Inside the Box with Skype
Since I was in high school, my mother always said two things. The first was, "Honey, you know I always see you lying dead in a ditch somewhere if you don't call." After I went to college, she added, "I am so glad I saw your room when you moved in. Now I can imagine where you are." She was always seeing, always imagining. Having that picture dissolved the distance between my mother and me, my sister, and even my dad, but the phone-the disembodied voice-was all we had.
If a picture is worth a thousand of those phone words, just think of how far we have come with that "picture." Television, the video camera, the camera phone, e-mail pictures are all commonplace. Do you post video on You Tube? Do you have home movies on a flash drive? The image, and more and more often the moving image, is the currency of communication.
Now think about this: How often do you have to pull your loved ones away from a screen? How much time do you spend with the TV, the X-Box, or the Wii? A glittery little world lives within that box and that world is bordered, secure and sane. But it is getting so that a room full of people will never even look at each other because they each have their own intimate connection to their personal, portable screens. What if you could jump into the box? What if you could be the image, strengthening relationships using the same machines that seem to be destroying them? Now you can, with Skype.
Remember how people in space ships talked face-to-face with other ships in Star Trek? Well it's here. Skype allows users to send and receive video over the Internet in real time. It's like a video conference, but you don't need any special connections to make it work. Estonian entrepreneurs Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn invented Skype to bridge communication gaps in places where the long-distance phone service was expensive, but Internet access was cheap. Skype allows you to see and hear your loved ones anywhere in the world. It rides on your existing Internet connection, and it's free.
Here's how it works. You download some software to your computer from the Skype website, skype.com. (You'll need a webcam for video, available on the skype site from $17-$100.) The person you want to talk to does the same thing. Then you both log on. Each computer dials a local phone number, so there are no long distance charges, and because you both dial each other, it's private. Skype then connects these numbers via the Internet, and before you can say "beam me up" you are looking at your infant grandchildren's new teeth, as they come in, from 10,000 miles away.
The best part is that your grandchildren, children, brothers, girlfriends, or whoever you are looking at can see you at you at the same time. It's just like the TV or the iPod or the Nintendo, but it's the "you" show. Better than that, it's the "us" show.
My brother-in-law's family lives in the north of England. They live on his father's pension, which means that they can't always make the trip to the States to see their son on the holidays. Enter Skype. Last Christmas he, my sister, my parents, and I linked up with his family on Skype. We spent about an hour together talking and catching up. When they laughed, you could see them smile. When they were concerned, you could read it in their eyes. "That was a nice visit," I remember thinking to myself afterwards, and it was only then that it really hit me; Skype had felt like a visit because we had been able to see them in their home and they had been able to see us in ours.