W.ith the proliferation of Omicron in the UK, the potential for disruptions to Christmas plans is high, whether restricting your contacts or being forced to isolate yourself. But the fact that you can’t meet in person doesn’t mean that all the celebrations have to stop.
It won’t be quite the same, but you can still get together with your family and friends and have a good time virtually. Here are some ideas to help you stay in touch during the holidays – whether it’s checking in for a chat or sharing a conversation.
Simple video calls
Video calls are the first port of call for most people. You can use almost any device with a camera, but a tablet or laptop is easiest to set up for longer chats if you have them.
Zoom is one of the easiest cross-platform services available with an app for most devices. It can be used free of charge for up to 40 minutes at a time.
For those in the Apple ecosystem, FaceTime is built into every iPhone, iPad or Mac, very easy to use and now you can send invitations to calls to Android or Windows users in their browser. Google users can use Meet on Android, in Chrome on a computer, or in iPhone and iPad apps.
Those sitting alone should use headphones to avoid feedback and keep conversations more natural, and shorter video chats are usually better to avoid fatigue. Put a tablet or laptop at the end of the table if someone can’t get together.
Party games over video call
Chats can get old quickly, so why not try out party games over video calling? Some things are easier to do than others. Charade is a natural solution: just prop up your video calling device and use the camera to make your shapes.
Pictionary is also pretty easy to do via a video call with pen and paper, or you can use a shared drawing service like the free Microsoft Whiteboard to see what other people are drawing on their screens or tablets.
Quizzes are also a favorite for video chatting. You can try using Google Docs or similar services, but the old-fashioned way of pen, paper, and a little screen sharing when it comes to pictures often works better.
Share movies, TV shows, and music through video calls
The latest addition to the growing list of video calling activities is watching videos or listening to music at the same time. The new SharePlay offer from Apple makes this easy – it is integrated into FaceTime with the latest software updates.
While you’re on a FaceTime call, you can watch TV, watch a movie, or play music in an app that supports SharePlay, like Apple Music and TV, Disney +, Pluto TV, and TikTok, and it will call in sync with the others on yours When you tap Play For Everyone. It works on any Apple device, including the Mac or an Apple TV streaming box, so you can watch the movie on the big screen.
Watch films together without having to call
If you’d prefer not to see other people’s faces or use Apple devices while watching a movie, you can still watch on-demand services together remotely.
Disney + has a built-in feature called GroupWatch that is easy to use and works on most devices. This allows you to invite other people with a Disney + subscription to join you and watch the content at the same time. Amazon’s Prime Video Watch Party can do a similar thing via Android devices, computers in the browser or Fire TV devices.
Viewing groups on Netflix is currently more restricted and requires the free Teleparty Chrome or Edge browser extension on your PC, Mac, or Chromebook, so it won’t work on your smart TV, phone, or iPad, but you can chat with others via SMS Spectators in a bar to the side. The BBC launched a pilot service called Together last year that allows you to group iPlayer, Sounds, Bitsize, News and Sports on one computer.
But don’t forget, if you pause it for a quick pit stop at the end, everyone else will pause in the middle of the action as well, for which they may not thank you.
For a low-tech alternative, you can just tune in or stream a live broadcast on TV and chat with WhatsApp.
Play video games remotely
Multiplayer and cooperative video games are big business and can be exceptionally rewarding when you can’t be physically together.
All major consoles support online multiplayer with voice chat, and there are many games to choose from. You’ll usually have to pay for online service, but many can be purchased on a monthly basis, including £ 3.49 for Nintendo’s service, £ 6.99 for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold, and Sony’s £ 6.99 PlayStation Plus. Some games like the hugely popular Fortnite can be played online for free on most platforms, including consoles, PCs, phones, and tablets.
There are loads of great shooting, racing, and adventure games to play together, while a number of great party games like Among Us, the modern reinvention of the wink of the eye, offer something a little different.
Shared Christmas playlists or a crackling (digital) fire
If you’re just looking for that communal Christmas atmosphere and live radio isn’t quite enough, a shared music playlist might be the answer. Spotify is best known for collaborative playlists that allow anyone to add tracks through either free or paid accounts. But you can at least share a simple playlist you’ve created by sending friends a link from the various apps for Apple Music, Amazon Music, and most other services if they’re also subscribed to.
For a bit of ambience, you can also recreate a crackling fire on your TV so you all see the same mesmerizing, dancing flames. The easiest way is to play one of the surprisingly large libraries of fire videos on your streaming service of choice, be it Netflix, Amazon, YouTube or others. Smart TV apps are also available for most platforms. Just search for “fireplace”.