Sunday, December 27, 2009

Skype: Bringing your family home for the holidays

Christmas in the Bronx was extra special this year because everyone was there, even my uncle who lives 1,200 miles away in sunny Florida.

My family usually likes to surprise my 94-year-old grandmother, Gladys Willis, when her son, Rudy, comes to town for a visit. They never tell her when he flies into LaGuardia. It's always the same routine. He comes in the door, my grandmother looks up, she stretches out her frail arms and yells, "Ru-ddddyyy!" Then she hugs him tighter than a pair of skinny jeans. (The last time he came up to the Bronx was for Thanksgiving - they are pictured above)

But this time around the surprise didn't walk through the door. He instead popped up right before her eyes.

I sat my MacBook Pro on her lap and there he was on my computer screen, wearing his New York Yankee Santa hat.

"Hi, ma," he said, smiling and waving.

A little confused, my grandmother, wearing her own Santa hat with a coil spring, just waved. She didn't realize that he could hear her, too. After some coaching, she finally got the hang of it.

But the new way to interact with her 58-year-old son was all courtesy of Skype, a popular free calling service that also allows video conferencing. It's like having a video phone. The service gained popularity on television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, where guests are often interviewed from their homes.

"I liked it. It was really good," Uncle Rudy said of his first Skype visit to a family gathering. "I got to see everybody all at one time. It's a lot different than just talking on the phone."

The laptop would eventually go around the living room to the laps of everyone in our tight-knit family. It even traveled to the dining room, where we teased Uncle Rudy with his favorite holiday cookies that my Aunt Valerie makes annually. Then we made a pit stop in the kitchen, where my Uncle Reggie was whipping up some instant mashed potatoes.

"Your Uncle Reggie making instant potatoes," he laughed. "He did it live on the air."

The entire Skype experience lasted an hour, and will likely become a regular occurrence at family gatherings, he said.

"I can't get up there but so many times a year," he said. "This way I can visit a little more. My mother can see me. I won't get the hug. But she was throwing me kisses."

What's next? Well, Uncle Rudy already has a suggestion for the next big breakthrough.

"You took me over to the dining room table and everything," he said. "The cookies were right there. That's the next thing - being able to taste the cookies through the screen."

Below is a cool and simple explanation of how Skype works:

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