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In age of dispersion, digital video can bring kin together

Recently, my 3-year-old niece showed me her new doll and told me about her trip in an airplane to her grandparents' house. We made faces at each other and laughed. We had a fun visit.

Naomi was at her home in South Carolina. I was at my home in California. We visited, as we do almost every Saturday morning, by video.

If there's a "killer application" for the digital age, at least for me, it's this: Nothing can replace a hug, but I'm watching my niece grow up _ and she knows her uncle, who loves her very much.

It's almost impossible to maintain a real relationship with a child unless you can regularly see each other. Children live as though they're being carried along on a river raft. They forget the last valley's sights and soak up the next one's. They barely recall adults who pop up on the shoreline only once or twice a year.

That's one reason why I believe so strongly in the potential of digital video connections, even the modest ones we have today _ and why I'm convinced that the value goes far beyond business-to-business video conferencing. In a world where families scatter to the winds, this technology can strengthen family ties.

Today, Naomi's parents and I are using relatively rudimentary tools, though the progress in just the last year has been astounding. Each weekend, I log onto my Internet service provider and run a program called Microsoft NetMeeting. My brother does the same thing. The software helps us connect our video and audio gear via the Internet, making local phone calls on each end.

Naomi's parents and I use fairly simple tools for our video visits, though the progress in the last year has been astounding.

We have cameras at our Intel-compatible PCs _ mine is a low-end, $200 Connectix color model _ and low-end microphones and speakers. But we could easily do this with Macs and a wide variety of video hardware and software, in part because competing technologies are at long last settling on standards that make different products work together.

At a modem speed of 28,800 bits per second, the quality of the picture and audio are terrible by broadcast standards. The video "frame rate" _ the speed at which the picture changes to provide the illusion of motion _ is low, so our pictures are jumpy and grainy.

I don't care. I'm just happy that I can see my niece in what the technology crowd calls real time. The difference between having her show me her new doll and hearing about it on the phone, or seeing a videotape later, is huge. As far as I'm concerned, the quality is good enough for now.

It'll get even better in a few weeks when I catch up to my brother in connection speed. He has had ISDN digital-phone service for a relatively long time, and, mostly due to his prompting, I'll have it soon. When that happens, the quality of the video and audio signals will jump. And it'll jump again with even faster connections that are surely coming, probably sooner than most people now assume.

Businesses are learning the collaborative value of technology. New digital tools are making it easier to have face-to-face meetings. More important, we can share work in progress: electronic whiteboards, joint editing of documents and the like. Seeing the person at the other end, in fact, may be less important than the other collaboration tools.

One of these days I expect I'll do something like this with Naomi. Maybe I'll draw a hat on a clown, and she'll color it in. I also want to see her face, her fierce concentration, as she wields her digital crayon. I want to hear those funny little noises she makes as she works, just as she does sitting next to me with her paper coloring book when she and her parents come to my house.

So often, technology touches us in arid, disagreeable ways. But we should remember how it can gently touch our hearts and souls, quite literally where we live.

_ Write to Dan Gillmor at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190; (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917; e-mail: