One of the better features of Google+ is Hangouts(s goog), in my opinion. It’s a quick, easy way to have a drop-in video chat experience with either a tightly focused or broad group of people. Now VoIP and video chat service Fring is hoping users want to take that kind of experience on the go with its new Playgrounds feature, added to its iOS (s aapl) and Android apps in a new update.
Like Hangouts, Playgrounds lets you group video chat. Unlike Hangouts, however, there’s little control over who can or can’t join a Playground, and of course it works on mobile devices, including the iPad (over both Wi-Fi and 3G connections). Up to four Fring users can chat using Playgrounds, but they don’t have to be friends, or even friends of friends; chats are based on shared interests, set by the Playground’s creator, and anyone using Fring can join any Playground.
This might remind you more of another video chat product: Chatroulette. That service, originally launched in 2009, automatically pairs users with a random stranger for voice, video and text-based chat. It got a lot of people talking when it first came out, but the overwhelming chance that you’d run into people exposing themselves led to a decline in general interest.
I expect some of the same issues to crop up with Playgrounds. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of screening when creating a new chat, so users are free to do what they wish. It’s a two-click process if you don’t want to attach a specific name to your chat, which is good for encouraging casual use, but bad because it means it’s easy to abuse.
In my brief testing, I wasn’t really able to connect with anyone, although I did get some black screens with audio coming through. If you do manage to connect with someone you actually click with, you can quickly add them to your friends list right from within the video chat, which adds more social depth to the feature. It’s a service that has only just launched, so it’s still possible that spontaneous, topic-based group video chat with strangers will catch on with users, but unfortunately I think the track record of this kind of thing argues against that happening. Even so, it’s good to see Fring rush out ahead of Skype (s msft) once again and try new things.