How Google’s Hangouts API could change social video

One of the hidden gems of Tuesday’s Google+ update is the Hangouts API, which allows third-party developers to build apps for the group video chat platform.

Developers will, for instance, be able to integrate videos from sites like Vimeo (s IACI) into Hangouts and allow users to watch them simultaneously. This could not only be a big boost for Hangouts and Google+, (s GOOG) but also take social video watching online to the next level.

The API was announced on the Google+ platform blog:

“Today we’re launching the Developer Preview of the Hangouts API, another small piece of the Google+ platform. It enables you to add your own experiences to Hangouts and instantly build real-time applications, just like our first application, the built-in YouTube player.”

The current developer preview limits access to apps to a pre-defined group of users, and a few first examples include simple apps like a voting gadget. However, one only has to take a closer look at the built-in YouTube player to get a sense of how powerful this API can be. The player synchronizes YouTube videos, making it possible to watch clips with friends while also video chatting with them. If a user skips to the next video, that action is automatically relayed to the other participants.

Of course, the same functionality could also be utilized by other video platforms, or even by third-party developers who could make use of publicly available APIs to show videos from sites like Vimeo within Hangouts. Asked about this in a Google+ comment thread today, Hangouts API Product Lead Amit Fulay said: “Yes, you can write an app for Vimeo videos.” He added that apps have to comply with the Google+ developers terms of service, which forbid the use of some types of content.

The implications of this are pretty profound. I’ve long argued that Hangouts could take social interaction around online video to the next level by allowing users to talk to each other in real time, just as you would with family and friends in your living room. The Hangouts API now makes this possible for a wide range of video services, which could bring live sports streams hosted on Ustream or similar sites, or even TV content from sites like Hulu to Hangouts.

Of course, services would have to agree to work within the Google+ framework, but that shouldn’t be a show-stopper for many. Facebook is expected to launch social video integration with Hulu and other partners on Thursday, and it would only make sense for video platforms to embrace Google+ as well.