Apple's New Group FaceTime Is Chaotic and Hilarious

I don’t know about you, but my group texts are bananas. On a particularly active day, I can look away from my phone for an hour and return to dozens of unread messages in a thread full of texts, emojis, GIFs, voice texts, videos and selfies.

FaceTime’s group video chat, which debuts in iOS 12 this fall, is about to take that to the next level.

FaceTime will soon let up to 32 people join a video chat, an upgrade over the one-on-one calls FaceTime is capable of today. Instead of opening the FaceTime app to make a call, you can join a FaceTime call directly from a group thread in Messages. And that group video chat line is always open, so you can join a video chat in progress or leave whenever you feel like it, and the line stays active.

In a demo I saw of the app after the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote in San Jose, Calif., we joined a group chat already in progress.

Some people were using FaceTime video effects to transform their faces while they chatted with us. Those effects are accessible behind a star icon in FaceTime, and include filters, text overlays, sticker packs, iPhone X’s Animoji, and the new animated avatars called Memoji that Apple is introducing in iOS 12. Memoji turn your face into an animated version of yourself, complete with customized skin tones, hair color, glasses, freckles and more.

Apple isn’t reinventing the wheel here. Other apps, including Skype and Google Hangouts, have long offered the ability to video chat with multiple people. But FaceTime’s version has a completely different interface, with dynamic video tiles that grow larger when someone is speaking and retreat to a roster on the lower bar of the app when they haven’t spoken in awhile. You can also double tap on a tile to draw a person into the forefront, even if they aren’t talking.

The number of people who can call in, the fact that the group line is always open and the addition of visual effects such as Animoji and Memoji will make already ridiculous group threads with friends even more over-the-top. But I’m looking forward to family calls, too, because mine is scattered all over the country and video is the easiest way to communicate. A call I don’t have to coordinate and can jump into whenever I’m available, directly from a group text, sounds like my idea of heaven.

The possibilities for group conference calls are also intriguing, because video-conference calls are a special brand of difficult. I know FaceTime won’t force me to update the app, log me out and ask me to log back in, and then wipe out all my audio settings (ahem, Skype, I’m looking at you). Everyone on your team will need an iCloud account and an Apple device to join the call, but if those devices are already in use, then teammates using iPhones can join the same line as those on Macs, and even remote colleagues can join via FaceTime voice call on their Apple Watches (though not video, because the watch lacks a camera).

I look forward to the day when I can dial into my morning meeting and use a unicorn emoji to chat with my boss about the week’s priorities. I’m sure he won’t mind at all.