First Look: Airtime video chat service for Facebook

Latest Internet creation from Napster’s Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning aims to liven up Facebook

I just took Airtime, the new video chat service from start-up stars Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, for a spin on Tuesday, its first day of general availability. My first impressions: It works fine, though I'm not sure I'll get addicted to it.

The free browser-based Skype/Google+ hangout/Facebook chat alternative works pretty much as advertised, and as promoted at its New York press conference today with Snoop Dog, Jimmy Fallon and other stars participating (after all, what celebrities wouldn't want to hang with the guys who started Napster, and in Parker's case, the first president of Facebook). The company is backed by at least $25 million in funding, so has plenty of such splash cash. A premium version, ads and virtual goods will all be ways for Airtime to make money down the road.

I visited the site via Google Chrome, and while my MacBook Pro's fans started whirring wildly, things settled down and I got down to business on Airtime. First up it forced me to surrender Facebook info I'd rather not give up in order to sign in (access to my friends, interests, etc., for the purpose of enabling Airtime to sync me up with my friends as well as people I don't know but who have similar interests). No downloads are necessary, though you do need a Facebook account and a webcam-equipped computer that meets the following tech requirements: 1.5Ghz processor, 512MB RAM, 1.5Mbps bandwidth (see video demo of service at bottom of this story).

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My list of Facebook friends showed up on the right hand side of the screen, and presumably would have indicated if any were also using Airtime. None were. I was able, from within the Airtime site, to message a couple of Facebook friends to see if they'd like to give the video chat service a try with me, but none happened to be watching their Facebook feed at the time. I couldn't figure out how to backtrack from there, so wound up closing out of the service and starting over.

This time I immediately turned to the big Talk To Someone button in the middle of the screen, which like the notorious Chatroulette video service is designed to hook you up with others anonymously. However, the spin here is that you can fill in interests (based on Facebook pages... I wasn't able to just type in any old words) or check/uncheck buttons for friends of friends, common interests or people nearby, and Airtime will then match you up. 

A ticker scrolls across the bottom of the screen highlighting Trending Interests, an attempt to spark interactions with other Airtime users interested in those topics (Mad Men, French Open and E3 Expo were among those I saw). Search boxes (for friends, for videos) are also part of a user interface designed to get people yapping.

I actually didn't fill in any interests on my maiden voyage, so was connected with people purely anonymously. The first guy (everyone I saw was a guy) just saw the Hulk Hogan glass on my desk and shouted out "Hulkamania!" and then he was off. But I then did settle in with a friendly gent in NYC with a bunch of Dutch-related interests named Sander (Sanders? Zander?) with whom I had a nice chat about Airtime, Google+ (his preferred video chat method) and more. We took turns pressing various buttons to see what would happen. I got a little nervous when he suddenly left the room through a curtain, but it turns out he was working from home and just needed to sign for a package.

With Airtime, live camera feeds of each individual and their listed interests are shown in side by side boxes taking up most of the screen. There were also thumbnails of videos underneath, which appeared to be sponsored links or videos that the users had shared on Facebook recently. You can play a video and mute it while talking to your chat partner. There's also a mysterious starred button in the middle of the screen which supposedly lets you give your chat partner points or ratings (a little obligatory gamification). Sander and I said our goodbyes, and then I settled down to write this quick summary.

My next chat (conducted after I did add a few interests such as journalism and Boston Celtics) was with the VP of product from Wahooly, a company in Austin that works with startups and influencers. My chat partner and I were able to text chat in a side box on the bottom right, swapping website URLs and Twitter handles. I asked him a few questions regarding a story package we're planning, and he was helpful, and even chatted about the town where I live and he went to college. A good random meeting. From what I've seen so far, the service is filled with techie types trying to figure out how they might exploit Airtime rather than the happy-go-lucky young people shown in the Airtime video below using it to flirt and show off their juggling and drawing skills.

While I wasn't at the Airtime press conference Tuesday, I did read in the company's press release that although Airtime is intended to gussy up Facebook, it's even more intended to liven up the Internet:

“There’s something exciting about bringing spontaneity to the Internet,” said Parker. “All of your interactions online are constrained by the people you already know. That wasn’t always the case. If it weren’t for the internet, Fanning and I would have never become friends. As we move from a social graph to an interest graph, there are great possibilities for our world. That’s what we’re trying to tap into with Airtime.”

Bob Brown tracks network research in his Alpha Doggs and Facebook page, as well on Twitter and Google +

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