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Business Day | MY MONEY, MY LIFE

MY MONEY, MY LIFE; For a Dad, Videoconference Ties That Bind

By DANIEL R. MINTZJUNE 10, 2001

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WATCHING ''2001: A Space Odyssey'' in 1968, I marveled at the improbable scene of an astronaut making a video call to his family back on Earth. I never imagined that some 30 years later, I'd rush out of a business dinner in Hong Kong to make a videoconference call to my home in New York so that I could see my 17-month-old daughter, Noa, before her breakfast.

In fact, I've used whatever new and clever technology I can, including digital photographs sent via e-mail and birthday notes faxed from airplanes, to try to make up for the fact that I periodically travel for my Asian private-equity business for weeks at a time. I miss my family a lot, particularly because Noa is at the stage in which important things happen every day -- new words, first steps, leaps of understanding.

I also worry that Noa won't feel connected to me while I'm away, which is why I value videoconferencing so much. It is a technology that has improved significantly over the last few years, even as costs per minute have declined. With a small, relatively inexpensive camera mounted on my home computer, I can participate in business meetings from home late at night or early in the morning (because Asian countries are 11 to 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time). I can also call home when I am visiting my company's offices in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul.

The quality isn't perfect -- the picture can be a bit fuzzy and the motions jerky -- but it is certainly better than in the days when delayed motion and awkward gaps in conversation made such calls more frustrating than useful.

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Noa was only 4 months old when I first used videoconferencing. I was thrilled to see her, but unfortunately it was a one-way street. She fidgeted and barely noticed me. Since then, however, she has quickly mastered the medium. Now she squeals with delight when I appear on the screen; she leaps at the camera, updates me on the latest gossip in her own largely unintelligible language and shows off her latest tricks. During our last call, she happily tooted on a harmonica and then proudly clapped at her own two-second recital.

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By maintaining a visual connection with Noa during a long trip, I have avoided, for the most part, the painful ''stranger treatment'' that many other frequent fliers tell me that they receive from their young children for a day or two after their return. Noa gives me the same sunny ''hi'' when I pick her up out of her crib after I come home from a 10-day trip that I get every morning when I'm home.

Videoconferencing is also a far better way than a phone call to connect with my wife, Meredith, who is very understanding of my travel requirements but needs some face-to-face encouragement if she has had a tough night alone with Noa. In a video call, Meredith can also confirm that I am 100 percent focused on her -- and not surfing the Web or reading e-mail, as I am tempted to do when we talk by phone.

There is a down side: ending a video call feels much more painful and abrupt than simply hanging up the telephone. One minute our family is together, chattering and waving happily at one another; the next minute I am walking alone back to my hotel room.

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These sessions aren't cheap. A 10-minute New York-to-Hong Kong videoconference call costs roughly $60, compared with roughly $2.50 for a 10-minute phone call.

But it's worth it. The visual interactivity of videoconferencing draws you into a reality that exists thousands of miles away, almost to the point of illusion. During a recent call while I was in South Korea, the doorbell rang in our New York apartment.

''I'll watch Noa,'' I volunteered helpfully, momentarily forgetting that if our daughter fell off of my desk chair I would be helpless to do anything about it.

To be sure, videoconferencing is no replacement for being at home, and it takes some getting used to. (In retrospect, I could have chosen a better greeting for my wife on our first call than ''Hey, what are you doing wearing my shirt?''). But if travel is part of your job, it's a great way to keep images among family members active and vibrant.

EVEN when I am in New York, videoconferencing lets me spend more time with my family. In the evening, I can be home to put Noa to bed and have dinner with my wife, even if I have a board meeting in Asia later that night. My typical outfit for these meetings is boxer shorts -- the lower half of my body is below the camera range -- and a shirt and tie.

Of course, there are drawbacks to mixing work and home life. Recently, Meredith forgot that I was on a nighttime video call with our Hong Kong office. In full view of the camera, she marched into our home office holding a giggling Noa. ''Daddy's turn to change the diaper,'' she declared, as the conference room in Hong Kong erupted in laughter.

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