A chat with Google’s Seattle video-chat guru
If you want to be at the forefront of video social networking, Seattle is the place to be, not Silicon Valley.
About the same time, Google trial-launched its broadside against Facebook, the social Google+ service. One of the most arresting features is Hangouts, a service that lets up to 10 people video-chat simultaneously. And it’s designed by a bunch of engineers just the other side of Lake Washington in Seattle.
Hangouts is the creation of a team run by Chee Chew, engineering director at Google’s 500-person Kirkland office, who has been at the company for four years after 14 years at neighbors Microsoft.
Comparisons are inevitable, but Chew says Hangouts is aiming for a different sort of user than Facebook and Skype. It’s not really video-conferencing, he says – with a set time, leader and agenda – it’s more like hanging randomly with whoever happens to be around.
“For Hangouts — even the name – the idea isn’t necessarily that we have a topic, it’s just I want to be with my friends, or with other people,” said Chew at the Kirkland office earlier this week. “We use video-conferencing as an important element of it, but the whole serendipitous, run across a hang out, jump in, people flowing in and out. To me that’s the essence of Hangouts. The video is just one important element of it but it’s a whole different construct.”
The idea, of course, is to get people comfortable in the Google environment, and spend hours on the site, using Google’s other services.
So how will it make money? Don’t ask me, says Chew. “I don’t know what the plans are there. I’m not the money guy.”
Google hasn’t worked out – or isn’t saying yet – how it will monetize the service. “We currently do not offer advertising in Google+, but will continue to look for new ways for businesses to engage users in the project,” is as far as the company will go.
Google+ is still in field trials, by invitation only, but racked up 20 million users in three weeks after launch in late June, according to comScore. Google hasn’t provided any up-to-date figures.
The number of Hangouts users has exceeded Chew’s expectations, he says, but won’t divulge any data.
Chew says the idea for Hangouts started when his team in Kirkland needed a way to improve communications with coworkers in Stockholm, Sweden. The answer was an always-on, two-way video and audio feed on a big screen near the center of the office, so people could speak to each other, or see who was around, at any time.
At that time Chew was working on Google Talk, the company’s one-to-one video chat service. Several months ago, he said he was pulled into the Google+ project by co-founder Sergey Brin and SVP of social Vic Gundotra – another Microsoft alumni.
They asked Chew how many months it would take to build a video chat service into Google+. Chew said it would take only a few minutes and proceeded to set it up immediately. Gundotra ended up chatting on it for hours, says Chew.
That sort of rapid creation would seem impossible at nearby Microsoft, where Chew worked on early versions of Internet Explorer and Xbox Live. Google is a more “bottoms up” engineering process is all Chew will say about that.
Hangout has yet to become a verb, like Google, but it has won admirers. Users have praised the quality of the pictures, the strong audio, and the way it automatically maximizes the video of the speaker without interference or dropout. Chew says this is possible because traffic is not being relayed over the world on the Internet, but handled in Google’s vast array of datacenters, so you deal with the one closest to you. Google aims to get the latency down to 100 milliseconds (one tenth of a second). Chew says sometimes it beats cellphone chats.
So what’s next for Hangouts? What will it look like in Google’s full public launch of Google+?
Chew won’t say anything for certain, but they are looking at feedback from users. Some have complained about unwelcome griefers or trolls ruining Hangouts. Users can block people they don’t want to talk to, but currently there’s no way to get rid of unwanted people on public hangouts. Some have also asked for a queue to get onto hangouts when they are full.
Google could solve those problems, says Chew, but he’s not sure whether allowing people to kick others off or create a waiting line would match the democratic, freewheeling spirit he is aiming for.
“You have to be careful with the social dynamics,” says Chew. “If you add ‘kick’ then you change the dynamic of hangouts. Right now there’s no master, no moderator, no one in charge. Someone in charge would change the dynamics of you and your group.”
Voting people off is also not ideal, says Chew, citing the way TV show ‘Survivor’ turns normal people into vicious brutes.
“You have to make the cost high enough so people won’t do it willy-nilly,” says Chew on the griefer problem.
Who will win the battle for online video chat is unclear. But whatever emerges, it’s a safe bet that someone in Seattle had something to do with it.