The biggest problem in keeping in touch with family members who live far away, says Nithya Vijayakumar, a transit planner based in Toronto, isn’t finding the right app for voice, video or text chatting. It’s time zones. Vijayakumar’s parents moved to Chennai, a city in Southern India, shortly after she graduated high school, and with Vijayakumar in Canada, keeping in touch has become a solely long-distance affair. “We used to Skype,” she says. “Then we gave up.” The time zone obstacle was just too much. There’s an 11-hour time difference between Toronto and Chennai, so the Vijayakumars have essentially given up on video chatting.
Spanning Time Zones with Text Chat
Instead, they use various forms of text chatting, especially WhatsApp, available for free for all major smartphone platforms, and Google Chat, recently renamed Hangouts. “I like Gchat and WhatsApp because I don't have to fit my schedule around time zones,” says Vijayakumar. It’s much easier for her to rely on a time-delay system, in which you essentially leave a message for the recipient to reply to at their leisure.
Vijayakumar doesn’t only use apps like these for keeping in touch with family — college friends, scattered around the globe from Toronto to Montreal to New York to London, all join her in WhatsApp’s group chats, which allow large groups of people to chat back and forth, adding images, videos and activities.
Collaborative Gifting and Music Listening
There are plenty of other apps to help families and friends who are separated by great distances to keep in touch, especially during the holidays. Amazon allows you to collaborate on Wish Lists, which help you put together your own ad-hoc gift guides — great for making sure that you get your far-flung cousin just the right gift. Music streaming apps like Rdio also allow users to create collaborative playlists; you and a family member can work together on a holiday-themed playlist and then play it separately, knowing that you’re both listening to the same music.
Sharing Where You Are and What You See
Photo sharing apps are another great way to make another person feel like they’re right there with you. GroupMe works a little bit like WhatsApp, but it’s specifically designed for large groups; you can “favorite” each others’ posts and share whatever you want, from Tweets to photos to specific locations to great big customized Emoji. At the hometown bar? You can share that location with two or three quick taps, and share a photo with another.
Playing Games and Chatting Face-to-Face
There are also plenty of games that help you connect. Sure, the usual suspects are there — if you want to play “Call of Duty” with your nephew, that’s certainly an easy way to stay in touch. But there are also more family-friendly online games. One favorite is the classic Scrabble, which allows you to play friends via Facebook.
But of course, video chat is the most immersive way to connect with far-away family members. Lots of families use Skype, but FaceTime has new features that make it even easier to use: the Apple-centric chat app is built right into iPhones, iPads, and now Mac computers. It’s free, the connection is great, and, best of all, when someone calls, you’ll know — because select iOS devices are now hooked together, thanks to the last Apple update, so you can answer a call from any of them.
We can’t always be with our families over the holidays. But even when half a world separates us, we can still play games together, listen to music together, buy each other just the right gifts and communicate in all the different ways technology has enabled us to talk.
This piece is part of Verizon Wireless' #PowerfulTech series. Share your thought, tips and comments on Twitter using the hashtag #PowerfulTech.
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