Rob Glaser, the founder of Real Networks, is launching SocialEyes at the Demo conference today. It's a new video-calling service that blends Skype and FaceTime features with Facebook's social graph.
On the surface, it seems like just another video-calling service, but its social architecture is unique.
Glaser says, "This is not Skype or YouTube or Facebook." So I asked him, "What is it?" Oddly, he shrugged and said, "We're going to find out." Normally I'd say that not knowing how your product is going to be adopted is a negative indicator of success, but in this case I'm not so sure.
SocialEyes CEO Robert Williams gives a more compelling pitch. He said that video products haven't kept pace with the way people communicate. They don't take advantage of either the rich social network that most people have through Facebook or of an emerging semi-persistent communication style that people use in loose, contractor-heavy workgroups (some people, anyway).
SocialEyes combines person-to-person video chat with an easy way to make a conversation multi-person. It also blends real-time video chat with store-and-forward video messages
In SocialEyes, you get, by default, a six-pane video chat window. The upper-left pane is you. The other five panes are the people you are connected to via video. From the six-pane window, you can talk to anyone or any collection of people at once, mute individuals or groups, or record messages to send out.
Where SocialEyes gets weird and interesting--if I understood the demo correctly--is that it gives each person the capability to connect together people he or she is connected to, who may not already be connected to one other. If I'm talking to person A and person B, for example, and they're not friends of each other through SocialEyes, I can connect them together, if I am communicating with them both at once. SocialEyes thus brings friend-of-a-friend networking to video chat. In a work setting, this is a powerful concept. In a social setting, I don't see the utility, but it could make for either silly party-line conversations or weird matchmaking conversations.
Everyone you're connected to on the system has this same capability, which can lead to an extraordinarily complex Web of video connections. But while the table of who's connected to whom is kept on the SocialEyes servers, the actual video connections are point-to-point, using capabilities built in to Flash 10. Flash video makes this app technologically feasible; it probably wouldn't be if SocialEyes had to process each video stream.
The SocialEyes social network is also pre-built: it relies on Facebook. Glaser said he did this specifically to keep the service from devolving into anonymous Chatroulete-like silliness; it also means new users don't have to work as hard to get their network up and running.
The service's unique capabilities give rise to new social gestures. For example, if you have someone muted on SocialEyes--you can see them but not hear them--but then they want to talk to you, they have to "knock" to request an unmute; this is after you've already "called" and connected to a user. (Glaser said a full audio/video mute, or "pause," is also built into the system, but so far people rarely use it.)
The service does have a few checkmark features that seem pointless: you can "collect" locations of people you connect to, and there's a game-y way to score "Karma points" by using it. You can also share online video streams with anyone you're connected to, which seems a bit less off-target, but is probably a free feature for SocialEyes given its Flash-based foundation.
The planned mobile app will obviously have to use technology other than Flash. But Glaser is enthusiastic about a front-facing camera coming to the next iPad; he thinks his multi-pane video window will work great on tablets. Smaller smartphones, he says, "will be first-class citizens even if they don't get all the group features."
SocialEyes really is a different way of looking at video chat and conferencing. It's so different that it's likely people who could potentially get a lot of benefit from it won't see why they should switch from using, say Skype plus instant messenger. But the ideas in this product deserve attention.