Why AirTime Is Struggling: The Science of Video Chat

airtime video chatAirtime is the latest venture of Napster co-creators and entrepreneur superstars Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning.  However, just four months into their video chat foray, and these masterminds are floundering in the same snafu that has muddled many a great mind since even before the first public videophone was developed in 1936.

The key reason: hard human factor limits.  For real-time video chatting, research has shown that people have little patience with low visual quality, video delays, and poor audio-video sync, just to name a few factors.  Airtime, like nearly all social video conferencing tools (e.g. ChatrouletteOpenTok [aka Tokbox]Tinychat) made the mistake of picking Flash which does not meet the human factor requirements for video chat and video conference. This bad video experience is killing Airtime’s service right from the get-go.

Airtime began as a “family-friendly version of Chatroulette” (i.e. minus nudity) and has evolved approaches over several iterations.  Jenna Wortham, technology reporter for the New York Times describes how it currently works:

After a user signs up for Airtime through Facebook, the service analyzes the user’s profile and pairs him or her with willing strangers who have similar interests. They can then chat and watch YouTube videos together. Airtime can also be used as a simple way to video chat with Facebook friends. Since its introduction the service has rapidly introduced features to let people leave each other video messages and get video reactions to items they post.

Source:  Airtime, A Pedigreed Start-up, Is Tested

I am a big fan of Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, and I think their intuition about the compelling nature of Airtime as a medium that allows people to discover and meet new people online is right on.  Finding ways to remove the “nudity” that sunk Chatroulette wasn’t a bad call either.  But at the end of the day, video chat must meet the basic human factors requirements.  If they give up on Flash now and dig deep into the science of conveying visual conversational cues – then I think they will have a great company!

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