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airtime hands-on

My first Airtime video chat lasted all of two seconds. My second featured some dude listening to music way too loud, looking stoned out of his mind (I clicked next). Several calls later, I was finally able to have a decent conversation with a human being (more on that below).

It’s tough to look at Airtime with clear eyes at the moment, and it’s easy to write it off completely. The social video chat service, founded by the Napster team Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, launched this morning amid a torrent of hype, celebrities, and glitches.

The company has big dreams, big funding ($33 million worth), and some big egos at the helm, so it’s not too surprising to see that many can’t wait for it to fail miserably. But despite the issues at the launch event today (which were mostly related to technical glitches at the venue, Airtime CTO Joey Liaw told me), Airtime manages to be a surprisingly compelling service that builds heavily upon predecessors like Chatroulette and Google Hangouts.

Sean Parker stressed this morning that Airtime was a “frictionless experience,” and he wasn’t kidding. Using the service simply involves heading to the Airtime website, clicking “Launch Airtime,” authorizing your Facebook account (this only needs to happen once per computer), and then giving Adobe Flash permission to use your webcam. There’s no app to install, and since it’s tied into Facebook, you don’t have to deal with signing up for an entirely new service.

Once logged in, you’re presented with a simple interface showing your video feed on the left, along with your name and interests. You can choose which interests to display to people you call, and you can also add new interests to your profile by clicking the “Edit” button next to your name. The center portion of the screen is reserved for the person you’re chatting with, while the right side contains all of your friends currently logged into Facebook.

You can quickly start a video chat with one of your friends by clicking on their names, but the real meat of the service is using the giant “Talk to Someone” button to start searching for a random chat buddy. You can choose to focus on people nearby, those with common interests, and friends of friends (or any combination of those three).

The video and audio quality don’t compare to what I’ve seen from Google Hangouts, but it’s good enough for now to have a decent conversation. What’s most important is that the basics of the service — finding people to talk to, making successful calls — works well.

Back to my first successful Airtime chat: Eventually, I was paired up Juan Perez, an entrepreneur who founded his own consulting businesses and is also working on a collaborative invoicing product called AllocateIt. Initially, Airtime paired us up because we liked some of the same music and movies, but I also noticed that he liked VentureBeat on Facebook. When I mentioned that, he pitched me on his product (the tech reporter’s work is never done), and we shared our personal information on the service, which allowed both us to see each others’ names and locations.

We ended up having a great chat about the changes in Brooklyn (where he was born and I now live), and his earlier work at Microsoft (a cool project that languished in Windows Vista). We exchanged contact information, and we’ll likely meet up the next time he’s in town.

Despite all the hype behind Airtime, this was a legitimately good connection that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. Chatroulette was all about making completely random connections with strangers, and while I love Google+ Hangouts, it’s still clunky to chat with people there who haven’t signed up for (or have trouble navigating) Google+. Airtime is a definite refinement of the social video chat formula, the only question now is if it will see the sort of viral growth that propelled Chatroulette into Internet infamy.

The service still has some issues to work through before we can truly consider it a success. For one, I haven’t run into many women using Airtime (aside from one Buzzfeed reporter who was looking to write a story about just that topic). There also seems to be a fairly limited amount of people using Airtime today — one of the people I chatted with also ran into that same reporter.

But as the Airtime community expands, and it gets more features to truly make the Internet social again, I have a feeling that it will become an essential tool for many. And given that it solves a major problem for Facebook (by offering a fun way to meet new people), I wouldn’t be surprised if Zuckerberg was already considering a buyout (we know he’s been testing it out, as one lucky Airtime user discovered).

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