When Google+ first launched this past summer, one of its biggest differentiating features was a free video chat service called Hangouts. At first glance, it looks like something that’s been done before: video chat, between up to ten people. But it’s free, and unlike most video chat services that require friends to invite each other, Hangouts are more like those late-night college study lounge discussions, which people can enter and leave as they like. There’s also some nifty face switching technology that focuses the camera on whomever is speaking.
Today, Google’s announcing some major improvements to the way Hangouts work — and how they’re being more deeply integrated into your Google+ stream.
The first change you’re likely to notice is the addition of a ‘Hangout’ button beneath the various status and photo updates that you and your friends post. Click it, and the site will launch a Hangout specific to that status update — so you can chat live over video about the link, story, or photo that was just posted. Other users can join the Hangout by clicking on a link that appears in the post’s comment section.
The other major launch — and the one that is more important for the growth of the service, at least in the short-term — is the expansion of Google+’s ‘On Air’ functionality. ‘On Air’ essentially takes a standard Hangout (which can include up to ten people), and lets the host broadcast it publicly to an unlimited number of viewers. There’s still a limit on the number of people who can participate in the hangout — but millions of people can potentially tune in live. Google has used this feature to broadcast several high-profile events over the last few months, including a conversation with the Dalai Lama, but it hasn’t been available to users. Today, Google says it’s starting to roll out the functionality to ‘hundreds’ of the site’s high-profile users, and it will eventually make it available to everyone.
Now, it’s certainly possible to coordinate publicly-broadcast video chats through other services, but it also tends to be more painful to do this than it should be (the TCTV crew was actually looking for an easy way to do this last weekend without much luck). Which is why ‘On Air’ could have a lot of appeal — it’s self-serve so you can set something up at a moment’s notice, and Google will automatically archive the stream in the host’s YouTube account (which is private by default, but can be changed to public).
Because of this ease-of-use, ‘On Air’ could get the attention of celebrities or political candidates who might, say, want to stream an impromptu live interview. And each of these events would have the potential to draw in many thousands of new users to Google+ for the first time (whether they’d come back is a different matter, of course).
Some other tweaks: Google is going to surface Hangouts more prominently as you browse Google+ (they’ll appear listed in a widget in the sidebar). Google is also making Hangouts more useful for the many people who don’t have a computer with a camera (or high-speed internet): it’ll let you call into a hangout using a phone. And, finally, Hangouts users overlay reindeer antlers on themselves (this is actually a showcase of a recently-launched Hangouts API feature — Google did something similar with mustaches for Movember).
Image by Katielips