When I occasionally fire up my webcam--usually to do an interview on the wonders of video collaboration--the truth is I rarely find it to be all that wonderful.
I've been on group interview calls where you could see all the journalists arrayed across the bottom of the screen, looking bored or taking notes, no one making eye contact, and I have to wonder, what's the point of this? My own video transmissions tend to be marred by having a window at my back, so that my shadowed face leaves me looking like I'm in the witness protection program. Just today, because I'm supposed to be participating in a Google+ Hangouts session this evening, I've rearranged the furniture in my home office to address the reality that this is going to keep coming up.
In any case, I was surprised to find that I kind of enjoyed signing on for a demo of the Facebook app Video Chat Rounds. The Rounds application can also be accessed outside Facebook as a Chrome extension or Chrome OS app and will be coming to other social networks soon, according to Dany Fishel, co-founder and CEO of GixOO Studios of Tel Aviv, the company behind the service.
Rounds is a recreational, entertainment-oriented video chat app--although I can imagine it being used in a sales or marketing context by a brand with the right personality. Fishel said he is also talking to some big corporations about producing branded versions (the name he mentioned off the record would be impressive if it materializes).
What's interesting about Rounds is that video is only one piece of an experience that can also include shared applications or games. Fishel calls them "activities" and says that they are the real center of the Rounds experience. When he launched a spaceships and asteroids game, or a version of Space Invaders, it popped up as a window overlapping our two images. It's in that spot, as well of the skinning of the application, where I can see branded experiences cropping up in the not too distant future.
On a consumer bent, Fishel also makes money through micropayment sales, allowing chat enthusiasts to purchase add-on applications, custom themes, and additional special video effects to jazz up their chat sessions.
"Zynga is doing quite well with micropayments only," Fishel said, referring to the way the company behind Farmville sells virtual goods. "But this experience was built from scratch to be very modular and also support interaction with other merchants and other publishers."
After authorizing the app on Facebook, you get a listing of contacts you can call who have also activated Rounds. Currently, you can only chat with one person at a time, but multiuser versions will follow, Fishel said. "You'll see it in the next year."
A mobile phone version is also still to come, although investment from Verizon, as part of a recent $3 million round of funding for the startup, seems to assure it won't be far off. "I can't reveal too much right now," Fishel said of his discussions with Verizon, "but mobile will be a big part of our strategy."
The text chat portion of the app also includes some interesting conversation starters. Click on the life saver icon, and the app provides a starter message based on information drawn from your profile. For example, Fishel shot me a note asking a trivia question about the SyFy Channel cable show Eureka because I must have liked the page for it at some point.
"It's a way of getting things started with random questions and stuff we have in common," Fishel said.