The power of virtual presence

I like to think of myself as a reasonably seasoned internet user, with a pretty long history of using technology to empower working from home. After all, thirty-five years ago, I had a dedicated 56kbps line connected to my Bell Labs issued, AT&T UNIX PC for remote work access. Before then, I had a Northern Telecom Displayphone for connectivity to almost nothing useful.

Today’s virtual presence capabilities are truly remarkable, but it is only in the last couple weeks that I have been able to fully appreciate the power of video calling as a relatively meaningful substitute for physical contact.

We had grandchildren born during the COVID-19 lockdowns, in distant locations. We have daily video chats with apps like WhatsApp or FaceTime that have let us see the babies and their slightly older siblings. Only recently were we able to travel to meet the not-so-new members of the family.

Our 15 month-old woke up from her nap to find grandparents reaching for her. We are grandparents who, up until then, she only knew from a small screen, but she was willing to be held by those familiar faces with comforting voices.

I’m sure developmental psychologists will conduct in-depth studies of the impact of virtual connectivity on familial bonding. My singular data point shows that there was a surprising level of recognition, despite 15 months of missing tactile and olfactory sensory contact.

Still, as good a substitute as video may be, it’s nothing like the physical reality of touching, holding and hugging.

I even missed the smells of a 15 month old, but suspect this is an area that is ripe for innovation.

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