A Virtual Thanksgiving Dinner Comes to Life with Webcams, Apps, and Gadgets


Video conferencing means never having to miss Thanksgiving dinner again.

Even the U.S. astronauts orbiting the Earth aboard the International Space Station will use the technology to visit with their families face-to-face while eating turkey and watching football this November–NASA’s been using video communication since the 1960s, so they’re used to long-distance holiday festivities by now.

That’s the furthest any Thanksgiving video call will reach this year, but the astronauts 250 miles above us won’t have access to all the video conferencing tricks and tools that can make a remote dinner seem as intimate as sharing a table with your loved ones.

So, you could hold off on the video-calling trimmings and have a simple, Skype-style face-to-face video chat like the astronauts do. Or, you could indulge yourself with virtual reality, shared media streams, a robot stand-in, and other video conferencing technologies, and have a virtual Thanksgiving dinner to make NASA jealous.

Video Calling Knows How to Party

The staff at VC Daily loves a party as much as anyone in this digital world. That’s why we’ve spent so much time exploring ways to push the use of video calling beyond the simple everyone-crowd-around-the-iPhone-and-wave-to-grandma type of holiday connection.

Thanksgiving dinner is virtual with video callingVideo can carry more than just faces and voices. It can let us sing together, dance together, cook together, and convey the energy of a music festival or the intimacy of a first date.

Here are a few ideas we’ve previously explored that could let you celebrate a virtual Thanksgiving in high-tech style:

Thanksgiving, though, is usually a little more intimate, more sedate than most of those energetic video-calling applications. What it really needs is a way to create a shared space where people can relax together.

A Shared Thanksgiving Space

If you come from a family of huggers, there’s a type of video calling that will grant you a physical presence at Thanksgiving even if you’re hundreds of miles away. Its called telepresence, and, essentially, it’s like strapping your webcam to a robot and having it wander around a party in your stead. The best units will cost you around $4,000, and they look a bit like an iPad attached to a scooter, but with a simple remote control, the unit can freely move around a party. If you ever had an uncle walk around a family get-together with a camcorder permanently attached to his face, interviewing anyone he could corner, well, that’d be you…you could even drape a dorky sweater over it.

Alternatively, you could create the reverse situation and meet your friends and family in a wholly digital place, where people scattered around the country inhabit a computer-generated living room. Apps like AltSpace VR and newcomer Rumii specialize in creating fully customizable virtual reality platforms where groups of people can mingle in real-time using video calling. You could potentially recreate the family home online, or all gather around a virtual dinner table, each guest with a plate of the same real-world dish in front of them, and talk and toast through the night.

If you took up our earlier suggestion of shared online turkey roasting, and stuffed yourself around a virtual dinner table, you’ll probably be looking for a digital couch somewhere to chat quietly while pretending to watch football or holiday movies.

Video conferencing can provide that too.

A Virtual Thanksgiving Dinner After-Party

There are several video conferencing apps that have begun embracing the digital nature of video calling. These innovators turn the internet from the foundation of a video call into the reason for calling. Free apps like Airtime, Rabbit, and ooVoo allow groups of people to A virtual gathering over video conferencingsimultaneously watch streaming media, like Youtube or Netflix, and see and hear each other the entire time. When it works, it’s like watching TV together on the same couch.

It would be a great way to enjoy the interactive version of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, or your own family’s favorite holiday movie. The NFL has been experimenting with social media broadcasts of its games recently, so maybe you’ll be able to enjoy traditional Thanksgiving football over a video call in the near future, as well.

All these evolving forms of video conferencing mean you can recreate your remote Thanksgiving in any tradition or form that fits your family, even if your family, like mine, is a little nutty and spread across the country from Albuquerque to Queens. You might not be there to carve the turkey in person, but you don’t have to feel you’re a world away from your loved ones.

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