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Zoom Escaper: self-sabotage audio, making your presence unbearable to others (zoomescaper.com)
302 points by DyslexicAtheist 7 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 127 comments

Early in the pandemic, I was in a Zoom company meeting where the host (one of the stakeholders) was going through their deck of requirements. Most people on the call had their video off but audio on.

Somebody on the call would breathe heavily and grunt periodically, and it would cause the host to pause his presentation for a second until it stopped. After a few interruptions, the host finally said "Sorry folks, I'm getting some background noise, so I'm going to go ahead and mute everyone." and that was that.

To this day I still have no idea who it was making the noise or what they were doing. I am still amazed at how he handled that with a straight face as I was out of my chair laughing my ass off.

I was on a 9am zoom call with 25 people.

Some guy on a different team fell asleep and started to snore loudly. A check of the participants showed one unmuted mic, so I DMed his boss, the host, and said “heads up: it’s Peter”.

Unfortunately, the presenter was sharing screen and hadn’t turned off notifications, so the whole room saw a pop up from me ratting out the guy.


Ever since a co-worker was caught out messaging a snarky remark to his boss (who happened to be sharing his whole screen at the time, thus broadcasting the snark to the whole call), I've been absolutely paranoid about never messaging the presenter. The idea of having that happen is really terrifying, which helps keep me polite. :)

Oh, I keep messaging the presenter things like "so what did the doctor say about your genital rash?" to mess with them.

Back in the before-times when we had all-hands meetings, my boss had a running game where he would randomly call the cell-phones of people who were presenting or who were sitting in the audience, to see who'd forgotten to leave their phone on vibrate. Some people have very interesting ring-tones...

Sexual harassment lawsuit coming in 5.. 4.. 3... Just kidding, I hope you only mess with male presenters.

Wouldn't discriminating who I mess with based on gender be sexist?

You’ll have to send the same message to your female coworkers in the name of fairness.

You could claim you meant to send it to someone else. It might lead them to doable those notifications.

We have an informal game of trying to get fellow participants to crack a smile via slack.

Extra points if they break to the point they have to turn off their video.

> the presenter. The idea of having that happen is really terrifying, which helps keep me polite.

This is actually a very good and general principle of behaviour: "act as if anything you say to anybody is overheard by everybody else in the world". Maybe you won't ever become a sneaky manager if you follow this principle, but you will certainly sleep well at night.

That sounds like an extremely boring way to live

Maybe for you, but I live by that principle and I'm having a lot of fun!

Why would it be boring or even extremely boring?

Not a message, but a related story that has caused me to be paranoid about possible sources of embarrassment during presentations (turning off all notifications, closing all chat apps, email, closing all browser windows, etc.)...

I was on a cybersecurity team. We were all guys and much younger at the time, so perhaps not the most mature. We also were pretty decent at what we did, so our egos were...let's go with our egos weren't in check. As a result we had a running competition of who was the best at defending their laptop from getting hacked by one of the others, and who was the best at hacking them. Notice of success was delivered by setting the desktop background and/or screensaver to one of the Absolut ad images with Fabio style men dressed in skimpy clothing. Have I covered the not very mature at the time? This also was around 2002, so social awareness of just how bad this behavior was, and how toxic it could have been if female colleagues saw it, was not on our radar at the time.

Anyways, this all came to a halt one day. The team lead had been hacked a couple days before, and the person doing it went a little overboard and put the image [1] on the screensaver, the main desktop, and the external monitor desktop. The lead deleted the image from the screensaver and the main desktop, but didn't expect it on the external monitor desktop and didn't check.

He discovered it when he connected his external monitor port to the big screen just before a presentation to a small room full of 2-stars and SESs, who were shocked at what they saw on the big screen. Our team got an earful (rightly so), and we were probably lucky we didn't get fired. That was the last of that competition, and he was getting razzed about it a little four years later when I left the company for greener pastures.

[1] The image. Warning, it is a graphic male image. https://www.advertisingarchives.co.uk/detail/32171/1/Billboa...

Heh. In my relative youth, I was pranking a fellow co-op student on our work term fairly regularly. One of my faves was that he was on an HP Unix workstation in the shared computer room, and the X display defaulted to allowing all connections from other hosts.

I'd set my DISPLAY environment variable to his desktop, then use xv to open whatever gross / unflattering / whatever pictures I'd found on the net that day.

I once texted a presenter who was explaining something for the 12th time to a slow coworker, “I’m sorry you have to do this.”

Thankfully it only showed my phone number and not my name, and it was ambiguous enough not to be totally obvious. But still....

I honestly don't know how I avoided doing this during my years of employment thus far.

Well that isn't cool, Patrick. We need to discuss this over some Huey Lewis and talk about your stats.

I only say this because I used to be that "teacher's pet" guy.

But my career has had much more upward trajectory, and I have had more fun by being actively sympathetic to my colleges mistakes and trying to "cover" for people instead of telling on them.

Of course I'd never cover for someone doing something illegal, but I stopped looking at work as a contest where I wanted to look the best, and decided to help everyone put their best presentation forward.

The weirdest thing is after I began to get a reputation for this, I am in a WAY better position to get someone fired if I really need to.

I have a similar story but the opposite end of things. I was listening in to a large meeting (>200 people) and the presenter decided to UN-mute everybody's microphones. I still can't believe I didn't hear any explicit or unprofessional things that day. That really was a dangerous move.

Christ, what software lets you do that?

It can be annoying that Teams lets you mute but not unmute people, but thank god it doesn't.

Webex lets you configure meeting options to allow the host to unmute anyone.

I’ve never tried it myself as the mere concept of doing so is a huge invasion of privacy, but after learning that any meeting could have this option enabled, I no longer assume that my muted mic will stay that way.

I suspect it was implemented so the presenter could help help less technically ept people.

Get a mic with a physical button or switch to mute.

Or use Qubes OS.

Zoom also allows the camera forced to on when joining. A colleague once dialed in from her bed.. Fair enough to her it was 9pm in India.

For this reason I always keep my laptop Mike volume to 0, and use the mute button on my headset which is not computer controlled. And an external webcam which I can plug in when I want to.

>Zoom also allows the camera forced to on when joining.

In Zoom on Windows I go to Settings > Video > check Turn off video when joining meeting

I'm pretty sure that will stop anyone from forcing my camera on. But I think that setting defaults to unchecked, meaning by default Zoom automatically shows your video.

For extra protection:

Settings > Audio > uncheck Automatically join audio by computer when joining a meeting

Settings > Audio > check Mute my microphone when joining a meeting

Settings > Audio > uncheck Press and hold SPACE key to temporarily unmute yourself.

I also generally join a bogus empty meeting before any real meeting to preview and ensure my microphone, webcam, virtual background, filters, and studio effects are all the way I want them and not something silly from some playful meeting yesterday.

For extra protection cover your webcam :) That should work.

It was Zoom. Apparently once you allow a host to unmute you remotely, they are able to do so until you revoke the permission. I don't remember allowing that, although its possible I did and forgot about it.

From my experience, if you are unmuted, and the host mutes you, they can unmute you again. If you mute yourself, the host is unable to unmute you.

Huh. Can you take over a host’s mute for a personal mute? Ie. Host mutes me. Some time goes by and I decide to watch YouTube. How do I take a personal mute so that i can’t be unmuted?

Quickly unmute, then mute again.

Huh, once I believe someone muted me then tried to unmute me and I got a popup saying the host wants me to unmute. I'm pretty sure I didn't mute myself; I was in the middle of talking, and my hands weren't even on my mouse or keyboard. There was someone else making background noise, so I believe the host tried to mute that person, accidentally muted me, then tried to unmute me causing me to get the popup.

If you have muted yourself, the host has a button that says "ask to unmute".

This is why you use a microphone with a physical mute button.

Wow. It never occurred to me that such a thing was even possible. Glad I dial in with my phone and use it's mute instead.

The most annoying and least suspicious thing for me personally would be the person on the other end playing back my own audio with a delay, just like the echo of your own voice that you get sometimes on a bad phone connection.

This way I would blame it on my connection, not the other person, who is actually causing it. In a team setting, it goes like "Oh, so we're all hearing our own echoes. We should quit and try again" If there is one person acting as reflector with the right delay (echo generator) for everyone else, that could work, in theory.

Most modern voice applications give a pretty clear visual indicator about who is making noise. I think in your scenario, the person echoing the audio would be quickly identified and told to mute themselves. If they were the only ones playing your audio back after a delay, people would suspect that they are the ones with the connection issue.

However, this was pretty common for a prank, especially 10-15 years ago on services like Ventrilo which resulted in the then-popular Ventrilo Harassment series. Most of the people who got pranked in those didn't get a visual indicator of who was playing sound. The situation you describe can be seen in this video titled "Ventertainment - Nerd Confusion 3: The Ring":


I worked at a radio station and would do this sometimes with a tape deck (Revox) that could record and playback at the same time. Was always fun to trip up the presenters, it's almost impossible to talk that way.

I'd never do it on the air by the way, I'd use an aux bus while taking to them over the TalkBack while music was playing.

This was a hilarious clip. Brought me back to 15 years ago, messing around with people on Ventrilo while playing World of Warcraft. Many, many lost nights and days playing that addictive game. Comic relief thru Ventrilo harassment was necessary...

"I've got baaallls of steel"


Most meeting software I've seen shows talkers, making it very obvious who's causing the echo.

I've never seen local echo on a video conference nor do I really see a realistic path that could reasonably cause this. Regular echo, on the other hand, is common.

I’d attribute that to the other person playing the audio out of their computer speakers while using a mic that is not directional enough to filter it out.

I generally consider it rude to not use headphones in a meeting. The primary issue is you can't have simultaneous talking when someone isn't using headphones, since most applications auto-cancel audio input when they detect feedback. You then have to switch to turn-taking which isn't always suited for certain conversations.

I dearly wish this could be an actual norm.

> playing back my own audio with a delay

Sounds like this device: https://www.google.com/search?q=ig+nobel+speech+jammer

Anyone who has grown up playing multiplayer games knows how important it is to have everyone with 1. A good headset with a noise cancelling microphone 2. The ability to control other people's volume individually and 3. The ability to switch to push to talk rather than open mic.

And last but not least... tech literacy

> And last but not least... tech literacy

Yes, the forced shift to a lot of remote working and thus meetings has worked out a real divide between those who understand and care about not being annoying in an online meeting and those who don't.

I don't know why microphones don't have a big lighted button that sits on your desk - separate from the keyboard - to indicate and control the microphone.

You know - lit red, press it and it turns green for a live mic - release and back to red. Maybe a lock on button.

I've looked online and there are few microphones with buttons/indicators.

A number of popular video conferencing tools have a hotkey shortcut to muting/unmuting your mic.

If someone requests a hardware kill-switch it's typically because they want higher assurance than a software toggle, bound to eventually bug out, can provide.

I keep asking people to switch to PTT but nobody likes it, so I keep hearing their keyboard and shirt noises :(

A better microphone would fix that, and has the added advantage that when you Do P to T your audio quality isn't crap for the duration you're saying stuff. I use a Blue Snowball, it's great, there may be better alternatives.

PTT (in my experience) has some significant disadvantages in terms of interactivity. You can't have a real spontaneous conversation, and you can't hear people laugh.

The problem with not having PTT is that in large calls, a small noise from potentially tens of individual people becomes a larger overall interruption in the call.

Its a blunt stick when you cannot trust people to keep quiet or appropriately position their mic when they aren't talking.

Atleast you only need to deal with their mic quality when they're talking, which at that point you can directly ask the person to fix it if need be.

I think you can allow people to choose to use PTT or not. However if someone doesn't use PTT the user needs to be aware of their mic sensitivity to ensure that background noises are not impacting the call. Examples of this are dogs barking or power tools being used nearby and even breathing into the mic.

I dont think you can choose to do this actually, otherwise you get the tragedy of the commons - those who dont care make loud mouth noises, chewing, and constantly talking to people in the background.

Those who are polite with their communication are drowned out by those who are not.

It really doesnt suffer interactivity problems, mouse 4 exists on most non-shitty mice.

I run a couple of programming groups currently over zoom. Usually between 5 and 15 people. I will tell people to get headphones or fix their audio issues (breathing/mouth noises) and I will mute them if they don't make progress on these issues. Perhaps it helps that most of these people I consider to be friends, but earlier today I did switch the CTO of a company from Slack to Zoom citing the quality of his audio.

I've found that most people seem to fix things themselves after being told a relatively small number of times.

yeah, Zoom has PTT of a sort, you can mute and unmute yourself as you wish (and I will mute myself when I know I'm not going to be taking part in a call for a long period).

That said, you still need a decent mic if you're using PTT, dealing with someone's crap audio when they do P to T is still a bad experience.

Huh, why not? I just push the button whenever I do something that I want people to hear, including laughing.

Because it's weird. I've done it, pressing a button to laugh feels really strange and fake. You can solve the issue with a decent quality mic (which you should have when you're using PTT anyway) and by using headphones, so there doesn't seem to be much of an advantage to having PTT on permanently.

It's only weird when you're not used to it. I keep on mute most of the time and it's automatic.

If people don't want the zero-cost solution of PTT, they definitely won't buy a $100 mic.

It's more a $60 mic.

Most of the time people just don't know their audio is a problem, and all of the times I've pointed it out it's got fixed.

PTT isn't 0 cost if you take into account the reduction in fluidity of a conversation. If I didn't have my mic already I would consider it a reasonable price to pay to get good audio quality, especially since you still need good audio quality when you're actually talking.

> A better microphone would fix that

The Model M sitting on my desk would laugh in that better microphone's general direction.

There are microphones with cardiod pickup patterns that would probably not pick up the model m, if it was placed behind the mic.

My Blue Snowball cackles at your Model M in the "it was free" dialect of Internet put-downs ;)

Maybe they have configured all 104 keys as the push to talk key.

I sooo wish Teams had PTT. As a ham I'm totally comfortable with it. I suppose I should just rig up my own mike to do it in hardware

Microsoft has a website for you to vote for desired features. PTT [1] is right now in backlog behind (among others) multiple organizers, Outlook integration, spell check, live voting, hashtag support, more emoji reactions, multiple Teams accounts, link shortener, compact mode, and, following Zawinski's law, e-mail reader.

So it may take a while. But you can vote for it if you want to increase its chances.

[1] https://microsoftteams.uservoice.com/forums/555103-public/su...

Oh yes I know about uservoice and I have direct contact with MS also because I work with O365 :)

I think PTT is already there in some usecases but only when you're talking to people with galaxy phones (walkie talkie mode).


As far as I've heard there's no plans for push to talk in regular meetings for now.

I saw something similar, though far less sophisticated, at the start of the pandemic. Universities all started doing online exams where students had to have ther microphones active the whole time, so a bunch of CS students got together and made a little script that added noise, randomized echo (so echo cancellation didn't work), dog barks and that buzzing sound that GSM phones used to make when next to speakers. After the first few exams, the microphone requirement was lifted.

Another fun one was a script (actually just a gstreamer chain) that intentionally garbled your camera's video stream, since another exam requirement was a running wide-angle camera (sometimes two!).

"Man Weeping" or "Urination" are clearly the effects you want to get out of that meeting! "James, we'll have to drop you out of the call unfortunately, your crying is way too loud! Goodbye."

I can create the urination effect without an app.

I can create the "man weeping" effect without an app.

And usually do.

Awww, I get the down votes. But I laughed. I laughed a lot.

good ole low tech analog solution

the most powerful version of this I see in a contractor I talk to; its just an incredibly high frequency whine - you know they are not doing it on purpose but at the same time you are desperate to end the discussion as fast as possible.

How do you know it’s not on purpose? Seems to have what might be a desired effect.

If you are on a Mac, check out the Network Link Conditioner.


This is indeed a great and little known feature of Mac (though it's an optional install). Great for troubleshooting and the occasional excuse when you really don't want to share video.

If your behind a router with QoS features, learn how to use QoS.

True but the NLC you can click on and off on the spot at a moment's notice. Beats logging into your router and fiddling with stuff which often needs time to update.

I suppose you could join via the web, then use the Chrome dev tools bandwidth throttling. Not sure if it works on webrtc and websockets though.

That would work for 2 maybe 3 meetings, then you'd be asked to make appropriate accomodations to do your work. But if you choose those 2 or 3 meetings wisely...

While this sounds loads of fun, I'm really interested in Zoom Deleter. While I will personally never allow some other software the power to delete other software, it just makes me smile (only to avoid crying) that Zoom has this effect on others.

This is great. I have someone in my meetings to has the bad connection problem all the time. When trying that one out though, if I disabled it, it would only sometimes disable itself (and re-enable audio)?

I teach kids and it's cool how there are ALWAYS a few who WILL find the mouse holes in software. It's been fun teaching them over MS Teams.

Can you fake a slow connection by streaming 4k video(s) from YouTube / Netflix while zoom meeting?

If you are on a Mac, check out the Network Link Conditioner.


I think just using Zoom meetings imitates a slow connection. At least, it slows my entire laptop responsiveness down to a crawl, so I'm just extrapolating its effect.

How much bandwidth do those use? I'd probably have to stream a couple dozen of them.

You can use bufferi.ng

"Hey John, can you mute yourself? Thanks!"

Good way to get fired

"Sorry, this browser isn't compatible with Zoom Escaper. Please try Chrome on desktop."

How many times will we have to learn the lessons of the late '90s/'00s?

Creator of the Zoom Escaper here... Sadly it relies on a web audio feature that's chrome only. Also too bad because I use firefox as my primary browser.

Could you elaborate a little bit? Just curious about the technical side of creating this cool application.

It's the setSinkId function which let's you select an audio output (https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/API/HTMLMediaEl...) but it looks like I was mistaken -- it should actually also work with Edge and Opera. Will update the message for clarity...

Looks like it is supported on Firefox, but disabled by default, and requires an about:config tweak: https://caniuse.com/?search=setSinkId

Its MDN doc (https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/API/HTMLMediaEl...) shows it as a not-quite-finalized feature, but even so, seems odd to have a pref just for it.

Also of note that Firefox's Web Audio API implementation just isn't very good in general. It's my daily driver, but I won't run Airsonic in it, because after half an hour or so the music reliably starts glitching. Fine in every other client, so it's definitely a Firefox thing, and iO-808 [1] also calls it out in an alert if you go there in Firefox. (And also starts glitching out after a while, if you decide to ignore the alert and take your chances.)

Granted, a glitchy audio implementation might be just the thing for this use case...

[1] https://io808.com/

Thanks, every time I see such a message I wish it had an expandable paragraph telling me what prevents it working with Firefox.

Mentioing the info from kelnos' comment would be excellent.

It should work with Brave too.

I’m interesting in knowing as well which standard in particular is being used which only Chrome supports. I was under the impression that the Web Audio API[1] was fairly well supported cross all modern browsers.

1: https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/API/Web_Audio_A...

Well done.

If someone wants to use this they should have no problem running in chrome.

Sure, morals are no problem to get over. But hey, what's the price of privacy to run some software?

Oh I’m sorry, did you pay for the development effort?

Of Chrome? I sure did. All of that information that Google has collected about me over the years without my say so has generated income for them.

If you ever used any of their services you agreed on a bunch of ToS.

Does that include all of those sites that include GA/GFonts/etc that I have zero control over? You don't have to use G/FB services to still be a money generator for them. To be a reader of this site and still not understand that, one must either be on ostrich or a new reader.

You do have control over, just don't load things from them. Google "no-script", "uBlock", etc.

Your biological and technological distinctiveness have already been absorbed by G if you seriously use the term Google in daily vernacular for search. tsk tsk. You are the borg.

Come on, it was a joke given the context of our conversation.

And you think a star trek borg reference wasn't?

My bad, I did not catch that.

Thanks for creating and for sharing with us! Disregard the negativity.

The negativity was probably meant for Chrome anyway.

The lesson of those times was to not rely upon proprietary APIs in browsers. (Like ActiveX or other IE-only extensions which were often used.)

When you see this warning nowadays, it's not usually about that, but about Firefox or Safari being behind in supporting already-specced APIs.

I disagree. Chrome, by virtue of its popularity, market power and technical prowess, pushes through new features. In addition to that, they also port features from ChromeOS. Most of these features are either not standard yet or would never be.

For example, the WebUSB APIs are still in draft community status but is already there in chrome. Presumably because they created it for chromeos, ported it to chrome and then submitted it to the standards body - in that order. They are definitely going to continue this. I don’t see chrome publishing and getting a standard approved before implementing it at all. It’s also how IE6 holdover came about.

Web developers aren’t supposed to rely on non-standard features because it’s tight coupling and will bite you if the browser ever stagnates. That’s the lesson I learnt from the whole IE6 saga.


Well, yeah, you shouldn’t make your site incompatible with browsers that don’t support non-specced features if you can avoid it. Which is what I said the lesson was.

But I like WebGL2 and SharedArrayBuffer and don’t feel bad blocking users until their browser catches up.

Yeah and Firefox still lacks full passwordless fido2 (ctap mode)

I agree. Every webdev should know by now that you also need to tell visitors the screen resolution that a webpage is best viewed with.

420x6969. Ultra portrait aspect ratio.

I miss visible visitor counters and guestbooks!

The main lesson of the time was that users don't care about some "plurality" or browsers, and will flock to the browser that has the more features or best speed or more adoption.

Yeah, safari is the new internet explorer.

The web decided to give up on the original tenets of graceful degradation and other such things.

The web of the 90s/00s was actually a lot more resilient and compatible and secure than the bullshit js SPAs we get jammed down our throats today.

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