A Picture-perfect Connection

Cassie Marzke’s father, Ron,  may travel a lot, but that doesn’t mean he has to miss what goes on at home. With the family computer and its built-in camera positioned just so, he can still listen to Cassie practice the piano and hear about school over dinner.


Ten-year-old Cassie, in turn, can see what her father, an astronomer, is doing while he’s away from their San Francisco home. Through the lens on his laptop, she’s seen the telescope that he uses to gaze at the stars and met the telescope operator.


Cassie’s mom, Heidi Waterfield, says this sort of video conferencing has made a huge difference when Dad is away. “It makes his absences seem much shorter,” she says, recalling how her husband sometimes travels for weeks at a time. “We don’t see him as much, but we get to see him.”


Led in part by families likes theirs, video conferencing is becoming increasingly popular, making it possible for families to keep in touch with far-flung relatives and friends. Technological advances have also made it easier and cheaper. All you need is a computer with a camera and high-speed Internet access.


Around the world, some 90 million people video chat, up from 46 million in 2008, according to International Data Corp., a technology research firm. Many use Skype, owned by eBay in San Jose, although more and more free online services such as, Google Talk and ooVoo, are also available.


Waterfield said her family started using iChat, an Apple program, a few years ago. When her husband travels, she leaves the computer on as she and her daughter go about their afternoon. That way, her husband can catch snippets of their conversation and feel as if he’s still with them. During dinner, her daughter will sit in front of the computer and talk to her dad.


“We can hear what’s he doing. He can hear what we’re doing. It feels like he’s in the next room,” she says.


A Grandparent’s Best Friend


Once a week around breakfast time, 4-year-old Martha Martin and 21-month-old Tom Martin have a date to connect with their grandparents in the United Kingdom through Skype. The video calls help bridge the time between when they see their grandparents in person, about four times a year.


Because of their young age, they tend to take turns at the computer, with Martha taking the lead and showing them how much her younger brother has grown. “She feels like she’s on stage a little bit,” says mom Carrie Johnston.


There can be frustrating moments. Depending on the speed and quality of the connection and the computer (not to mention the service itself), the video chat can start and stop. The picture can also be small and grainy and sometimes you need to shout.


Martha and Tom’s dad, Adrian Martin, says the family, who live in Berkeley, used Skype at first, then switched to Microsoft Messenger because of quality issues. Several months ago, they returned to Skype.


“For some reason, it would stop working and then we’d have to be back on the phone,” he says. “Half of our call would be about getting the video link established.”


Getting Better all the Time


It’s gotten better over the years, of course. One of the newest services is San Francisco’s TokBox. Introduced in late 2007, TokBox operates from your Web browser, so you don’t need to download additional software. You can even customize a personal Web address so people can go directly to your site, call you or leave you a video message. You can also connect with people using Google, AOL, Yahoo or Microsoft.


Micky O’Brien, TokBox’s vice president of marketing, said she’s seen families take advantage of the service’s ability to have 20 people in different locations signed on at once, allowing families to hold reunions, birthday parties and even a wedding online. Video conferencing still isn’t considered mainstream, but that’s changing. “The biggest barrier is people get camera shy,” O’Brien said. “People don’t like to see themselves on camera.”


But the latest generation of online users has become accustomed to broadcasting, from recording and sharing videos of themselves on YouTube to letting their friends know how they’re feeling at the moment on Facebook or Twitter. “They’re comfortable on camera,” she said.


In the near future, video calling is poised to advance even more. Instead of huddling around a computer, you could soon be interacting with others in front of a high-definition television. Skype announced in January it is partnering with LG and Panasonic to embed its software into their high-definition, Internet-connected televisions.


Better get ready for your close-up.


Ellen Lee covers technology for Bay Area Parent. She has a 21-month-old daughter and is expecting No. 2 any day now.




Video Conferencing Services


AIM (AOL): products.aim.com/

Google Talk: google.com/talk/ 

iChat: apple.com/macosx/what-is-macosx/ichat.html

Microsoft: windowslive.com/desktop/messenger

ooVoo: oovoo.com

Skype: skype.com/allfeatures/videocall/

TokBox: tokbox.com/

Yahoo: messenger.yahoo.com/




Getting Started


All you need to start video chatting is a computer with a webcam – most new computers come with a built-in camera – and high-speed Internet access.


Webcams are fairly inexpensive, and range from about $10 to $100 for a particularly high-quality one.


Most online services require you to download a small program. In most cases, such as Google Talk, the program is only about the size of a music file.


Once you set up your username, you will need the email address or username of your friends and relatives. (Note that you and your friends and relatives need to use the same service). Once you add them to your buddy list, you will be able to see if they’re online and be able to ring them. But you may want to schedule a set time – not everyone is camera-ready 24 hours a day!

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