Hangout Lets It All Hang Out, Wants to Become a 3-D, Interactive MySpace

9/8/08Follow @wroush

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virtual presence. Interactivity on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook is limited to the comments members leave for one another on their profile pages, or perhaps the occasional instant-messaging session (Facebook launched an instant messaging client earlier this year). But at Hangout, members can see one another’s avatars and communicate via cartoon-style speech bubbles.

And while Second Life and other 3-D programs require dedicated viewer software, the environment in Hangout is accessed via a small plugin that runs inside a Web browser, which means it works across all operating systems. A Hangout window can even be embedded into a member’s Facebook or MySpace profiles. (That can lead to a dizzying recursiveness, since Facebook photos and other materials can also be browsed from inside Hangout.)

Hangout Industries Team PhotoThe 22-person team at Hangout Industries—all but four of whom are under age 25, according to Anthos—has been working on its virtual environment since raising a small initial funding round in March, 2007. While the company is licensing a commercial game engine to drive certain parts of the experience—Anthos wouldn’t give more details—it’s building most of the system from scratch.

The idea for Hangout sprang from co-founder David Brock, a research scientist at MIT and former director of the Auto-ID Center whose work included extensive studies of 3-D simulation for the Defense Department. Brock had won seed funding to explore the idea of creating advertising-sponsored virtual conference rooms for business users, and Anthos was brought in to examine the project. It turned out that “for enterprises, there was no business model,” says Anthos. “Enterprises aren’t going to want Coke cans floating around the conference room, and they are certainly not going to want advertising on the walls.” But Anthos, the father of three teenagers, said it wasn’t hard to envision another application for the conference-room technology—as the backdrop for “casual, immersive, customizable, personal, immediately gratifying experiences” for teens.

A Customized Room in Hangout.netAnthos says he isn’t sure of the exact date when Hangout.net will be available for public signups, “but it’s not going to be long.” He says the company is still working on making the user experience inside Hangout “drop dead clean, simple, and easily understandable.” There won’t be a manual—”if you have to explain what you’re doing in a manual, it’s too complicated,” he says—but the company is working on a series of video tutorials. (I would have appreciated a tutorial myself; I visited Hangout several times last week, and I found the environment easy to navigate, but strangely desolate—probably because I couldn’t figure out where the other people were.)

Does the market need another online virtual world? Clearly not, especially with existing virtual worlds like Second Life struggling to find profitable niches. But will 16-to-24-year-olds be interested in a more immersive and customizable channel/experience for online socializing? That’s an entirely different question.

Bob Davis, a general partner at Hangout backer Highland Capital Partners and the former CEO of Lycos, said in a statement that Hangout addresses “a huge untapped opportunity for online experiences and activity.” As with most social-networking ventures, Hangout’s success will probably hinge less on the exact set of features it includes than on how quickly it can reach a critical mass of members, so that when users log on, there’s a decent chance that several of their friends will already be there. That, in turn, will depend on whether new members think the system is cool enough to invite their friends—and whether those friends can tear themselves away from MySpace.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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