« a decadent morning | Main | this weekend is the prepare-portfolio weekend »

Chatting with Zeb

[I'm working on an NSF proposal about telecollaboration; I wrote this description of how our family uses teleconferencing to keep in touch from different sides of the country. Some specifics have been changed for the purposes of narrative, but this is pretty much an accurate description of what we do and how it affects us.]

Most Sunday mornings, I sign on to my chat software before I even get coffee -- not because I'm one of those people whose entire social life is on the internet, but because there's a three-year-old boy three thousand miles away waiting to talk to me. I live in Rhode Island, and my nephews, Zebediah and Isaac, live in Seattle, along with my brother Dan and his wife Melissa. On Sundays, as every day, Zeb wakes up early, Dan tries to wake up early, and Melissa sleeps in. Dan takes the boys in to the kitchen and gets them set up for breakfast, Zeb in a real chair because he's a big boy, and little Isaac in a baby chair. Then Dan opens up his laptop computer, plugs in the the tiny webcam, signs on to chat, and asks me if I'm ready to talk to his boys. We spend the next hour or so sitting around the kitchen table, talking and playing with eachother. Zeb and I have been doing this for about a year and a half; we've established some rituals, like always wants to see my power tools, and what my cats are doing. Sometimes Zeb questions me about things he's been thinking about: "Sascha, what do you like about police officers? Sascha, do you have all-weather tires?" and I always ask Zeb what he's been up to. He usually replies, "I don't know?" and looks to his Papa to remind him. Dan says something like, "You went to the train museum, remember? And you saw a tow truck, and..." at which point Zeb pipes up and says "Sascha! I went to the train museum!" I haven't seen Zeb in person in nine months, but I know all about how he talks in complete sentences now, how he can use a spoon himself, how he loves Mars and the Hubble Space Telescope and dragons, how he plays with little Isaac and kisses his head, and how incredibly energetic he can be on a Sunday morning. Saturday nights, Zeb usually talks to his Grandma Deb, and he talks to Grandpa Mark and Grandma Shelley whenever they all happen to be online at once. Sometimes my brother will come online and ask if I can chat, reporting that Zeb has been saying, "Papa! I want chat Sascha!" When one of us appears at my brother's house in Seattle, Zeb doesn't hesitate; he knows exactly who I am, and runs towards me for a hug. "Sascha! Come read me a book! Sascha! Have you seen my fire truck?"

What I've left out of the story is what it takes to make all of this possible. First, the participants: my brother, my mother, myself, and my father are all computing professionals: two hard-core programmers, one master IT problem-solver, and one school media specialist. Next, the hardware: we all have Apple Macintosh computers, and my brother gave each us of an Apple iSight camera, with integrated microphone and noise-cancelling software, designed by Apple to enable this sort of one-to-one video chat. We all have broadband connections and almost all of us have wireless networking, so we can hold our webchats from whatever part of the house we like. Finally, there's a set of behaviors that make it work for us: Zeb runs around a lot, so Dan keeps adjusting the camera to point at him; Zeb's voice is high and quiet, or entirely inaudible if he's too far from the camera, so Dan repeats most of what Zeb says, especially when talking to my mother, who has a partial hearing loss. The video quality is rather poor, especially for small fast-moving objects like Zeb, so my brother supplements the video conferences by frequently posting high-resolution digital camera images of his family. The connection goes down so often that Zeb has learned to explain "There was network congestion, Sascha!" when we reconnect.

[I'm not sure what comes next, in the NSF proposal. "Everyone should be able to hang out with their far-flung relatives this way!" isn't going to be enough to convince hard-core scientists to invest scientific funding. So I'll keep thinking about it.]

And thanks, Dan, for having such beautiful children, and helping me hang out with them!

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>