With more people than ever turning to video calling apps to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues, there's been a surge in the download and use of those apps.
One app that takes a slightly different approach to your traditional video calling platforms is Marco Polo. It's a video messaging application that's available for both Android and iOS.
What is Marco Polo?
Developers, Joya Communications, describe the app as a video messaging app for people who are busy. It's for those who maybe either can't align their time with the people they're trying to keep in touch with to have a regular FaceTime or Skype call or live in a completely different time zone.
Rather than have a live, real-time face-to-face conversation with the person you're talking to, you record your video message as part of a conversation, and the other person can either watch it live in real-time as you're recording, or watch it later, and then respond when they have the time.
What we love about this method of communicating is that it allows you to be completely spontaneous. You don't need to schedule a face-to-face, you can just shoot a video message and chat to the person when you have something to share and know they'll see it when they have a bit of free time themselves.
How does it work?
When you first load the app, you type in your mobile number and this then becomes the way your friends and family find you. If they have you in their phone contact lists, you'll show up as a contact in their list. It's similar in that regard to WhatsApp.
You will need to allow the app to have access to your contacts, as well as your camera and microphone since it needs those things in order to work and keep you in touch with the people you care about.
The home screen of the app is your chats. These are conversations you're having with people, plus there's a tab of 'suggested' chats, where the app shows you which of your friends are recently active.
To start a video chat, simply tap on a contact who has the app installed and you'll be taken to the video messaging screen, with a big blue 'Start' button on it. Tap that, and start recording your message.
All messages between you and the other person will then appear in the section along the bottom of this chat screen, and you can back and re-watch and react to them whenever you like.
When you're watching a video message from a friend you can react to it in a few different ways. The easiest is similar to Twitter's Periscope function.
Up the right side of the screen are a select number of emoji. There's a smile, a heart, sad face, praying hands and a thumbs up. You can tap on them to show the reactions on the screen.
You can even record your own little video reaction to a specific part of a message by tapping the little red record icon. This can actually be useful to answer specific questions or comment on a particular part of the other person's video message.
Especially if they've left quite a long, rambling message and you want to address a few different parts of it individually. When they're watching these reactions, your video message appears as a small round circle near the bottom of the screen, embedded in their original video message, rather than displaying as a fresh new part of the conversation.
What about sharing photos/text messages?
Yep, it can do that too. When you're in one of your conversations, instead of pressing the big 'Start' button for recording, tap on either the icon that looks like a photo gallery icon or the one that looks like lines of text on a page.
The former will let you choose images from your camera roll to share, or shoot a fresh photo to share right there and then. The latter lets you type a message.
Now, this isn't like writing a neat little message in a tiny bubble. It appears more like the text-based messages you'd see in an Instagram Story. It's big text on a brightly coloured background that fills the screen.
Filters, doodling and silliness
Those of you with a keen eye will have already spotted the unicorn icon in some of our embedded photos already, and this is where you can get creative.
Tap on the unicorn, and choose the effect from the options that appear. 'Filters' lets you add fun visual effects to your video. These aren't subtle photo filters, they're full-on, eye-popping filters that transform the appearance. You can even turn yourself into a sketch.
'Voice Effects' lets you alter the way your voice sounds, and you can choose from 'Helium', which makes your voice unnaturally high, 'Macho' to make it low, and 'Robot', which makes you sound like a robot.
In our messages, we typically use it to pretend our pets are talking and joining in with the conversation, which can be really funny for the kids watching.
There's also 'Text' and 'Doodle' which let you write on the screen before/during recording to make graphics appear on the screen.
What about group chats?
Marco Polo, as well as letting you have individual conversations, allows you to have group conversations. We've used this to have big group chats between families, where the kids can get involved and send messages and updates from our phones, and the kids on the other side get to watch and respond too.
If you want separate groups for just grown-up chat, you can just create a new group, but give them different names to help keep things organised.
How much does it cost?
Marco Polo, as a service, is free. You don't need to pay anything to use it, but you can choose to pay a subscription if you want to.
If you don't subscribe, Marco Polo archives old, inactive messages. If you subscribe, you get to keep all your messages. In truth, however, we've not found it necessary to pay a subscription, it doesn't really impact the daily use of the service if you do, or don't.
Marco Polo is developed by a relatively small team, and so a subscription can help the developer keep the service going. It costs £8.99 per month in the UK.