After a long, stealthy, super-hushed wait, the wraps have finally been taken off Airtime, the video chat application from former Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning. The Internet got the briefest of brief peeks at Airtime back in March, and everyone loosely following the story has known it’s a video chat service of some sort for awhile.
Now it’s up and running, just like the combination of Facebook and Chatroulette we thought it would be. Airtime connects with your Facebook account, finds and activates your webcam, then throws you into its sleek chat interface. On the right-hand side of your screen is your friends list, and you can text or video chat with them.
Airtime pulls in your Facebook information, which is displayed below video of you. All of your “likes” have been translated into “interests,” clickable terms that you can use to find people to chat with if you so choose. Clicking these interests reveals a prompt to “find people who like this.” If you hit that, Airtime will start dialing for you. You can also choose between trending topics for random dialing, or stick to people who are nearby, have common interests, or are friends of friends. Airtime also lets you share videos to watch together
It’s very much like if Chatroulette if Chartoulette had done things right, or if were just founded today. The site experienced a quick, meteoric, and meme-filled beginning, only to fade into the background thanks to the rise of Facebook for social, Skype for chatting, and its unavoidable “penis problem.”
Airtime is a much more sophisticated, fully-featured client than Chatroulette, and it will rely on its connection to Facebook to kill the aforementioned penis problem that hurt Chatroulette. It’s an idea that many new connection-focused apps are based their networks on: Facebook uses real identities, real names, and peoples’ lives are very much represented there. Because of this, people hold themselves to a higher standard; they are more traceable and real than if they are just anonymously trolling video chat rooms at no expense to their name.
Of course it’s worth noting that Facebook isn’t exempt from fake name syndrome – and there are always people who will throw caution to the wind and ruin their good name in the spirit of video chat exhibitionism. You can’t ever entirely get rid of the creepy factor with this type of thing, you can only best prepare for it.
Where Airtime really proves its use isn’t by connecting strangers, but rather with its implementation of the interest graph. Plenty of applications have tried to grab all the data you’ve created on Facebook and use it in some compelling way to connect you to like-minded people. Airtime actually does that – I mean, actively does that. You don’t have to create a section of topics, it’s done for you (although you can edit if you want). Then, you literally just click and call and you’re connected to someone who shares that interest – and possibly others. You will be notified if they have more in common with you.
The biggest question I have about Airtime is “do people want this?” Facebook has built-in video chat, and Skype’s popularity persists. There are a handful of well-used apps that connect people based on their interests, just sans video. Do we want real-time, video chat with people we don’t or hardly know? The idea is that even though we’re all so connected through Facebook, so much separation still exists – or maybe even exists because of it. Parker and Fanning want to cut through the pretense and make connecting more action-oriented.
In my brief hands-on time, all video calling worked sufficiently. I connected with a handful of strangers who I shared interests with, as well as video-called my own friends. The star-studded Airtime demo launch (featuring famous people!) apparently experienced a few technical difficulties, but my Airtime time was nothing but smooth sailing.
Social video, in all its many shapes and forms, is becoming an increasingly hot commodity. Airtime might manage to strike a cord with a service that’s both compelling and actually works.
Check out a press video of Airtime in action below.