Getting pretty tired of staying inside all the time? You’re not alone. As the world continues to hunker down and weather the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to rapidly adapt to a new lifestyle where the closest we can get to a non-housemate is six feet. Thankfully, the internet helps us adapt quickly, with video calls becoming the new social norm. Here are the must-use apps and services to simulate a social life as best you can.
There are plenty of video conferencing apps out there, but Houseparty stands out thanks to a few simple but fun additions. The app launched in 2016, but got a boost last year when Epic Games bought developers Life on Air and continued work on it. The COVID-19 quarantine has been a huge boon to Houseparty, which is now No. 3 on the the App Store behind only Zoom and TikTok.
Houseparty supports chats with up to eight people in a “room,” which can be set to private or open for strangers. Inside, you can play simple games like Heads Up! and trivia. It also syncs contacts with other platforms like Facebook and Snapchat.
The app met with a brief burst of bad publicity with allegations that it compromised other services, including Spotify and Netflix. Those don’t immediately appear to be true.
Streaming video services are getting a workout during these isolated months, but if you’re missing the social aspect of binge-watching the latest Netflix must-see with friends, TwoSeven has the answer. This add-on for Chrome and Firefox, developed by an independent team funded on Patreon, lets you set up watch parties across a host of streaming apps, from Vimeo and YouTube to Netflix, Hulu, and even Disney+.
Unlike Netflix Party, TwoSeven supports video sharing in addition to text chat functionality, meaning it feels more like you’re in the same room with your friends. A host of interesting options let you further customize the experience—rooms can be open free-for-alls or have attendance strictly regulated, and playback can be stopped and started individually or group-wide.
One caveat: if you’re watching content on a subscription service, every viewer in the room will need to have their own subscription. Sorry to everybody out there sharing one HBO GO password.
People have been using Discord to connect with each other well before COVID-19 drove us all indoors, but there’s a reason the chat service has boomed even more in the last few months: it’s all about flexibility.
Users of old-school chat programs like IRC will be familiar with the basic metaphor behind Discord. It organizes users into “servers” and “channels,” but it’s significantly easier to use than those precursors. Servers can be huge—like, tens of thousands of people.
Discord originally came to prominence as a chat client for people playing games, but it has expanded to encompass numerous different online communities. It’s rolled out several new features in the last few weeks, including expanding screen share video for up to 50 people in a channel at once.
The service does have a reputation for griefers and other less-than-salubrious users, but it’s relatively painless to set up your servers and channels securely to keep out unwanted elements.
Regular board game nights are off the table (no pun intended) during the coronavirus, but thankfully enterprising developers have been working on digital equivalents. One of the most robust is Tabletop Simulator, which was funded on Kickstarter in 2014. Buy it for $19.99 on Steam.
Unlike most other electronic versions of board games, this isn’t a set of rules that the computer enforces. Rather, it's a physics sandbox that simulates the pieces you’d have with a board game or card game. Tabletop Simulator also relies on the players to enforce fair play—much like a real board game does.
Out of the box, it supports numerous games in the public domain, like checkers and chess. However, it’s the Steam Workshop where Tabletop Simulator really shines, as users have created boards, cards, meeples, and more for a flabbergasting array of other titles. A number of other licensed complete games, like Cosmic Encounter, are available as paid DLC.
The game allows you to play with up to 10 people and supports text and voice chat. All told, it takes a little setup, but if you add your favorite video chat service, this is the closest equivalent you can get to game night right now.
Many people are trying to get fit during these isolated months, but exercising alone can get a bit lonely. Many fitness companies are offering streamed workouts, but if you’re the competitive type who wants to compare your gains with friends, check out Strava.
Founded in 2009, the app saw a stable public release last year for iOS and Android platforms. Using GPS data from your phone, smartwatch, and other devices, it maps steps taken, heart rate, and more.
The social aspect comes in your ability to network that data with friends. You can see what your contacts are doing, leave comments on their workouts and more. If you’re relying on your running buddies to keep you honest, Strava lets you all keep tabs on each others’ miles, making sure that the walk to the snack cabinet isn’t all the cardio you get on any given day.
Squad is an app specifically designed around the experience of hanging out, with no goals or agenda, and sharing stuff with each other on your phones. That’s a feeling we’re definitely starting to miss as this quarantine drags on.
Even when we’re in physical space, we’re still connected to our digital lives, and Squad works to replicate this experience. Fire it up and invite up to five other people into the app for video sharing. Then, with a single touch, you can share what's on your screen with the group.
That means showing your friends a funny video, an interesting website, or any other piece of content is instantaneous, creating a social space that blends the physical and digital in a way that just works.
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