You, too, can make a fake escape by creating a virtual background for your next videoconference session. It's really easy to do. Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams are free to use, and although they charge for extra features, there are no costs for adding a virtual background. All you need is a little know-how to make sure your guests are focusing on you, not what's behind your back.
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To enable backgrounds in the three most popular video meeting services, you'll need to actually be in a meeting. So first create one just for yourself, to test the settings.
Zoom can even 'touch up' your appearance
At the bottom left of the screen in Zoom, press the Start Video button to make sure your camera is on. Click on the up arrow ^ for a drop-down menu, then Choose Virtual Background. You'll see a menu pop up with several choices, including blue skies, the Golden Gate Bridge and the northern lights.
Select the image of your choice, or if you'd rather, you can upload your own by clicking the plus + sign. Zoom has tons of additional backgrounds available for free, and you're not limited to what is offered from Zoom.
You also can blur your real background — to keep the focus more on you — by downloading the latest copy of Zoom, version 5.5 or higher, which has Blur as the second Virtual Background option.
If you don't see Blur as an option, you have an older version of the Zoom app installed. To update on a Mac or Windows computer, click on your picture in the upper right corner of the Zoom app and select Check for Updates. On a Mac, you can also go to the zoom.us pulldown menu at the top of your computer screen and select Check for Updates. If you need a newer version, Zoom will download and install it.
To add a soft-focus look to your image, click on Video Settings from that same Start or Stop Video menu at the bottom of the screen and select Touch up my appearance. You can experiment by moving the blue dot to the left or right to find your favorite version of you.
Google Meet has 2 choices to blur background
The program, which can be accessed directly from Gmail by clicking on the icon that looks like nine dots arranged as a square, has three dots aligned vertically on the lower right of the screen. Click on them and select Change Background. You get the usual collection of beaches, clouds and fall leaves and an option to upload your own image.
The same Zoom backgrounds available for download can also be used with other programs such as Meet. And with Meet, you can blur the background to keep the focus on you, either by clicking on the second button at the top of the Backgrounds pane to Slightly blur your background or the third button to Blur your background.
Plus, Zoom's Touch up my appearance feature has become so popular that Google Meet and Skype have created their own beautifying filter. To enhance your look in those programs, you'll need the free Snap Camera tool.
First, download and install the Snap Camera app. Open the app and browse through the filters. Experiment to discover which ones you like best. One even applies make-up to your face, virtually. Then open Google Meet or Skype and select Snap Camera as your camera instead of your webcam name.
Microsoft Teams can give you corporate look
You can change your background before going live in a meeting or even while you're in one. Immediately before, make sure that the toggle switch for your camera is purple and on. Next to that video camera icon is the Background filters option. Click on it.
Or while you're in a meeting, get to backgrounds with the row of three horizontal dots, this time at the top of the screen next to the camera and microphone icons. Choose Apply background effects.
Microsoft, reflecting its focus on corporate clients, offers a different mix of background choices, adding office and apartment looks as well as bridges, beaches and balloon backgrounds. With Teams you can blur your background from the background menu, with Blur as the first choice.
Teams does not support a beauty filter.
Beware of the blur
Some things to look out for.
Blur, as Microsoft and Google have conceived it, may make the garbage in the background disappear, but the fuzziness is so strong that you might look like an alien from an alternate universe. And if you move your hands, it might look like you have no fingers, because the software has blurred them as well.
Finding the right background will look more pleasing to your fellow meeting participants. What should you look for? A background that doesn't get in the way.
If you've got a bridge in your background, make sure its towers or cables aren't coming out of your head. Ditto for trees and other similar objects. Position yourself so they are to the side.
Practice lighting, filters
You don't have to be in a meeting to see how you look. You can practice in Zoom and other programs by clicking to start a meeting but then lining up your image and lighting before other callers join you.
Backgrounds look best when you're illuminated, and you can avoid the blurring of your hands and having a halo around you. This can be as simple as turning on a couple of inexpensive lamps.
One big no-no: Never face the camera with a window behind you. The camera will adjust for the light coming from the window and not you. Turn around and be lit by window light.
Zoom also has a big collection of filters you can use to do everything from adding a beard, mustache and wild eyebrows to your face to putting your face into a TV set or movie screen. One of the best filter options is the second choice, located next to None. It's called Boost, and it simply darkens the background to put more focus on you. Highly recommended.
Learn how to reverse the effects
Finally, if you're a lawyer — or even if you're not — you've surely heard about the viral video featuring the lawyer trying his case via Zoom. He had a cat filter stuck on his face and ended up saying, “I am not a cat.”
His problem: He didn't know how to turn off the filter.
It's actually simple. First of all, his wasn't a Zoom filter. Instead it was a discontinued filter from Dell, similar to ones now used in the popular teen app Snapchat but also available for video meetings.
Should your young loved one add it or something similar to your computer without your knowledge, go to the same Start or Stop Video tab on the Zoom screen, where the cat filter would show up as Snap Camera. Change the setting to your webcam, and you'll be able to show your real face again.
This story, originally published Feb. 22, 2021, was updated to add information on beauty filters for Google Meet and Skype. Marc Saltzman contributed to this story.
Jefferson Graham is a contributing writer who covers personal technology and previously was a technology columnist for USA Today. He hosts the streaming travel photography series Photowalks and is author of Video Nation: A DIY Guide to Planning, Sharing and Shooting Great Video.