The COVID-19 pandemic has made video conferencing software the only way to safely talk face-to-face with other people who don’t live in our households. Although Google Meet and Editors’ Choice pick Zoom Meetings may be fine for virtual business calls, they’re no substitute for authentic human interaction. Video chat app Houseparty adds a sense of casual fun and social intimacy to make its calls feel like cool hangout sessions and game nights with friends and family. As long as you accept its more modest scope and scale, Houseparty offers an entertaining way to stay connected.
Android or iOS device, and like WhatsApp, the messenger is free. It’s also available on Mac, PC, and as a Google Chrome extension. The desktop versions are still in beta and lack some mobile features, such as the full selection of games. I split my time between the iOS and Google Chrome versions. You can only sign into one device at a time, and signing into one device immediately boots you from the other. Unlike Zoom, Houseparty lacks time limits.
Houseparty requires a phone number to create and verify your account. The app taps your contacts and Facebook friends to populate your friends list, but you can manually search for usernames, too. Houseparty calls itself a social network, and if your friends invite their friends into an open call, you may wind up chatting with strangers. Still, the app mostly leverages your existing social connections, as opposed to creating new ones. Some have claimed the app leaks personal data, but the creators say this is a smear campaign and have offered $1 million dollars for proof.
Chats happen inside Houseparty’s virtual living rooms. You can chill in as many rooms as you’d like, and name them to help keep them organized. However, a single room maxes out at eight people. That limit may eventually increase with later updates; Google Duo increased its limit from 8 to 12 to 32 over the course of last year. Right now, this restriction highlights that Houseparty is meant for close groups, not corporate calls or even larger family gatherings that Facetime and other alternatives excel at. If you’re afraid your room is getting too full, you can lock it down by muting or blocking obnoxious guests that manage to slip through.
The intimacy that comes from Houseparty’s small chat rooms presents a surprising amount of benefits, benefits complemented by the app’s other design aspects. The service’s snappy interface encourages you to get playful with its different tools. Send text messages and video Facemail recordings. Share your screen. Swap between the front and rear cameras. Switch out your background with, say, an ad for ABC’s The Bachelor.
Continuing the living room metaphor, Houseparty doesn’t want to be an app you open, but a space you passively exist in. When you launch the app, friends get a notification that you’re around, even if you aren’t actively in a room. You can wave at idle online friends to strike up a conversation. Houseparty also keeps track of how long you continuously talk to particular friends. If you want to stay private, hold down the icon before launching the app to “sneak into the house” and not send any notifications, a nice stealthy touch.
A more social take on video chatting is nothing new. Houseparty has Snapchat elements, as well as the messaging features found in social networks like Facebook and Instagram. Still, the app fosters such a silly and pleasant atmosphere that I had a blast virtually chatting with my fiancée who was only a couple of real-life feet away. If I wasn’t already so happily engaged, I would definitely consider using this for virtual dates when dating apps themselves don’t include built-in video chat.
Fortnite and the ubiquitous Unreal Engine. That may explain why Houseparty’s most unique and arguably strongest quality is how well it works for virtual game nights.
Inside a room, you can invite friends into one of several games. These aren’t multiplayer shooters, but casual games you’ll find on Facebook or in a tamer version of a Jackbox Party Pack. These lightweight diversions are perfect for goofing off with friends as you try to achieve some sense of normalcy during very strange times. Sing karaoke songs. Answer trivia questions. Play Uno. Some games charge money for additional content, but there’s plenty of free fun, too.
Fortnite players can also sync up their Houseparty accounts to create video chat rooms with friends using your phone’s camera. Your squad members’ heads appear on screen, and you can adjust audio levels to find the right balance. Battle royale games require clear communication and coordination for success, so it’s useful having an easy way to do that through Epic Games’ own software. However, this Fortnite functionality only works with the game’s PC and PlayStation versions. That said, since the feature only works with this one game (however popular that one game is) gamers are better off using a broader communication platform like Discord.
Epic Games, still on top of the world following the smash success of Fortnite, seems to have high hopes for Houseparty. The pandemic sent the app’s popularity through the roof these past few months. Similar to Fortnites’ virtual concerts, Houseparty hosted an official virtual party called In The House that featured Snoop Dogg, Alicia Keys, John Legend, and other celebrities. Those are big moves for such a simple app.
We hope future big moves include expanded app functionality. We’d love to see Houseparty integrated into other games, and it’s so fun that we wish we could invite more than eight people to these shindigs. Still, Houseparty succeeds now because it focuses on close-knit, casual get-togethers, instead of fulfilling all of your video conferencing needs.