Face Time for Inmates

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that beginning September 1, 2010, death row inmates in the Virginia prison system would no longer be able to visit their families in the closest thing that can be considered face to face. Three years ago, the Virginia Department of Corrections banned what is called a contact visit from their death row inmates, requiring the inmate stays behind a glass partition during a family visit.

Starting in September, those visits will be purely done by video conferencing.  Virginia is following the heels of Kansas, the only other state to require family visits for death row inmates, and there are very strong feelings about the change from the position of the Department of Corrections, as well as the families on the inmates.

Officials who support the migration over to a pure video conference system feel like the change will help them to better use the staff on site at the prison systems.  Video conferencing will eliminate the need for searching inmates and visitors. Also, the facility will no longer have to be shut down to escort the inmate from death row to the visitation rooms. These visitations will also be recorded and provided to the family members.

Family members of death row inmates oppose the new visitation rules and say that the inmates are already on death row, and this change is only further punishing the inmates.

Supporters of the new visitation rules state that this will cut down on security concerns across the prison. Taking a death row inmate to a visitation is not as simple as walking them down a hall. They must be cuffed and chained, and the areas of the prison that have to be walked through must be put on lock down, requiring extra staff to monitor the other inmates. Not only would this measure decrease the need for extra security protocols, it would also lower staff costs.

The article did not mention the visitation circumstances surrounding procedures in regards to an inmate’s “last” visit.

The question really boils down to – is it the right place to beef up security? With reports of attempted and successful prison breaks on the rise, less physical contact with someone who could aid in an escape is a great idea, but there are two sides to every argument. What side are you on? 

Really Anywhere, Anytime, Any Place.

While everyone might now be over excited about the appearance of two-way video calling on cell phones, I am. Since I work in an industry where we talk about how certain products and services allow you to take your office and meetings everywhere, being able to actually do that is a very cool change. Since Wi-Fi is everywhere you can take your laptop out and host or attend a conference without having to worry about being in the office.

Right now, if you’re stuck in traffic or on a train it’s not always an easy move to whip out your laptop and connect to a meeting. In the next year, we are going to be able to whip out our phones and see the person we’re talking to. Here are some of the companies that are making this happen.

Apple:  While official confirmation hasn’t come out yet, it’s a pretty good guess that the new iPhone 4G will support (at least) two way video conferencing, among many other things. More than likely, it will (with no big surprise here) support iChat or some other form of Apple based product, but I suspect with time, video conferencing providers and services will find a way to make their products compatible with that kind of video availability.

Evo 4G: A strong response to the iPhone, it’s got a similar layout and will provide a means for video chatting. The initial concerns to the Evo video chat was that there would be a charge for the service, but it seems like now, it will not require an additional fee to access, only an additional fee to access premium services (whatever those will be).

I guess the basic question comes down to if you see yourself using this kind of service, or if you will just try it out because you’re in the market for a new phone.  Are you more excited about Apple or Sprint being able to offer this kind of service and will it make your life easier, or harder?

I am Gordon Ramsey

Okay, I’m not, but a couple weeks ago I wrote a post about Cooking with Gordon Ramsey and how cool I thought it was that he was using a simple video conferencing process to teach normal, everyday American’s how to cook. As someone who spends a lot of time in my kitchen, it was easy for me to pick up on what I would consider simple things to do. Mince? No problem. Garlic press? Got one right here. While it was awesome to me, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would benefit for someone who didn’t like to cook the way I did.

I concocted an experiment. I would test the Gordon Ramsey theory on someone who had minimal knowledge in the kitchen – meaning she can cook without burning the house down, but has rarely made things from scratch. Our menu was simple: sautéed chicken with basil and butter and a honey mustard sauce. My goal here wasn’t so much to teach her how to cook but to test the theory that a video conference can be used just as well as a live demonstration.

My test subject?  Meet my best friend, Rachel. Her cooking skills aren’t terrible, but I would call her a novice and chicken is one of her least favorite things to cook. She doesn’t trust herself to know when it’s done, and even as much as I cook, I tend to find chicken very tricky and have experienced a couple of failures with it.

I fired up the video conference and walked her through each step. Heat up your skillet, throw the butter in there, let it melt, and so forth. I cooked it with her, both of us with our camera trained on our pans. I have to say that trying to do this with someone that you’re not friends with could be an incredibly painful experience. So I suggest trying something like this with someone that you’re not afraid to laugh with.

We had some funny moments.

In the end, I decided that this whole video conference cooking show is a good idea. If normal, everyday people like Rachel and I can manage it, then surely it can’t be that difficult for super chefs. We had a few hiccups along the way, but in the end, it turned out nicely and no one got food poisoning.

So what is the conclusion of my experiment?

It’s surprisingly easy to teach someone how to do something through a video conference.

Destination Wedding

 I am very excited. One of my friends from high school is getting married this summer. She’s also family, her sister has been married to my brother for about 10 years, and I would love to go spend some time with her and wish her all the best.

The problem?

She lives in Scotland. The wedding will be held there and sadly, I’m just not in a position where I can afford to hop a plane, fly to Scotland, and stay in a hotel for a few days. Not only is that an expensive trip, but the medical risks of a long flight make attending impossible for me. I’m sure I’ll get a ton of pictures and hopefully my sister in law will come back with a recording, but it would mean a lot to me to get to see her marry her sweetheart.

Then I had a thought. I used video conferencing with my dad to “hang out” last week. Why not do that for a wedding you’re having in rural Nebraska or in Times Square? I remember from planning my wedding that we had a very limited budget and that sadly, some people just had to be cut from the guest list.  I would have liked them to attend, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Had I known then what I know now, I would have had a video conference.

When weddings are planned, RSVPs are requested so that we know who’s attending. You can do the same thing with the video conference of your wedding. Many couples are setting up “wedding pages” where they the host information about the upcoming nuptials. Plan a video conference for your wedding, set up a registration page, and host the link on your wedding website. If you set up your registration page to request mailing addresses, you can go back in once the event is over, see who attended, and mail them a thank you card.

My only question now is why didn’t I think of this two years ago?

Video Conference Brings Relief

With all the sad images and stories that are coming out Haiti right now, it’s hard to find something that might make you smile through the face of tragedy. We have been bombarded with images of death, hunger, pain, sadness, and fear. How can you help but to lose hope when you see something like that?

Check out this heartwarming video about a Portland, Oregon, family who was waiting on word about the three boys they in the process of adopting. In the middle of telling their story to ABC, they were interrupted with a video conference that showed that their children to be alive and safe. The joy and relief on their faces is a tiny glimmer of hope surrounded by news that seems to get worse every day. Their joy, which became my joy when I saw it, was all thanks to a tiny little thing called a web camera.

Just moments ago, a plane landed in Pittsburg full of Haitian orphans who were waiting to go home to their US families. The United States has helped to cut some of the red tape that sometimes moves the adoption process slowly so that these children can be placed with their new families sooner.

According to adoption.com, 301 children were adopted from Haiti by families in the United States in 2008, with many more waiting to be adopted.  In the shadow of the earthquake’s devastation, it’s brought the concerns of adoptive parents, waiting to hear about their children, to the front of the news. Besides this story, there are many floating the internet about the power of the video conference to give many adoptive parents some relief and happiness to see their children are well.

With the devastation in Haiti so vast, these stories are sometimes overlooked as we try to fully grasp the severity of the situation. If you’ve heard an uplifting story about the people of Haiti, I want to hear it. Share it below and let’s find a place to go when it all just seems too sad.

PS - If you want to help, you can donate online to the Red Cross or add a ten dollar donation to your cell phone bill by texting “Haiti” to 90999 or view a verified list of organizations.

Family Conference

I taught my Dad how to video conference last night. It may have been the single most amusing experience of my entire life, and with my dad I’ve had quite a few funny moments. If anyone asked me where my sense of humor came from, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer that it was him. With my dad travelling for his job, we don’t get to see each other that much (right now, we haven’t seen each other since before Christmas) so last night, he had some down time, so I decided to take him into the new technological age.

Since I miss my dad I figured this would be a good experience for us both. He hooks up to the internet, we turn on our cameras, and we see and talk to each other. Easy enough? Not so much. For being a pretty technologically savvy guy my dad could not grasp the concept of “click here – turn on webcam”. This is a man who used to sit me on his knee and show me the ins and outs of MS-DOS. After about thirty minutes of trying to explain to him what to do, tell him I hadn’t turned on my camera yet and that’s why he couldn’t see me, I finally I got him straightened out. I was able to see my dad, something I haven’t done in nearly two months. It was welcome, even if it was just a video of him.

There are many times when we hold to something’s “intended” use. Video and web conferencing were originally designed to help ease the strain of business that operated around the world. We forget that sometimes, with new technologies we can make our lives easier as a whole.

What other business practices can we incorporate into our everyday lives that might make things a little easier?

Additional Hassle

Since Christmas Day, weary travelers have been trekking through airports worldwide with one thought in mind: How long is this going to take? The TSA already recommended that you give yourself one to two hours for security checkpoints before your flight, especially when flying to international locations or in to the United States. Since the failed bombing on Christmas Day, security is even tighter. Now, the TSA website states that "At this time, security checkpoint requirements for passengers departing U.S. airports remain the same. Passengers do not need to do anything differently, but they may notice additional security measures at the airport." Interesting, since the day that Joan Rivers can't get on a plane and people are detained for not exposing the amount of money they make seems like more than just "additional security measures". Taking my shoes off is an additional security measure, limiting the amount of liquid I can take on my carry-on bag is an additional security measure. Getting a full body scan is a bit more than an "additional measure" and a bomb sniffing German Sheppard is not the way I was to spend my time hanging out in the terminal. Good luck if you're trying to fly into the United States from another country.

Why are we still putting ourselves through the hassle? In the past it had always been about trying to close a deal or do some training but with conference call providers that can do audio, desktop and web sharing, I have to ask, what's the point of the headache when you can easily do something different? Set up a conference, stay in your office, and avoid the delays. I can guarantee no one on the conference is going to mistake your white chocolate mocha as an explosive device.

Cooking and Conferencing

Something really cool happened last night.

Gordon Ramsey taught me how to make pasta with shrimp and red chilies, steak Diane, and tiramisu on Cooking with Gordon Ramsey. While I didn't cook live with him families and celebrities from all over the country did. There was this big video screen on the stage where different pairs of cooks took to their own kitchens while Gordon Ramsey taught them how to safely flambe mushrooms. The best part?

Being taught how to cook by arguably one of the best chefs in the world was completely free.

It's quite a feat considering that the price of a three course meal at Gordon Ramsey's New York restaurant is $65.00 a person and the cost of a 12 hour gourmet cooking class can cost up to one thousand dollars. For the average American, gourmet cooking is at the bottom of our list of things to do but I think Gordon is on to something here. He cooked a three course meal in under an hour and showed me how to do it through the TV and video conference.

While I can already taste the tiramisu, I can't help but think of what Gordon might have done. Video conferencing is growing in popularity all over the world and he just used it to provide a service free of charge that can cost a pretty penny. Has Gordon opened a door into what could come down the road?

Imagine integrating chat into it, where Gordon's Hell's Kitchen winners are in front of laptops fielding your questions while he shows the TV audience how to cook. Imagine Gordon taking your question. It makes you a part of it even though you've never been to cooking school.

Where else can video conferencing be applied to provide an expensive service or class for free?

Virtual Tourists

Last week, YouTube rolled out a site completely dedicated to Anne Frank. The Official Anne Frank Channel features interviews with her father and the last known images of her as she watches a couple be married on the street.  This site invites you to "explore the life and significance of Anne Frank through unique images".  It is sponsored by the Anne Frank House, a living museum of the home where Anne and her family hid from the Nazi’s during World War II.

At first glance it looks like any other "virtual tour" website you might find for a museum or center - a collection of pictures put together to entice you to come to the museum and pay admission. But once I watched the director speak and watched a "Making of the Virtual Tour" video on the site, I came to realize it was much more than your standard website.  The Foundation has put a lot of work into creating a real experience that some of us would never be able to have otherwise. Someone like me, who loves history, would love to travel the world and know what it’s like to see historically significant places in person. But if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I’ll probably never have the time to see all the things I want.

This channel reaches out to create something special for the everyday viewer. Instead of just posting pictures on the site, they have created a real "virtual world" that puts you in the middle of the rooms. While the online tour is still in development stages, it makes me think about what could be the future of vacations.

Take a tour guide, strap a web camera to his head, and give him a phone.  He can dial into a conference call, walk through the museum or historical site and show you the sites. Everyone’s lines are muted, so the tour guide is free to walk about and show the different sights, and at the end, the guide can do what they would usually do and open the floor up for questions or further explanations.

Of course, you lose some of the personal attachment since you’re not there in person to see the sights and sounds.  But when you really think about it, are you missing that much? You’re really not doing anything differently by traveling across the world – just looking, only through a web camera.

Personally, I can’t wait to see the Anne Frank House virtual tour completed.

What do you think?  Can video conferencing revolutionize the travel industry? Would you "vacation" from the comfort of home?

Three Steps to a Simple Video Conference

Video conferences grow in popularity every day. More companies are using them and introducing first timers to the idea of a "video feed" while they make a presentation. The mere idea of this can be frightening. Most of us don’t like to be on display, and your standard sales or marketing manager probably isn’t used to the idea of being in front of a crowd of people.  Public speaking is the number one phobia of the average American and a video conference adds an aspect that one doesn’t expect in an everyday conference. 

I do a lot of demonstrations of products, so I’ve gotten used to the idea that I can end up on a video conference at any time. When I first started, it did scare me a bit. There are a million things that go through my mind, things that can go wrong, things I want to say. Don’t stutter, Maranda. Don’t stumble over the words. I’ve been doing these for over a year and I still sometimes get pre-game jitters.  Here are three things that I do before a video conference that help me get focused.

  1. Believe in the Power of Confidence.  Not just sounding confident, but looking confident as well.  You are the leader of this conference and you need to sound and look the part. Remember that most people will make a judgment off of how someone looks, so dress for success. Look nice, smile, and remember that the first time is always the worst and it will get better as you go along.
  2. Minimize Your Video Feed.  Don’t look at yourself as you go along. You can get distracted or start to destroy your build up of confidence by criticizing the way you look as you go along. Did I just make that face? Wow, what am I doing with me hands. Trying to change the natural flow of how you communicate can make you stumble, so don’t even look as you present.
  3. Practice Makes Perfect.  Define your set up area before hand. What kind of tone do you want to set with your meeting? Where are you the most comfortable? Is there anything behind you that will be distracting to others or something that you don’t want others to see?  A lot of people work from a home office, so be aware of anything that makes it more homey, like a pile of dirty clothes or a stack of children’s toys. Do a couple of run-throughs.   Make sure your system is set up properly and that you look the way you want to on camera. 

These are just a few suggestions that I have found work well for me when it comes to getting over the pre-conference nerves. 

What do you do to make the prospect of a video conference a little easier for you?