Airtime – Testing the boundaries of Video Chat

I remember when I had just joined college and all the kids were buzzing about chatting services. ICQ, Yahoo, MSN were the buzz words. It was all anonymous and everyone loved the fact that you could go and talk to random strangers from across the world. Well its a reasonable guess that some of us met our share of weirdos and quickly ended the conversation, vowing never to chat again, only to return a few days later.

The fall of chatting sites is no secret. AOL sold ICQ in 2010 to Russian investment company Digital Sky Technologies for $187.5 million. According to Mashable, as of 2010, ICQ had more than 32 million unique visitors per month. Not bad right. Approximately 80% of ICQ users are 13 to 29 year old and spend an average of more than five hours a day connected to the service. But the popularity of the service has shifted and ICQ has a presence in markets like Russia, Germany, Czech Republic and Israel.

The gradual shift towards walled garden technology such as social networking sites — MySpace, Orkut, and Facebook — is an interesting transformation. When services such as instant messaging were still in the nascent stages, most people were open to the possibility of talking to random strangers. I mean it’s not like they actually know who you are, where you stay, and what you look like. But social networks changed that. As we started sharing our lives via pictures and video and content online, most people, including me, started realizing the need to moderate and are typically uncomfortable friend-ing random people on Facebook. There is just way too much data on you up there.

I shudder to imagine if ICQ was a video based service rather than a chatting service. I am sure many of us would not even have considered testing it. So I was a little amused to read out Airtime all over the news this morning.

Airtime is a new video-chat service and backed by Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning.

Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning (Founders of Napster) are back with a new web-based chat service, Airtime.

Described as a cross between Skype, Google Hangouts and ChatRoulette, Airtime is built on Facebook’s social graph. So users can video chat with their Facebook friends. Now that is also a service you can get via Facebook, Skype or Google Hangouts. But if you really want to randomly chat with your Friend’s Friend, you can troll the service for unplanned conversations. Airtime allows you to find participants and filters the list to find people by geography, interest and other interests/hobbies you’ve listed on Facebook.

Airtime lets users “anonymously” video chat (Photo Courtesy: Washington Post)

Users login with their Facebook credentials and thereby providing some level of security that someone knows that random stranger you’re talking.

The founders seem to believe that Airtime is breaking some mold: “Airtime is something only technology can facilitate,” Fanning said in a news release. “And it is finally possible with the ubiquity of webcams, broadband connections and a highly developed identity layer. We’ve only scratched the surface with what the Internet can do today.”

But the question arises that just because technology facilitates it, would users want to adopt the service. Considering how upset most users are about cookies, which collect non-personally identifiable information, do people really want to chat with random strangers (even if they are connected in some way)? I can see some networking opportunities, perhaps as an add-on to say LinkedIn but mass adoption.

At the moment, the service is being overrun by first adopters, celebrities and industry experts testing the service and helping the founders generate some buzz. I imagine their hope is to generate enough traction to get users to the site and start building a user base and then leveraging to generate even more buzz.

On their part, Parker and Fanning have built-in some interesting control procedures. The New York Times reports that to combat the inherent risks of Video chat, they (the founders) have built-in a number of systems, including facial-recognition software that sends up a flag if no faces are detected on camera, and a ranking system that scores people based on their interactions. People who are frequently “nexted,” or passed over for another partner, will have a lower ranking than those who manage to sustain lengthy chat sessions.

Now comes the question of privacy. Apparently the service captures screen images during conversations and relies on a team of moderators to keep tabs on any inappropriate exchanges. It would make a lot more sense, if the service takes a screen shot only if someone flags off a user, as proof that they were offended, rather than taking a screen image during all conversations. If that wasn’t enough, Airtime will also incorporate advertisements.

Most importantly, lets not forget that this is already a rather crowded space with Facebook, Skype, Google etc. These players have a strong foothold and an established user base. So Airtime and its Flash user interface really needs to pull out all the stops, iron out the glitches (apparently the launch had a number of issues) and build itself a nice little niche. Can it be to video, what Pinterest has come to become to pictures? Time will tell.

So what do you think of the service? Do you think it’s actually breaking a mold and how likely are you to try it out? Chime in via the comments section.

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