Airtime: not enough there to make me care

Today’s launch event for Airtime, the Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning social video chat service, was a good metaphor for the product it was showcasing: the star-studded event was poorly planned and showy without enough depth. After starting more than 40 minutes late, the press event turned into more of a celebrity-spotting spectacle with stars like Jim Carrey, Jimmy Fallon, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Joel McHale and others clowning around as they tried to divert attention away from demos that continued to run into technical problems.
That’s not to say that Airtime can’t succeed at some point, but I came away feeling like the service needed more seasoning and substance to be really interesting. Now, after spending more time with the application, I feel like Airtime is more of a shallow roll-up of other familiar services: there isn’t enough there there yet.
Here’s a synopsis of Airtime:

  • It’s a one-to-one, web-based video chat service built using Facebook (s fb) as a social layer. The chats happen at but users can get notified of incoming chats through a message in Facebook when they’re logged in.
  • Airtime offers a service for watching video simultaneously: users in a chat can start playing a video that both participants can view similar to Google Hangouts (s goog). Users can share only YouTube videos for now, either the stuff they’re previously shared on Facebook or they can find other videos through a YouTube search function.
  • The final feature is taken from Chatroulette, allowing people to jump into random video chats with strangers. They can filter by their current location, friends of friends, shared interests or some limited trending topics or they can just look for anyone to meet. The service reportedly has humans monitoring screen shots of conversations between strangers and the system uses machine learning and computer vision to flag potential bad behavior.

Part of the appeal of Airtime is that it brings together these different video-chat features into one tool. But a roll-up really only works if people are genuinely excited about doing all these things in one application. I might not be the target audience here, but I don’t actually see myself wanting to talk with other people just because we happen to live in the same city or have one thing in common. And I’m not sure a new destination site is going to get me to stop doing video chats over Skype, Facetime (s aapl) or Google Hangouts. These feelings became more apparent as I used the service.
When hopping into chats with strangers, I first of all had problems with Airtime’s filters. When I narrowed my filters down to only friends of friends, it offered me people I have no connection with. When I tried to just meet people with shared interests, I got a couple people that I have nothing in common with. One time on this setting, I was told I was talking to someone who lived in New York like me. But that person was actually in India and had never been to New York.
I understand if Airtime is willing to be flexible with the filters at the start to ensure people get a match but it can lead to awkward moments where you realize you don’t even have one thing to really talk about.Another time, I was paired with someone only after I said I liked the New York Times. But sitting there with this guy, I don’t see how this connection could spark anything interesting. The conversation ended quickly.

There are things I do like about the service. The video quality is pretty good and it seems to hold a connection well. I can get up and going pretty quickly and the video sharing feature is seamless.
But after spending more time with the service, it feels like it needs more. I can understand getting something out the door, but it feels like it should have a launched with a mobile app or multi-party support. Right now, it’s a Flash-based application and it runs primarily on desktops. I’m told mobile apps are coming soon but I think it should have been there at the start considering how mobile people are these days. Or Airtime should have brought some Google Hangouts multiparty chat features to the party. That would make watching videos together more interesting and fun. Right now, I can’t imagine going through that many videos together with one person. And since the videos are only limited to YouTube videos, I can’t share anything I’ve uploaded directly to Facebook or other services.
One of the issues I’ve noticed so far is that it’s a lot of guys on the service. This may change over time, but it also brings up some of the same questions with Chatroulette. Are women going to be as eager to show their faces to strangers as men? Some might but many single women I’ve talked to said they’re not interested in meeting people this way. It’s too early to say if we’re going to see bad behavior or if Airtime’s security features will ferret out exhibitionists. But I still think that even if everything is PG, it still can be creepy for a lot of people.
A couple of other small gripes and observations:

  • There’s a system for awarding a fellow chat participant with stars. But there’s no limit to what you can give someone so it’s pretty meaningless.
  • In addition to multiparty chats, I’d like to have the ability to share files during video chats and also record conversations as well. That could be useful for conducting video interviews that I can integrate into blog posts.
  • I’d also like the ability to zoom in on a particular location besides my own or search for someone to talk to about one specific topic. That would be cool for larger events or to get a man-on-the-ground report from some big event. Right now, there is a ticker that runs along the chat window showing some recent trending interests so you can chat with someone about that particular topic. But you can’t pick out your own topic.
  • I did have some problems connecting with a couple of friends, who were on Facebook but somehow couldn’t receive my calls.
  • While watching shared video, there doesn’t seem to be a way to adjust your own voice separately from the video’s sound levels. I found myself shouting a little to be heard over noisy parts in the video.

I think Parker and Fanning are too smart to let Airtime stumble around for long. And I think they have some interesting ideas around real-time interaction and how video can be an expressive and humanizing medium. I’ve been thinking about video lately and how it’s become more casual over time, as people find it easier to video chat or broadcast their lives without having much to say. But what’s driving some of those trends is really mobile and multi-party interaction, something Airtime doesn’t have yet.