Video chat has been around for a while now, but the growth of social media has raised the stakes for companies seeking to capture the hearts, minds, and visual images of online users. Just in the last few weeks, video chat providers big and small have announced a dizzying number of new features designed to capture share in a market that some consider to be the gold mine of the future. Who ultimately emerges the winner after the dust settles will be fascinating to watch.
Up to now, two of the biggest players in this space have been Google Hangouts and Skype. Late last month, Skype announced that they would provide free group video chatting for up to 10 users (although they caution against linking more than five). This past Monday, Google countered with an update to Hangouts on the mobile platform. They claim to link up to nine users at a time in video chat and their service is also free.
Today, the stakes were raised further when an Israeli company called Rounds announced the release of a free 12 person video chat feature called Live with an intriguing twist. Their live social communication platform sits on top of the browser (Chrome) and allows you to bring HD-quality video “bubbles” onscreen for virtually any website. So, if you are watching a show on YouTube and want to add in video of your friends for a live group chat about what’s playing, bring it on.
“Rounds combines communication with the content people are most passionate about,” says Natasha Shine-Zirkel, the company’s chief marketing officer. “It’s video chatting fundamentally fused with shared online entertainment.”
The video bubbles are also interactive, with a set of symbols wrapped around the image that controls audio for each and lets you generate public or private messaging. Rounds also has a mobile app on Android and iOS.
The company got its start several years ago with a Facebook-powered video chat feature. It has lined up $10 million in funding from an impressive array of backers including DFJ’s Tim Draper and other private investors.
According to Shine-Zirkel, earlier tests of Rounds Live with users watching content such as The X Factor (Israel) showed longer times of interaction in group video chat, an average of 20 to 30 minutes per session. If that holds, it could bode well for the future growth of this product.
Despite the recent increased activity by players in the video chat space over the past few weeks, this is still a market fraught with peril. Just ask Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame. His start-up company - Airtime – quietly folded last February after a $33 million attempt to launch a video chat service tied to desktop computers. His company has morphed into a much more low-key product called OkHello that is targeted for the mobile user.
The honest truth is that video chatting requires the acceptance of a whole host of factors in order to succeed, not the least of which are how you look and where you are. Throw in the quality of your camera and the microphone and you’ve now got a much more complicated task than just making a phone call.
Rounds and others are betting that in today’s increasingly more interactive world, people will gravitate towards face-to-face communication frequently and with gusto. Shine-Zirkel likens the concept to a linked set of train cars. As one fills up with 12 enthusiastic people, another opens. It’s like a private train with all your friends where the party never stops as it heads merrily down the track. For those running the railroad, it could be a wild and interesting ride.