From add-on to necessity: How the webcam is evolving

The camera in your PC or conference room is advancing to meet the needs of an increasingly remote and hybrid world.

By Jared Lindzon — February 15, 2022

Graham Donald can’t recall using the built-in camera on his laptop for business purposes before the pandemic.

That changed suddenly in early 2020, when Donald’s company, Brainstorm Strategy Group — a student recruitment consulting and training company based in Ontario, Canada — pivoted from in-person events to online webinars. He soon realized that the built-in camera on his laptop wasn’t up to the task. 

Donald, who hosted 20 individual webinars and online conferences in the first four months of the pandemic, says his biggest concerns were sound quality, lighting, and camera quality. “All three of those things had to come from something external from my computer to get it to where I wanted it to be,” he says, noting that he purchased peripheral devices, including an external webcam, to get the quality he needed.

From staying connected to family and friends to distance learning and remote work, the cameras built into our computers have taken on new significance in the past two years. Pixelated or grainy images aren’t just an annoyance anymore — they can have a negative impact on how colleagues and clients perceive you, how effectively your kids learn from home, and how close you feel to a faraway friend or family member. 

“Two years ago, no one cared. They would do an occasional video call, and even if the picture was grainy it was OK,” says David Coleman, chief analyst for San Francisco-based technology consulting firm Collaborative Strategies Inc. “Now that you’re using it for hours a day, it makes a big difference.”

In fact, HP data suggests that more than 75% of people judge coworkers and colleagues based on their audio quality, and 73% do so based on their video quality during online meetings.

“Think about it — If you’re a sales person in a virtual pitch, or a doctor doing a telehealth visit, or a freshly-graduated college student on a job interview  — what you have to say is now just as important as how you show up digitally,” says Alex Cho, president of HP’s personal systems business. “Great audio and video experiences on the PC ultimately empower a bigger, core human experience that the pandemic has made more important for everyone — connection.” 

Fortunately, the technology behind those cameras embedded in our PCs is evolving along with our changing needs. 

Consumers want webcams that work 

The primary culprit of poor image quality is often poor lighting, which can result in making the user look too dark, too bright, or a completely different and unnatural color — not the way anyone wants to stand out in a video call. It’s hard enough to find a quiet place at home for a video call — worrying about lighting adds another layer to the challenge. When Donald first set up his external webcam, he was working in a windowless basement office. Later, when he moved to a brighter, sunnier space, he found he required a completely new setup. 

“Now that you’re using [your webcam] for hours a day, it makes a big difference.”

—David Coleman, chief analyst, Collaborative Strategies Inc.

“Some cameras just don’t work with artificial lighting unless you use software to adjust the settings every time you turn it on to get the coloring right,” he says. “It should be plug-and-play and adjust the coloring for any lighting situation.”

Image quality in smartphones — which people use for everything from family snapshots to professional film and photography — have also heightened consumer expectations for what a camera can do.

For example, in recent years iPhone cameras have jumped from 8 megapixels in 2014 to 12 megapixels in 2017 to a rumored 48 megapixels later this year, and can now capture 4K video. As customers have gotten accustomed to high quality cameras in their mobile devices, they are demanding similar upgrades to their laptops and desktops, where internal webcams have long hovered around 1 megapixel in resolution, largely because of hardware constraints in the lighter, smaller laptops consumers want.


RELATED: See how hybrid technology could transform business conferences for the better.


Software features can help make up for where cameras reach a limit due to hardware constraints on megapixels, shutter speed, and lens size, Coleman believes. 

“Having AI software that deals with picture jitter or optimizes the data stream for video is eventually going to be the bigger differentiators,” he says. “That’s already starting.

From glitchy to glam

New software allows for better video quality without the need to tinker with camera settings or buy new lighting, such as the HP’s GlamCam, a suite of AI-powered software tools currently available on the HP Spectre x360 16 that allows users to enhance their video quality while getting more out of their devices.

The software package includes a series of facial enhancement features, including “Beauty Mode,” which automatically provides touch-ups to skin, teeth, and eyes; “Auto-Frame,” which detects the user’s face to center the image on the speaker; and “Lighting Correction,” which automatically adjusts lighting. Such tools offer users access to some of the filters and touch-up features they enjoy while using social media platforms, but for real time video interactions. 

Webcams are now an integral enabler of our hybrid future, and consumers and workers are looking for high quality with minimal effort.

The GlamCam also offers security, health, and performance-enhancing features, such as the “Walk Away” feature automatically locks the device when the camera no longer detects the user’s face and the “Wake on Approach” setting offers the opposite convenience, automatically powering up the device when the user’s face is detected. The customizable “Screen Distance” feature that can warn users when they’re sitting too close to the screen and track overall screen time. 

For larger meetings and groups, conferencing products and services such as HP Presence Meeting Space Solutions includes a 4K AI camera with auto-framing, tracking, and picture-in-picture, and an audio video bar, also with a smart camera with 5X zoom, that frames and tracks only the people speaking in the room. 

Cameras are key to our hybrid future

In the past, webcam users were typically stationary, tech savvy, and could design a home studio using a variety of tools to enhance video quality, such as external lighting and standalone microphones. Today, users expect the same level of quality in a device that’s as mobile as they are, without any additional hardware.

“Let’s say I’m using Slack as an app, which people do all over the place — in their car, walking down the street, on their desktop, on their phones, sometimes on their watch,” says Jim Szafranski, the CEO of presentation software provider Prezi. “How does the camera show up in the right way in all of those places?”

As webcams evolve from more of a niche device used by only a small handful of professionals to an integral enabler of our hybrid future, consumers are looking for a solution that offers high quality with minimal effort, and that need will only accelerate in the coming years. With camera technology advancing at breakneck speeds, we are getting closer to a future of holograms, metaverse avatars, and fully immersive virtual experiences. 

Key to enabling that future, however, is a high-quality hardware device coupled with smart features simple enough for any user, and in any setting.

“The camera should make my work better without having to understand too much about it,” Szafranski says. “It’s becoming an integrated part of the space you’re in, and that’s what people are looking for.”