6 tech tips for making a very weird holiday feel less lonely

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Well, we've somehow made it to the end of 2020. It was, by almost every conceivable measure, a bad one. Pandemics, natural disasters, skyrocketing unemployment, delusional presidents refusing to concede... just a real smorgasbord of awful. Now, as the first Americans begin to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and glimmers of hope for 2021 appear, the least we can do is push through one socially-distanced winter holiday season.

Yes, I know, it's tiring to hear this over and over again. But, as many experts agree, it needs to happen. We're so close to widespread vaccine availability and a presidential administration that might prioritize the nation's pandemic response. But in the meantime, infection numbers all over the country are continuing to rise. We simply can't throw caution to the wind just yet.

But that doesn't mean we have to completely give up on winter holiday cheer! Here are some tips to make your distanced holiday feel less chilly.

1. Decorate

It might feel like a waste of energy to drag out your finest holiday decor if you're living alone. But studies have shown that things like new lights, color, music, and general nostalgia — all of which tend to come with holiday decorations — can actually boost your mood and make you feel happier.

Your decor can also trigger positive memories; serve as a fun, virtual conversation launch pad; or potentially inspire ideas for future holidays when everyone can get together again IRL.

Bonus: Your FaceTime and Zoom backdrop will get a festive upgrade.

2. Get a video conferencing app

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Speaking of FaceTime, it's a good idea to get everyone set up with a video conferencing app before any big digital meetups. Zoom, for example, is lifting their 40-minute call limit on free accounts just in time for the holidays. Check in with your grandparents to see if they're comfortable using Zoom or if they're better off with FaceTime, and make sure your friends are all on board with the same app if you're planning a virtual Friendsmas.

Some apps, like Houseparty, feature party games and trivia your group can play while chatting, if you want to add an extra element to your celebrations.

3. Embrace old-school conference calls

If video chats aren't possible or realistic for some friends or family members, opt for a good old-fashioned phone call instead. Most smartphones have a way to make a conference call without downloading an additional app, which is particularly convenient if you need to get a few people on the same line.

Both iPhone and Android users can do this by following these steps:

  • Call the first person, and wait for them to pick-up.
  • Ask them to wait, then tap the "add call" button on your phone.
  • Dial up the second person, and wait for them to pick-up.
  • Hit "merge calls" to get everyone on the same line.

The number of people you can get on a line depends on your phone carrier. You'll know you've reached the limit when the "add call" button isn't available anymore.

4. Prep your gear

If your environment tends to get noisy or your laptop fan is whirring right next to the built-in mic (thanks, laptop designers), order headphones, a mic, or a headset beforehand.

Your equipment doesn't have to be super high-tech. Right now, you can find deals on accessories like the Mpow M5 Pro Bluetooth headset and the Microsoft LifeChat LX-3000 headset. Both are available from retailers like Amazon for around $35.

If you're willing to splurge a little, you can also nab pricier headsets that offer more comfort, sound-cancelling, and a clearer microphone. Something like the SteelSeries Arctis Pro + GameDAC headset, which is typically meant for video game players with $250 to burn. You can also use Apple's AirPods as a mic on your MacBook, if you prefer. The prices for Apple's products range from $160 to $250.

Preparing the necessary accessories in advance will help prevent any last-minute troubleshooting.

5. Plan shared activities

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Sitting on your computer and making smalltalk with everyone from afar can get old quickly. To keep the celebration from fizzling out or feeling underwhelming, plan some activities everyone can do together during the virtual gathering. Set up a time when your group can chat while cooking dinner, or ask everyone to show off their favorite holiday dishes for the year. Even better: Agree on a new recipe you can all attempt together. If you're not much of a foodie, coordinate a gift-opening session where you can see your loved ones open the gifts you sent.

You can also play a multiplayer game, like Among Us, or meet up on your Animal Crossing: New Horizons island for a chill party. Get everyone into a group chat or conference call if there's no in-game voice chat.

Sure, a virtual holiday may feel a little weird — but while we can't be physically together, today's technology means we don't have to feel alone.

6. Make a drone delivery

If you've got some friends and family in the neighborhood, make a visit with a drone. Tie a card and ribbon onto your drone to dampen the dystopian vibes, then make a holiday delivery.

Drones have been pulling a lot of weight during the pandemic to help people keep their distance from one another. And there's plenty of drone models you can start with for quick delivery trips if you don't already have one. However, do be mindful of your neighbors' feelings about flying drones near their homes, local drone laws, airspace regulations, and any licensing or certifications you might need to fly your device.

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