My wife was away at a conference last week and as she FaceTimed us to show the kids the view from her hotel room and then each evening to check in on their day at school, it really hit home how much we can make use of technology to keep in touch with our distant loved ones. And it’s not just when travelling or special occasions. When I think about it, the computers in our home have become the hub of interaction with distant relatives and friends. This connection has gone far beyond what a telephone ever offered, and by taking advantage of those capabilities a PC can help to make long distance relationships feel like personally interacting with someone on a daily basis.
Your PC as a Video Conferencing Hub
Smartphones and tablets are great for mobile communication, but when it comes to leveraging a real-time video connection with someone, I prefer to use a PC or a laptop. The pictures is larger, so you get a more nuanced view and the sound through stereo speakers is better—it feels more like they’re in the room with you.
A laptop is especially handy because I can set it up in a room and the display can be angled perfectly without having to prop it up. You also don’t get the motion sickness effect that can happen when trying to video conference on a mobile device that keeps moving around.
All the software you need to enjoy a video conference with a remote friend or loved one is available for free for Windows PCs and Macs. Among the most popular options are Skype (both platforms) and FaceTime (Mac only).
Do More Than a Formal Video Call
One of the things I’ve realized after a few years of making regular use of video conferencing with our family is that the real power in this technology isn’t in the video call itself (like a telephone call with video), it’s being able to include people in your activities.
As I mentioned in the introduction, when my wife was away we didn’t just use FaceTime to call and check in. With the kids in the dining room having their nightly snack and the laptop set up on the kitchen counter, they were able to have natural feeling conversations and after a few minutes it felt as though my wife was right there. They went about their routine, while talking to their mom and if someone got up and wandered away to let out the dogs, it was nothing like putting a caller on hold.
Speaking of dogs, we have tried to include them in these FaceTime sessions as well, but they just don’t recognize what’s being shown onscreen. It does help my wife feel better about being away when she can see them strolling in and out of view, though.
There are many other situations where you can use your PC to bring a remote loved one into your activities. My brother FaceTimed my wife and I a few years ago from a beach cabana in the Dominican Republic—yes, they had Wi-Fi access on the beach. We set our laptop on a table on the deck and had a drink “with them” as we caught up. Their waiter even stopped to wave hello to us at one point. With the view of the sand, the turquoise water in the background and the tropical drinks on view, it almost felt like we sitting together instead of wearing fleece jackets and fighting off mosquitoes in Ontario.
It’s become somewhat of a tradition for an Aunt who lives in Boston to fire up her laptop and Skype us on Christmas Day. She can’t be with family in Canada, but we set up a laptop in our living room, the kids wander in and out for chats and for thirty minutes it feels as though she is right there with us.
For the ultimate virtual family get together, most video services support group video chats. With a computer, the big display means you can actually see everyone, not just a postage-stamp sized window. Distance doesn’t have to be an obstacle to a family reunion, at least not if you have a PC.
Do Homework or Watch Movies Together
Did you know services like Skype aren’t limited to video chatting? You can share the screen—or just a window—on your PC too.
This is a perfect way for parents who have to be away from home to participate and help with their children’s homework. They can also watch streaming movies together while commenting about the action. Or set up your laptop in the kitchen, go through recipes together and maybe even “share” a meal—just because a parent can’t be there physically doesn’t mean they can’t be part of family time.
Online Video Gaming
I don’t have the opportunity to visit my youngest brother very often, but we use our PCs to stay in touch and spend time together in a way that we don’t even think of as formally being in communication.
We both play an online video game and much of our interaction is through the game. Chat, working together on common goals and missions and virtual visits all help to keep the bond there. In fact, I know when he’s not feeling well before pretty much anyone else, if I log into the game and see that he’s let his town get over-run.
Online gaming is a great option for a traveling parent to interact with their kids, too.
Go Shopping Together
This was another great way for distant loved ones to get together. Looking for a shared gift in the past was a bit of a nightmare, featuring lots of telephone calls and frustrating attempts to describe something seen in a store.
Online shopping means being able to sit down at your PC, view gift ideas (often complete with buyer ratings) and then forward suggestions to the others involved in the purchase so they can see them too. You can even have the recipient create a wish list at some sites, cutting down on the guesswork. It feels like a group activity and the fact that everyone took the time to take part—despite their physical distance—makes the gift mean even more. Shopping together remotely has become a frequent activity in our house with so many distant relatives and birthdays, weddings, holidays and anniversaries.
Note: If anyone from my family is reading this, I’d suggest you check out the 4K TV section at Best Buy if a combined gift is in my future. You’ll see a few items on my wish list…
Using your PC or laptop to stay in touch with your distant loved ones is much more than updating social media (although that’s good too). You probably have Wi-Fi throughout your home, so use the connectivity and technology to erase the distance on a regular basis. Involve friends and relatives so they get to participate in your life instead of simply viewing occasional snapshots. Parents will find the technology especially useful for maintaining a sense of normalcy if travel takes them out of the home, something that makes these absences much less stressful for their kids.
Don’t just save it for special occasions; make the most of your PC’s ability to keep your family close and maintain relationships despite the barrier of distance.