LIMA — The family Christmas party.
Long-ago memories like snapshots come to mind: The foods, the crowd, the noise, the jokes, the card tables, the decor — and the corded telephone in the corner with the uncle on the line who couldn’t make it home that year. A shout would go up, “Who wants to talk to Tom?” Family members would weave through the crowd to get to the telephone to chat for a few minutes, maybe even having to plug their other ear to hear through the crackles of a bad connection, before handing it off to the next person.
Things have changed.
The pandemic has paused large gatherings for this year, but changes in technology mean no one has to miss out on anything.
With the rise and widespread use of video chatting, families have plenty of options to gather virtually this year and raise a toast to their health.
Jason Lieurance, owner of Viper Systems in Lima, and Dani Hollar, head of reference services at the Lima Public Library, have helped plenty of people overcome video chat hurdles. Lieurance said he had a flurry of activity from clients at the beginning of the pandemic, and they mainly needed help getting set up with a video program. Hollar has helped patrons of the library understand technology through classes, which were held pre-pandemic. Allison Overholt, communications assistant at Apollo Career Center, has helped students with tech issues and uses video chatting in her personal life as well.
Hollar has personally used video chatting for years.
“I know when my brother was stationed overseas, we did this as often as we possibly could to, you know, see with our own eyes that he was well and happy,” Hollar said. “I live far away from my parents, and they wouldn’t get to see (her young child) grow or explore new Christmas toys or new experiences without that video element. … And I think that’s important for them, but it’s also really important for her to put faces to voices, so that when we are able to meet in person that there’s not this, ‘Wait, who are you? I am not familiar with you’ aspects for a young kid.
“So I think it depends on how your family is set up, if you’ve done this in the past or if this brand new for the first time,” Hollar said.
Overholt agreed. Her family is spread all over the country.
“My nephew was born in February, so we’ve at least been able to see him — not just pictures, we can actually see him crawling,” Overholt said. “We get to kind of be there for milestones, even though we’re not. … Because you’re missing seeing people’s faces. And it’s a way that you get to see somebody’s face you know without having to risk their health.”
Hollar sees clear benefits.
“It’s easier for people to communicate when they can see each others’ facial expressions and body language,” Hollar said. “And I do think people who are older and didn’t necessarily grow up with that level of technology, they appreciate it more — because it’s so amazing, and it’s such a wonderful way to connect with family and friends that when they were growing up, they wouldn’t even have dreamt of.”
But where to start? We offer a basic guide to a few free mainstream options with no-frills tips for tech newbies:
• Check your internet.
“Make sure you have a good internet connection if you’re going to have a ton of people on,” Lieurance said. “Most people have Spectrum for their internet, and most people are at 100 Mbps now, which is plenty.”
• Make peace with registering.
“You create an account,” Lieurance said. Some people are nervous about this step and hesitate, thinking their information isn’t safe. But as long as you are on the website of the program you want to use, there are security measures in place that he feels confident in.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said.
• Choose a program.
“Most people use Zoom just because it’s familiar,” Lieurance said. “A lot of it is just personal preference, just like when it comes to web browsers.”
Some have been around longer than others.
“Google Hangouts and FaceTime, those platforms are all really fantastic,” Hollar said, “but I think what Zoom does well is manage group video chats better.”
If you’re not sure, try several.
“You can create an account with any of them and see which one you like better,” Lieurance said. “They do things the same but a little different.”
Overholt recommended thinking about what devices people have. FaceTime is great, but it only works on Apple, for example.
Overholt learned from students about Houseparty, which is an app, and her family has adopted it as their preferred method. There are many choices, and it takes experimentation to find what works best for you.
• Decide if you want to use it on a computer or tablet/phone.
Using these programs on a device might be slightly easier, Lieurance said.
“Because you download the app. You don’t have to worry about installing (the program),” he said. “You go to the app store, you download it.”
If you have a large number of people on a chat, consider using a computer. The larger screen will allow you to see people better, Hollar said. A laptop might have a better microphone, too.
• Set up in a quiet space.
“It’s nice to have the holiday music or the TV show in the background, but that can be really distracting and pull audio from the person who’s actually talking,” Hollar said.
• Point the camera properly.
“You want to sit in your chair naturally when you have it on your desk,” he said. “It’s just like anything else. If you want to take a picture, you see what it looks like on your (camera) screen, and you adjust accordingly.”
• Consider a tripod for your device.
“Your thumb will get in the way, your arm will start to get tired,” Hollar said.
Check the camera angle. Put a few books under your laptop to raise it up, or be sure the tripod is pointed well.
“You can adjust it right on the tripod,” Lieurance said.
“If you do have a laptop or computer, you can set it up and kind of be hands-free,” Hollar said. “That frees you up for your normal body language gestures. I’m a hand talker, so that’s what I’m used to.”
Overholt said you don’t even need to buy anything.
“I don’t have a tripod, but I rig something up so I can still have my hands. I usually lay my phone up against something,” Overholt said.
• Be careful with lighting.
“So if it’s possible where you set up, you want light to be in front of you versus behind you,” Hollar said. “That will make the people on the other end of your call able to see your face a little more clearly and not get blinded by a light behind you.”
It’s also important that you have enough lights turned on.
“You don’t want to be in the dark,” Overholt said.
• Remember you are on camera.
“You don’t want to … do anything distracting on there,” Lieurance said.
• Try to talk one at a time.
“When you’re chatting with a large group, kind of be mindful with how the conversation is going,” Hollar said. “I know in some of my video calls it’s very much I want to start talking and they start talking, and then we’re just kind of talking over each other, and it takes a minute for everybody to adjust. So just patience with each other and taking your time to be sure everyone feels heard and connected.”
• Mute can be helpful.
“Don’t be afraid to use the mute button to help with background chatter,” Overholt said. “You know, if somebody’s trying to tell a story, maybe mute yourself. … I mean, I’ve got a house full of kids, I’ve got four kids, so it gets loud.”
• Try a filter or background.
“On some of the apps, there’s filters you can even put on stuff if that makes you feel better,” Overholt said. Don’t be afraid to blur out your background if your house isn’t as neat as you feel it could be, for instance.
• Ditch your vanity.
“One of the other things that I hear from people is that they are self conscious about appearing on video,” Hollar said. “And so I would suggest for people to kind of get over that for the holidays because if this is the only safe way for you to see your family. Don’t be camera shy.”
• Consider a group activity.
“We have all gotten one of those murder mystery case files, and we’re all going to do it together,” Overholt said. “We’ve picked a day … and we’re all going to solve this little murder mystery together. It’s a fun way to connect.”
• Choose to try something new.
“It seems intimidating, but the process is not that much more complicated than making a phone call,” Hollar said. “And even if someone else in your family is more tech savvy, they can initiate the call for you so all you have to do is kind of accept it and don’t have to set anything up for yourself. So that’s an option if somebody else is more comfortable setting up the meeting to network.”
It’s best to pre-arrange a video call time and day with your group. That allows you to set up the call just before, if needed, and allows group members to arrange their computers or devices for the call and be ready to talk.
Zoom Meetings is the basic free version. There are paid versions that are for businesses. The free version allows 100 people on the video call. There is a 40-minute time limit for the free version. The company removed the time limit on Thanksgiving, so check for something similar at Christmas.
Register at zoom.com. You’ll have to open the email you provide and verify it.
Start a test meeting. A program will download.
Choose “Host a Meeting” with video on and click “Launch Meeting.” Click the “Join with computer audio” button or test your speaker and microphone, if you’d like.
The meeting window will appear. Note the mute and start video toggle switches at lower left.
The link to your meeting will appear, which you can copy and email it to who is in your group.
When finished, click the “End meeting for all” button.
This Microsoft product might be installed on your computer already. Downloading the program is best if you’re interested in keeping the same username each time. But it’s available to use through Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome. Up to 99 people can be on a call.
At skype.com, the main page features a “Create a free video call” button.
Name your meeting and click on “Create a free meeting.”
A link to your meeting appears. Click the “Share invite” button to see options on how to share that link with people. You may copy and paste it, or it brings up a few common programs.
Click the “Start call” button.
The next screen asks if you’d like to join as a guest or download the program. If you join as a guest, you do not have to make an account. Type your name and join. Allow the program to use your microphone and camera, and click “Start Meeting.” There are buttons on this screen that allow you to share the meeting.
Toggle buttons for the microphone and camera are at the bottom. Click the red telephone button to end the call.
This video calling tech was rolled out by Apple in 2010. (Time does fly.) It only works on iOS devices, the Apple operating system. It works on one device to one device, no large groups. But that could be enough for your needs. Be sure your camera is pointed the right way.
Click your contact’s information. If FaceTime is available, it will be listed as a calling option.
Choose FaceTime option — the video camera icon instead of the phone icon — and the video call begins by dialing that person. The ringer will sound different. They can choose to accept the FaceTime call or not.
Google Meet (formerly Hangouts)
You need a Google/Gmail account to get started. With Google Meet, you can create a call for up to 100 people. The time limit is one hour. Find Google Meet under the apps tab, which looks like a grid of little squares in the top right corner. This program can be accessed through the web browser, with no download required.
Click the “Start a meeting” button. Or you may enter a meeting code on this main page, if someone else has set up the call for your group.
Log in to Gmail, if you haven’t already.
Click the “Join now” button.
A screen will pop up with a code you may copy and share, or you can click “Add people” and invite people to the call directly from your Gmail contacts list.
The microphone and camera toggle buttons are at the bottom of the screen, and the red phone icon is to end the call. The three vertical dots at bottom left is where the settings menu is located.
Messenger has a new tool called Rooms. Up to 50 people can be in a “room,” or group call, at once. There is no time limit. Links may be sent to people who don’t use Messenger.
On a computer, log in to Facebook and go to the Messenger tab in the list on the left side.
On the Messenger main page, look at the top of the chats bar on the left. Click the black video camera button at the top.
Allow the program to access your camera and microphone.
Click the “Join the room” button.
Copy the link to share the room.