Always-on group video chat arrives

Two innovative startups figured out all-day video chat sessions, without making it weird

sneek video chat
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Question: Why not launch video sessions with family, friends or co-workers and leave them running all the time?

Answer: Because if feels weird to be on camera all day.

Now, a new generation of video chat apps offers flexible new ways to maintain always-ready video chat sessions without making people feel like they're always on display.

The secret is to be "always on" and available, but not "always live."

Always-on means that a live video connection with another person or a group of people is ready to go, and instantly started with a click or tap. Always-live, on the other hand, means the cameras are on and the live video call is happening.

Always-on video chat is perfect for digital nomads like me, as well as work-from-home telecommuters. It removes a sense of isolation, creates opportunity for break-room style serendipitous conversation and breaks down the formality of scheduling video chat sessions.

Always-on video chat is also great for, well, everybody! We all have family and friends who live or work elsewhere. It's nice to just drop in on people and spend time with them.

The old way of doing "ambient" video -- the always-live way -- should feel like hanging out with friends or co-workers in the same physical room. But it doesn't. People tend to feel weird having the cameras on all them all the time.

Speaking of hanging out

Five years ago, Google invented a new kind of group video chat called Hangouts and built it into its social network, Google+.

I wrote in this space about a new concept for group video chat, which I called "ambient Hangouts." The column hit just before Christmas, and I suggested ambient Hangouts as a way to bring far-flung families together for the holidays.

Even today, a few people still use Google Hangouts for always-live group video chat sessions.

Trouble is, with always-live video, the camera is on you all day, and that can be uncomfortable. Also, when a single user is the only Hangouts participant for a while, Google terminates the session.

The 'portal' idea

Another approach to always-on video connections is the "portal." By setting up a videoconference session on a tablet, monitor or big-screen TV and leaving it running all day, always-live, remote offices can quickly communicate by walking up to the screen and instantly begin talking.

Foursquare does this internally to connect its East- and West-Coast offices.

Others have cobbled together their own solutions using Apple's Facetime or Microsoft's Skype.

One company built an app in 2012 called Perch, which invited users to mount an iPad in two different locations. The app maintained an always-on video connection, which was activated using motion- and face-detection for always-on video, or it could be used optionally for always-live video connections. The split for Perch usage was 50% always-on, and 50% always-live.

Unfortunately, Perch closed its doors last month. Perch CEO Danny Robinson told me that that the Perch "idea, market, customers, revenue were all moving up and to the right," but that friction between new, potential investors and the board led to the collapse of the startup.

The good news is that Robinson also said he has 12 parties interested in a possible acquisition, so Perch might return to the market.

When people can come and go as they please

Remember Meerkat? The app last year popularized live-streaming video, a space now dominated by Facebook Live and Twitter's Periscope. This kind of live streaming involves one person streaming to an audience -- it's a one-way stream, although viewers can comment.

Meerkat depended on Twitter for the sharing and discovery of live streams, and the use of Twitter enabled the app to go viral in its first month. But after Twitter bought Periscope, Meerkat's access to the Twitter "social graph" was cut off. Ultimately, Meerkat couldn't compete with Twitter's own alternative given Twitter's exclusivity on the network. The Meerkat app was removed last month and the service was shut down on Oct. 4.

Meerkat was created by a startup called Life On Air. After the demise of Meerkat, the company got to work on a free iOS and Android app called Houseparty. Unlike Meerkat, Houseparty is for video chat -- few-to-few chat, rather than one-to-many streaming.

In an unusual move, Life On Air published Houseparty under a fake name. Its developer was the non-existent "Alexander Herzick," and it operated under the radar for 10 months. The reason was to enable the company to "experiment and iterate without any hype," according to co-founder and COO Sima Sistani.

Houseparty is aimed at everyone, but the user base skews young. Some 60% of Houseparty users are under the age of 24, according to Sistani. (The app's logo is one of those red plastic cups that frat houses use for playing beer pong, so it's not aimed at enterprises.)

Houseparty is available via the company's iOS app. An Android version is in beta but available to the public on the Play Store.

The idea behind Houseparty is that you can create a video space that's always "there," and family and friends can come and go as they please.

This approach makes video conversations more casual and instant -- the same way co-workers would drop in on your cubicle for a quick chat, or friends might swing by to say hi. Instead of "arranging a call" or interrupting someone while they're in the middle of something, you simply create an open invitation for any number of people, then tell the app you're "Here." Set it and forget it.

When other invited users are available, they can pop in for a group chat. As new users join, each window gets smaller to make room for the additional participants. With a few people on a single call, it creates a kind of Brady Bunch effect, with video windows tiled all over the screen.

The effect works whether in landscape or portrait mode, even when some participants hold their phone one way and others hold it the other. It doesn't matter.

Meerkat was declared a runaway success when it gained 300,000 users. Houseparty already has more than a million users, according to Sistani.

Houseparty solves the need to either schedule a video chat, or interrupt people when they're busy. By setting up an open invitation to chat with all your family and friends, you can enjoy spontaneous, casual interaction whenever it's convenient.

When the team is always 'there,' but with instant video chat on demand

Another approach comes from a new application called Sneek.

Think of Sneek as a kind of desktop Houseparty for professionals, an always-on video chat application for teams.

A software company called Analog Republic launched the service three weeks ago. The company has 12 employees scattered all over the U.K. and U.S. and needed a solution for staying connected all day, according to co-founder Del Currie. So they built it for themselves and liked it so much they launched a public version.

Here's how it works: Each team member is represented by a photo, which their webcam snaps at a user-determined interval -- either every minute or every five minutes. You can also pose for and snap a static picture manually. By choosing pixelated mode, your photo will be pixelated for a little more privacy.

You can set a status message, which is displayed under your face.

To chat with anyone or everyone, a simple click on a face or several faces instantly launches a video chat with whoever was clicked on. You can chat in Brady Bunch mode, or go fullscreen. The full-screen mode works just like Google Hangouts. Whoever's talking goes fullscreen, but you can override this by clicking on a person's face to see only that one person.

Users set availability. So if you're away, the camera turns off. If you're at your desk but too busy to chat on video, team members can see your picture, but can't instantly start video chat. When talking is urgent but a team member is busy, you can click on their photo, which plays a knocking sound, and they can answer if they choose.

You can also use a couple of Slack commands to launch or invite others to Sneek, and also share other users' profile snaps.

Sneek provides a sense of presence for the team, and the kind of immediacy with communication that you'd have working together in the same office, but with multi-layered options for privacy and to eliminate the weirdness of being on live video all day.

Sneek operates on a freemium model, but the free version doesn't offer video chat. You can use the "presence" features, including the photo snaps and status messages, but then you'd need to establish a video chat using Skype or some other software.

The Pro version costs $10 per month, or $108 per year, and gives you the full, instant-video chat feature I mentioned. Sneek offers a free, 14-day trial, so you can try the Pro version for two weeks.

Sneak works in a Chrome browser, or in a downloadable desktop application, available on OS X and Windows. A Linux version is promised "soon." The company is also planning an iOS version in early 2017 and an Android version after that, according to Currie.

Video chat and videoconferencing is a great medium. Doing it the old way was stilted, awkward and formal, and always-live video chat felt intrusive.

With Houseparty and Sneek, you can break down the walls of formality and create a sense of "presence," without feeling like you're in the spotlight all day.

Welcome to the new world of always-on group video chat. All the benefits with none of the weirdness.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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