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Hands on with Livetext, Yahoo's silent new video chat app

Quick, personal, kind of fun

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote that Yahoo had quietly released Livetext, its new messenger app, and was testing it in Hong Kong. The company must have been satisfied, because as of today Livetext will be available in five new countries — the United States, the UK, Canada, Germany, and France.

Livetext is a live video chat app with a key difference: there's no audio. "While texting is quick and easy, you often miss the meaning of a message, have to explain your reaction ("LOL"), or wait hours before getting a response," Yahoo wrote in a blog post introducing Livetext. (LOL.) "And to actually talk on the phone, you not only have to be available, but you also have to be in a place where you can chat." Livetext aims to bridge that gap with live, real-time video that you can then type over. More to the point, it aims to introduce something novel and fun into a very crowded market for messaging apps.

On firing up the app, you're asked to verify your phone number, as well as to give Livetext access to your photos. (You're required to upload a picture when you first set up your profile — no anonymous humanoid silhouettes for Livetext.) You'll need to give it access your camera as well. You can then either add contacts by their Livetext ID, if you know it, or by syncing your contact list to see which of your friends are already using it. Livetext shows you your friends' profile pictures as little circles — you tap a friend's picture to start chatting.

Quick, fun and personal

When Yahoo says Livetext is live, they mean it. As soon as you tap a friend's name, you're on camera, and your friend will receive a notification telling them that you've started a chat and are typing to them. You then wait for your friend to join the video chat, upon which a bar appears at the top of the screen, informing you that the video is now live. Typed messages on Livetext look pretty similar to the way they do on Snapchat — except instead of typing over a still image, you're typing (and emoji-ing) all over your friend's face. The video starts off using the front-facing camera, but you can switch to use the rear-facing camera by simply tapping on the screen.

Unlike Snapchat's somewhat confusing live video feature, you don't have to keep your thumb pressed down on the screen to maintain the video connection. But it isn't perfect: Livetext's keyboard takes up about half the screen, and you can't move the small circle that shows your own face. That circle is also really small — if you want to show your friend something that you're looking at, it can be difficult to tell what you've captured in the frame. But your chats shouldn't come back to haunt you — as on Snapchat, messages and videos are ephemeral, and are deleted as soon as both parties exit the chat.

It's like passing secret notes to your best friend in class

When we first wrote about Livetext, the silent video feature seemed a little strange. Isn't the whole point of video to be able to see and hear what's going on somewhere else? But upon using the app, it makes more sense. Often, text is the easiest and most convenient way to talk to someone, but it can lack nuance and lead to misunderstandings.

How often have you received a text that says nothing but "Ok." and felt an irrational sense of panic and annoyance? A mysteriously placed period can have so much power over your mood. And yet, you can't really justify calling the person over it, or you don't want to be the person making a private call in a public place. Livetext fixes both those problems — that "Ok." loses its sting when you can see your friend grinning and nodding back at you. There's also a sense of innocent silliness to the app, reminiscent of passing secret notes to your best friend in class and watching them silently crack up.

If old-school texting, Snapchat, and Beme all got drunk one night and had a baby, it would probably be something like Livetext — quick, personal, and kind of fun. Less certain is whether it will ever come to feel essential. For now though, Livetext at least feels novel — and for Yahoo, that's a win.

Download Livetext for Android and iOS.