The pandemic proved that being stuck at home did not always mean being alone. And that will be the case for those of us who may be cooped up again with the onset of cold, dark and dreary winter weather.
Thanks to technology, we can remain connected and entertained playing online games with friends; watching a TV show or movie simultaneously with others elsewhere; and video chatting about the latest novel, perhaps over a glass of wine, in a virtual book club.
Technology has no shortage of ways to bring us together — without breaking the bank. After all, mental health experts strongly suggest we seek human interaction, especially during times of crisis, so these suggestions can help you stay social without spending all of your time on Facebook.
Virtual viewing parties let you watch, comment
Many people have kept in touch during COVID-19 via Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom and — if they have iPhones, iPads or Mac computers — FaceTime.
Apple recently added a feature to its proprietary video and audio chat platform called SharePlay that can turn FaceTime schmooze fests into watch parties. You and up to 31 other people on a FaceTime call can simultaneously hear an album on Apple Music, watch movies or TV shows through the Apple TV app, or even work out together through Apple Fitness+ classes. You can also share your screen.
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To control the action, anyone on FaceTime with Apple gear can hit Play, Pause, Fast-Forward or Rewind or jump to the next track. Content will be kept in sync across all the devices. And you don’t have to fret that whatever is playing is too loud or soft. You can control your own volume levels and closed captioning.
But while Apple recently opened up FaceTime conversations to people on Windows PCs or Android — they must receive an invitation link from someone with an Apple device to participate — the SharePlay feature only works on Apple devices. Windows and Android users still can engage with the people on the call, but they won’t hear the music or watch videos others are seeing.
And even if you own the requisite Apple products, some stuff you want to watch or listen to may require a subscription. You may have the option to subscribe right then, pay for one-time access or get to sample content through a trial.
Compatible SharePlay apps, besides Apple’s own, include NBA: Live Games & Scores, Paramount+, Showtime: TV, Movies and More, TikTok and Twitch. If you own an Apple TV set-top box, you can keep a conversation going on your phone or tablet while sending a movie or show to the large-screen television you have connected to the Apple TV. SharePlay requires an iPhone running iOS software 15.1 or later, an iPad running iPadOS 15.1 or later or tvOS 15.1 or later.
To get started on an iPhone or iPad, begin a FaceTime call and visit the Home screen. Open a streaming app that supports SharePlay and tap Play. Select Play for Everyone if that option appears and everyone with access should see the movie or show begin playing on their screens. In some instances, you or others may have to tap Join SharePlay to get going.
During a call, tap the screen to surface FaceTime and SharePlay controls. You can tap a picture-in-picture button on your device to view a video full-screen while dragging and resizing the window to see the reaction of friends watching right along with you.
The only thing better than going on a movie binge while you're home is viewing the same content with a friend who’s somewhere else. Teleparty, formerly called Netflix Party, synchronizes video playback and adds the ability to text chat. Now it's available for Disney+, HBO Max, HBO Now, Hulu, Hulu+ and Netflix.
You will need two things to participate: a valid subscription to the streaming service you want to use and the free Google Chrome web browser. After you install the free Chrome extension, start a video. Click on the red Tp icon next to the address bar. Then click Start Party and share the link to the party to invite friends.
Each participant needs to have an account with the streaming service you want to use. If your friends want to try before they commit to a monthly subscription, Hulu says it does offer free trials of varying lengths for new subscribers and some returning subscribers, but the others have phased out their try-it-before-you-buy-it periods. New subscribers must give their credit card, PayPal or Venmo information, but Hulu says a newcomer can cancel anytime during the free trial and nothing will be charged.
A similar experience for YouTube subscribers is ShareTube, where you can chat about synced YouTube videos for free with long-distance friends. To get going at the ShareTube website, click or tap the icon that says Make a Room to initiate the viewing party or Join a Room, which will require you to know the room name.
Multiplayer games aren't all shoot-'em-ups
If you have a smartphone, a tablet such as an iPad or a computer — laptop or desktop — games are a great way to pass the time while keeping your distance. And not all are twitchy action games such as Fortnite or Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, but the classics are available, often for free, on your platform of choice.
If you like word games such as Scrabble, free apps like Zynga's Words With Friends 2 or Scopely's Scrabble GO allow you to play against a friend or family member in another location. Like the real game, you take turns placing tiles on a board to spell words to compete for the highest score.
Because you take turns, you and your friend don't need to be in front of your device at the same time. Tap to send your move, and your friend will reply with another move later. You can text chat in a small window during or in between turns, too.
If you prefer to talk while playing the same game at the same time, many support text or voice chat. Mah-jongg, chess and Fuller Systems’ Cribbage Pro app for Android and iPad or iPhone are available online, to name just a few examples.
AARP's Games page also has several free solo and multiplayer games to play.
Book clubs without cleaning the living room
Long before we were forced to keep to ourselves, many enjoyed downloading electronic books to read on an e-reader, tablet or computer — whether the books were purchased online or borrowed from a library. To borrow books, be sure to check out Hoopla and Libby for your library.
But technology can help you socialize while you're reading or after you've finished a book, too, thanks to Bookship, a social reading app that lets you share reading experiences across the city or planet like a virtual book club.
Available on Amazon, Android, iPad and iPhone devices, you can chat and share thoughts with others, read select classic books from within the app or post favorite passages. After you create your group, Bookship can send reminders for your scheduled chat, suggest similar books you may like and keep your reading synchronized with friends by sharing your location in the book.
If you want to see the members of your virtual book club, find a time to chat via FaceTime, Skype, Zoom or your favorite video call or conference app.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.