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Life on the small screen: fly less, video chat more

For more than a century, it’s been the stuff of fantasies: in 1891, Alexander Graham Bell dreamed about “seeing by telegraph” and Hollywood has brought us videophones in Star Trek, Blade Runner and The Jetsons. Once limited to the silver screen or the wealthy (in 1964, three minutes on a Picturephone would set you back $16), today anyone can chat by video for free as easily as getting online, but surprisingly few people are using it. 

So many picture-phones… so few picture-phoners

While 86% of us have watched videos on the Web- according to a Zogby poll-, only 30% of us have ever made a video call, despite the presence of countless services that allow you to do just that by either downloading an app (Skype, iChat, ooVoo) or simply going to a URL (ViVu, TokBox, TinyChat). Maybe that 70% simply lacks sufficient incentive to hook up their webcam (though all new laptops come camera-loaded these days) or to convince their friends and family to do the same, but I’m convinced that once they give it a try, most Americans will be quickly hooked to the instant feedback of “picture phones”.

I’d like to suggest a possible incentive to convince the environmentally-concerned voice-only callers to make the switch: video calls can- at least sometimes- serve as a substitute for planes, trains and automobiles. It has worked for me.

Four years ago when- shocked by the per person fuel consumption of a long haul flight- I vowed to fly less, not traveling by plane meant not seeing my parents and I wasn’t very successful. Today, things are different. We still live 6000 miles apart and I haven’t taken a flight in 6 months (am working toward a year), but I’ve “seen” them nearly every day.

Back in the day of voice-only calling

I eased my way into real-time video communication. I began 6 years ago by voice-only “skyping” (for those who haven’t used Skype, or similar Internet telephony services, this is simply using the Internet to make a phone call) with friends and family from my new home in Barcelona, Spain. 

A couple years later, I had a promising beginning to my picture phoning; my first friend to video call me was MTV-host SuChin Pak who understands how to use the medium and just why video killed the radio star. Her very expressive face gave context to our calls and she knew enough to pan her apartment to show me the progress on her apartment remodel. Then she sent me a web-cam (via mail, not Skype) and she finally “met” my newborn. Enough said.

Diagnosing via Internet

Slowly I recruited my parents, five siblings and closest friends to join in the video conversation. I haven’t seen my Sydney, Australia-based sister in over 2 years, but she’s helped diagnose my daughters’ bronchitis and swollen-shut eye (she’s an MD) and I’ve seen her pregnant belly and met her 5-month-old twins.

My sister Rebecca who is far too distracted for more than a handful of phone calls (online, or otherwise) per year has embraced picture-phoning with gusto and has shown me candidates for wedding dresses and now regularly invites me to an online tea. 

My Los-Angeles-based friend Elizabeth can be counted on to sing- and gesticulate- the “Cannibal King” for my 2-year-old whenever she needs a pick-me-up (A former style-section-contributor to the LA Times she’s also very helpful for instant fashion advice).

A virtual babysitter

But it’s my parents who are my constant online video companions. I simply ring their home phone once and they recognize the signal to hop online. If they’re home, 3 minutes later, my daughter is yelling at the screen “iaia, iaiu” (Catalan nicknames for grandma and grandpa) and showing off her new _____ (dress, ballet move, song, little sister). My mother helped potty-train her via Skype video. When my husband has been out of town, both parents have joined us for a virtual dinner or helped babysit by singing and reading to my toddler (for visuals, see my video A year without flying: a Skype family album).

I believe that not only can videocalling serve as an occasional substitute to cross-country or interstate travel, but even for those of us who live in the same city as our families, it can help us expand the scope of our relationships. An Internet call is not only more carbon neutral than hopping in the car to stop in on parents, siblings, friends, but it’s also more immediate. 

When you have a screaming child on your hands and need 5 minutes to finish dinner, turning on grandma and grandpa sure beats the Teletubbies for instant entertainment and active caregiving. I’m sure no one needs to be convinced that picture-phoning the doctor certainly beats driving-while-fluish to the clinic. 

You might not want your family or friends in your home at all times, but the ability to have them pop into your living room at any moment is priceless. “Change the medium of communication, and you’ll change the relationship“, explains anthropologist Michael Wesch, “much as the printing press transformed the world 500 years ago”.

“To talk to any one of a billion people”

I’m currently half-way through my year-without-air-travel and I don’t feel deprived (After all, I’ve entered a single friend’s bathroom to help her read a pregnancy test and witnessed my nephew’s first steps on the kitchen counter 3,000 miles away). Instead, I feel fortunate that my separation from family and close friends has forced me to recognize just how connected we all are. “It’s pretty amazing that I have this little box sitting on my desk through which I can talk to any one of a billion people”, muses Wesch. “And yet do any of us really use it for all the potential that’s there?”

And the truly amazing part of it… we can not just talk, but practically teleport ourselves into any wired home in the world. It’s been a dream a longtime in the making. A year after Alexander Bell first transmitted voices across a wire, the New York Sun published an editorial from one reader who imagined an “electroscope” which would “permit people, not only to actually to converse with each other, no matter how far they are apart, but also to look into each other’s eyes, and watch their every mien, expression, gesture, and motion.”