The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly robbed us of many daily comforts we enjoyed not all that long ago: Hugs; leisurely chats in the grocery store line; handshakes; fist-bumps; kisses; smiles unobscured by masks.

    But loneliness and isolation aren’t a given as we move indoors, says Paul Zimmerman, tech expert at The Community Library in Ketchum and self-described “digital therapist.” With a few technological adjustments, in fact, we can help replicate the calming diversions of our pre-pandemic lives.

    “When you’re connecting with someone remotely, geography is no longer part of the equation. It’s easy to get stuck on the thought that [video conferencing apps] can’t give social value to situations,” he said. “But that’s just not true.”

    Zimmerman said it’s the context in which we use technology—not the apps themselves—that has value.

    “Things may be physically different, sure, but you can still harness the same feelings and emotions [virtually] during holidays,” he said. “Halloween, for example. What’s to stop you from doing a walkthrough of your own haunted house with the kids and sharing it with another household over FaceTime?”

    Fortunately, celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas over video this year should be relatively “low-hanging fruit” for the average tech user, Zimmerman said.

    “I’ll be making turkey live on video and my dad will be doing the same thing,” he said. “The tech will connect us—that’s its job.”

    Zimmerman hosts lectures at the library to help adults better navigate social media and video conferencing platforms. His next virtual workshop, “Bridging the Digital Divide,” is geared toward the less tech-savvy and will be livestreamed at livestream.com/comlib on Wednesday, Oct. 14, from 6-7 p.m. (To submit tech-related questions you’d like to see answered during the session, email mwilliams@comlib.org.)

    In the meantime, here are five platforms that beginners can use to get started with video chatting:

  • FaceTime (Up to 32 users, Apple only): Open the FaceTime application on your Apple laptop, iPad tablet or iPhone. (Don’t have it? Visit the App Store to download.) Enter the recipient(s) phone number and tap the video icon. If you have an iPhone, no need to install the FaceTime app—just go into your contacts, select the recipient and tap the video icon.
  • Google Duo (Up to 12 users): To start a Duo video call from a computer or laptop, simply sign into your Gmail account, visit duo.google.com and enter a phone number or email. You can use any web browser except Microsoft Edge; just make sure your recipient is also signed into their Gmail account and has the Google Duo webpage open (or, alternatively, has installed the Google Duo app on their smartphone or tablet).
  • Messenger (Up to eight users): A majority of this app’s 1.3 billion users access it via smartphone, but Messenger is also conveniently embedded on Facebook. To start or receive a video call on Facebook from your computer or laptop, just log in to your Facebook account, using Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge as your browser. (Don’t have Chrome? Get it at www.google.com/chrome.) To start a call, visit the profile of the person you’d like to chat with, click the “message” button near their name and click the blue video icon in the message box that pops up. If you’re the one expecting the call, stay on Facebook until you’re prompted to accept it.
  • Skype (up to 50 users): It’s worth noting that no signups or downloads are necessary to start a Skype call, but downloading the app—which is compatible with Mac, Windows, iPhone and Android—will ensure your contacts are saved for the future. To start a Skype call without the app, visit www.skype.com/en/free-conference-call, click “create a free meeting” and join as a guest. To use the app, you’ll need to have a Microsoft account (signup.live.com). After downloading the app from www.skype.com, log in with your Microsoft account and enter your recipient’s Skype username, phone number, full name or email to video chat.
  • Zoom (up to 100 users): To host a Zoom call from a web browser, sign up for a free account at zoom.us. (Smartphone or tablet users can also download Zoom from Google Play or the App Store.) Once registered, click “host a meeting” at the top of the webpage, choose “video on” and “join with computer audio.” This will take you to a black window, where you’ll click the “participants” icon at the bottom and the “invite” button on the right, revealing a shareable email link and an 11-digit meeting ID and 6-digit password. Pass this information on to your recipient(s). (As a recipient, there’s no need to register—all you have to do is follow the link sent to you or visit zoom.us/join and enter the provided meeting ID/password.) Note that Zoom meetings with more than two users have a 40-minute time limit, unless the host has upgraded to a $15/month plan.

14 ideas to stay connected with loved ones over video:

1.    Cue up some Bob Ross painting tutorials and make a night of it. Using Zoom, have one person share their desktop screen (find the green “share” button at the bottom and select “desktop”) with the tutorial running.

2.    Host a weekly book discussion club. For a hands-free experience, position your laptop or tablet at eye-level by stacking a few books on the kitchen table. Pro tip: Take advantage of Zoom’s gallery view, where each person’s thumbnail is an equal size.

3.    Invite coworkers to a virtual coffee hour or happy hour.

4.    Organize a group workout or yoga session.

5.    Organize a virtual trivia or charades night.

6.    Throw a virtual brunch party on the weekend. For a fun twist, hold a baking contest where each person follows the same recipe(s) and has to present their creation to the group. Alternatively, use randomlists.com/food to assign every person five random ingredients to cook with—think “Chopped”—and have them share their final product.

7.    Pick a live webcam to watch for a week with friends or family. Our personal favorite: Katmai National Park’s live grizzly bear cams in southern Alaska, explore.org/livecams/brown-bears.

8.    Start a movie marathon with Netflix Party, a Google Chrome extension. FaceTiming or Zooming with your friend(s) throughout can build on the “live” concept. It’s helpful to mute all screens during the movie, however, except the one playing.

9. Take a friend hiking with you via video chat. “Or, have two friends hike different trails [simultaneously] and video-call one another at the end to compare results,” Zimmerman suggests.

10. Throw a Zoom Pictionary party—or just create your own group masterpiece. To start drawing, click the green “share” button at the bottom panel, select “whiteboard” and get to work.

11.  Try out the PowerPoint party trend on Zoom: Each person prepares a presentation on an obscure or random topic, sends the PowerPoint to someone else in the group and watches that person present in front of everyone.   

12. Unleash your competitive streak by challenging a friend or family member to a round of Words with Friends. Scrabble not up your alley? Start up some backgammon, chess, cribbage and other card games on the live-stream gaming site playingcards.io.

13.    Video-chat with a younger cousin, nephew, niece or grandchild to help them with their homework.

14.    Visit the free live radio broadcasting site TuneIn.com to browse over 100,000 radio stations worldwide and tune in to something you wouldn’t normally listen to. The options are endless: Bulgarian folk, Jamaican talk shows, Chilean pop. Invite a friend to listen along. 

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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