Tuesday, May 01, 2007


This summer I traveled across the country to stay with my mom as she recovered from hip-replacement surgery. My wife - a college professor - was mid-semester, so we planned to video chat often to stay in touch. What actually happened in the first few days was, for me, a revelation/revolution in the human communication experience...

During a visit with my father in 1967, we attended Expo 67, the World's Fair in Montreal, Canada. One of my few enduring memories of the trip was talking to my father on an AT&T Picturephone inside a glass-enclosed pavillion, next to a full-sized mock-up of NASA's Apollo Lunar Excursion Module on a simulated moonscape. My father was only about 50 feet away on another Picturephone, and it was only black & white (hey, my family didn't own a color television until 1979), but the promise was that some day, we all could not only hear but see our friends and family over great distances.

Forty years(!) later, we still don't have Picturephones. There are a lot of reasons, possibly the best reason being that much of the time we just don't want to be seen in whatever state we're in when the phone rings. We've gotten used to the paradigm of speaking to a disembodied voice injected directly into one ear - we've been doing so for well over a century.

Of course, there have been solutions for getting that past-future Picturephone into the home. I the past decade and more, there have been expensive consumer devices that connected to a user's phone line and provided choppy video and gravely audio by digitally compressing them to pass through the same "pipe" intended for only audio.

Today, of course, personal computer users can use inexpensive cameras (which may already be incorporated into their computers) in concert with a broadband Internet connection in their home or business to "video chat" or even "video conference" (with more than two people concurrently) with others anywhere in the world. Video quality can be quite good, depending upon the speed of one's Internet connection, and audio is excellent.

Like many, I have been regularly using video chat on personal computers since 2003, when Apple Computer introduced the "AV" version of their "iChat" text- and voice-chat client application. Starting in the early 1990s, I'd periodically played with Internet telephony, but with disappointing results. Attempting to establish test conversations with other geeky friends always resulted in burning up hours in futile troubleshooting, often with one party hearing the other but not vice versa - sometimes with audio skipping most of the words, and sometimes humorously spitting out 10 seconds of speech in a 2-second Chipmunks-style burst. When Apple introduced iChatAV for their Macintosh operating system, they presented a mature and relatively stable technology for easy audio and video communication over the Internet.

This maturation of teleconferencing was possible too because of the increasing penetration of "broadband" Internet access. Increasingly, consumers around the world subscribe to various methods of delivering 24/7 Internet access at data speeds many times greater than those achievable through the half-century old paradigm of the telephone modem.

TOGETHERNESSWhen preparing for my trip to North Carolina, I discovered that the hospital where my mom was having her orthopaedic surgery had free WiFi in some parts of most buildings, but was still in the process of extending coverage campus-wide. I had no idea how much time I'd spend in the hospital, but I prepared for the worst, including acquisition of a WiFi range-extending solution. While in the surgical waiting room, I was delighted to discover that I did indeed have WiFi access in our wing of the hospital.

As soon as my mom was out of surgery and post-op ICU, she was moved to her room. I blogged her status for family and friends, and phoned the less tech-savvy. As soon as I was settled in her room, I set up my laptop and its video camera and discovered my wife online (very early in California). We started a video chat, and I updated her on my mom's status. My wife re-met a friend of my mother's who had stayed with me through the surgery. The laptop was on the rolling hospital bed table, and I showed my wife my mother sleeping off her anesthetic. In these critical first post-op hours, hospital staff popped in every 10-15 minutes, so I'd introduce my wife and each staff member to each other. In every case, the staff seemed delighted and surprised. When my mom first regained consciousness, she was very enthusiastic, if groggy, to be able to speak to her daughter-in-law before she again fell asleep.

The day of surgery was a Friday, and my wife was grading student projects on her computer at home all day, so we just left the cameras going. Staff would come and go and exchange pleasantries with my wife. When the nursing shift changed, new staff would be introduced. Later in the day, I walked my wife around the hospital floor (with her full face on the laptop screen facing forward) and introduced her to the nurses at their station.

After several hours, I was quite hungry, having never left the room. At my wife's encouragement, I went down to the cafeteria, leaving her to watch my mom with the plan that if anything needing my attention happened, she would call my cell phone. I took a break, confident that my wife was "watching" over my mom.

When I returned from the basement cafeteria 20 minutes later with my tray of food, I pushed open the door to my mom's room, and this is when I had an experience:
...the door opened to reveal the contents of the room and in that moment, when I actually saw the mostly-empty room around my mother's sleeping form - there was an expectation, a mental prediction, a mind's-eye image of my wife in the room - that vanished like an unremembered dream upon waking. For that moment, I believed that my wife was in the room. But she wasn't - and she was.

In all the years I've used telephones and Internet-based audio- and video-chat, it was always an "event." You call, you talk. You finish talking, you hang up. The difference here was that for 10 straight hours, my wife was virtually "in the room." For most of the time, we didn't talk. She was doing school work, and I was tending to my mom. When things happened in the room, visitors arriving, staff checking vitals, she interacted with them in the same way that a person physically in the room would, making conversation. I was just as meaningful when she'd go off to get a snack that we could see the empty chair in our office in California, as though that room were now just adjacent to the North Carolina hospital room. It wasn't a communications "event," it was just being there. "Telepresence" comes to mind. Usually referring to technologies that bring more sensory information than the familiar video and audio of our media world, it seems most appropriate here to describe this committed emotional congregation made possible through technological infrastructure more typically utilized for terse bursts of pure information.

Upon further reflection, I remember that in my youth, I did on several occasions watch television while not talking to friends during a phone call - for hours. We were watching the same show, and not really talking but for an occasional "you still there?" In truth, that's kind of the same thing - emotionally, psychically sharing a common, if virtual, mental space. And in the same way, it's similar to my hospital/video-chat experience because of the intent, or lack thereof, to actively use the communications technology for interaction. It wasn't about what we said - it was about spending time with someone.

The tech geek, futurist and creative thinker in me were all caught unawares by the powerful but unobvious meaning of this only recent possibility for mankind. It's something I think others would find similarly satisfying, particularly in the context of being able to provide long-distance emotional support for something like a hospital stay.

My mom's hip replacement went spectacularly well. She was completely off her walker and cane in seven weeks, and has more physical stamina than she's had in years. Most impressively, she's talking about having the other hip done.

Our laptop will be there.

1 comment:

helen said...

Move over, Bill Gates, etc. Dare I say I can hardly wait for Esther's next hip replacement???