'Tis the season for 'ambient hangouts'

Over the river and through the woods? Forget that! Grandmother's house is just a click away

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 be able to watch their grandchildren open presents. Your New Year's Eve party in San Francisco may feature virtual windows to parties in Chicago and New York. Holiday dinners could be shared across continents. People in the military will be able to open windows 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 in which 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 Google+ 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, you can sign up for one.

Besides the fact that it's free, high quality and has no time limits, the big advantage of Hangouts is that 10 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 actively engage with one another. However, a small but growing number of people are doing what I call "ambient hangouts." Instead of short, focused 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 that last longer than six hours. And several are already planning holiday "ambient hangouts."

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

Another friend told me he sent instructions for setting up 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, Calif.

We'd all love to spend Christmas 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 join 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.

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