Technology’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? For generations now we’ve been promised wonders like video telephones by shows such as The Jetsons. Well, that probably doesn’t seem so far fetched right now, since that’s a fact of daily life for so many of us geeks! But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Even though it doesn’t seem so outlandish to US, trying to get less geeky members of our families to use video chat software can be worse than pulling teeth.
There are any number of things that can go wrong when you’re having that conversation with a less savvy relative. Maybe they’re distrustful of the whole social media movement that’s taken over the world lately. I can’t help you there, that’s a fight you’ll have to win on your own! Other times, the person is willing, but stumbles over technical hurdles that are so small to you and I that we’d never even dream in a million years that it could be a problem. An example from my own life; my father’s uncle is having a hard time signing up for a Skype account. He doesn’t live in the world of computers, so for him it’s a completely baffling process. Smart phones can make it even worse, having so many possible different interfaces.
So let’s take a look at the major examples of how you might get your family (or friends, or anyone) set up for video chatting on their phone. Our major contenders are FaceTime if everyone’s on iOS, or Google Hangouts or Skype if you’re dealing with a less Appley group of people. These aren’t the only options, but they are the most commonly used, and are the ones your family has the best chance of having heard of, or maybe even used on a computer.
The very first thing to consider when trying to get your family to use mobile video calling is their hardware. If they don’t have a phone that’s capable of sending video, that’s going to make things difficult, and you’ll probably want to look at getting them upgraded before you go any further. It is worth noting though that they can still participate in video calls, but they won’t be sending video; to the people talking to them, it’ll be just a voice conversation.
In some cases getting your family onto video chat services will require them to create a new account. I’ve already told you something of the difficulties I have encountered here. It seems like such a simple matter, but here are some things you should bear in mind.
- If your relative has several email addresses, this will be a prime area for confusion. Make sure that both of you know which address the account was created with.
- Make sure the password for the account works, and that your relative will be able to use it.
Most of the problems I run into revolve around these two points. Password recovery can be a huge source of pain, confusion and frustration, and may lead less tech-savvy people to abandon the account entirely rather than deal with it. You know what’s less secure than an account with a weak password? An account with a weak password and that the owner never uses, so be particularly careful of point #2.
It’s important to keep in mind, too, that we the citizens of the Internet have built up an innate familiarity with how software works. We have a sort of language of iconography, an expectation of functionality, that people outside of our world don’t share. It’s very difficult sometimes to remember that, and to get frustrated when you’re trying to explain how an app works to someone who just doesn’t seem to understand the easiest of things.
The best way I’ve found to get people used to these things is to use it with them a few times in a short period of time, say a few days or so, and get them to do it on their own too, instead of relying on you. With a smartphone, that’s pretty easy; just get them to practice a bit while they’re out, and go over it again with them if they’re still not comfortable with it later.
Now let’s get on to some specific apps.
FaceTime for iOS is great for relatives who have iPhones, iPods, or iPads, especially if Apple is your whole family’s preferred platform. Setup is pretty easy. Install the app and make sure everyone who uses it goes into Settings on their iDevice, checks the FaceTime settings, and specifies which email addresses everyone can contact them with. This point confused ME more than my family at first; it looked for a while like FaceTime was simply broken! It turns out that it defaulted to having my apple ID email active for FaceTime, but the email address everyone knows and uses for me is different. I had to manually go in and allow that other email address to be used to contact me. In the interest of avoiding confusion, it’d be worth getting them to check their caller ID as well, so that when they contact people they show up consistently.
The iPhone settings menu for FaceTime contains all the settings you’ll need to get it working properly. If you have more than one email address listed, set the ones you want to be usable with FaceTime, and make sure ones you want kept away from the FaceTime experience aren’t enabled for it.
Google Hangouts on Google+ and YouTube are fantastic for families that are spread out across several cities or countries, or if people in your family like to travel a lot. One hangout can allow up to 10 people to connect and talk and see each other all at once; it’s like a virtual family reunion waiting to happen. Hangouts have been possible on mobile devices for several months now, making them a great choice on iOS or (of course) Android phones. Anyone with a Google account (Gmail, Google+, YouTube) can take part in a Hangout, and Gmail accounts are really easy to set up, and even easier to use; I wrote about how to use Hangouts a couple of years back when Google+ was brand new. That article focused on the desktop, so now is a good time to cover mobile hangouts.
All of this widespread availability may be a downside for some people, too. I’ve encountered some resistance to using Google+ within my family. There are those out there who want nothing to do with social networks due to privacy concerns. If you have to deal with someone like this, you’ll have to go over their profile privacy with them to address whatever concerns they have, or even determine that Google+ is simply not an option for them.
Thankfully, creating the account is the hard part. On Mobile, you just need the Google+ app on your device, and you have to sign in to it. From there, receiving a hangout request is dead simple to handle. For iOS, get Google+ at the App Store. For Android, you can get Google+ on Google Play.
Receiving a Hangout request is as simple as can be, regardless of platform.
I set up a second Google+ account specifically to test hangouts for this writeup, and was able to use it cross-platform between computer, iOS on my iPad, and Android on my phone. Receiving a hangout request and responding to it should be intuitive enough for anyone on any platform, I’m happy to report. The image above shows you what you get. Decline and it’s over; Hangout, and you’re in. The one and only gotcha I ran into involves the hardware of the mobile phone being used. Mine is an older Android phone that lacks a front-facing camera, and so I couldn’t send video from it. Audio worked perfectly fine though. Something to keep in mind.
Sending a hangout request to someone (or ‘making a call’ if your relative prefers to think of it that way) is easy enough when you’re savvy, but could require some patience and practice for those who aren’t. Tap the top-left of the screen (the three horizontal lines in iOS, as pictured above) to access the Google+ menu and get to Hangouts. On Android, it looks a bit different, and on any platform it may vary slightly depending on the version of the Google+ app you’re using.
Once you’ve gotten to the menu, you’re prompted to enter who you want to hangout with. This was the second place I ran into some trouble, interestingly. It was pretty easy on iOS. On my Android phone though, it was actually case-sensitive. Typing “gordon” brought up no contacts. Typing “Gordon” brought me right up to the forefront, ready to hang out with. As I mentioned, my phone is older, and runs an older version of Android (Gingerbread, to be precise) so I don’t know if this will be universally true on all Android devices. I would hope that on more recent ones, the experience would be as easy as it was on the iPad.
Once you’ve cleared those potential problems, the rest is easy. Specify the people you want in the hangout, send the invitation, and wait for them to respond.
Skype (iOS | Android) has a lot of advantages for video conferencing. It’s been around for years, so it’s well-supported on many platforms. It’s widely used, so finding help with it can be pretty easy too. The one real big disadvantage is that it was recently acquired by Microsoft, and they’re in the middle of integrating it with Windows Messenger. This makes the advice I gave earlier all the more valuable – make sure you have your usernames and passwords all sorted out, or things can get really confusing really fast if your relative had a Live Messenger account.
Once the account is set up, the method you use to start a call differs by platform.
On iOS, you go to your contacts choose someone. It’ll automatically go to your messaging history with them.
In the upper right corner you should see 3 icons. A phone hand-set icon, a video camera icon, and a + icon.
- The phone icon starts an audio call with the person.
- The video camera starts a video call with the person.
- The + icon contains additional options, including sending a video message (like a video voice mail) or sending a photo to the person.
On Android, tapping on a person’s name in your contact list shows a pair of tabs. By default you’ll be looking at the Actions tab, which allows you to:
- Voice call
- Video call
- Send IM
As with + on iOS, More lets you send a video message or send a file.
The other tab is the Profile tab, where you can view your contact’s profile, naturally enough.
I hope this gives you some idea of the issues you could encounter when making the switch from the old days of the analog phone to modern video calling. It’s a big topic, far larger than one post could ever hope to fully address. But it’s also a powerful communication tool, as most of us have already discovered, so it’s well worth helping your less tech-savvy friends and family along the path to using it regularly. If you have things to add or questions for us, let us know in the comments!