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Videoconferencing expands to living rooms and far-flung families

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There are myriad ways to stay in touch electronically. Phone calls. E-mail. Instant messaging.

But one of the more personal electronic forms of communication is videoconferencing over the Web. Videoconferencing technology that used to be primarily for corporate conglomerates with offices around the world is now revolutionizing the way far-flung families connect.

"I don't like being so far away from my family, but having the ability to watch my granddaughter and to actually talk to my son and daughter-in-law makes me feel so more connected to them than just being able to talk to them on the phone or by e-mail," said Lois DeKock of El Cajon, Calif., who turns on her video cam every other week to chat - face to face - with her family in Texas.

The video chats are free, or very inexpensive, because the video and audio travel over high-speed Internet connections instead of over telephone lines. The caller and the person on the receiving end need only a computer, a Web cam, microphone and Internet access.

Skype, one of the more popular, free videoconferencing software programs for families, said 20% of its 171 million registered users worldwide are making video calls.

"People are really finding great value in using video," said Jennifer Caukin, Skype's director of corporate communications. "It's becoming more and more popular as the price of the cameras has come down. What we're seeing is that it changes the way people communicate. It's almost like you're in the room next door to someone you really care about."

AT&T captured America's imagination in 1962 when it showed its Picturephone at the World's Fair in New York. But the idea of seeing a live picture of someone you're talking with has remained more of a fantasy than reality because of the high cost.

In the 1970s, color cameras were the size of a file cabinet and required studio lighting and maintenance costing $50,000 to $100,000. By the 1980s, the cost still ranged from $5,000 to $100,000.

Today, a Web cam runs as little as $30, and some laptops even have them built in. Cameras that are sold separately often are bundled with videoconferencing software.

As a result, videoconferencing is growing. The global market for enterprise videoconferencing systems is expected to reach almost $238 million in annual revenue by 2011, said Frost & Sullivan research analyst Mariana Zamoszczyk.

The Kraus family of Carlsbad, Calif., started using Skype's free video service in November, after daughter Kennedy, 8, a second-grader, began receiving treatment near Los Angeles for a rare bone-marrow disorder.

When Kennedy isn't at the City of Hope medical center receiving treatment for aplastic anemia, she and her mother, Terri, stay with relatives in nearby Orange County. Kennedy needs to stay close to the hospital.

For the past four months, Kennedy and her mother have had regular videoconferences with the two family members left at home in Carlsbad - Gary, Kennedy's father, and Cole, her 10-year-old brother.

Over the live video feed, Kennedy also has been able to visit with her dog, Zoe, a Scottish deerhound who gets excited at the sound of Kennedy's voice over the computer.

Kraus uses the Web cam to help Cole, a fourth-grader, with his spelling homework. Cole scans in his work, then e-mails it to her. Kraus and her son then discuss it during a videoconference.

Cole was also able to show his mother his latest research report - created on a cereal box - about a sheep crab.

For Kennedy, the Web cam offers a semblance of a social life.

She and her friend Caitlin ate dinner together - during a videoconference. While Kennedy munched on pizza, Caitlin ate tacos. They were 100 miles apart, but seemingly as close as sitting across the table from one another.

Kennedy's grandparents, aunts, uncles and her teacher have bought Web cams to keep in touch with her.

"It's just opened up the communication," Kraus said of videoconferencing. "It's really worked well for our family and friends to stay close and be a part of our lives."

Psychologist Larry Rosen, a professor at California State University Dominguez Hills, said videoconferencing eliminates much of the guesswork that people do when talking on the phone or e-mailing one another.

"It's providing enough cues so you don't have to make any guesses," he said.

With e-mailing or talking on the phone, "cues" - such as smiles or other body language - are largely lost.

"Every time we lose cues, because we're human, we need to make up things that fit the way we want our world to look. We project our view of the world onto other people," said Rosen, whose book, "Me, MySpace and I," is due out early next year.

Skype has documented many out-of-the-ordinary uses for its videoconferencing system. Among them:
  • A U.S. soldier deployed in Iraq watched the birth of his baby over a Web cam.

  • A New York man kept in touch with his pregnant wife, who had suffered complications during a trip to Greece and had to be admitted to a hospital there.

  • A couple who met while on vacation in Mexico later "dated" via Skype's videoconferencing service from his home in Minneapolis and hers in Houston. They even held cooking contests over their Web cams.
Most home videoconference users, however, use their Web cams to visit with faraway family members.

DeKock, who uses her Web cam to visit with her son, daughter-in-law and 2-year-old granddaughter in Texas, logs on once every couple of weeks, usually on Sunday afternoons for online get-togethers.

"We can interact face to face, which is much better than just talking on the phone," she said. "It gives you so much more information about how your family members really are doing when you can actually see them."

The family has been meeting online ever since DeKock's granddaughter, Emma, was a baby. DeKock has watched her grow up via Web cam.

"It's a wonderful gift that technology gives us," DeKock said. "Sometimes, technology makes our lives more complicated. But for me, this has helped me handle my family being so far away."

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