TokBox Works to Break Video Chat Out of Its Siloes, Flank Google+, Facebook

8/4/11Follow @wroush

Imagine that “EJ,” the now-Internet-famous San Francisco resident whose home was systematically robbed and vandalized by Airbnb guests, had been able to interview her potential renters beforehand via video chat on Airbnb’s website. She might have picked up on danger signs and avoided the heartache of having her home utterly plundered and her identity stolen. Well, as it turns out, facilitating “richer communication between guests and hosts before booking” via video chat is one of the new safety features Airbnb is now considering, at least according to this guest post on TechCrunch by CEO Brian Chesky.

Until recently, though, it would have been hard for Airbnb or any other startup to add such a capability on a whim. Video chat was a standalone, siloed technology—think Skype or Chatroulette—and building two-way video or group chat capabilities into a typical business or social-networking site would have required expensive software licenses and months of integration work.

But video chat technology is gradually becoming more accessible, and a 30-employee startup in San Francisco called TokBox is leading the change. Once known for running its own branded video conferencing service, TokBox has spent the last couple of years reinventing itself as a provider of free software widgets and application programming interfaces (APIs) that make it easy for other Web companies to add group video chat features to their sites. The startup officially killed its own service this spring in order to concentrate fully on the new platform, which is called OpenTok. “It was a hard decision because there were lots of people who loved that service, but it was also easy because we believe the OpenTok opportunity is much larger,” CEO Ian Small told me in April.

That’s proving true so far—the company plans to announce soon that its platform has been installed on 13,370 websites. (Why such a weird number? Partly, Small says, because the startup was too busy to put out a press release when it passed the 10,000 milestone, and partly because it’s a geeky inside joke—13,370 is 10 times 1,337, and 1,337 spells “leet” in the alternative Internet alphabet known as leetspeak.)

The beauty of OpenTok’s technology is that it lets developers drop live, Flash-based video-chat windows into almost any kind of website, anywhere on the page that they like. A site called Pokerview, for example, uses OpenTok to let poker players see each other during games; the video windows appear in a circle around a virtual poker table. Another site, TubeIt, lets people view each others’ webcams while they collectively watch YouTube videos.

The OpenTok concept is thus an inversion of the usual video chat paradigm, where the video stream itself is front-and-center and users have nothing to focus on but each other. “Content fuels conversation,” says Small. “The ‘aha’ moment for us came when we noticed that people who watch YouTube movies together hang out for an hour or more. They’re half talking, half watching, half chilling. So we said, ‘Why are we spending time trying to figure out how to fit the Web inside our service, instead of taking our service and fitting it to the Web.’”

But a lot has happened in the video chat world since my first talk with Small almost four months ago. The two biggest news item, of course, was the introduction of Google+, which includes a group video chat feature called Hangouts. Then there was the deal between Facebook and … Next Page »

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

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