Rabbit Screenshot

Technology is a facilitator. The more powerful and elegant a piece of tech, the more it melts into the background as we use it. Ideally, a social network would mimic the way we interact with the physical world offering both familiar, personal, private spaces where we can comfortably interact with those we know and trust, as well as shared, public spaces we can go to when we’re looking to meet and interact with new people. In this utopian social space, we’d be able to move freely and naturally between these spaces find our various senses engaged differently each time we do.

Rabbit, a next-generation video social network emerging out of stealth today, aims to displace Google Hangouts, Oovo, Skype, and Airtime (not that this last one has much to replace), in the video chat space. The San Francisco-based app offers a “room” based experience that allows users to move from one conversation to another, some private and some public. When a user enters a new room, rather than encountering an awkward silence, they are met with a natural background murmur that co-founder Stephanie Morgan describes as “a living room with 10 people in it.”

Decisions like these reflect Morgan and her co-founders’ background in MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) development, where it is equally important to create an immersive experience and to deemphasize the awkwardness of interacting through a piece of technology. Another example of this thinking was the decision to make all video windows circular, and fish-eyed, with the goal of focusing attention on the individual rather than the room surrounding them.

Similarly, users can share all types of content within these chats, including music, video, still images, files, apps, and screen-sharing, simly by dragging a window or piece of content into the app. The fully synchronous experience is ideal for watching a movie or listening to music together. The sharing options are unlimited in private rooms, but public rooms cannot share licensed content such as Netflix or Spotify due to broadcast rights issues.

Chat rooms can accommodate an unlimited number of people, but mimicking the natural constraints of the real world, each conversation is limited to 12 people. In a crowded room, groups can pair off into sub-conversations, which are represented by clusters of real-time video avatars. It’s possible to people watch before joining a conversation. If you’re even more curious, hovering your mouse over a group, allows you to eavesdrop on a conversations before joining in, just as you might in the real world.

Once inside a conversation, the murmur of the room changes and view changes. The user’s screen displays a single large video player displaying the person currently talking or leading the conversation – something the app aims to chooses automatically based on a variety of activity signals – surrounded by several smaller players showing the other participants.

Other public video chat portals such as Chatroulette have run into problems with lewd or unpleasant behavior. Rabbit takes several steps to address this. First users must log in via Facebook, creating profiles based on their real identity. Secondly, users can view a person’s connections and interests before chatting with them. And finally, users can block others which both prevents them from appearing on your screen, but also prevents them from viewing your video or any shared content – even when you’re both in the same conversation.

Morgan is a former producer at mobile game firm Ngmoco and studio director at Hands-On Mobile. Joining her on the co-foudning team are three gaming and entertainment industry vets. This crack-team includes former Sony Online Entertainment and Hands-On Mobile technical director Philippe Clavel, EVP publishing at Magmic Games and chairman of Guestdriven Nicholas Reichenbach, and former Acclaim Entertaiment founder and CEO, RCA Records International President, and Activision International President Gregory Rishbach.

The Rabbit ream has wrapped all of this impressive functionality into a Mac OS X desktop app at first, and promises a Windows version, as well as native iOS and Android apps in the near future. It’s less likely that the company will offer a Web version, because Rabbit is designed to operate in the background. Rabbit will be available as a closed beta in Q1 2013, and open to the public likely shortly thereafter.

The social video portal is targeting web-savvy and hyper social teens and young adults who the company hopes will create their own persistent spaces within the platform and come and go throughout the day. For example a group of teen boys might create a room called “the basement” where they meet regularly to hang out, whatever that means on a given day. One user might share their spotify app to act as the ambient DJ – which other users can interact with, changing tracks, etc. – while others periodically share the day’s latest viral web video or work cooperatively on a school assignment.

If Morgan and her team are correct, users will keep these windows open for hours at a time, while coming and going from sitting in front of the Webcam – something teens have done for decades with Skype chats and telephones.

“Rabbit is all about making meaningful connections and mirroring the way we interact in the offline world, online,” says Morgan. “We think of this as sort of the third leg of the stool. Alongside Facebook and Twitter, Rabbit will be the realtime, live social platform.”