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Airtime: The Creators of Napster Take On Social Videoconferencing

June 7, 2012 | David S. Maldow, Esq.
Airtime - Figure 1.JPG
Napster and Airtime co-founders Sean Parker (left) and Shawn Fanning (right)

What do you do when you get bored of the Internet? If you are the guys behind Napster, you reinvent social media for videoconferencing. This week Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning and announced the release of Airtime in an attempt to add some spontaneity to the increasingly stale social media scene. Despite some launch hiccups, excitement remains high about this new browser based videoconferencing application.

Airtime is the combination of two existing technologies; web-based videoconferencing and interest-based user pairing. Generally, people use desktop VC to call people they know "in real life" and use non-video social media (Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. etc.) to meet new people who share common interests. As a real world example, Parker and Fanning met online in a hacker chat room, if Airtime had existed they could have met over video and their working relationship could have developed that much faster. Hear the founders describe it themselves. 

Airtime is tied to your Facebook account (Parker is the former President of Facebook, which should help to ensure successful integration). The Facebook connection serves a few purposes. It allows Airtime users to easily initiate video chat with their Facebook friends, and it also allows Airtime to peek into your publicly listed "interests" (likes, subscriptions, etc.) and use that information to connect you with other, random, Airtime users.

In order to use Airtime you must authorize the usual Facetime permissions. There is no download, Airtime simply opens up in a new browser window once you click "Go to App" in the menu below.

Airtime - Figure 2.JPG
I Will Never Feel Comfortable Clicking On These

The experience is a decent quality side-by-side video session (see below). Many people, including myself, would prefer a smaller self view, such as the thumbnails in a Google+ Hangout, as watching oneself talk can be awkward and distracting. The layout is clean and simple. There is no learning curve for using Airtime. On the right is a list of all my Facebook friends, any one of which can be clicked to send a video invite. When you connect, a list of common interests bubbles up in the middle of the screen, as helpful conversation starters. There are not a lot of features in this initial offering, with the lack of screenshare being very notable. The solution does support the ability to share YouTube videos, and it has a video messaging (video mail) function.

Airtime - Figure 3.JPG

Below the side-by-side video images is a list of the interests that Airtime pulled from your Facebook profile. You can click on any of your listed interests to find people who specifically like that particular item, or to remove it from the criteria for matching you up randomly. 

Airtime - Figure 4.JPG
I Don't Know How That Got There

Theoretically, this feature can be used to tweak what people Airtime will connect to you. Carefully deselecting certain interests could significantly impact who you get matched up with.

Previous attempts to create a video empowered social network have met with a multitude of unforeseen problems, which Airtime must seek to avoid, such as the following:

Chatroulette: This website is the admitted inspiration for Airtime, while simultaneously being the primary example they hope to avoid. Created by a 17 year old Russian student, the site randomly connected web-cam owners from around the world for one-on-one anonymous video chats. By allowing users to remain anonymous, Chatroulette attracted users who wished to behave in a manner that soon led to the service becoming joke-fodder for late night comedy and videoconferencing analysts. Airtime solves this problem by linking users to their Facebook accounts. Lack of complete anonymity should create enough accountability to keep the service from becoming a haven for miscreants. 

Airtime - Figure 5.JPG
Google+ Hangout

Google+ Hangouts: Hangouts are, by far, the killer feature of the Google+ social media network. Powered by Vidyo's H.264 SVC technology, Hangouts provides free "business quality" video over the public internet and support up to 10 people in a room. Users have also enjoyed a constant refresh of new features such as YouTube sharing, desktop sharing, games, graphic overlays, etc.

People have been using the combination of the Google+ network and Hangouts to meet new people based on common interests, but with a meeting room approach rather than the speed dating dynamic of Airtime. It is also a bit manual on Google+ to find people with similar interests and initiate contact, whereas Airtime automates the process. 

Hangouts are also being used in other creative new ways, allowing businesses to reach out to customers and celebrities to reach out to their fans, whether it's Conan O'Brien answering questions about his show or President Obama answering questions about the state of the union. 

Hangouts are an undeniable hit with users and even work surprisingly well on my iPhone and iPad. The only real weakness of Hangouts is the Google+ social network itself, which has been struggling to compete against Facetime to keep users active and interested.

Skype / Facebook Integration: While seen as a "catch-up" move due to the timing of its release (one week after the announcement of Google+ Hangouts), this integration still had big expectations. The ability to easily start a Skype video chat from your Facebook contact list seems like a win-win. However, it is unclear how widely this is being used, and it never got the same buzz as Google+ Hangouts have enjoyed (in big part due to its lack of multipoint). Airtime basically duplicates this functionality, while adding the element of matching users with random other users sharing similar interests.

Airtime - Figure 6.JPG
The Excitement Factor of Airtime - Who Could Be Behind That Button?

Final Thoughts: Airtime may be the strongest play out there for using Facebook information to match up people based on interest. The "Talk to Someone" button may a little intimidating for some people, but it could lead others to finding that missing piece to their business, or even just a new friend. I clicked the magic button a few times and had some interesting conversations (mostly about Airtime). There definitely is a coolness factor here. For example, if it wasn't for Airtime I probably wouldn't have spoken with someone in Thailand today. 

Airtime isn't going to be for everyone, but some people are going to love it. One thing I particularly like about this solution is that it is another example of a new, innovative use of video technology. As I stated in my recent article about video kiosks, the power of video is ready to go beyond the boardroom. If Parker and Fanning are right, video is even ready to connect strangers through Facebook.

About the Author
David_Maldow, Esq.David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate editor at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their telepresence, videoconferencing, and visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.

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