye contact looking at the top center of the screen

“Surely there is a high-tech solution to this digital clumsiness,” you think. Machine learning solutions can artificially adjust your eyeballs, at least beyond the Mac. On iPhone, you can enable eye contact for FaceTime calls (Settings > FaceTime > Eye Contact), but it only works on iPhone XS or later with iOS 14 or later and only when using FaceTime. It can also be… a little scary. For Windows PCs with Nvidia graphics cards, the Nvidia Broadcast app has an eye contact feature, which one video editor used in a tedious way to get movie characters to stare at you during their scenes.

But we’re trying to bridge the uncanny valley, not dive into it, and that’s what makes Center Cam interesting. Billing itself as “The World’s Middle-Screen Webcam,” it’s a tiny video camera on a thin gooseneck stem with a clip that attaches to the top of your display.

Inventor Ian Foster came up with the idea while doing an internship as part of his master’s degree in social work counseling during the pandemic. The relationship he had personally built with his teenage clients crumbled when they were forced to move to remote counseling, in part due to an inability to maintain eye contact, which was essential to building trust. His solution was to design a webcam small enough to be placed in the center of the screen during a video call.

While the guts of a webcam aren’t all that big, most standalone webcams are a couple of inches wide and it would be awkward to fit so much hardware in the center of the screen at best and problematic in terms of display size at worst opaque. You would also likely need a thicker stem that would cover even more of the screen.

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Center cam hardware

The center cam is a 0.60″ (15mm) cube with a 0.40″ (10mm) round lens on the front. It hangs from a gooseneck stem that you can bend to your liking. The stem is 16 inches (40 cm) long and 0.25 inches (6 mm) thick, allowing for plenty of positioning flexibility without getting in the way any more than necessary. The gooseneck snaps into a slot on the clip to secure it and then feeds through the back of the clip that you attach to your display. Most people will probably have the gooseneck coming from the top down, but another approach might be to attach it to the side of the display and bend the gooseneck so it starts horizontal and then curves down.

The spring-loaded clip expands to a width of 5cm, enough to clip onto most screens. It has a ridged, rubber-like material on the inside of the clip to ensure it doesn’t scratch the display’s glass, and the tension is strong enough to hold it in place but not so strong that you’re concerned have to do to damage the screen. I’ve had no trouble attaching it to my 27″ iMac or my 27″ Thunderbolt display, both of which have bezels that make it easy to keep the clip outside of the display’s working area. Although I haven’t actually used it with a laptop, the MacBook Air’s thinner top bezel forced me to position the clip lower, which obscured part of the top of the screen.

I found the best position for the center cam was vertically down the left bezel of my iMac display, next to my 27-inch Thunderbolt display. This allowed me to position the center cam in the dead space between my two screens, which worked well when I placed a video call window on the side of the display next to the center cam. For those with only one screen, it’s easy to move the center cam to the side or remove it altogether when not on a video call.

It’s important to realize that the clip is symmetrical, with another slot at the back. You should snap the back of the gooseneck into the back slot so the weight of the gooseneck doesn’t pull the clip off center. However, if the clip leans to one side, flexing the gooseneck in the back can balance the forces to keep it straight.

The center cam has a 1080p camera at 30 frames per second. (Don’t get too excited — Zoom and some other video conferencing systems often drop the resolution down to 720p or even lower.) It has a ƒ2.1 lens and a 65º horizontal field of view, and it comes with a small lens cap for those want to be sure that it cannot be used for covert videos. The lens rotates to focus manually, so you can adjust it if you need to (apparently it could shift during shipping). Mine worked right out of the box and after playing with the focus briefly I left it alone.

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The cable that snakes through the gooseneck is approximately 106cm long, so you shouldn’t have any trouble plugging it into a USB port. It has a USB-A connector and only requires USB 2.0, but also includes a USB-C adapter for newer Macs.

Once connected, Center Cam appears to apps as a regular video input option called “CC HD Webcam”. It also has its own microphone, cleverly named “SPCA2281B2 Camera”, which I didn’t use very much. It works, but it’s not great, and I prefer the AirPods Pro.

The future is so bright you have to wear sunglasses

Here I would like to say that I adore the center cam and have switched all my video calls to it. Unfortunately that was not the case.

The whole point of Center Cam is that it allows you to see other people better, specifically by helping you maintain eye contact. It works well for that purpose, and when I asked people on calls if they could say I was using a camera that helps with eye contact, they all said yes.

The problem is that the center cam is extremely sensitive to light. That’s good, on the one hand, because it means it works well in low-light situations. (Ironically, the Center Cam Deluxe package includes a ring light clip instead of the standard clip—it’s hard to imagine needing it.)

On the other hand, if you are near a window or need overhead lighting for other purposes, the image may be overexposed. From an eye contact perspective, the image below is great, but the overhead light is blowing my hair out. And not in a good way.

Example of Center Cam with overhead light on and window shades open

For comparison, here’s the same image captured with the iMac’s FaceTime HD camera. The center cam has a much narrower field of view than the FaceTime HD camera, so you can see a lot more of the space around me. In addition, light and color are better balanced.

To reduce the halo effect on my hair, I turned off the overhead light. This darkened the room, but not a problem as long as I didn’t have to read paper. In the image below, my hair looks reasonable and my skin is a more natural color, but the side of my face is overexposed by the window to my right.

Center Cam example with no overhead lights, but with the blinds open

Next, I dropped the blinds, making the room significantly darker than I like. Using the Mac wasn’t a problem—I’m a touch typist—but I couldn’t work with anything else on my desk. However, the image below is much better, with decent skin tone and even lighting.

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Center Cam with no overhead lights and blinds drawn

In the image above, most of the light on my face is coming from the screen itself, which was mostly white due to the documents I used. But that’s easily avoided with a clever utility called HazeOver, which dims the windows of all but the frontmost app to reduce distractions. Using HazeOver to darken everything but the zoom settings window significantly reduced the light on my face but made the Mac more difficult to use.

It’s also possible to slightly adjust the center cam’s image using another utility called iGlasses. It can control the center cam’s exposure and brightness, along with temperature, hue, saturation, contrast, gamma, sharpness, and white balance. I played with it a bit but didn’t feel like I made the picture better enough to continue.

For comparison, here’s another shot from the iMac’s FaceTime HD camera with the overhead light off and the shading drawn – it’s much dimmer than the corresponding Center Cam image directly above.

Example of an iMac FaceTime HD camera with the overhead light off and the shades down

What about the night when I do a lot of my Zoom meetings? I need the overhead light in my office which causes the center cam to overexpose my hair again and generally gives the image a much warmer tone.

Center Cam example with dome light on at night

In comparison, the version of the iMac’s FaceTime HD camera capture looks pretty much like its day shot.

Example of an iMac FaceTime HD camera with the overhead light on at night

Maybe I’ll reconsider all this. In practice, however, what often happens when I’m using Center Cam is that I connect to a Zoom call at the scheduled time, turn on the video, and immediately get dissatisfied with my preview. Instead of wasting meeting time messing with the room lights to make the center cam’s image look better, I switch to my iMac’s FaceTime HD camera, which produces a good image no matter the room light.

But that’s just me. For some people and situations, eye contact is more important than overall image quality, which is difficult to ensure in video conferencing anyway. If you’re looking for a webcam that you can use to maintain eye contact during video calls, the Center Cam is worth considering. The approach of placing the camera exactly at eye level in the middle of the screen works well and doesn’t obscure more of the screen than necessary. While I wouldn’t recommend it if your office has a lot of windows, it’s ideal for anyone working in dark environments. At $119.99, Center Cam costs more than standard webcams, but that’s the trade-off for its unique industrial design.