Tech the halls with boughs of goodies

“It’s Criss Cross Crash!” my 5-year-old son exclaimed to his grandparents on Saturday morning, holding up the last big present Santa had left him, so they could see. It was the final item in a long parade of toys and goodies, ranging from holiday socks and a package of tree-shaped gummy “Krabby Patties” to that one much-desired thing he had asked Santa to bring him – all held up for grandparental viewing.

But Grandma and Grandpa weren’t sitting across the room from him. Instead, they were sitting in my sister’s home in Virginia, watching their only grandchild open his presents on Christmas morning via Webcam.

Ah, yes – the wonders of modern technology.

Now, I know Point reporter Maria Counts wrote this week about her resolution to “disconnect” from those kinds of technological ties in the new year. And she has a very good point about our loss of common manners and consideration for our fellow human beings in this age of cell phones and game players and apps. But if there’s one thing that shows how technology can bring people together, it’s the ability to share moments such as Saturday’s across the miles, and with nearly as much emotional impact as being there in person.

My mother doesn’t remember it, but she’s had a Webcam for about two years. It was a Christmas present from me, in fact, so that she could talk to her grandson over video chat. I’ll take the blame for the fact that we’ve only used it a couple times. It was a little bit of a hassle back in 2009.

But as of 2011, the sheer number of services – many of them free – and devices that can be used to instantly take hundreds, or thousands, of miles of distance from between loved-ones is amazing.

You can start with the classic Webcam, using any of a myriad of services or a direct Internet connection to make the video-phone concept a reality without buying two or more rather expensive handsets, which still cost nearly $200 each. You can get a budget-grade external Webcam for $20 or splurge with $60 or more.

And that’s if you don’t already have one built in to your computer. Most modern laptop computers – and even many of the smaller, less expensive netbooks – come with built-in Webcams these days. And with the trend toward laptops and away from desktop computers, it’s increasingly likely you’ve got one already, even if you didn’t notice it.

If you’ve got a desktop computer or an older laptop, that external Webcam will plug right in to a USB port on that computer and can perform the same functions of the one that might have come built-in to a newer or more portable model.

Aside from allowing you to record video from in front of your computer, a Webcam can be used for the same kind of two-way, live communication that my family enjoyed last weekend, and the options for doing so are almost limitless.

We considered using the old standby of AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) to connect our Webcams. Yahoo Messenger also allows you to connect with your Yahoo instant-messaging contacts via Webcam. Logitech, which makes a significant portion of the standalone Webcams available these days, also offers its own service, Logitech Vid HD, with the tagline of “Isn’t it about time video calling became easy?” Skype has become ubiquitous, as well, being used more and more for on-site chat on television networks, as well as by the consumer. There are many others, too.

We finally settled on a service called Oovoo, which allows you to connect two Webcams for free, or up to six Webcams with its premium service.

Getting set up with Oovoo was technology-aided, too. Thursday night, my sister sent me a text message with an invitation to connect to Oovoo via Web browser. I copied the address over to my browser and hit return, and – after entering my name, so she knew who was calling – a few seconds later, she was peeking into my living room in Delaware and I was seeing her in Virginia.

That test successful, it was even easier to get connected on Saturday morning. I went right back to the same Web address, put in my name again, and there – alongside the image from our own Webcam – were Grandma and Grandpa, waiting to enjoy Christmas morning with their grandson in the first year we hadn’t traveled there to visit for the holiday.

So, my son and I got to enjoy our first Christmas in our new (well, new-old, since it was built in 1927 – see, I’m not all about the cutting edge!) home, without the hassle and headaches of a three-hour drive and making arrangements for pet-sitting, but still having all the fun of having family around when we opened our presents. I can’t say I didn’t miss breakfast cooked by my culinary-school-trained sister, but all in all, it was a win.

This was definitely a learning experience for us, as my parents saw how easy it was to get connected and we made adjustments to audio levels and distances from the Webcams to see what needed seeing, in as clear a manner as possible. But within minutes, it was nearly like being there.

Saturday night, I got a more conventional call from my parents – via cell phone, though, since I finally cut the cord on the landline service when I moved. My dad said they’d been so impressed with the ease and benefits of the video-chat that he wanted to get my mother a Webcam so they could talk with my son via video more often.

Little did he recall she already had one!

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that a Webcam in your laptop or perched atop your desktop computer monitor isn’t the only way to go. It’s just relatively easy and inexpensive for many people.

Additionally, those who have current-generation iPhones and iPods can now take advantage of the new Facetime application, utilizing the new front-facing camera on the devices to do video-chat. An increasing number of smartphones will be offering video-chat, now that WiFi has become all but ubiquitous and 4G cell service is coming into its own. So, not only can you catch up via phone, but you can do it on the go, too.

Logitech’s new Revue set-top box for your TV also allows for video-chat, in addition to its Google TV-powered TV-watching and other Internet-focused features. Other set-top boxes using Google TV can also be expected to incorporate video-chat features, either with an included camera or with optional accessories.

The device that caught my attention recently is Cisco’s Umi, which is designed to make high-quality video-chat, via your HDTV and broadband Internet connection, so easy that anyone can do it.

Now, this is a similar model to the old-school video-phone in that you need to purchase a device, but the quality, ease and features may well make it worth the start-up costs for families that have Christmas mornings, birthdays and weekly check-ins to ramp up with a little technology, even at $600 each and $25 per month. The good news is that Umi can communicate with computer Webcams and Google video chat, so even if not every party in the conversation has a device, you can still connect.

Umi also takes video messages if you’re not available to take that incoming video call, so you can leave Grandma that birthday well-wishing, even if she’s out for a night on the town. And, you can record video in front of the camera – just like a regular Webcam, but better – and post it on Facebook and more.

Finally, I want to point out that, while video-chat does offer the next best thing to being there, there’s no question that other forms of modern technology can do at least as much to connect us as they do to put us in our own little separate worlds of apps, texts and e-mail.

I now keep up with my cousin’s little boys via blog and Facebook posts. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about my co-workers via Facebook, either. (And I’ll be holding on to some of that for future blackmail purposes, you can be sure…) And I’ve gotten back in touch with and gotten to know again friends from many years past, all thanks to Facebook.

Texts were the thing that let me get to know a new friend in ways that we never would have with weekly visits and e-mails. And posting an interesting article I read or an amazing video I saw – right after I read or saw it – lets me share my life’s little moments with a wider range of my friends than I would ever be able to do in person or over the phone.

Mom’s gotten savvy enough with the e-mail now that she e-mails three or four times a day – all little things that would get forgotten or necessitate numerous calls throughout the day, if not for e-mail.

All of these things have served to bring me closer to friends and family – and that’s a benefit of technology you can’t beat.

So, yes – put down the cell phone to enjoy that New Year’s Eve bash. But pick it back up at 12:01 a.m. to send out well-wishes for the new year to all your friends and family in one fell swoop. They’ll know you care because you thought of them on the holiday, and you’ll have technology to thank for keeping you connected.