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Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and many of us have become accustomed, at times begrudgingly, to utilizing technology to stay connected with our friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Meetings via Zoom, family dinners via Facetime, and hanging out with friends via Google meet have become commonplace as we trudge through living in more isolated fashion, still trying to stay close and engaged with the people who keep us going.
Our friends at Helm – a local tech company that assists local startup businesses and non-profit organizations with building mobile apps, web applications, and websites – shared some of their recommendations for alternative options for connection through the web.
“There’s been a lot of activity in the app economy for trying to create new ways for people to connect that we’ve seen early on in the pandemic,” said Nicholas Barone, co-founder of Helm. “I think we’ll continue to see innovation in this space though for sure.”
Barone also notes that some of these websites and mobile apps were already in existence, and have now become more mainstream due to the high demand for ways to connect remotely.
A social networking app that sets up “rooms” where up to eight people can join and video chat with one another. The app will notify you when your friends have opened rooms so you can join them. You can also move from room to room on the app.
“The moment you log in, your video is on and it auto-invites all your friends,” Barone said. “You can play games and do all these interactive things together inside the app. It’s a pretty streamlined, fun interface and experience for connecting people.”
An invite-only, audio-only networking app that requires an invite from a friend to join the conversation. This is one example of an app that’s been around for a bit, but is now really gaining traction with the demands of the pandemic.
“Basically it’s just like different tracks or different rooms at a conference where there are some moderators talking and you can listen in and raise your hand and try to join the conversation” Barone said. “We had Helm actually run one and we’re going to continue to run these weekly as a way to help connect the Buffalo tech and startup community.”
Those who miss having movie nights with their friends and family can check out Teleparty, which allows you to watch a movie via Netflix, Disney, Hulu, and HBO remotely with your friends, without the awkwardness of setting up a separate video call and all trying to press play at the exact same time. The app, which is accessible through Google Chrome, synchronizes the video playback for you and also incorporates a group chat function so you can talk about the movie as you watch.
Another interactive app that provides text channels organized by topic, where you can pop in and out of rooms and join via voice or video. “That’s one that younger people and gamers gravitate toward, but it’s another place that people are connecting and doing sort of interesting things,” Barone said. “I think you’ll start to see it become a little bit more mainstream with other potential circles and groups.”
For gamers and even those outside the gaming world, virtual reality experiences like Oculus (www.oculus.com) have taken off during the pandemic, giving users the chance to utilize a VR headset to escape their current space and enter a more stimulating 3D environment.
Another app that has a lot of appeal for gamers is Mozilla Hubs (https://hubs.mozilla.com/), which creates shared 3D spaces without requiring a virtual reality headset. “It lets you create these rooms where a group of people can build something or talk and watch videos together and essentially interact in a 3D virtual space,” Barone said.
Helm has also jumped into designing their own product for helping people connect called Mentor Deck, which seeks to connector mentors with mentees in their field. It provides the ability to search for connections by expertise and industry, and to access their calendars in order to set up a time to meet with them. “It’s something we’ve been demoing at an OpenOffice for the Buffalo Tech Community and started to spin into different environments as well,” Barone said. “We were just seeing this trend and we want to play a part in it and try to connect people.”
Barone notes that the social networking sites that many of us are already utilizing are often what we end up turning to, given their level of familiarity and accessibility. You don’t have to download a different browser or start a new account or purchase a headset to use them. And most of our friends are already on those sites. Plus, you’re seeing the big companies like Facebook and Twitter trying to compete by cloning the more unique features of some of the other apps.
“I’ve just noticed personally that I’ve been more active in the different chat or messaging functions within a social network. So I use messages or chat within Twitter much more than I actually use Twitter,” Barone said. “But wherever your friends are or that group of people is -whether it’s Instagram messages or Whatsapp or Facebook messages – every single one of these has the same features.”
Roswell helps patients stay connected
A local high school student has designed a website with the purpose of helping people stay connected, but for a unique audience. Colin Richey, a junior at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute with a passion for sports, teamed up with Roswell Park to design a website that allows patients staying at the hospital to watch local sports with their loved ones at home.
“My dad works at Roswell and he was telling me about how the patients have limited or sometimes no access to visitors during the pandemic,” Richey said. “I needed to do a service project for St. Joe’s, so I had a brainstorming session with my parents to come up with some ideas of something we could do for them. I was thinking back to over the summer what I did to get through the pandemic was watch sports with my dad and my brother. We watched all the Bills games when they were on and celebrated every touchdown, and it just gave us an opportunity to experience something we were passionate about together and for us it made the pandemic less depressing or less daunting while we were engaged with the game.”
So Colin connected with the marketing team at Roswell, decided on the name Group Watch Sports, purchased the domain name, and began building a website himself – something he had never done before. He’s been working on building out the site and advertising it to the patients at Roswell, preparing for an official debut that coincides with the Sabres matchup against the Boston Bruins on Thursday, March 18, which is also Hockey Fights Cancer night.
Patients who are interested can visit www.groupwatchsports.com, which will provide a list of games that are available to group watch through the site. Patients, their families and friends can choose a game and register for it. The site will provide a Zoom link for them to join at game time and watch together. Richey is also working on incorporating trivia and some other fun components to the site, too.
Mental health is a big part of your overall health and that’s something I learned throughout the pandemic, just trying to connect with friends and schedule zooms or phone calls with my friends just to stay socially active. Being in the hospital with limited or no visitors, it’s hard to get those social interactions, Richey said.
“I always picture a little boy Zooming with his dad during the Sabres game and they see that Jack Eichel overtime goal together and they can just celebrate it together, which is something that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”
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