How to Take Your Holiday Gathering Virtual

In the future, widely distributed consumer technology will enable your family and friends to be right there with you during the holidays, even if they're on the other side of the world.

Technology will open a virtual window from your living room directly into the homes of your loved ones. Everyone will be able to open and close this window whenever they like. Families celebrating Christmas at the same time but in different homes will be able to unite and celebrate together.

Grandparents will watch their grandchildren open presents. Your New Year's Eve Party in San Francisco will feature a virtual window to parties in Chicago and New York as well. Holiday dinners will be shared across continents. People in the military will be able to open a window directly into the homes of their families back home.

When I say "in the future," I mean over the next few days. The technology is here. It's free. In fact, you've already got it.

What are 'Ambient Hangouts'?

This is the first holiday season when Google's new social network, Google+, has existed.

Google+ features a group video chat feature called hangouts, the easiest-to-use and highest-quality group video chat service available, to the best of my knowledge.

Both https://plus.google.com/ and hangouts are free. You're probably already signed up to use it. Just use your existing Google account. If you have a Google password for Gmail, Calendar, Docs or any other service, use that password. If not, just sign up for one.

Besides being free, time-unlimited, and high quality, the big advantage of hangouts is that ten people can video chat together at once. A hangout shows a big video screen, and below that a bunch of small ones showing the rest of the participants. Whoever is talking is automatically moved up to the big screen.

Most people do hangouts in the same way they used to do one-on-one video chats. They launch a hangout, pay full attention and interact actively. However, a small but growing number of people are doing what I call "ambient hangouts." Instead of short, active hangouts, they're doing long, open and casual ones.

A lot of people connect with old friends, have a chat, then keep the cameras rolling as they go about their business all day.

In fact many of my friends on Google+ told me they hold hangouts longer than six hours at a time. And several are already planning holiday "ambient hangouts."

One woman told me she has scheduled holiday hangouts for both Christmas morning and a big Christmas dinner, but uses Facebook to broadcast the schedule to family and friends.

Another friend told me he sent instructions for using hangouts on his Christmas cards.

Two friends already did "ambient hangouts" for the Thanksgiving holiday. One connected four family households in four cities. They had hangouts going during all of the food preparation. He also organized the whole thing via Facebook, with links to Google+.

My Own Ambient Holiday

I don't know about you, but I'm a perfect example of someone who can really use ambient hangouts.

My younger son is spending the holidays in Sweden. My father lives in Arizona. My brother and his wife live in Washington state. My cousin and his family, with whom I am especially close, live in Africa. My wife's brother and family live in New York. My mother-in-law lives in Los Angeles. My wife, older son and I will be celebrating Christmas in my hometown of Santa Barbara, California.

We'd all love to spend the Christmas holiday together, but that's just not going to happen. So here's what I'm going to do: My brother-in-law in New York has young children, who will no doubt be dragging their parents out of bed at the crack of dawn to see what Santa Claus brought them. I'm an early riser anyway, so when I get up on Christmas I'll do what I always do and go straight to Google+.

At that point, I'll joint the hangout that my brother-in-law will have started and watch my nieces and nephew open their presents. Then, I'll invite every other member of my family. They'll join or not join according to their own choice and schedule. At some point, I'll probably throw the whole hangout up on my sister's big-screen TV, and just keep it running all day in the living room.

Family members will probably come and go, dropping in to say high to us or to others on the hangout.

I'm really looking forward to this.

What's so Great about Ambient Holiday Hangouts

Ambient hangouts take connecting via video down a notch in terms of formality.

I'm old enough to remember when getting a long distance call was a cause for general panic and excitement. "It's long distance! Hurry!" Over time, with declining prices and the ubiquity of mobile phones, long distance calls are no more exciting than a call from across the office. People now call each other like it's a bodily function, without regard to distance.

I think a similar thing will happen with group video calls. What used to be a big deal will become commonplace.

Ambient hangouts are perfect for the holidays. Why? Because it creates the kind of interaction that people would naturally have if they were in the same town.

Also: There's no scheduling. People come and go as they please. And everyone can ignore the hangout or not, depending on whatever they want to do.

Tips for Successful Ambient Hangouts

The best tip is to just jump in and try it. Just launch a public hangout, and see what happens. Chat for awhile. But leave it running all day. It's really an amazing experience.

For the holidays, it's a good idea to click the Mute button if nobody is going to be directly talking. When someone wants to sit down and directly chat, it can be togged on for the conversation. Otherwise, the noise can be a bit much.

Here's a neat feature of hangouts that most people don't know about: You can log in as a separate participant for every device you have. For example, you can launch a hangout with your desktop, and join that hangout with your laptop, tablet and phone. Each device is another camera in another location, even if you use just one log-in and password for all. Put one device in the kitchen, another in the living room, and yet another in the backyard.

If you're going to call someone on the phone anyway to wish them a happy holiday, you can just dial them in directly from the hangout. Google+ hangouts support regular phone calls, which are just added to the hangout -- everyone can hear them.

You should also know that anyone in the hangout can invite anyone else. So, for example, as in my example, when I join my brother-in-law's hangout, I can invite my own family to his hangout. And everyone can interact with everyone.

The only barrier to this technology is human nature. So don't be shy. Until you've tried hangouts, you might have some stage fright, feel the need to constantly fill "dead air" and interact or feel like you're being intruded upon. It takes a few minutes to get used to. But once you do, having someone on a hangout is a lot like having them in the room.

Bonus tip: Use Hangouts as Your Home Security System

If you're going to be away from home for the holidays, why not use hangouts as a free home security system?

As I said above, you can log in to a hangout as a separate "person" for each device you have. But you can also log in to multiple hangouts. For example, you can launch one hangout with your desktop and another with your laptop (using the same username and password).

So before you leave home, go ahead and launch a hangout from your home desktop or laptop PC. If you've got old netbooks or tablets lying around, and want additional cameras watching your home, join the hangout from those devices.

Later, if you want to check in on the house, just join the hangout. You'll see all the cameras at once. If you see a burglar, invite the public to join the hangout so you'll have some witnesses. Then take screenshots for proof of the crimes.

Google+ hangouts are the great undiscovered feature that everyone can enjoy this holiday season. Don't accept the limitations of distance. Unite your family and friends this holiday season using the free and easy hangouts feature of Google+.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

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