Zach's PEN #21: To All a Teleprompter

2020 Week 51: And to all a good night...

Hey PENpals,

This week I learned that Christopher Walken has never owned a computer or cellphone and has never sent an email. That’s so awesome.

For the rest of us, we can’t really get away without having a cellphone or an email address. I’m here with some bad news… There’s another thing you are all going to need going forward: A microphone and a teleprompter on your desk. Actually, it’s rude that you don’t have a microphone already. Okay, I take it back. I’m in a mood. I’ve been refreshing Jeff Stein’s Twitter account over and over for a few weeks hoping that a stimulus bill will pass because, well, it’s been a rough year.

It’s 11pm on Sunday night (my bedtime is supposed to be like 8:30 or 9). I bit off a bit more than I could chew this week for the PEN. I’m writing a big post about how everyone in the age of Zoom calls (which isn’t ending with the pandemic, sadly) needs to have a teleprompter on their desk, and about how I created a prototype of that teleprompter.

But I let it get away from me. The post is already over 2,000 words long and I made a video that’s still over 30 minutes long that I wanted to get under 10…

As my output increases over the coming months, I do need to find a way to get it all into a routine and properly timeboxed, but here I am, in the first week of trying to do more and, well, I failed. I’m not going to stay up all night for the purpose of checking a box on some expectation I set for myself.

Instead, I’m going to admit defeat and show you an early rough of the beginning of the video I’m making along with a link to the draft of my post. The video is basically just silliness but it’s important for me as I’m getting comfortable (those of you who are here primarily for the baby pictures, the babies make an extended appearance in this video):

I’m super uncomfortable with the notion of being on camera or on YouTube, but I’ve got to get over that because pretty much every project I’m working on requires that I get over it.

I’m also putting the draft of my post at the bottom of this email. The post mentions a bunch of people who I respect and admire and who might actually engage in the conversation, so maybe the stress of that is part of what’s making me overthink/rewrite this to the point where it’s lost every bit of it’s sense and soul. Or maybe it’s just that it’s my first time making a video of myself, and like, “Why?” I mean, I know why, but that doesn’t stop my brain from being like “Why tho?”

Anyway, this year has been… something.

Thanks, PENpals, 20 weeks,


P. S. Officially, Wendell's first word was "Mama" or "Dada" (Louisa's was "Uh oh"), but there's some possibility that his actual first word is "Barbara Ann." Little dude can't get enough of this song:

P. P. S. Below this line is a filthy rough draft of where my post is at. I would like feedback but definitely don’t expect any. I swear to you that I’m good at clear, concise writing (it’s my job) for literally anyone but myself. My stuff just spins out into madness and honestly I’m just feeling pretty down on myself right now because “there’s so much I intend to do,” “can’t even do this one thing,” mean voices in head yelling at me. Thanks for letting me just put this here.

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I took an online course this year with a corny name taught by a curious gentleman named [[David Perell]]. This and its sister course, [[Tiago Forte]]'s __Building a Second Brain__, were the catalysts for me starting my blog again finally again finally again (finally again) and also this Personal Email Newsletter, which I've now sent for 20 weeks in a row.

I'm not going to go into my long and dysfunctional relationship with "productivity" but I will say that the methods taught in this pair of courses are the gentlest, most resilient, and most helpful I have discovered in 15 years of working on this stuff. Even though I hate the way they market their courses, I am very grateful for thesenerds.

Perell cast a wish into the universe in his recent newsletter (he does this frequently) that I have something to say about:

> Somebody should build the Sonos for home audio-video setups (...) It should be easy to set up, all without the tangled wires and usual complexity—with the ease and quality of an iPhone camera. If you're serious about building a company in this space, I'd love to help. If so, please send me a detailed and well-written proposal about why you're the right person to start the company and how you plan to build it. I can help you find you co-founders, investors, and maybe even make an investment myself.

First: I am not at all serious about building a company in this space (I have enough companies), but I went ahead and created a working prototype yesterday. Whoever wants to take this prototype and run with it, godspeed.

There are a few reasons I decided to build this thing (and post about it):

  1. I’ve needed a working version for myself and some of Short Order's customers, and nothing even close exists, so I had to build it.

  2. I got obsessed, as I do, and I’m surrounded by camera bits so this kind of thing just happens.

  3. My physical and digital cabinets are filled with half-baked business ideas and products I've tinkered with, most of which I'll never realistically pursue. Maybe they could have some value if I put them out there for someone else to pick up where I left off?

  4. I get asked about this topic constantly and it's the most frustrating thing because I know exactly what people need—I just have no way of giving it to them. The solution is too complicated and unwieldy for a regular person to deal with, and anything short of that solution is complete shit, the status quo, everyone dying slowly while screaming inside their hearts.

  5. The last reason I’m doing this is that Perell's assumptions are dangerously (but forgivably) wrong. Any pursuit of a device like this without integrating the following concepts is dead on arrival.

The thing Perell is definitely right about is that this is a huge opportunity for someone. But the reason this gap in the market exists is not because no one can make a decent camera/mic/lighting setup. Plenty of companies do this. The real reason is that no one seems to understand the two key requirements that create a true difference in experience:

Any all-in-one product for better virtual meeting quality is doomed to mediocrity unless it has an integrated teleprompter and a camera sensor that is 16mm or larger.

The Integrated Teleprompter

That’s right. I said it. Everyone should have a teleprompter. A teleprompter in every pot, in every stocking, on every desk. Teleprompters for all.

The experience of conversing with someone over the internet, with full eye contact, through a teleprompter, is not a marginal improvement over the status quo. It is night and day. You are instantly reminded “oh, right, this is how humans communicate with one another.”

Talking through teleprompters is a technique originally developed by the greatest talking-head documentary filmmaker of all time, Errol Morris. He calls it the Interrotron. We’ve used the technique quite a bit at Short Order. Transitioning this to the internet was an obvious step, with some additional benefits.

I built my first iteration of this when I moved to my inlaws at the beginning of COVID and set up an office in their garage.


Needless to say, it was a lot, but I wanted to come up with a way to do it with a smaller, simpler footprint.

The obvious choice was using an iPad as a second screen. A lot of people have iPads, and in this case, they would just need a cheap iPad prompter... and a camera... and an HDMI interface to their computer... still a lot.

To make matters worse, I couldn't get the iPad-as-second-monitor trick to work, even using all kinds of hacky utilities that hijack core parts of macOS.

I was lucky enough to get to talk to Adam Lisagor (@lonelysandwich, You Look Nice Today cohost, inventor of the good kind of explainer video, early in the summer and because he's close with the folks at LunaDisplay, he was able to get them to add a feature to AstroPad that would let him do exactly this. He even made a video about it that explains the concept. But it's still too complicated for the average bear. You still need a prompter on your desk with a camera behind it. Even the HDMI camera interface is too much for a regular person... It's just a bridge too far.

Creating a product that was an all-in-one with a teleprompter on the front (that people don't even need to know is a teleprompter) solves this problem, and again, the experience is so delightful that no one will ever go back.

And now the other part, less critical than the integrated teleprompter, but still a huge difference-maker.

A Real Camera Sensor (16mm+)

I'll begin this argument with an immediate counterpoint: Apple's WWDC virtual media tour this summer elected to use bare iPhones on tripods to shoot their shows, both from their spaceship in Cupertino and on the host side. I got to play a small part in this, and it was definitely the coolest nerd thing I got to do this year. I got to help one of my favorite writers (also often wrong), John Gruber (Daring Fireball, creator of Markdown, which I'm using to write this post right now) for his virtual recording of The Talk Show with Apple’s head of software, Craig Federighi. Lisagor connected me because Gruber is a fellow Philadelphian (though he roots for the Cowboys for indefensible reasons).

To be clear: The iPhone’s camera is an absolute marvel in that it helps people who know little about photography get a decent, uniform image and it does amazing computational things to make up for its tiny little sensor, but, and this is really important to understand, the laws of physics prevent a tiny little sensor from ever being able actually look like what a larger camera sensor can look like, most of all that dreamy, blurry background people like so much (which is overblown and a discussion for another day).

There are many images (examples on billboards all across America “Shot on iPhone”) that for all intents and purposes are just as high quality shot on an iPhone as on any other camera, but an indoor, head-and-shoulders portrait—in other words, the image of every person in front of every computer, in every virtual meeting in the world—is never going to be one of them.

The Talk Show came out fine. But it would have been better with a real camera sensor. I could talk about why this is, but it's one of those things that's just easier to see.

Oh, and it definitely would have been better with eyelines.

By the way, there's a working title for you, if you want it: Eyeliner™️ (or Eyeline™️). Says what it is, what it does, easy to remember.

The last thing I want to say is that if you're thinking "Well no one is even thinking they need this and I don't even fully understand what you mean by 'teleprompter,'" that's exactly why this is a good business opportunity. If your plan is to make a better cellphone/webcam-style camera, a better microphone, a better light, or a better way to slap them all together in a box, you've got plenty of competition. No one sees the Eyeliner coming, but when people hook it up to their computer, Skittles of delight are going to rain down from the heavens.

Way Too Long Video Explaining/Demoing The Eyeliner

This video isn't for everyone. It's long and rambling and for some crazy person who wants to go ahead and manufacture this thing (or someone who just wants to build one for themselves). If you're curious about all the parts that went into this, not necessarily the best or least expensive parts, just the parts I had laying around, here's a list (there was also a hacksaw involved):

Footnote. Apple acquired a company to try to build this creepy software thing into FaceTime that subtly shifts the eyes of people to make them look like they're making eye contact. This was an idea I used to talk about with friends at the OG coIN Loft back in 2010. It's a good idea but still creepy and weird. Let's just do it for real.