Stars align behind Airtime video chat, but is it Skype or Color?

Despite the flame-out of Chatroulette, the idea of fostering live real-time, one-to-one video chats with friends and strangers is still intriguing, at least to Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. The two Napster founders have finally taken the wraps off of Airtime, their social video chat service that is part Skype (s msft), part Chatroulette, and part SocialCam with Facebook (s fb) as the layer for matching users by their interests.
There are three features in Airtime:

  • There’s a simple one-to-one, web-based video chat service that doesn’t require registration or a download. You just log-in through Facebook. You can talk to other Facebook friends and get notifications for chats through Airtime’s Facebook integration.
  • Users can watch shared video together in real time and stay in a video chat as they view the video. For instance, you can watch a YouTube (s goog) video together with a friend while also being able to see each other. Videos that a user previously shared on Facebook are listed under their Airtime profile and can be clicked on for live viewing. Or users can find new videos with using YouTube video search.
  • And there’s the Chatroulette-like feature that allows strangers to meet outside of their Facebook connections. Users can talk to other people in their area, friends of friends and people with common interests. And chat users can share their interests with each other easily and see what they have in common.

Sean Parker said Airtime is meant to be a network service similar to Facebook or Skype. The goal is to build a service that taps the real-time potential of the Web and lets people find others and express themselves in ways that are often constrained when relying on existing social graphs.
The live chat feature is built in with security to flag abuse and monitor for bad behavior, Parker said. Human reviewers monitor screen shots of chats between strangers, while machine learning and computer vision help aid reviewing in spotting abuse. The Facebook log-in, with real profiles attached to behavior, is also meant to keep people in line. Parker repeatedly stressed Airtime’s security features, trying to make a distinction between Chatroulette, which became known for guys showing off their junk.
A parade of stars including Snoop Dogg, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Alicia Keyes, Ed Helms, Joel McHale and Olivia Munn helped Parker show off the service during a very glitchy demonstration. But despite the celebrity endorsements, Airtime faces plenty of challenges. The video chat service will compete with Skype (s msft), Oovoo and a host of mobile-focused chat services. The service sounds more safe than Chatroulette and the interest-based matching is helpful, though many people aren’t clamoring to talk to strangers. As someone next to me said, “I don’t even like to video chat with my friends.”
The social video sharing feature is nice and taps into some of the popularity of services like SocialCam and Viddy with the ability to watch together live. That’s interesting but again, it requires people to be on together. It’d be nice if groups could view videos together in a group chat but that’s not available at launch. And Airtime overall doesn’t support mobile devices for now, so smartphones and tablet users need not apply.
Still, I’m interested to see how this all pans out. As I wrote recently, live “ambient” video is becoming a new form of communication, allowing people to be more casual and spontaneous with friends. Just as pictures have become a simple language of their own, video has the potential to be a much more powerful way for people to interact, share and be creative.
But I think Airtime will need to evolve some more to make it clear why people want to spend their time there. A big splashy launch event is helpful in drumming up attention and it shows that Parker and Fanning definitely have some big-time pull. But the proof will be in how many regular people show up and use the service, a factor that doomed the initial launch of Color, a photo and video-sharing app that is trying again through a partnership with Verizon.