Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Hanging out without a Hangout

Last month, David Read wrote a very interesting post about his experience with using Google Hangouts as a teaching tool. One problem which students had was actually getting into the Hangout in the first place. A small Google audio/video plugin needs to be downloaded onto the client's machine, and a University of Sheffield Google+ account needs to be created by the student. Once in the hangout the experience was very good, but this barrier is likely to put potential participants off.

What else do I suggest? Well there's the juggernaut Skype, which requires downloading, registering (and paying for a premium account to group call). Any Meeting doesn't require attendees to register, but is ad-supported and has a slightly clunky feel to it. WebEx, Collaborate, GoToMeeting & Adobe Connect are very capable, fully featured solutions (some may read this as complicated?) but are of course paid-for systems.

I'm sure there are others out there, but last week a new service was launched directly competing with the above services. promises face to face meetings, with no software to install and no fee to pay. Setting up a meeting is remarkably easy; there's a button on the homepage which says 'Get a Meeting Room', a link is provided for you to circulate to your participants, and you enter the room.

All of this without giving an email address, creating an account or signing in with Facebook. As far as I can tell, the only stumbling block for users would be around accepting the pop up Flash player permissions to access your webcam and microphone, and physically connecting webcams and headsets. However, these two issues are by no means exclusive to this service.

If you do create an account, you can schedule meetings in advance, add them to your calendar and create a personal meeting room with a unique URL. This means you can always use the same URL for your meetings, and as this service is new, now's the time to get in and bag those sensible addresses.

The interface is very clean and straightforward to use, and the video chat includes popular features like a personal notepad and text chat. Currently, it is limited to 5 participants, which is half the capacity of a Google+ Hangout. This does of course limit it's appeal for teaching. In addition, to my ears the audio quality didn't sound quite as good as other platforms, but this may improve over time. Advanced features like screen sharing, adding telephone participants and file sharing are all visible in the screenshot, but it is important to note that these features are billed as 'coming soon', and don't actually work as present.

It's possible that the some of these 'coming soon' features will be chargeable; was started by money from Y Combinator (which also lists Dropbox, Reddit & Posterous as it's previous startup darlings), so they will be bound to want some return for their investment.

However, I say get in whilst it's free!


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