The first time I ever video-chatted over a mobile device was about two years ago, almost to the day. It was a Thanksgiving call to my parents back home over an iPhone 4 while I was living in New York. The call was no-frills. I used the videoconference service Tango because my apartment had no Wi-Fi, and I couldn’t use Apple’s much-hyped onboard FaceTime app.
Like everything in our Moore’s Law world, much has changed in the video landscape in the past two years. Facebook videoconferencing lets literally a billion people video-chat freely, if they have a webcam. Microsoft-owned Skype is everywhere (it also powers Facebook’s aforementioned service). So Tango, as it was back then, could no longer exist today.
Aside from a few core products owned by companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, consumer video chatting services are no longer simple utilities; they must be entertainment. (Enterprise chat and collaborative services are a whole different ball game.)
Now the poster child for a buzzy chat service, for better or worse, is something like Airtime, the social video product that combines discovery with social elements — though creators Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, of Napster fame, probably have overshot the ratio between utility and entertainment. The sheen wore from the product shortly after it launched, and it has failed to gain traction with a large swath of users. Still, it is a barometer for what video services must offer nowadays — some kind of variation on a theme. This seems obvious in a tech world where a new company must narrowcast to get any play (as in, Facebook begat Path), but video has entered this phase in the last few years.
A simple example: Back to the subject of Tango, today the company launched two features that seek to up the entertainment quotient: video filters and avatars. What’s interesting is that co-founder and chief technologist Eric Setton swears these are more than just gamefication tactics, and that, while fun and silly, they hold some real utility.
New filters let a user Instigram-ify himself in video form, using vintage hues or black and white. While these seem like they would be popular primarily among teens and younger users, Setton says the camera shy will also find it particularly comforting, using it as a way to cover up imperfections before they go onscreen. A comic book themed filter saturates the color of the picture, which distorts the image just enough to make someone with self esteem issues a little less wary. “There are some people that are a little shy in front of the camera,” says Setton. “This will allow them to have fun too.”
Another new feature is a talking dog or cat avatar, which lets a user take the animal’s form on camera and make it talk. This is more explicitly good for the camera shy among us, but it’s also a helpful tool for parents to talk to their young children. (This may be especially effective if your child is used to interacting with Talking Tom, an animated cat character from a popular app by Slovenia-based Outfit7.)
The new features come after Tango has made an effort to make its whole service more social. Setton credits Zynga with popularizing the gamefication model that the company is trying to follow. While Zynga has been struggling recently, he may not want to follow their plan too closely. Still, if silly features can help foster genuine interaction, it’s a win for a video communications company.