When musician and music teacher Stevie Coyle was growing up, he was fond of sci-fi TV shows, such as Star Trek, that showcased futuristic technology -- like video conferencing.
"I have to admit to being a bit of a tech nerd," he said.
And now that Web-based video conferencing has gone mainstream, Coyle is thrilled.
"This is kinda a dream come true," he said.
Using video conferencing to teach music was an obvious step for him, as it has been for educators and entrepreneurs who have moved services traditionally offered face-to-face onto the Internet. Today video conferencing is used for everything from music instruction to teletherapy.
Skype, which has a local office in the Stanford Research Park, is one of a few major services that provide Web-based video conferencing. Founded in 2003, Skype now claims more than 663 million users. With an Internet connection and video-conferencing camera or smartphone, a user can make and receive video calls from other users.
Coyle, who teaches in-person lessons at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, also teaches lessons over Skype.
"The main problem (with in-person lessons) is time and space constraints," he said. With Skype, he said, he can teach from his home at times he was otherwise unavailable. "The thing that keeps people from lessons is that they are busy people."
Coyle, who commutes by car, is also glad that Skype is "green, and I don't have to burn up some dinosaurs to get there."
Still, live and in-person lessons are the most effective, he said.
"I can't rustle beginners' fingers around and can't play together," he said, speaking of the drawback of Skype lessons. "I love in-person stuff. It is a very civilized sort of thing I enjoy."
But he is glad to adapt to the coming wave of new technology because lessons over Skype, he said, are the future, adding, "Lots of folks are way into it."
Internet video-conferencing is also finding its way into local schools, enhancing the educational experience of students. Kim Roberts, an English teacher and director of advancement at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, used the service to connect her sophomore English class with the poet Leslie Williams.
After teaching about many poets, she found that her class was missing part of what makes poetry so engaging and important.
"They had very little sense of why these poets wrote what they did and how the cultures they inhabited informed their work. They were missing the heart and passion of the poetry in some ways," she wrote in an email.
When her class started to study poetry by the Boston-based Williams, she decided to reach out to her through Skype.
"Connecting with ... a woman with whom they could identify, whom I happened to know personally, and who I knew would make an impact on them, seemed like a perfect way to bring the literature more to life," she said.
"They could ask her about her process and inspiration and enjoy connecting with her in a contemporary medium that fit with their 15-year-old interests," she said.
One Palo Alto company, Breakthrough.com, is attempting to bring online therapy into the mainstream. Breakthrough.com links a client with a therapist who then provides mental health care via Internet video conferencing.
Mark Goldenson, the chief executive officer of Breakthrough.com, said that the service helps overcome some of the obstacles of traditional therapy.
"Online therapy helps to reduce costs 10 to 30 percent because the client doesn't have to travel," he said.
There is also flexibility in scheduling appointments that allows a client to receive care from home when it is convenient. Goldenson said this reduces the stigma of being in therapy because clients can be in the privacy of their own homes rather than a shared waiting room.
These factors can lead more people to stick with online therapy.
With traditional therapy, only 50 percent of clients return for a second visit; Goldenson said that Breakthrough.com clients return 92 percent of the time.
And studies report that online psychiatry can be as effective as in-person. A June 2007 study by the American Psychological Association concluded, "Psychiatric consultation†and short-term follow-up can be as effective when delivered† by telepsychiatry as when provided face to face." However, the APA cautioned: "These findings†do not necessarily mean that other types of mental health services,†for example, various types of psychotherapy, are as effective†when provided by telepsychiatry."
Breakthrough.com is also working with Give An Hour, a charity that provides free mental health services for veterans and their families. While Give An Hour generally provides traditional in-person counseling, it plans to add the option of receiving counseling over the Internet.
There are now more than 800 providers working with Breakthrough.com. Goldenson said he doesn't think it will replace traditional mental health care but become a complement to it.
And as insurers have started to reimburse bills from online therapy, Goldenson said: "I do think it will become a mainstream form of care."