As Google continues to develop its social networking service, Google+, the company is betting on easier video conferencing as the way to engage users.
On Wednesday, Google introduced several enhancements to Hangouts, the group video chat service in Google+.
In a post on Google+, Vic Gundotra, senior vice president of social, said that digital forms of communication like email just can't match conversing while looking someone in the eyes (never mind the intermediating screen and webcam).
"Our emphasis on face-to-face-face group video communication has led to some amazing experiences," he wrote. "By giving this away for free, we've enabled people around the world to see into each other's eyes and share discussion and laughter in new ways."
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To promote such activity on its social network, Google has enabled Google+ users to launch a Hangout--a live video chat--via any Google+ post or to more easily join one that's in progress. Posts to the service, text or images, now include a "Hangout" link to start a Hangout or to connect to an existing one.
Google has also extended the ability to create Hangouts to its Google+ Messenger app for Android and iOS. The Android version will be available in Android Market in a few days, and the iOS version should follow a few days later, depending on how long Apple's approval process takes.
Google's Hangouts on Air service, a version of Hangouts designed for broadcasting to audiences beyond the normal 10 person Hangout limit, took a step toward general availability.
Previously, Google coordinated broadcasts through Hangouts on Air with its designated testers, a group that includes the Black Eyed Peas, the Dalai Lama, and the Muppets. Now that group, which is being expanded to include more public figures and Google+ personalities with large followings, can broadcast their Hangouts without Google's oversight. The service has also been integrated with YouTube, so that Hangouts conversations can be recorded and provided to the Hangout moderator, for subsequent public or private viewing. In time, Google plans to make Hangouts on Air available to all Google+ users.
To further boost the appeal of Hangouts, Google has linked the ability to place low-rate Google Voice calls to its video chat service. Now users can call the U.S. and Canada for free through Hangouts and can call other countries at very low rates.
Finally, Google has provided developers with a new way to interact with Hangouts through the Google+ API. Though much of that API remains in development, Google has added media effects to the Hangouts API, allowing developers to create apps that utilize Google's face recognition technology to place, say, mustache graphics on images of people.
Developers working on Google+ projects should read the terms of service carefully. A Dutch ad agency that used Google's Map API to create "Google Shoot View," a version of Street View with a gun interface--as if it were a first person shooter rather than a navigational tool--had its project disabled for coloring outside the lines.
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