From virtual reality (VR) to self-driving cars, a number of notable technology trends have emerged throughout 2016. But over the past week, one feature in particular has really come to the fore: group video calls.
On Monday, Facebook announced group video chats for its Messenger app, with support for up to 50 people, though only six people are visible on screen at any given moment. And teen-focused social app Kik also rolled out group video chat the same day, catering to up to six friends.
Last week, Slack launched video-call support for up to 15 people, but only from within the desktop app. This was followed a day later by mobile messaging giant Line, which unveiled group video chat support for up to 200 people, though only four people are visible on screen at any given time.
Elsewhere, Skype introduced group video chats for up to 25 people on Android and iOS back in February, two years after the feature became available on desktop and one year after it landed on smart TVs. And Google Hangouts has long supported group video calls for up to 10 people.
One-to-one video chat makes sense — it is great being able to chat with a loved one “face to face” from a remote location and, according to Facebook, more than 245 million people were already engaging in one-to-one video chats each month on Messenger.
But is there really high demand for group video calls?
That Line would see fit to cater to as many as 200 people on a single video call seems kinda silly. To circumvent the obvious barrier presented by the limited screen real estate of a mobile phone, Line shows the first four people to join the call by default, with other participants displayed as profile pictures down the side — users can manually configure who they see in the videos by dragging a profile picture on top of one of the videos.
It’s difficult to envisage many situations that would require group video calls for more than a handful of people — in the consumer mobile-messaging realm, at least. But nobody is forcing you to jump on a video call with 199 other people, so it probably doesn’t matter that much whether you can or not.
A more important question here, however, is why has there been such a push to beef up messaging apps with group video messaging smarts? There are at least two reasons.
The first — and perhaps more pertinent — reason is that messaging apps have a tendency to converge in terms of features.
With so many different ways to communicate, including SMS, voice calls, video calls, mobile messaging, and email, people traditionally used different apps for different things. But technology companies want all of your attention, all of the time. Therefore, they have had to try to become everything to everyone. The upshot of this is that every social messaging app ends up being roughly the same, give or take.
Facebook realized that messaging apps would be big, which is why it spun Messenger out as a standalone service and acquired WhatsApp for many billions of dollars. Facebook also tried to buy Snapchat, but Snapchat wasn’t interested, so Facebook had to settle for copying Snapchat instead.
Facebook has also made no secret of its disdain for old communication tools, such as SMS, that rely on phone numbers to operate. David Marcus, VP of messaging products, gave some notable insights into the company’s thinking on this back in January [emphasis ours]:
SMS and texting came to the fore in the time of flip phones. Now, many of us can do so much more on our phones; we went from just making phone calls and sending basic text-only messages to having computers in our pockets. And just like the flip phone is disappearing, old communication styles are disappearing too.
With Messenger, we offer all the things that made texting so popular, but also so much more. Yes, you can send text messages, but you can also send stickers, photos, videos, voice clips, GIFs, your location, and money to people. You can make video and voice calls while at the same time not needing to know someone’s phone number. You don’t need to have a Facebook account to use Messenger anymore, and it’s also a cross-platform experience – so you can pick up where you left off whether you’re on a desktop computer, a tablet, or your phone.
But SMS still holds many benefits over internet-based services like Facebook. For one, it works with anyone who has a mobile phone number. And cellular networks are more widespread, with fewer “black spots” than 3G or 4G. Put simply, SMS isn’t going the way of the dodo quite yet, which is why back in June Facebook allowed Messenger users on Android to set the app as their default SMS app, meaning they could access all their messages from within a single app. All of your attention, all of the time.
So how does this all relate to group video calls? Well, as mobile messaging apps have increasingly converged and opened to voice calls, group voice calls, and video calls, group video calls are a natural extension. To differentiate itself from the competition, an app has to offer something that others don’t, but as soon as it does that, the others follow suit.
WhatsApp introduced video calls for the first time last month, but without support for group chats. We can likely expect group video calls to be added to the mix in the future. Why wouldn’t they? Apple’s FaceTime doesn’t support group video calls yet, but as it faces increased competition from feature-rich alternatives, it is only a matter of time before Apple joins the fray. After all, why force your users to jump to another third-party service for the occasional group video chat, when you can give them the option of staying happily within their usual environment?
Irrespective of whether people wish to chat one-to-one or in groups of 200, the surge in group video chat is also indicative of a far broader growth trend across the digital realm.
2016: The rise of video
Facebook Live opened to all iOS users in the U.S. back in January — before expanding to Android the following month — and lets anyone launch a live broadcast directly from within the Facebook mobile app.
Earlier this month, Twitter followed suit, merging Periscope directly into the main Twitter client to simplify live video broadcasts. Twitter’s video push hasn’t been limited to live broadcasts from its users though, as it has also been working with a number of third parties to expand its professional content. It partnered with Disney to broadcast footage from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and also ushered in live NFL games and political coverage, supported by dedicated live video apps for your big screen.
Elsewhere, Meerkat maker Life On Air launched a new group video chat app called Houseparty for Android and iOS, after Meerkat’s popularity waned. And Google launched a new one-to-one video calling app, called Duo, with plans afoot to launch a YouTube Connect livestreaming video app.
As broadband and mobile internet have improved, companies have moved to embrace new high-bandwidth communication conduits. Real-time video, be it one-way broadcasts or conversations between friends, has been a big breakout trend of 2016. And group video chats are very much part of that trend.