By John Andrews
Christmas is tough. The bigger the family, the more houses there are to visit. When some or all are far away, it just might not be practical to go everywhere. Thankfully, technology can step in to bring you all together, if only virtually.
Perhaps both you and your other family members have new iPhones with the FaceTime app and can just click a button to video chat. Well, shoot, if you can afford that, why aren’t you visiting?On the other hand, you can use a computer to do the same thing, with a bigger screen to boot. You probably have everything you need already.
• Solid Internet connection: This is not negotiable. A slow dial-up account or spotty satellite link just won’t do, because then your video signal will cut out over and over again. Momentary but repeated blips will get infuriating, and any real break in communications will require manual re-connection. Would you rather fiddle with the call button or open presents? Thought so.
• Webcam: Most consumer laptops sold in the last few years have come with a webcam built right into the bezel above the screen. If you don’t have one, you don’t have to spend big bucks — there’s a huge selection of webcams under $10 online, and name brand ones under $20 at your local big box stores. The cheapest ones don’t necessarily capture high- definition video, but a couple do include a built-in…
• Microphone: You want your family to hear you, right? A microphone built into the webcam or laptop will work but might not pick up every passive-aggressive comment you make. High-quality, low-noise microphones — the kind you might use for recording a song or podcast — are definitely overkill for video chat. A corner computer shop should have a basic desktop mike for a few bucks that you can place in the middle of the festivities. In a pinch, plug a pair of headphones into the microphone jack and speak into the left earpiece.
• Speakers: You want to hear your family, right? Even if you don’t, one-way conversations are often awkward. Standard PC speakers will do the trick as long as you can turn up their volume enough for everyone to hear. For extra oomph, run a cable from the speaker output of your computer to the auxiliary input of your stereo system — it’s almost certainly a 3.5mm connector on the computer end and probably a 3.5mm or pair of RCA jacks on the stereo.
• Chat software: Maybe this came with your webcam, but unless your partner has the same software, it won’t do you much good. Fortunately there are so many free video chat clients it’s not even funny. If you already use Gmail, you’re set. A contact with video chat capability will show up with a little video camera next to their name. Skype is known for audio and phone interaction but also supports video chatting quite well, as do most instant messaging clients. Trillian and Eyeball Chat are clients that can connect to more than one service at once, like AOL, Yahoo! and MSN.
Make sure to test your setup before the big day so that only the pre-wrapped drugstore gifts are a letdown, not the technology. The technology for online hugging, cookie-sharing and hot-cocoa-drinking isn’t quite there yet, but at least you and your loved ones will be able to see and hear each other.