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Hands-on with Sean Parker's Airtime: anonymous video chat without the nudity

Hands-on with Sean Parker's Airtime: anonymous video chat without the nudity

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Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker today announced Airtime, a web-based video chat service that's effectively the same thing as Chatroulette, but connected to Facebook.

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Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker today announced Airtime, a web-based video chat service that's effectively the same thing as Chatroulette, but connected to Facebook. Since Airtime is connected to your online identity on Facebook, the company runs less of a risk of abuse by naked guys — the reason Chatroulette took a nosedive in usage. Airtime also separates itself by letting you video chat with people you know using your name, as well as with strangers you share interests with anonymously. The end result is a pretty simple video chat experience that revives a lot of the randomized fun of Chatroulette, except without all the penises.

Hands-on

Design / UI

Airtime, like many other services launching recently, requires only a Facebook account, a browser with Adobe Flash, and a webcam to work. The service's user interface is composed of three panes: the leftmost pane contains video of you, the middle pane contains the person you're chatting with, and the rightmost pane is a familiar-looking buddy list that includes everybody you're friends with on Facebook. People online in Airtime are highlighted at the top of the buddy list with "play" arrows next to them. If you click a person's name, a chat window appears below the buddy list where you can talk to them casually without video chatting. If you do want to video chat, you can click the camera icon next to a person's name and the conversation begins.

While you can pick and choose people to chat with, Airtime first and foremost attempts to connect random people with similar interests. If you click the huge "Talk to Someone" button, the service pairs you up with a user who has similar interests on Facebook. As the video chat launches, a list of mutual interests, friends, cities you've both lived in, a common birth year, and more might show up onscreen to help stimulate conversation. If you want to narrow down your the service's random people matching engine, you can check boxes like "Friends of Friends" to only get matched with people with whom you have a mutual friend. You can also narrow things down by your current city, as well as by your interests on Facebook.

While you're chatting, you can watch videos from YouTube together using picture in picture, with more synchronous sharing options to come that could relate to music (Spotify comes to mind, where Sean Parker sits on the board) and online games. If you're finished chatting, you can either add the person you chatted with to your Airtime buddy list, end the call, or click "Next" to move on to another random person. There's also a mysterious Star button between chat windows that lets you reward your video chat partner's antics with "Achievement" points that live at the bottom of your Airtime profile.

At the bottom of the screen is a scrolling ticker called "Trending Interests" that includes things like Mad Men, E3, and the French Open. Click one and Airtime pairs you with somebody who's also interested in that topic. The company hopes that following an intense episode of Mad Men, people will hop online and talk to strangers about it.

On the whole, Airtime video chats seem to be better quality than those on Google+, and about on par with a FaceTime call over a decent connection. The service claims that it needs 1.5 Mbps minimum bandwidth to operate, but it seems to adapt accordingly to however fast or slow your connection may be. We encountered many hiccups and dropped video calls during our tests (as did the company when it demoed the service at a press event today), but we'd mostly attribute these things to launch-day demand and server jitters. As the last few hours have passed, the service has become noticeably more reliable.

Wrap-up

Ultimately, Airtime is a lot like Chatroulette, except it's more organized, Facebook-integrated, and invented by tech celebrity Sean Parker. And in the end, it will be more useful than Chatroulette because it will likely stay reasonably free of penises. Or is that the fun of Chatroulette — that you never know what's coming? It's simple to report someone as abusive if they start stripping or cursing at you, and since Airtime is tied to your Facebook account (and not an IP address), the company will have a much easier time moderating and banning users. Sure, it's not too difficult to create a new Facebook account, but users violating Airtime's Terms of Use will get flagged and banned extremely quickly. The company employs a group of full-time screen-watchers tasked with watching anonymous feeds of video chats around the world and flagging people doing reprehensible things on camera. There are also algorithms responsible for banning users who get reported too many times, but perhaps it's been a little overzealous thus far. Over time, we'd bet that the amount of inappropriate content on Airtime stays low, because Facebook's 950 million users very much value the online identities they've created.

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