Google research makes for an effortless robotic dog trot

As capable as robots are, the original animals after which they tend to be designed are always much, much better. That’s partly because it’s difficult to learn how to walk like a dog directly from a dog — but this research from Google’s AI labs make it considerably easier.

The goal of this research, a collaboration with UC Berkeley, was to find a way to efficiently and automatically transfer “agile behaviors” like a light-footed trot or spin from their source (a good dog) to a quadrupedal robot. This sort of thing has been done before, but as the researchers’ blog post points out, the established training process can often “require a great deal of expert insight, and often involves a lengthy reward tuning process for each desired skill.”

That doesn’t scale well, naturally, but that manual tuning is necessary to make sure the animal’s movements are approximated well by the robot. Even a very doglike robot isn’t actually a dog, and the way a dog moves may not be exactly the way the robot should, leading the latter to fall down, lock up or otherwise fail.

The Google AI project addresses this by adding a bit of controlled chaos to the normal order of things. Ordinarily, the dog’s motions would be captured and key points like feet and joints would be carefully tracked. These points would be approximated to the robot’s in a digital simulation, where a virtual version of the robot attempts to imitate the motions of the dog with its own, learning as it goes.

So far, so good, but the real problem comes when you try to use the results of that simulation to control an actual robot. The real world isn’t a 2D plane with idealized friction rules and all that. Unfortunately, that means that uncorrected simulation-based gaits tend to walk a robot right into the ground.

To prevent this, the researchers introduced an element of randomness to the physical parameters used in the simulation, making the virtual robot weigh more, or have weaker motors, or experience greater friction with the ground. This made the machine learning model describing how to walk have to account for all kinds of small variances and the complications they create down the line — and how to counteract them.

Learning to accommodate for that randomness made the learned walking method far more robust in the real world, leading to a passable imitation of the target dog walk, and even more complicated moves like turns and spins, without any manual intervention and only a little extra virtual training.

Naturally manual tweaking could still be added to the mix if desired, but as it stands this is a large improvement over what could previously be done totally automatically.

In another research project described in the same post, another set of researchers describe a robot teaching itself to walk on its own, but imbued with the intelligence to avoid walking outside its designated area and to pick itself up when it falls. With those basic skills baked in, the robot was able to amble around its training area continuously with no human intervention, learning quite respectable locomotion skills.

The paper on learning agile behaviors from animals can be read here, while the one on robots learning to walk on their own (a collaboration with Berkeley and the Georgia Institute of Technology) is here.

FCC enacts $200M telehealth initiative to ease COVID-19 burden on hospitals

The FCC has developed and approved a $200 million program to fund telehealth services and devices for medical providers, just a week or so after the funding was announced. Hospitals and other health centers will be able to apply for up to $1M to cover the cost of new devices, services, and personnel.

The unprecedented $2 trillion CARES Act includes heavy spending on all kinds of things, from direct payments to out-of-work citizens to bailouts for airlines and other big businesses. Among the many, many funding items was a $200M earmark for the FCC with which it was instructed to improve and subsidize telehealth services around the country.

Telehealth comprises many services, from something as simple as making appointments online, to using internet-connected monitoring devices, to conducting an entire primary care visit via video chat. The latter is an incredibly important option for doctors and nurses who not only need to avoid direct contact with potentially sick patients if possible, but also need every spare minute they can muster.

“The toll this pandemic is taking on our healthcare system is clear. To the extent that connectivity solutions can provide immediate assistance with remote care and monitoring, we should use them. There is already evidence across the country that this works,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement accompanying the order.

Unfortunately telehealth systems are by no means simple or easy to implement, given that they must not only meet highly stringent privacy requirements like HIPAA, but also be effortless to use for people who might not use video chat for any other purpose. Setting aside space, equipment, budget, and so on for telehealth operations is difficult and time-consuming in the best of times, let alone when care centers are overwhelmed and understaffed. Even hospitals that provide some telehealth services are likely to find demand far outstripping supply right now.

The $200M FCC program is aimed at mitigating this as simply and quickly as possible. “I’m hard-pressed these days to think of any better use case for the agency’s mission of advancing connectivity than telemedicine,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement.

As the order, passed unanimously today, describes it:

The support provided through the COVID-19 Telehealth Program wil help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services, whether for treatment of coronavirus or other health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Eligible” in this case means on the following list of types of organizations or combinations thereof:

  • Medical schools and teaching hospitals
  • Community health centers and migrant care centers
  • Local health agencies and departments
  • Community mental health centers
  • Not-for-profit hospitals
  • Rural health clinics
  • Skilled nursing facilities (e.g. long term care facilities)

Any given entity may be awarded up to $1M in funding depending on its need and reach. Priority is being given to areas especially hard-hit by the virus and chronically underfunded places like clinics in poor neighborhoods that subsist on Medicare payments and the like.

There are a few restrictions as to what the funds can be used for — for instance, only internet-connected monitoring devices are covered, not ordinary “offline” ones that the patient must relay the results from via other services. But the general idea is to stay flexible and let the recipients of this money decide what to do with it.

Rosenworcel tempered her hopeful remarks with some practical feedback for the order, which was by necessity somewhat rushed.

“This is a well-intended effort, but it lacks clear performance metrics,” she said. “That means it will disburse funds without a system for measuring outcomes or a plan for what comes after this pilot program reaches its end. Moreover, it does not focus on a specific problem in healthcare.”

Better, of course, that the money is available now and accounted for later, since we are presently in the throes of the crisis.

A second $100M program was also authorized, by which money taken from the FCC’s main budget takes a longer-term approach to engendering telehealth over the next two years. That program differs in some key ways (not covering connected devices, for one) and will play out in slower fashion but provide ongoing support.

The FCC has several ongoing efforts to “Keep Americans Connected,” as it puts it, from institutional programs like this one to extracting promises from broadband providers not to fine people for data overages or late payments. You can find a list of its work here.

Activity-monitoring startup Zensors repurposes its tech to help coronavirus response

Computer vision techniques used for commercial purposes are turning out to be valuable tools for monitoring people’s behavior during the present pandemic. Zensors, a startup that uses machine learning to track things like restaurant occupancy, lines and so on, is making its platform available for free to airports and other places desperate to take systematic measures against infection.

The company, founded two years ago but covered by TechCrunch in 2016, was among the early adopters of computer vision as a means to extract value from things like security camera feeds. It may seem obvious now that cameras covering a restaurant can and should count open tables and track that data over time, but a few years ago it wasn’t so easy to come up with or accomplish that.

Since then Zensors has built a suite of tools tailored to specific businesses and spaces, like airports, offices and retail environments. They can count open and occupied seats, spot trash, estimate lines and all that kind of thing. Coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of data that managers of these spaces are now very interested in watching closely given the present social distancing measures.

Zensors co-founder Anuraag Jain told Carnegie Mellon University — which the company was spun out of — that it had received a number of inquiries from the likes of airports regarding applying the technology to public health considerations.

Software that counts how many people are in line can be easily adapted to, for example, estimate how close people are standing and send an alert if too many people are congregating or passing through a small space.

“Rather than profiting off them, we thought we would give our help for free,” said Jain. And so, for the next two months at least, Zensors is providing its platform for free to “selected entities who are on the forefront of responding to this crisis, including our airport clients.”

The system has already been augmented to answer COVID-19-specific questions, like whether there are too many people in a given area, when a surface was last cleaned and whether cleaning should be expedited, and how many of a given group are wearing face masks.

Airports surely track some of this information already, but perhaps in a much less structured way. Using a system like this could be helpful for maintaining cleanliness and reducing risk, and no doubt Zensors hopes that having had a taste via what amounts to a free trial, some of these users will become paying clients. Interested parties should get in touch with Zensors via its usual contact page.

This adorable tiny record maker lets you cut your own 5-inch vinyl singles

Vinyl has been coming back for the last few years, but unlike MP3s, CDs or even cassette tapes (also coming back), records aren’t easy to record on your own. This tiny toy record maker makes it easy, though you probably shouldn’t expect that famous vinyl sound quality.

The Easy Record Maker was created by designer Yuri Suzuki, who has been itching to do something like this for years.

“This idea has been my dream machine since I was teenager,” Suzuki told Dezeen. Digital media are easy to copy, but making your own vinyl has proven difficult. “Of course professional-use record cutting machines exist, but they are very expensive. As it’s a complicated process with records, there is no way to create them at home.”

That’s not quite true — last year the Phonocut record maker hit Kickstarter and more than doubled its goal, but the large (think turntable plus hi-fi), $1,000+ machine is a bit more than many are ready to commit to. The tiny Easy Record Maker is meant to be a simpler, smaller option for people who want, for instance, to let their kids create their own records for fun. (This was done in the past when records were more common, but this is surely a more serious effort.)

The device cuts and plays five-inch records, of which it comes with 10, at both 33 and 45 RPM. Operating it is as simple as plugging a sound source — your phone, a mic, whatever — into the 1/8″ headphone jack and playing the content while the cutting head is in the groove. Put down the other head to play it back, or put the record in any other turntable.

The resulting records have a “nice low-fi sound,” Suzuki said, which is as much as admitting they don’t sound particularly good — but that’s not the point.

He’s hoping that the device will make the idea and process of creating vinyl records familiar to a new generation, helping them appreciate the physical side of the medium and the value of a permanent object associated with music rather than a fleeting stream.

There’s no price yet, and no definite retailers, but expect the Easy Record Maker to be available later this year (certainly before the holidays) online and in a few stores in the U.S. and EU.

FCC mandates strict caller ID authentication to beat back robocalls

The FCC unanimously passed a new set of rules today that will require wireless carriers to implement a tech framework to combat robocalls. Called STIR/SHAKEN, and dithered over for years by the carriers, the protocol will be required to be put in place by summer of 2021.

Robocalls have grown from vexation to serious problem as predictable “claim your free vacation” scams gave way to “here’s how to claim your stimulus check” or “apply for coronavirus testing here” scams.

A big part of the problem is that the mobile networks allow for phone numbers to be spoofed or imitated, and it’s never clear to the call recipient that the number they see may be different from the actual originating number. Tracking and preventing fraudulent use of this feature has been on the carriers’ roadmap for a long time, and some have gotten around to it in some ways, for some customers.

STIR/SHAKEN, which stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs, is a way to securely track calls and callers to prevent fraud and warn consumers of potential scams. Carriers and the FCC have been talking about it since 2017, and in 2018 the FCC said it needed to be implemented in 2019. When that hadn’t happened, the FCC gave carriers a nudge, and at the end of the year Congress passed the TRACED Act to spur the regulator into carrying out its threat of mandating use of the system.

Rules to that effect were proposed earlier this month, and at the FCC’s open meeting today (conducted remotely), the measure passed unanimously. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been vocal about the lack of concrete action on this issue, gladly approved the rules but vented her frustration in a statement:

It is good news that today the Federal Communications Commission adopts rules to reduce robocalls through call authentication. I only wish we had done so sooner, like three years ago when the FCC first proposed the use of STIR/SHAKEN technology.

Commissioner Brendan Starks called the rules a “good first step,” but pointed out that the carriers need to apply call authentication technology not just on the IP-based networks but all over, and also to work with each other (as some already are) to ensure that these protections remain in place across networks, not just within them.

Chairman Ajit Pai concurred, pointing out there was much work to do:

It’s clear that FCC action is needed to spur across-the-board deployment of this important technology…Widespread implementation of STIR/SHAKEN will reduce the effectiveness of illegal spoofing, allow law enforcement to identify bad actors more easily, and help phone companies identify—and even block—calls with illegal spoofed caller ID information before those calls reach their subscribers. Most importantly, it will give consumers more peace of mind when they answer the phone.

There’s no silver bullet for the problem of spoofed robocalls. So we will continue our aggressive, multi-pronged approach to combating it.

Consumers won’t notice any immediate changes — the deadline is next year, after all — but it’s likely that in the coming months you will receive more information from your carrier about the technology and what, if anything, you need to do to enable it.

We’ve come full rectangle: Polaroid is reborn out of The Impossible Project

More than a decade after announcing that it would keep Polaroid’s abandoned instant film alive, The Impossible Project has done the… improbable: It has officially become the brand it set out to save. And to commemorate the occasion there’s a new camera, the Polaroid Now.

The convergence of the two brands has been in the works for years, and in fact Impossible Project products were already Polaroid-branded. But this marks a final and satisfying shift in one of the stranger relationships in startups or photography.

I first wrote about The Impossible Project in early 2009 (and apparently thought it was a good idea to Photoshop a Bionic Commando screenshot as the lead image) when the company announced its acquisition of some Polaroid instant film manufacturing assets.

Polaroid at the time was little more than a shell. Having declined since the ’80s and more or less shuttered in 2001, the company was relaunched as a digital brand and film sales were phased out. This was unsuccessful, and in 2008 Polaroid was filing for bankruptcy again.

This time, however, it was getting rid of its film production factories, and a handful of Dutch entrepreneurs and Polaroid experts took over the lease as The Impossible Project. But although the machinery was there, the patents and other IP for the famed Polaroid instant film were not. So they basically had to reinvent the process from scratch — and the early results were pretty rough.

But they persevered, aided by a passionate community of Polaroid owners, continuously augmented by the film-curious who want something more than a Fujifilm Instax but less than a 35mm SLR. In time the process matured and Impossible developed new films and distribution partners, growing more successful even as Polaroid continued applying its brand to random, never particularly good photography-adjacent products. They even hired Lady Gaga as “Creative Director,” but the devices she hyped at CES never really materialized.

Gaga was extremely late to the announcement, but seeing the GL30 prototype was worth it.

In 2017, the student became the master as Impossible’s CEO purchased the Polaroid brand name and IP. They relaunched Impossible as “Polaroid Originals” and released the OneStep 2 camera using a new “i-Type” film process that more closely resembled old Polaroids (while avoiding the expensive cartridge battery).

Polaroid continued releasing new products in the meantime — presumably projects that were under contract or in development under the brand before its acquisition. While the quality has increased from the early days of rebranded point-and-shoots, none of the products has ever really caught on, and digital instant printing (Polaroid’s last redoubt) has been eclipsed by a wave of nostalgia for real film, Instax Mini in particular.

But at last the merger dance is complete and Polaroid, Polaroid Originals, and The Impossible Project are finally one and the same. All devices and film will be released under the Polaroid name, though there may be new sub-brands like i-Type and the new Polaroid Now camera.

Speaking of which, the Now is not a complete reinvention of the camera by far — it’s a “friendlier” redesign that takes after the popular OneStep but adds improved autofocus, a flash-adjusting light sensor, better battery, and a few other nips and tucks. At $100 it’s not too hard on the wallet, but remember that film is going to run you about $2 per shot. That’s how they get you.

It’s been a long, strange trip to watch but ultimately a satisfying one: Impossible made a bet on the fundamental value of instant film photography, while a series of owners bet on the Polaroid brand name to sell anything they put it on. The riskier long-term play won out in the end (though many got rich running Polaroid into the ground over and over) and now with a little luck the brand that started it all will continue its success.

Coronavirus pushes [email protected]’s crowdsourced molecular science to exaflop levels

The long-running [email protected] program to crowdsource the enormously complex task of solving molecular interactions has hit a major milestone as thousands of new users sign up to put their computers to work. The network now comprises an “exaflop” of computing power: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 operations per second.

[email protected] started some 20 years ago as a way — then novel, and pioneered by the now-hibernating [email protected] — to break up computation-heavy problems and parcel them out to individuals for execution. It amounts to a crude supercomputer distributed over the globe, and while it’s not as effective as a “real” supercomputer in blasting through calculations, it can make short work of complex problems.

The problem in question being addressed by this tool (administrated by a group at Washington University in St. Louis) is that of protein folding. Proteins are one of the many chemical structures that make our biology work, and they range from small, relatively well understood molecules to truly enormous ones.

The thing about proteins is that they change their shape depending on the conditions — temperature, pH, the presence or absence of other molecules. This change in shape is often what makes them useful — for example, a kinesin protein changes shape like a pair of legs taking steps to carry a payload across a cell. Another protein like an ion channel will open to let charged atoms through only if another protein is present, which fits into it like a key in a lock.

Image Credits: Voelz et al

Some such changes, or convolutions, are well documented, but most by far are totally unknown. But through robust simulation of the molecules and their surroundings we can discover new information about proteins that may lead to important discoveries. For example, what if you could show that once that ion channel is open, another protein could lock it that way for longer than usual, or close it quickly? Finding those kinds of opportunities is what this sort of molecular science is all about.

Unfortunately it’s also extremely computation-expensive. These inter- and intra-molecular interactions are the kind of thing supercomputers can grind away at endlessly to cover every possibility. 20 years ago supercomputers were a lot rarer than they are today, so [email protected] started as a way to do this sort of heavy computing load without buying a $500 million Cray setup.

The program has been chugging along the whole time, and likely got a boost when [email protected] recommended it as an alternative to its many users. But the coronavirus crisis has made the idea of contributing one’s resources to a greater cause highly attractive, and as such there has been a huge increase in users — so much so that the servers are struggling to problems out to everyone’s computers to solve.

Examples of COVID-19-related proteins as visualized by [email protected]

The milestone it’s celebrating is the achievement of an exaflop of processing power, which is I believe a sextillion (a billion billion) operations per second. An operation is a logical operation, like AND or NOR, and several of them together form mathematical expressions, which eventually add up to useful stuff like saying “at temperatures above 38 degrees Celsius this protein deforms to allow a drug to bind at this site and disable it.”

Exascale computing is the next goal of supercomputers; Intel and Cray are building exascale computers for the National Laboratories that are expected to come online in the next couple years — but the fastest supercomputers available today operate at a scale of hundreds of petaflops, or about half to a third the speed as an exaflop.

Naturally these two things are not directly comparable — [email protected] is marshaling an exaflop’s worth of computing power, but it is not operating as a single unit working on a single problem, as the exascale systems are built to. The exa- label is there to give a sense of scale.

Will this kind of analysis lead to coronavirus treatments? Perhaps later, but almost certainly not in the immediate future. Proteomics is “basic research” in that it is at heart about better understanding the world around (and within) us — period.

COVID-19 (like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and others) isn’t a single problem, but a large, poorly bounded set of unknowns; Its proteome and related interactions are part of that set. The point isn’t to stumble onto a magic bullet but to lay a foundation for understanding so that when we are evaluating potential solutions, we can pick the right one even one percent faster because we know that this molecule in that situation acts like so.

As the project noted in a blog post announcing the release of coronavirus-related work:

This initial wave of projects focuses on better understanding how these coronaviruses interact with the human ACE2 receptor required for viral entry into human host cells, and how researchers might be able to interfere with them through the design of new therapeutic antibodies or small molecules that might disrupt their interaction.

If you want to help, you can download the [email protected] client and donate your spare CPU and GPU cycles to the cause.

YouTube defaults to SD quality worldwide to tame bandwidth surge

YouTube has announced that videos on the site will default to standard definition (SD) quality for the next month in order to cope with demand from the bored, housebound masses. Similar measures were undertaken by the company in Europe last week, and other big consumers of bandwidth are likewise taking steps to minimize their impact.

Bloomberg first reported the new, or rather expanded, policy of limiting stream quality by default. In a statement, Google wrote that “we continue to work closely with governments and network operators around the globe to do our part to minimize stress on the system during this unprecedented situation.”

Users will still be able to select higher-quality streams, but having the default be the considerably lower bandwidth may save quite a few bits and bytes if people don’t notice or mind the difference. The changes should roll out gradually starting today.

There are already plenty of safeguards in place to make sure that YouTube isn’t stressing the pipes. “We have measures in place to automatically adjust our system to use less network capacity,” a YouTube representative told TechCrunch last week.

Netflix, Disney+ and other streaming providers have likewise opted to limit the bandwidth they use to prevent users from experiencing skipping and buffering should demand outstrip supply. Microsoft and Sony are slowing down and delaying game downloads and updates so as not to saturate connections during peak hours.

I’ve reached out to YouTube for more details on the new policy and will update this post when I hear back.

Game downloads will be throttled to manage internet congestion

For the billions stuck at home during the global effort to flatten the curve, gaming is a welcome escape. But it’s also a bandwidth-heavy one, and Microsoft, Sony and others are working to make sure that millions of people downloading enormous games don’t suck up all the bandwidth. Don’t worry, though, it won’t affect your ping.

A blog post by content delivery network Akamai explained a few things it is doing to help mitigate the tidal wave of traffic that the internet’s infrastructure is experiencing. Although streaming video is of course a major contributor, games are a huge, if more intermittent, burden on the network.

Akamai is “working with leading distributors of software, particularly for the gaming industry, including Microsoft and Sony, to help manage congestion during peak usage periods. This is very important for gaming software downloads, which account for large amounts of internet traffic when an update is released,” the post reads.

Take the new “Call of Duty: Warzone” battle royale game, released last week for free and seeing major engagement. If you didn’t already own the latest CoD title, Warzone was a more than 80-gigabyte download, equivalent to dozens of movies on Netflix . And what’s more, that 80 gigs was likely downloaded at the maximum bandwidth home connections provided; streaming video is limited to a handful of megabits over the duration of the media, nowhere close to saturating your connection.

And Warzone isn’t alone — there are tons of high-profile games being released at a time when many people have nothing to do but sit at home and play games — PC game platform Steam posted a record 20 million concurrent players the other day, and one analysis saw a 400% increase in gaming traffic. So gaming is bigger than ever, while games are bigger than ever themselves.

As a result, gaming downloads will be throttled for the foreseeable future, at least in some markets. “Players may experience somewhat slower or delayed game downloads,” wrote Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan in a brief blog post. I’ve asked Microsoft, Nintendo and Valve for comment on their approach as well.

It’s important to note that this should not apply to the rest of the gaming experience. Unlike downloading games, playing games is a remarkably low-bandwidth task — it’s important for packets to be traded quickly so players are in sync, but there aren’t a lot of them compared with even a low-resolution streaming video.

The best thing to do is to set your games to be downloaded overnight, as local infrastructure will be less taxed while everyone in your region is asleep. If you have downloads or updates coming during the day, don’t be surprised if they take longer than usual or are queued elsewhere.

The best video chat apps to turn social distancing into distant socializing

The vicissitudes of social distancing have taken many people by surprise, making video calls a new necessity for distant socializing. But which of the two-dozen apps out there should you and your (perhaps not as tech-savvy) friends and family use? Here are our recommendations, whether it’s for a coffee meeting, a family get-together or a late-night gaming hangout.

This list is for individuals looking for a free solution to easily connect with others, not for small businesses or enterprises. The focus here is on ease of use and features that make it attractive to ordinary people. Every app is free and cross-platform, meaning iOS and Android at least, with many supporting Macs and Windows machines as well.

For big groups

Skype (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, web)

Pros: Many simultaneous callers

Cons: Tries too hard to do other things

Skype has been around for a long time, and while its desktop app is pretty weak, the mobile version is solid and it supports big groups with no real time limit (four hours per call, 100 hours per month), for free. As long as you focus on just the video calls, it’s great, but Skype’s emoji reactions, status updates and other cruft are best avoided.


Zoom (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Pros: Many simultaneous callers, strong admin controls

Cons: Sketchy background data policies, 40-minute limit

Zoom is one of the most popular business video conference apps out there due to its reliability, solid web integration and other features. It’s not really made for personal calls — there are way more bells and whistles than you need — but its free plan works just fine for them. Unfortunately, there’s a 40-minute limit for group calls, which you’ll hit faster than you think, and everyone will have to hang up and start again. Zoom has also been criticized for its considerable behind-the-scenes data collection. If you really want to just chill with your friends, there are better options.

For friends and family

FB Messenger (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Pros: Easy to use, many people already on it, some handy group features

Cons: Facebook account required

Messenger is a popular app for good reason — it works well for pretty much every kind of digital communication you might want to do with your friends. It supports up to eight people in free video calls with no duration limit, and when you are doing a two-person call it switches to a peer-to-peer structure, skipping servers and potentially avoiding congestion. Of course, it’s also a Facebook product, meaning you’ll need an account there — not something everyone is into. But Messenger use is considerably better protected from Facebook snooping than posts and images on the main site.


WhatsApp Messenger (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, web)

Pros: Secure, popular

Cons: Only four people per video call

Think of WhatsApp as FB Messenger’s nerdier, less-good-looking sibling. With a focus on privacy, WhatsApp is popular around the world despite being super ugly, and while video calls aren’t its main feature, they are possible if you don’t mind a four-person limit. To activate it, start a group chat and then hit the call button at the top right and select the participants, then hit the camera.


Google Duo or Hangouts (iOS, Android, web)

Pros: Simple interface, uses existing Google account

Cons: Confusing platform issues, Duo may not be long for this world

Duo is one of Google’s later messaging products, started as a complement to Allo and meant to be sort of the consumer version of Hangouts, which is being split into Chat and Meet, but still exists on its own. Confused? So is Google. But the apps work pretty well for now, plugging into your existing Google contacts and accounts and letting you do straightforward, unlimited video calls. If your friends don’t want to sign up for a new account anywhere, this is a good option — just don’t get attached, as unpopular Google products don’t tend to live for long.


Marco Polo (iOS, Android)

Pros: Video messaging is a fun alternative to live chats

Cons: No live chat option

This isn’t a video chat app per se, but the fact is not everyone really wants to do a full-on live face-to-face video all the time. Marco Polo is like a streamlined Snapchat, sending short videos to friends or groups with the option to add doodles, filters and so on. If you and your friends are finding it hard to set aside half an hour to talk live, this can be a good alternative.


Honorable mentions: FaceTime, Instagram

FaceTime is great, but it’s not cross-platform, considerably limiting its usefulness. But if your friends do happen to have Apple products, it’s a great, simple option. Instagram has video calling built into direct messages, which is nice for quick calls with people you aren’t sure you want to bring into a smaller circle of connectivity.

For having fun together

Houseparty (iOS, Android, web)

Pros: Simple drop-in, drop-out group chat, built-in games

Cons: Basically a trojan horse for Heads Up

Houseparty established its brand as the app teens were using to chat with groups of friends without leaving the house. Pundits disapproved, but as usual, the kids get the last laugh. Houseparty is nice for a group of close friends, alerting you when someone’s available and letting people easily join in the chat with minimal fuss. The built in games are also fun, but you’ll have to pony up for Heads Up decks. The Pictionary clone is fun, but desperately needs more words.


Discord (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, web)

Pros: Great for voice chat while gaming or simple occasional video chat

Cons: Occasionally confusing interface, not video-focused

Discord is the de facto champion for gaming-related communications, taking the place of many in-game chat interfaces and even schooling industry heavyweights like Steam. While it’s mainly focused on audio and does that well, video is an option too. Less savvy users may also find its interface confusing, with multiple tabs, groups and channels.


Honorable mention: Bunch, Squad

A newer app, Bunch, is focused on group games while in video chat. This can be hit or miss and you can expect in-app purchases, and startups like this don’t always live forever. But Bunch is probably getting a lot of engagement right now and can use that to extend its credit long enough to power through the summer at least. I can’t think of a better opportunity to give it a shot.

Squad is focused on sharing what you’re doing on your phone while chatting — so you can Tinder together, watch videos, etc. Like Bunch, it’s still new, so you’ll have to get your friends to sign up, but it’s a nice way to share what you’re scrolling (or swiping) through.