The best free online platforms for your virtual birthday party, social mixer or other group event

Videochat with a twist

I’m going to be honest: I hate group videochat. I love being in contact with my friends, but I find group conversations with more than four people incredibly draining. So that is why my brain went “yay!” when I read this piece by my favourite linguist Gretchen McCulloch.

“Walk around” virtually and chat in small groups

Her article was about proximity chat. I had never heard of it, but it turns out there are video chat platforms where you do not have to talk to the same big group of people for the whole session. You can move about virtually and chat together in varying small groups, just like at a real party or gathering. As far as I am concerned, this is a game changer. After long months of lockdown, I can be social again!

But what should we call them?

As is the case with a lot of new technology, the industry has not yet agreed on an overarching name for this kind of platform. Gretchen went with the moniker “proximity chat”, though she also mentioned “spatial chat” in her article.

The problem with the term “proximity chat” is that it is already a well-known term in the world of gaming where chatting to the other players that are near you in the game has been a thing for a while now. But in my research for the list below there was not one single platform that referred to itself as “proximity chat”. That means it isn’t very googlable.

The other term, “spatial chat”, has a similar problem: when you google that you get lots of stuff about Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality platforms are definitely a category of spatial/ proximity chat, but they are less accessible for “normal people” like me; you need special VR goggles and you need to download the software and stuff.

Honestly, I think we need a new name for spatial videochat that is not related to gaming or VR technology. “Mixer videochat”? “Mingle videochat”? Any ideas out there, please feel free to comment!

Gotta find them all

In her article Gretchen linked to an online list of platforms and said that her favourite was Gather Town. So I eagerly tried Gather Town on a small group of friends, but though I liked it myself, my friends weren’t as enthusiastic.

So I set out on a mission: finding the best platform for informal gatherings out there. I clicked my way through Gretchen’s list (which is only a few months old but already somewhat out of date), applied my best Google-fu to find any platforms not on the list, and set out on a spatial chat platform odyssey which has not even neared its end.

I need you!

I have compiled a list of proximity chat platforms below and have managed to try out a few of them, but there are a lot that I haven’t managed to test yet and that is not something I can do alone!

That’s why I would love your help. Perhaps you are reading this article and thinking: “I would also like to test these platforms and find out which one I like best!” Well perfect, because you and I both need a group of people to test them properly, so let’s test together!

Also, wouldn’t it be nice to meet some new people again?

I was thinking of doing a session once or twice a week and trying two or three platforms per session. If you are interested, please fill in this short form and I’ll get back to you! (As of 15 February 2021 I do not yet have enough people, so please feel welcome!)

Categories of proximity chat

While researching this article, I soon discovered that my list was getting too long and I needed to limit it somehow. There seems to be no end to the categories you could put these platforms in. Here are a few. For each category where I made a choice of which platforms to include in my list, I have bolded that choice.

I have chosen to focus on platforms that can be used on my rickety old laptop computer, that do not require a download, that have been designed for social gatherings and that are free to use (at least for now).

modeaudio only / video & audio
graphics2D / 3D
devicemainly for use with virtual reality headset/ gaming console/ desktop or laptop computer
accessibilitydownload required / login required / click-and-join
purposemainly for team meetings / mainly for conferences / mainly for social gatherings
agencyparticipant chooses which group to chat with / participants are put into groups by the host or the system
avataryour webcam image moves around / you have an avatar that moves around and the webcam image is at the top of the screen / there is only an avatar / there is no avatar
priceopen-source & free forever / for-profit but free for small groups / for-profit but free for now / for-profit and give us your money
privacyGDPR-compliant / not GDPR-compliant
party realismyou have an idea what’s going on in other groups / you have no idea what’s going on in other groups

What does this list have to do with Dutch people?

If you found this article via Google then you may have also noticed the name of my blog: English for Dutch people. My blog focuses on efficient and unconventional ways in which Dutch people can improve their already excellent English. Online chatting and networking in English is definitely one of those ways. Ten years ago you had to go to an English-speaking country to get immersive practice with the language. But since videochat has become ubiquitous, that kind of immersion is possible from your own home, and proximity chat makes it even easier and more natural.

A list of proximity chat platforms

So here is my list. As noted above, I plan to test these platforms with a group of people, and I will add more information to this list as I do so.

SpatialChat

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url: https://spatial.chat/

Tested? Yes, in January 2021

Look: very sleek and modern. None of the retro stuff that many other platforms have.

Number of free participants: 25 (There’s also a time limit: the free plan has 3000 participant minutes per day. That’s two hours for 25 people, 5 hours for 10, etc.)

Click-and-join? yes. You just send your participants a link and they can head straight to the room.

Notes: Not to be confused with Spatial, which is a 3D virtual reality platform that you use with VR glasses like the Oculus.

Extras: You can play videos for each other within the app that only the people nearby can hear.

My opinion: Spatial.chat is very popular on producthunt.com and for good reason, it really stands out as the sleekest option out there. I tested spatial.chat in January 2021 and liked it very much. The host had done a good job setting it up – apparently he had quite a lot of options to choose from but I wasn’t there for that bit.

mibo (borrel.app)

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url: https://getmibo.com/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: second life, but your body is a television set

Number of free participants: 12

Click-and-join? yes

Notes: Dutch, so GDPR compliant. Started in the Netherlands as “borrel.app” and is already quite popular there. You can play games on the platform and there are all kinds of extras.

My opinion: I haven’t tried it myself yet, but I’ve heard good things, so it’s high on my list.

High Fidelity

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url: https://www.highfidelity.com/online-audio-spaces-for-crowds

Tested? No, not yet

Look: sleek, visuals are focused on the audio

Number of free participants: 20 (unlimited use)

Click-and-join? Yes, only the host needs to log in with email

Notes: audio only! (The faces in the screenshot above are just pictures). I have not tried this platform yet but from what I hear they do a very good job emulating the direction someone is speaking from.

My opinion: haven’t tried this yet, but the website and what I’ve heard make me place High Fidelity high on my list.

Kumospace

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url: https://www.kumospace.com/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: a little bit clunky still but getting there

Number of free participants: currently unlimited but I imagine they’ll be adding pricing soon

Click-and-join? I think all participants have to set up an account, but I’m not sure…

Notes: Kumospace is not quite unfinished enough to go in my list of unfinished platforms below, but they are not yet at the fully-fledged commercial business stage yet.

My opinion: haven’t tried it out yet, looks like a clunkier version of spatial.chat. The demo video features the programmers themselves (I assume) doing some enthusiastic amateur acting and is super cute.

Wonder

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url: https://www.wonder.me/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: slick

Number of free participants: currently still unlimited, usage-based pricing will be added at some point

Click-and-join? I think so but I’m not sure

Notes: Used to be called Yotribe. GDPR compliant (they make a big thing out of it on the website)

My opinion: Curious to try it. The only platform I’ve seen that uses your picture as an avatar while the webcam image is above. I can think of pros and cons for that, so curious to see how it will work in practice.

Topia

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url: https://topia.io/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: cartoony and modern – very original!

Number of free participants: 25

Click-and-join? Yes. The host has to sign up but the participants just get a link that they can click.

Notes: When you click “create your world” you are first sent to a welcome lobby demo world. Then the site will try to get you to invite people to the welcome lobby, but if you click on the billboard you can in fact create a world for yourself. (I suspect they have done this to prevent people from clogging up server space by creating rooms only to test the system.)

My opinion: I have not tried this one yet but it looks very, very similar to Gather Town except the visuals are a lot more pleasing. They have also done a good job with the website, it’s very welcoming and clear.

gather.town

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url: https://gather.town/

Tested? Yes, in January 2021, but only with a small group

Look: retro

Number of free participants: 25 (no time limit mentioned on the site)

Click-and-join? yes. You just send your participants a link and they can head straight to the room.

Notes: they call themselves “Gather” on the website but “Gather Town” on many other platforms

My opinion: I tested gather.town with a small group in January 2021. The retro avatars are fun but unnecessary – I prefer a platform like spatial.chat where your webcam image is your avatar, because it saves the trouble of having to keep track of who has which avatar.

Gather does not have an in-built limit on group sizes and you can still hear each other even if your avatars are relatively far away. If you are with a group of 25 people then I’m sure the group would break up naturally, but the group I was with had 8 people which was just too small too break up naturally and just too big to have a good conversation. I’d love to try it again with a bigger group!

InSpace

url: https://inspace.chat/

Tested? No, not yet

Number of free participants: unknown, I signed up for a free trial account and it lasts for 23 days, all plans are custom made, no pricing information on the site

Click-and-join: probably

Notes: these guys do not give a lot of information on their website about what the platform actually looks like or how it works. They seem to have come from it with an educational background, with schools in mind.

Rally

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url: https://www.rally.video/

Tested? Kind of. I was shown around by one of the cofounders in January 2021 (who was absolutely lovely, by the way, Hi Amy!) but it was only the two of us.

Number of free participants: 35 per room, with multiple rooms, but only once

Click-and-join? Yes. The host needs to register, but participants only need to click a link to join

Notes: Rally has been specifically created for social mixers so where many other platforms offer tons of functionality and try to be all things to all people, Rally just focuses on creating a pleasant pub-like atmosphere for people to chat. It is not a spatial app but it does play with sound ambience – there’s music in the background and you can hear people at other tables speaking softly in the background (though you can also switch all of that off if you don’t like it!) It also has a functionality where one speaker can take the stage and address everyone in the room, and the host can change the tables around to get people to mix.

My opinion: I was all pro spatial chat platforms and against these kinds of grid platforms, but I’d like to give Rally a try with a group.

Icebreaker

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url: https://icebreaker.video/

Tested? Not yet

Look: slick

Number of free participants: 40

Click-and-join? Not sure. The host needs to sign up with a google account.

Notes: again, not a spatial videochat platform, Icebreaker offers its hosts rooms where they can split their participants up into pairs or small groups and give them questions to answer and little games to play so that they can get to know each other and/or get the conversation flowing

My opinion: I have not tried this platform yet, but I do wonder if the functionality that they are offering is too narrow. I actually quite like icebreaker games (I know a lot of people don’t!), but once they are done, what then? Move on to a different platform? It seems like the functionality they are offering should be part of something more.

Glimpse

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url: https://www.joinglimpse.com/

Tested? No, not yet

number of free participants: 100, but with limited functionality

Click-and-join? Yes, participants enter the name of their room and can join. The host needs to sign up.

Notes: Once again, not a spatial platform. This platform shuffles its participants into one-to-one chats for a certain amount of time and can offer games and icebreaker questions if specified. Apparently there is also a “waiting room” where more than just two people can gather.

My opinion: I like icebreaker games and one-on-one chats, so this looks quite fun to me. Better suited to groups of people that don’t know each other yet than to groups of friends (though it might be funny to do it with a group of friends and see which person it matches you with next – might lead to some unexpected conversations!)

Mixaba

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url: https://mixaba.com/pricing

Look: like a standard videochat platform

Number of free participants: 20

Click-and-join? Yes. The host needs an account, but the particpants just click on the url they are sent.

Notes: like Rally, IceBreaker and Glimpse, this is not a spatial platform, but a videochat platform where people are shuffled into different small groups every so often. There is a timer in your screen to let you know when the next shuffle will happen. The host has some control over this.

My opinion: I haven’t tried this yet, but I think the timer would really hamper my natural conversation flow. I’d be looking at it thinking “Should I start a new conversation topic? Is it worth it?” And if others feel the same way, I totally see us all staring at each other like lemons for the last minute or so until we are re-shuffled. Good name for a platform, though!

Happy Hour

url: https://happyhour.ianwdavis.com/

Tested? I went into the room on my own. Don’t think that counts 😉

Number of free participants: unlimited, but there is only one “room” (with multiple “tables”)

Click-and-join? yes, it’s just one link

Notes: Not a spatial platform. This is just one guy who has created a “room” in Jitsy (a grid videochat platform like Zoom or Teams) and has built in the functionality to “hop from table to table”. You can agree to meet your friends at a certain time but there might be some random people joining you (which, hey, might be fun…) I’m not sure how it would work exactly, though, because I was the only participant!

My opinion: I’m hoping to give this a go with more people in the near future.


Platforms that aren’t finished yet, but can be used already


calla.chat

url: https://calla.chat/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: really basic, retro, with emojis as avatars

Number of free participants: unknown, but open source so probably unlimited

Click-and-join? the demo is, at least

Notes: open source. Website isn’t quite finished yet and there is no way to set up your own room (I think). Your avatar is either an emoji or your camera image.

My opinion: I mean, for a super basic free open-source platform it doesn’t look too bad. There’s a few groups that they have set up as demos that look to me as if they are actual functioning group chats, meaning that if other people joined at the same time, you could chat to them. Might be fun to try!

cozyroom.xyz

url: https://cozyroom.xyz/

Tested? No, not yet

Look: Super basic but not retro. It’s still a work in progress and you can tell.

Number of free participants: unlimited

click-and-join? just about. Your participants need to head to the website and then type out (or copy-paste) the name of your room.

Notes: Not finished yet but usable. The website gives absolutely no information but a quick google got me this page which gives more information. It’s free and peer-to-peer which means the audio is streamed directly between browsers without passing through their servers. It is currently still audio only, so no webcams!

My opinion: I’d really like to give this a try. The maker seems like a nice guy and I quite like the idea of being an avatar with a moving mouth rather than seeing my own tired head all the time.

CubeChat


url: https://cubechat.io/

Tested? No, not yet

look: very basic 3d images with participants as cubes

number of free participants? there is no pricing plan (yet) but at the moment the maximum people in one room is 16

click-and-join? it looks to me like both organiser and participants all need to sign up with email addresses

notes: still very much in its early stages, online reviews all mention how much fun it is. Apparently the cubes can bounce and fly around and stuff.

My opinion: I look forward to see where this goes, right now it looks very much like Mibo but much more basic.

Rambly

url: https://rambly.app/

Tested? Nope, not yet

Look: retro

Number of free participants: unclear

Click-and-join? Yes, but there’s only a demo

Notes: Though the website doesn’t say so directly, it looks as if this project is not finished yet. There’s only a demo (with background music, which was a first for me) and not much information. According to the description it is definitely a spatial platform, though I think it is with only sound and no video.

A party in a Google Doc

url: any Google doc url

Notes: Okay, this one isn’t really serious. But it has been done, and it looks hilarious!

Do you want to help me test these platforms?

Just in case you scrolled through the beginning of this article and went straight to the list (I mean, we all do it…), I thought I would ask for people’s help again here.

So, once again: perhaps you are reading this article and thinking: “I would also like to test these platforms and find out which one I like best!” Well perfect, because you and I both need a group of people to test them properly, so let’s test together!

I was thinking of doing a session once or twice a week and trying two or three platforms per session. If you are interested, please fill in this very short form and I’ll get back to you! (As of 15 February 2021 I do not yet have enough people, so please feel welcome!)

Did I forget a platform?

I did my best to make a complete list of platforms that can be used for social meetups, say a birthday party or a social mixer. I made a conscious decision to leave out platforms that 1) require a download, 2) are made primarily for a VR headset like the Oculus or 3) are made for business uses like team meetings, brainstorming sessions or big conferences.

That said, if I forgot a platform (or if a new one has come online since I published this article; they do seem to spring up like mushrooms) please let me know!

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.