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Video conferencing in a pandemic

 

March 25, 2020 | View PDF

Emily Long

Scheduling a calendar invitation to a Google Hangouts video chat.

It turns out having a big birthday during a global pandemic is a bit of a bummer.

March 20, 2020, was a milestone birthday for me: 40. I had been planning to celebrate at a nice restaurant perched on a mountain overlooking town, with most of my immediate family: my mom, daughter, sister, and brother-in-law. My dad was going to drive out to Niwot from his home in Omaha, Nebraska, to join us.

Best laid plans did not go well. At least we hadn't booked a cruise!

The coronavirus hit Colorado in early March. My father, John, who is 71, cancelled his trip. We were all being told to stay at home. All of the restaurants, ski resorts, concert venues, and pretty much the rest of the fun things to do outside of the house were cancelled or postponed.

Thankfully, children don't seem to be getting very sick with covid-19. But my daughter, who is almost four, could be a carrier for the disease, and we wouldn't know until it was too late.

Both my mom, Sarah, and my younger sister, Karen, are autoimmune compromised, and taking medicine for rheumatoid arthritis. Getting together just didn't sound like a good idea.

So we decided to try a family video conference for my birthday. Which is not something we've ever done before all together. Honestly, it's probably not something we ever would have considered under different circumstances.

My older sister Rebecca, who lives in South Korea and teaches English there, had been sheltering at home for over a week already. She's savvy at technology, and good at finding ways to connect that don't charge the hefty fees of long-distance phone calls.

Everyone in my family had experience using some sort of video conference software before. That is, everyone except my dad, who had never used any video conference technology of any kind.

Now, facing what might end up being a long and lonely isolation at home, we finally had motivation to connect via video chat.

It took some pre-planning, and lots of patience to troubleshoot issues.

Fortunately, everyone in our family, including dad, already had Gmail accounts, which eliminated a huge hurdle: which platform to use? Google Hangouts was an easy choice and none of us would have to sign up for a new account from an unfamiliar service.

The next hurdle was finding the easiest way for my dad to connect. We scheduled a test run, just Dad and me, earlier in the week. We chatted on our regular cell phones while trying to work through the steps to getting connected in Hangouts.

It took a bit of trial and error. First: is the video camera set up, and on? Then: are the speakers plugged in, and turned on? Next: is the volume turned up so Dad can hear?

There are several ways to start a Google Hangouts call, including simply calling someone directly like you would with a real phone. This works well for people who already have the Hangouts app on their smartphone, or for people who are on their computer most of the time with Gmail open in their web browser.

In our case, where we were connecting multiple people from four separate locations in three time zones - most of whom had never actually used Google Hangouts before despite having Gmail accounts - I decided to schedule an event on Google Calendar, and add a Hangout link to the calendar invite.

It sounds a little extra complicated to arrange, but for us, it worked. I sent the calendar invitation to everyone's Gmail accounts, so all they had to do at the designated time, which was indicated clearly in the email invitation, was to click through a link and follow instructions from there.

This can all be super frustrating in the moment, especially if you're used to calling someone on the phone and connecting immediately, without lag or delay.

There are lots of steps to connect a video conference, and just when you think you've sorted out everything, something else goes wrong. In our case, my dad and I never could get the video to work the first time, even after trying multiple times, hanging up, and trying again.

But when the time came around for my birthday call, the stars aligned. After one more round of making sure everyone's computers were connected to both audio and video, sending and receiving, we were online! We successfully connected four lines in a Google Hangouts video conference on the morning of my birthday.

Singing happy birthday all together was a little too much to ask.

Note from the Author: I'm an older millennial who embraces new technologies and tools. Over the years, I've used a number of video conferencing tools for work, to take online courses, and also for connecting to family and friends remotely. I own my own business offering communications project management for businesses and nonprofits specializing in the transition to carbon-free energy technologies. Besides Google Hangouts, I also regularly use FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Lifesize, UberConference, and others. I'm happy to answer reader questions about any of these technologies. Email questions to editorial@lhvc.com, and we'll either respond individually and/or write another article comparing video conferencing tools for next week's paper.

Disclaimer: The opinions represented in this article are personal. Neither the reporter nor the Courier are receiving payments from Google Hangouts or any other software tools mentioned in this article.

 

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