'Tis the season for 'ambient hangouts'

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

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Family members will probably come and go, dropping in to say high to us or to others on the hangout.

I'm really looking forward to this.

What's so great about ambient holiday hangouts

Ambient hangouts take connecting via video down a notch in terms of formality.

I'm old enough to remember when getting a long distance call was a cause for general panic and excitement. "It's long distance! Hurry!" Over time, with declining prices and the ubiquity of mobile phones, long distance calls are no more exciting than a call from across the office. People now call each other like it's a bodily function, without regard to distance.

I think a similar thing will happen with group video calls. What used to be a big deal will become commonplace.

Ambient hangouts are perfect for the holidays. Why? Because it creates the kind of interaction that people would naturally have if they were in the same town.

Also: There's no scheduling. People come and go as they please. And everyone can ignore the hangout or not, depending on whatever they want to do.

Tips for successful ambient hangouts

The best tip is to just jump in and try it. Launch a public hangout, and see what happens. Chat for a while. But leave it running all day. It's really an amazing experience.

For the holidays, it's a good idea to click the mute button if nobody is going to be directly talking. The mute function can be de-activated when someone wants to sit down and directly chat with someone else. Otherwise, the noise can be a bit much.

Here's a neat feature of hangouts that most people don't know about: You can log in as a separate participant for every device you have. For example, you can launch a hangout with your desktop, and join that hangout with your laptop, tablet and phone. Each device is another camera in another location, even if you use just one log-in and password for all. Put one device in the kitchen, another in the living room, and yet another in the backyard.

If you're going to call someone on the phone anyway to wish them a happy holiday, you can just dial them in directly from the hangout. Google+ hangouts support regular phone calls, which are just added to the hangout -- everyone can hear them.

You should also know that anyone in the hangout can invite anyone else. So, for example, as in my example, when I join my brother-in-law's hangout, I can invite my own family to his hangout. And everyone can interact with everyone.

The only barrier to this technology is human nature. So don't be shy. Until you've tried hangouts, you might have some stage fright, feel the need to constantly fill "dead air" and interact or feel like you're being intruded upon. It takes a few minutes to get used to. But once you do, having someone on a hangout is a lot like having them in the room.

Bonus tip: Use Hangouts as your away-from-home security system

If you're going to be away from home for the holidays, why not use hangouts as a free home security system?

As I said above, you can log in to a hangout as a separate "person" for each device you have. But you can also log in to multiple hangouts. For example, you can launch one hangout with your desktop and another with your laptop (using the same username and password).

So before you leave home, launch a hangout from your home desktop or laptop PC. If you've got old netbooks or tablets lying around, and want additional cameras watching your home, join the hangout from those devices.

Later, if you want to check in on the house, just join the hangout. You'll see all the cameras at once. If you see a burglar, invite the public to join the hangout so you'll have some witnesses. Then take screenshots for proof of the crimes.

Google+ hangouts are the great undiscovered feature that everyone can enjoy this holiday season. Don't accept the limitations of distance. Unite your family and friends this holiday season using the free and easy hangouts feature of Google+.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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