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How to interact with our friends and family while social distancing

What do we do when our traditional social activities no longer work out? When going out to a busy or crowded place is out of the question? It’s no surprise that 2020 has turned everyone’s lives upside down, and for many people that means no longer being able to socialize with family and friends up close.

That’s left a rift in our social lives, but it’s one that technology can really help with. While distance conversations may not be a full substitute for close contact, they can keep family and friends united in tough times — and keep you healthy mentally, too. Take a look at our guide to find innovative ways to practice safe social distancing while also staying — well, social.

Use smart displays for innovative communication

Most of today’s smart speakers can act as phones for a quick conversation with a loved one, but there is another option you should consider: The more advanced smart display. These displays come with mics and cameras (with privacy functions included) that allow you to immediately start a video chat with people on your contacts list, using just a quick voice command.

Facebook’s latest Portal devices are some of the best at facilitating these conversations, with a camera that’s specifically designed to track faces and easy voice calling right from your Facebook contacts via either Facebook or Messenger. Portal TV even allows a small group of friends to watch the same shows together. But other smart displays, like the Echo Show line, allow for similar video chat abilities as well. It’s a great way to feel closer to family members and friends — plus, the voice assistants usually have a collection of games or stories that can be shared over video chats for even more interaction.

Of course, if you don’t have a smart display and aren’t interested in getting one, you can still communicate with your friends using video chat apps like Zoom and Skype. These are free and easy to set up.

Echo Show 8 video call
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Pick up some sensor wristbands

Another innovation 2020 has seen is the rise of distancing sensors, or technology that checks to make sure people are staying around 6 feet apart to avoid spreading germs too easily. Naturally, many of these systems are designed for offices, warehouses, and other businesses that need to scan a broad area and maintain proper distancing. But, others are more individual-friendly, like Italy’s Labby Light or Canada’s Halo wristbands, which gently buzz when proximity sensors go off. Consumer-oriented versions like Khepra’s PACT wristband cost about $30 and help maintain distances at social events, on jogs in the park, and so on. It’s a nice option for those who may be particularly susceptible to viruses.

Take a look at VR gatherings

Virtual reality allows for some social niceties that mere video chats can’t provide, including a surprising amount of body language by tracking and animating head movements. This technology is still progressing, but it can offer an impressive amount of social activity at a distance, especially with more affordable VR headsets like the Oculus Quest.

If this sounds like a good fit for you and your friends or peers, take a look at VR apps like Spaces and Rumii, which are specifically designed to enable “social-virtual realities.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Consider senior-focused smart care tech

One concern many families have during social distancing is that they don’t want to endanger elderly relatives by visiting in person, but they also want to make sure their loved ones are safe and properly cared for. This is one area smart technology is well-placed to address. We already mentioned smart speakers and smart displays that can be used for easy communication. However, keep in mind that older adults can also benefit from smart plugs that turn devices off if they’ve been left on, digital picture frames to save images of loved ones (and easy enough to use with just a Wi-Fi network and email address), or smart security to keep an eye on doors and other access points.

The latest Apple Watch Series also makes an excellent device for seniors, including heart health monitors, fall sensors, emergency number dialing, and other health benefits that are perfect for situations where loved ones may suddenly need some serious help.

Find online training and hobby sessions

Just because you can’t be in the same room with your group, this doesn’t mean you can’t still maintain group plans. The internet is filled with social chats and video options for yoga classes, dance classes, cooking instructions, tours of old homes, and many other activities that will help you keep up on your hobbies or learn new skills. If you’re looking for an online social activity for your close friend group, we have a whole guide devoted to just these ideas!

Zoom feature image
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Play team sports safely with new communication technology

Team sports are, to be fair, difficult to play online. But if you are looking into options for restarting a season or at least letting the team get together and play in more informal ways, there is technology that can help you practice social distancing in these situations, too.

Check out solutions like GoRout, which is designed to coordinate plays and individual coaching points without the need to huddle up or be near other players at all. It’s a smart option for coaches who want to help their teams enjoy the sport while still practicing distancing guidelines, and you can use a variety of chat apps to set up your own versions.

Pick up a community-oriented video game that your friends like to play

Video games are already made for social interaction while staying distant, so take a look at the popular options and see if there’s something you and your friends would enjoy diving into. Sea of Thieves lets you sail together in search of booty and has received some excellent updates. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a great choice for more casual play, as you build your own island economy and hang out with friends.

Rocket League, Samurai Shodown, Overwatch, and of course Fortnite offer all kinds of gameplay from highly competitive to very chill, appealing to a wide variety of skill sets. There really is something for everyone. Also, features like Microsoft’s Crossplay with Xbox make it easy to play with friends even if you’re on a computer and they’re using a console.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Pick up a friendly text editor app for some health journaling

It’s common to feel extra stress and loneliness when you don’t have the social outlets that you usually do. One option that’s helpful for some people is to start journaling feelings more often, which can be a very valuable outlet even if there’s no one else around. There are a lot of apps that can help with this, with friendly, minimalist designs and helpful features. Day One is a great choice for Apple Users, Momento is nice for sharing experiences, Diarium takes a more classic approach, and Journey combines journaling with inspirational tidbits.

Find a great wellness app

Wellness apps can also help you focus on anxieties, help deal with sleeping issues, and generally keep you in a healthy headspace. Speaking of which, one of the best available is called Headspace (and it’s free for anyone who’s unemployed). Calm is another great option, as is the free app MyLife. If you prefer more fitness and diet-oriented wellness, we can help with that, too.

Finally, sanitize your devices

A last note — your devices can help you socialize while staying apart, but you should always keep them clean. A mobile device can be a dangerous carrier of germs if left dirty. Regularly clean your phone and other devices with disinfectant wipes. Don’t use bleach or pure alcohol on a device (ever). If you don’t have any wipes, you can spray an alcohol-based cleaner on a microfiber cloth.

Tyler Lacoma
Former Digital Trends Contributor
If it can be streamed, voice-activated, made better with an app, or beaten by mashing buttons, Tyler's into it. When he's not…
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