iOS 13.5 Stabilizes Group FaceTime

image credit: Apple WWDC 2018

By Chand Bellur

May 30, 2020 at 5:24 p.m. PT

  • Using FaceTime in a large group can result in constant active speaker reassignment, causing the display to fluctuate rapidly.
  • iOS 13.5 adds a new facetime setting, enabling users to turn off “automatic prominence”.
  • Automatic prominence is on by default, requiring users to drill down into settings to turn it off.

Group FaceTime Facilitates Large Meetings

FaceTime is Apple’s video chat client. Launched with iOS 4 back in 2010, FaceTime quickly became a popular fixture in the Apple ecosystem.

FaceTime is nothing new, neither to Apple nor the industry. Skype existed long before FaceTime, as did teleconferencing. Apple also developed iChat for the Macintosh years before FaceTime became a reality.

FaceTime’s tight integration with iOS and macOS differentiate it from most video conferencing solutions. Users make a FaceTime call just like they would make a phone call. They can use their same contacts, and the app works just like any other built-in iOS app.

iOS 12 featured a significant update to FaceTime. In September 2018, Apple released Group FaceTime, allowing up to 32 people in a single conversation. Early next year, a severe bug found by a fourteen-year-old boy forced Apple to disable Group FaceTime, pending a software patch. The defect, known as FacePalm, allowed users to force FaceTime callers to accept a call. The malicious actor could then eavesdrop on the victim.

Beyond this defect, Group FaceTime also introduced a more aesthetic bug. The chat client shows active speakers in a larger box than passive participants. When different people speak or make noise, this automatic prominence feature would often shift between many FaceTime users. Although it’s not severe or risky to the end-user, it’s an annoyance. 

Apple Fixes Group FaceTime “Bouncing” with iOS 13.5

iOS users refer to the FaceTime automatic prominence defect as “bouncing”. Apple fixed this feature in iOS 13.5; however, users must alter the setting manually. By default, Group FaceTime exhibits the “bouncing” behavior.

Assuming you’ve installed the iOS 13.5 update, tap on Settings. The Settings app appears. Scroll down the Settings list and tap on FaceTime on the left panel. FaceTime settings appear. From here, scroll down the screen and turn off “Speaking” under “Automatic Prominence.” This will keep all boxes the same size, regardless of who is speaking, minimizing the “bouncing” effect. iPad OS 13.5 also supports this new Group FaceTime setting.

Room for Improvement?

Apple’s decision to default to automatic prominence makes sense. The deleterious “bouncing” effect only occurs in large meetings where some participants are in noisy environments. For the most part, the default will work well in typical group chats. Most people won’t be bothered by the “bouncing” defect.

Instead of adding another setting, however, Apple could have added some latency to the automatic prominence feature. If there were a longer delay between focus switching, the algorithm would better detect active speakers. If Alice is speaking longer than Bob, she will be considered the active speaker; however, with more latency, this decision can be more accurate.

In the end, Apple made the right call. They fixed a minor, annoying bug by letting affected users opt-out of automatic prominence. Perhaps adding more latency to the process makes Apple devices seem slower and less responsive. There already is some delay in the process, to ensure small background noises don’t cause unnecessary refocusing. More latency could undermine the dynamics of group discussions.

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