Veterans Home testing mobile video chat carts

By:  MARK E. RONDEAU, Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Officials at the Vermont Veterans' Home are looking to acquire a small fleet of mobile computer carts which would allow familes to communicate visually with their veteran relatives at the facility.

Besides the obvious benefit to veterans and their families, home officials see this as a marketing advantage, as they hope to increase the number of residents by admitting veterans whose families live some distance away from Bennington.

At the Oct. 9 Veterans' Home Board of Trustees meeting John Bibens, head of information technology, with the help of retired Maj. Gen. Robert Carter, vice president of the board, demonstrated how the technology worked.

Carter went outside the meeting room and addressed the meeting over the computer.

The demonstration unit displayed at the meeting consisted of a laptop computer affixed atop a mobile cart.

At the meeting, Bibens said the demo unit featured a MacBook Pro computer, which can run FaceTime and Skype, separate but similar audio and visual communications technologies.

"FaceTime is owned by Mac and Skype is owned by Microsoft," Bibens said. "So to take part in both those worlds, we have to order a Mac, because Mac won't play well with Microsoft. Microsoft will play well with Mac. So we went that route.

"The Macs are extremely robust. They're a little on the expensive side. We can use this for non-clinical stuff, because it's not secured in any fashion," he said. "We can use it for basic broad-band communications with families, stuff like that."

With this unit "you have the ability to communicate with anybody who has a Skype account, an iPod, and iPhone, another Mac computer, with a log-in and a password," Bibens said.

Software for the unit is free, and the whole unit, computer and cart, costs around $2,800.

"It's stable, it has locks, we can easily wheel it around the facility," he said. "We've had really good luck with it so far."

This type of unit was chosen rather than an iPad, for instance, because the veterans would not have to hold it and the height of the cart can be easily adjusted. The unit would also be more versatile, with other resources available, he said.

Board Chairman Joseph Krawczyk said he had recently been at a veterans reunion event in Gettysburg, Pa., at which those present spent three hours talking to solider in Kabul, Afghanistan this way.

"It was fantastic. Now if we can do that from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Kabul, we should be able to make it from St. Albans to Bennington," he said. "We need to be using this technology to get the word out."

Contacted by email last week, Col. Allan Faxon, deputy administrator, said that the home currently has the just the demonstration unit for staff and veterans to become acquainted with. The potential of the units has been appealing to both veterans and their families. "Many have said it will be a great communication tool during inclement weather when they cannot make the trip," Faxon said.

The home desires at least five of the units, one for each neighborhood in the facility, he said.

"As we look to having more veterans from northern Vermont living at the Veterans' Home we see great utility as a communication device for families," Faxon said. "As (Administrator) Melissa (Jackson) and I have traveled and spoken to different veterans groups, all have be enthusiastic about the ability to speak with loved ones residing at our Veterans Residential Campus."

Krawczyk, at the meeting, noted that another goal was to have Wi-Fi available throughout the home. Faxon said the home announced last week that the demonstration unit is available for use.

Some veterans service organizations have stated an interest in sponsoring the purchase of some or all of the desired units, Faxon said.