Can Airtime pull video chat into the mainstream?


Airtime lets users chat anonymously, but is built on Facebook's social graph

Airtime, a new video-chat service, launched with a star-studded event Wednesday that was plagued by quite a few doubts.

Not only, as CNET reported, did Airtime have its share of technical glitches at launch, but observers also are not completely sold that video chat can be a part of everyday life.

With backing from Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, it’s no surprise that Airtime has pulled a lot of buzz, most of it characterizing the service as a clean version of the 2010 fad, ChatRoulette.

ChatRoulette, for those of you who don’t remember, was a service that randomly matched up users for video chats. If you weren’t interested in the conversation, you could skip to the next match. The main issue with the program, though, was...well, let’s just say it was a problem of exposure. As in, indecent exposure.

Fanning and Parker, who worked together on Napster, say they’re getting around this problem by integrating the service with that other small startup that Parker is associated with, Facebook.

Building the service off Facebook’s social graph is supposed to convince Airtime’s users to keep it clean and legitimate, because the service knows who you are even if the random person you’re chatting with doesn’t.

The product itself is a cross between Skype, Google Hangouts and ChatRoulette, all of which have broken off different pieces of what is interesting potential for the Internet, capturing spontaneous interactions on the Web.

You can, of course, ask friends to video chat — something Facebook offers through its own Skype integration — and you also can share YouTube videos a la Google Hangouts. Unlike Google Hangouts, however, this is not a group video chat program.

The main distinguishing feature of Airtime, though, is the random chat function, which lets you troll the service for unplanned conversations. You can narrow possible participants by geographic area or interest, based on what you’ve listed on Facebook.

Interesting features, but the basic premise of Airtime — that users will want to spend time chatting with random people — is at the heart of many skeptics’ questions.

“Cool technology or not, the demand for this kind of service has yet to emerge," CNET’s Greg Sandoval wrote in his assessment of the product.

That’s true to an extent. Video chat is still mostly advertised as a way to teleconference, talk to distant relatives or conduct remote job interviews. And random interactions, as exciting as they may seem, are still mostly reserved to, say, app game matches. Putting a face — even an anonymous one — out there still feels personal. Even other video chat services, such as WhosHere, which use anonymous video chats for dating services, but also obviously match users by interest.

But Fanning and Parker are convinced that Airtime can crack the market and make the trend catch fire.

“Airtime is something only technology can facilitate,” Fanning said in a news release. “And it is finally possible with the ubiquity of webcams, broadband connections and a highly developed identity layer. We’ve only scratched the surface with what the Internet can do today.”

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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