New app Ustyme combines video calls with shared books, games to help families connect


The Ustyme app gives family members a way to interact when they’re apart, through video calls and games. (Courtesy of Ustyme/Courtesy of Ustyme)

Linda Salesky, a first-time grandmother in the San Francisco Bay area, wanted more contact with her 2-year-old grandson, who lives in Portland, Ore. But she was frustrated by her experience talking to Avery on video calls because she couldn’t keep his attention, even with puppet shows or story books.

So Salesky, 52, designed Ustyme, an app that launches Sept. 25 for second- and third-generation iPads. It’s part video call, part social network and part e-reader. Users invite friends and family members into their network, then use the video call feature to connect with them. Once online, they can read a picture book together on the screen, or play a game such as checkers, four-in-a-row or chess. With the app, Salesky can actively engage Avery in an activity while talking to him.

“Nothing can replace the time sitting side by side reading books with our children, playing games with our kids,” said Salesky, who previously was the marketing director for Picture Talk, a web-conferencing platform she started with her husband, Joe. “That time that we spend together physically is really valuable, but Ustyme fits in between those times, when we can’t be together.”

The app is free to download from the Apple app store and comes with two books and one game. Additional books and games will range from $.99 to $1.99, Salesky said. The store has 45 picture books and six games, and plans to add material every two weeks. Users can share their books and games with friends in their networks when they are on a call together.

The goal, Salesky said, is to give family members an opportunity to engage with each other when they are traveling or live far away. It can help grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, deployed military parents and divorced parents maintain a connection when they are separated by geography.

“My kids don’t remember the things I bought them,” said Salesky, who has four children ranging from age 14 to 28. “They remember the things we did together. I looked at how I can share those same activities with Avery that I had with my girls, reading books and playing games together.”

The difference between Ustyme and other apps and online games, Salesky said, is in the one-on-one engagement it provides through an activity.

“I get really bored with just talking on the phone. If I’m doing something, it’s more fun,” Salesky said. “I think it’s deeper, more meaningful when you share an experience.”

Mari-Jane Williams edits community news for Local Living.
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