Recently, I was on a video call where someone had enabled a custom video background that was designed to make it easier to concentrate on the speaker but ended up being very distracting for me as someone with low vision. The dim lighting conditions for the speaker combined with the bright background meant that it was impossible for me to see the speaker and ended up hurting my eyes to the point that I had to disable video. However, I was on another call where the custom video background helped me to focus better on the speaker and allowed me to pay attention much better than I would have without the custom background. Here are my tips for choosing the best custom video backgrounds for low vision audiences on platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams.
Why use custom backgrounds?
While it may sound like I dislike all custom video backgrounds, I believe that they can be a very helpful tool when used correctly and with accessibility design principles in mind. Some of the benefits of using custom video backgrounds include:
- Blocking out messy backgrounds or people in the background
- Helping audiences to focus on the speaker, not whatever is behind them
- Avoid sharing private location information that may be visible in the background
- It can help users look more professional, depending on the background they choose
- Show off art or other design skills
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How custom backgrounds can be disorienting for low vision audiences
Even though custom video backgrounds can be helpful for users with low vision, they can also be very disorienting at times. Some of the ways that custom video backgrounds can be disorienting include:
- Having bright or busy designs that can be difficult to focus on
- Some patterns, especially small ones, can trigger vertigo in some audiences
- Depending on the background, it can be difficult to see where the person is
- Poor lighting conditions can be more obvious and provide poor contrast against backgrounds
- Backgrounds may not render correctly and cause unwanted visual effects
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Whenever possible, use images/colors that provide good contrast
My top piece of advice for choosing custom video backgrounds for low vision audiences is to use images and colors that provide good contrast between the speaker and the background. While I can’t recommend a specific all-purpose background that will work in any situation, it’s important to ensure that the background image does not blend in with hair or clothing and that the speaker is front and center. Browsing Pantone color shades using Google Images can be a great way to find a color that complements the speaker- I’ve used Classic Blue in a few calls myself, which is the Pantone Color of the Year for 2020.
Avoid backgrounds that are mostly white or neon colors
At a virtual conference I attended, the presenter chose to use a blank white background that was very painful to look at for long periods of time, and caused my eyes to get fatigued fairly quickly. One of my friends had a similar issue where their professor had done a class lecture in front of a very bright green background, and they ended up having to turn off their computer display and listen to the rest of the lecture because the color was so intense. Bright or intense colors for long periods of time can also trigger migraines in some audiences, so it’s better to avoid them whenever possible.
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Don’t use backgrounds that include images of people
One of the main benefits of using custom video backgrounds is that it makes it easier to focus on the speaker, so using a background that includes images of people or faces can make it even more difficult to focus. A young student I worked with was telling me about how their teacher created a custom background that featured images of all of the members of their class behind them, and they found it very difficult to pay attention to the hand gestures their teacher was making because there were so many faces on the screen.
Best types of backgrounds to use
Some of the best types of custom video backgrounds for low vision audiences include:
- High-resolution images of nature
- Simple color swatches
- Calming images or patterns
- Black backgrounds with accent colors
- Northern lights
- Photos of existing rooms or offices (one of my friends used a photo from the TV show “The Office” for this)
- Rice paper patterns
- Photos of walls
Users can find images that will suit their needs by searching for these terms on Google Images or similar websites- I recommend saving them in a folder or in a gallery for easy access.
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Custom video backgrounds can make a tremendous difference between me being able to focus on a meeting and communicate with the speaker, and me having to leave early or turn off my camera due to eyestrain. I hope these tips on choosing custom video backgrounds for low vision audience is helpful for other teachers and speakers!