FaceTime → EarTime

18 Feb 2019

In our house we’ve spent countless hours on video calls to distant family members. Being able to see the other side of a call is amazing: we actually live in the future, right? You can wave at someone hundreds of miles away, show them your new favourite toy, ask them how their garden grows, or - if you’re under six - show them the inside of your mouth. It’s very engaging, but Iris and Finn are completely accustomed to it - so much so, they have come to see a roughly-weekly FaceTime session more like a routine form of telepresence than a call. In their heads, Grandy and Granjan or Grandpa are just in the room for a bit: perhaps worth a periodic glance or wave, but not focused attention or conversation. If your sibling’s been on there for too long, shove ‘em off and take over. As they’ve got older, it’s sort of become apparent that the connection over video isn’t working so well.

This, combined with the ridiculous amount of time we spend squawking “can you see me now?” and waiting for “reconnecting…” to disappear, led us to try things differently. The first few attempts - “here you go, put this near your ear and talk to Grandpa” - were unsuccessful. Not being able to see the other party was confusing to little brains that had previously only experienced pixel-based interactions.

Things changed one day last summer when I had to pick up Finn from his nursery, and Iris needed to come with me in the bike trailer. I promised big sister she could have a go on my phone during the ten minute pedal (every parent knows the value of small bribes). We agreed that she would call her grandparents from the trailer (an actual low-res, common-or-garden phone call). Their chinwag lasted the entire length of the journey to the nursery, continued while I went inside to extract Finn, and most of the way home. The novelty hasn’t worn off. Both sides now routinely speak for many minutes uninterrupted: Iris particularly enjoys the responsibility of dialling on a landline keypad.

The connection - in both senses of the word - is much improved. Undistracted by bandwidth or lag, sometimes constrained by wires (imagine that!), conversation is focused and flowing. So it seems to me, anyway - I’m only a third party eavesdropper on one side of these long nattering sessions. It could just be that Iris is more mature these days, but I really recommend to parents in young families: try calling without video.

Related to that, another recommendation: make audio recordings of things you want to remember. Our children act very differently from “normal” when a camera is pointed at them. Loads of the video I delete is handheld shots of my knees with a soundtrack of “can I see it? Show me the video.” I do get great photos and videos of them - but I also deliberately sometimes switch on Voice Recorder, put my phone in the corner of the room, and just let it record. I don’t typically edit this stuff - just check that the recording worked, and then save it for posterity. Since the recording apparatus is invisible, or at least unintrusive, subjects behave naturally. Plus, background noises and other unintentional side effects get captured. Unscripted and unplanned, the recordings are long, and would certainly be boring to others. But I have a feeling they capture something that isn’t there in our huge collection of visual media.

Tags: personal, geeky, family