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With Omicron spreading in the UK the potential for disruptions to Christmas plans are high, whether you’re limiting your contacts or have been forced to isolate. But the fact you can’t meet in person doesn’t mean all the festivities have to stop.
It will not be quite the same but you can still join your family and friends and have a good time virtually. Here are some ideas to help keep you connected over the festive period – whether it’s checking in for a chat or sharing entertainment.
Easy video calling
Video calls are most people’s first port of call. You can use almost any device with a camera, but tablets or laptops are the easiest to set up for longer chats if you have them.
Zoom is one of the easiest cross-platform services available with an app available for most devices. It can be used for free for up to 40 minutes at a time.
For those in the Apple ecosystem, FaceTime is built into every iPhone, iPad or Mac, is very easy to use and now you can send invites to those on Android or Windows for calls in their browser. Google users can use Meet on Android, in Chrome on a computer or iPhone and iPad apps.
Those sitting on their own should use headphones to avoid feedback and help keep conversations more natural, and shorter video chats are usually better to avoid fatigue. Place a tablet or laptop at the end of the table if someone can’t make a gathering.
Party games over video call
Chats can get old quickly, so why not try party games over video calls. Some things are easier to do than others. Charades is a natural fit: just prop up your video calling device and make your shapes to the camera.
Pictionary is also fairly easy to do over a video call using pen and paper, or you can use a shared drawing service such as the free Microsoft Whiteboard to see what other people are drawing on their screens or tablets.
Quizzes are a video chat favourite, too. You can try using Google Docs or similar services, but the old(er) fashioned way of pen, paper and a bit of screen sharing if any pictures are involved often works better.
The latest addition to the growing list of video call activities is watching videos or listening to music at the same time. Apple’s new SharePlay offering makes this easy – it’s built into FaceTime as of the latest software updates.
While you’re on a FaceTime call you can start watching a TV, movie or playing music in an app that supports SharePlay, such as Apple’s Music and TV, Disney+, Pluto TV and TikTok, and it will sync up with the others on your call when you tap on “play for everyone”. It works on every Apple device, including the Mac or an Apple TV streaming box so you can watch the movie on the big screen.
Watch movies together without needing to call
If you’d rather not see the faces of others when watching a film, or you don’t use Apple devices, you can still watch on-demand services together remotely.
Disney+ has a feature called GroupWatch built in, which is easy to use and works on most devices. It lets you invite other people with a Disney+ subscription to join you to watch the content at the same time. Amazon’s Prime Video Watch Party can do similar via Android devices, computers in the browser or Fire TV devices.
Group watching on Netflix is more limited at the moment, requiring 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 text chat with other viewers 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 Sport on a computer.
But don’t forget, if you pause it your end for a quick pit-stop it’ll pause it mid-action for everyone else too, which they might not thank you for.
For a low-tech alternative you could just tune into a live broadcast on TV or stream and chat with WhatsApp.
Play video games remotely
Multiplayer and co-operative video games are big business and they can be exceptionally rewarding when you can’t physically be together.
All the big consoles support online multiplayer with voice chat, and there are many games to choose from. Typically you need to pay for the online service, but many can be bought monthly including £3.49 for Nintendo’s service, £6.99 for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold and Sony’s £6.99 PlayStation Plus. Some games such as the hugely popular Fortnite can be played for free online on most platforms, including consoles, PCs, phones and tablets.
There are lots of great shooting, racing and adventure games to play together, while a crop of excellent party games such as Among Us, which is the modern reinvention of wink murder offer something a bit different.
If it is simply some of the communal Christmas atmosphere you are looking for, and live radio doesn’t quite cut it, then a shared music playlist might be the answer. Spotify is the best known for collaborative playlists allowing everyone to add tracks using either free or paid accounts. But you can at least share a basic playlist you’ve made by sending friends a link from the various apps for Apple Music, Amazon Music and most others services if they also subscribe.
For a bit of ambience, you can put a recreation of a roaring fire on your TV too, so you’re all watching the same mesmerising dancing flames. The easiest way is to play one of the surprisingly large libraries of fire videos on your streaming service of choice, be that Netflix, Amazon, YouTube or others. There are smart TV apps available too for most platforms. Just search for “fireplace”.