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Facebook launches drop-in video chat Rooms to rival Houseparty – TechCrunch

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Facebook is co-opting some of the top video chat innovations like Zoom’s gallery view for large groups and Houseparty’s spontaneous hangouts for a new feature called Rooms. It could usher in a new era of unplanned togetherness via video.

Launching today on mobile and desktop in English speaking countries, you can start a video chat Room that friends can discover via a new section above the News Feed or notifications Facebook will automatically send to your closest pals. You can also just invite specific friends, or share a link anyone can use to join your Room.

For now, up to 8 people can join, but that limit will rise to 50 within weeks, making it a more legitimate alternative to Zoom for big happy hours and such. And more importantly, users will soon be able to create and discover Rooms through Instagram, WhatsApp, and Portal, plus join them from the web without an account, making this Facebook’s first truly interoperable product.

“People just want to spend more time together” Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky tells me. One-on-one and group video calling was already growing, but “Now in the time of COVID, the whole thing is exploding. We already had a plan to do a bunch of stuff here [so people could] hang out on video any time they want, but we accelerated our plans.” There’s no plans for ads or other direct monetization of Rooms, but the feature could keep Facebook’s products central to people’s lives.

Facebook Goes All-In On Video

The launch of Rooms comes alongside a slew other video-related updates designed to shore up Facebook’s deficiency in many-to-many communication. It already owns the many-to-one feeds and has emerged as a leader in one-to-many livestreaming, but “the middle piece needed way more investment” Chudnovsky says.

Here’s a rundown of the other announcements and what they mean:

  • Virtual And 360 Backgrounds with mood lighting – Facebook will soon launch the ability to choose a virtual background to cover up what’s behind you on a video call, including 360 backgrounds that look different as you move around, plus mood lighting to make you look better on camera

  • WhatsApp expands group calls from four to eight max participants – Encompassing larger families and friend groups makes WhatsApp a more viable competitor to Zoom

  • Facebook Live With returns – It’s tough to be the center of attention for long periods, so being able to bring a guest on screen during Live calls keeps them interesting and low pressure
  • Donate button on live videos – This makes it much easier for musicians, activists, and normal people to raise money for causes during the coronavirus crisis
  • Live via audio only – With more musicians bringing their tours to Facebook Live, now you can listen while still going about your day when you can’t watch too or want to conserve data, and you can use a toll-free number to dial in to some Pages’ videos
  • Instagram Live on web – You can now watch Live videos and comment from desktop so you can multi-task during longer streams

  • Live on IGTV – Long live videos won’t have to disappear since they can now be saved to IGTV, encouraging higher quality Instagram Lives meant to last
  • Portal Live – You’ll now be able to go Live to Pages and Groups from Portal devices so you can move around while streaming

  • Facebook Dating Video Chat – Rather than going on a date where you have no chemistry, you’ll be able to video chat with matches on Facebook Dating to get a feel for someone first.

How To Use Facebook Rooms

Facebook strived to make Rooms launchable and discoverable across all its apps in hopes of blitzing into the space. You can launch a Room from the News Feed composer, Groups, Events, the Messenger inbox, and soon Instagram Direct’s video chat button, WhatsApp, and Portal. You’ll be able to choose a start time, add a description, and choose who can join in three ways.

You can restrict your Room just to people you invite, such as for a family catch-up. You can make it open to all your friends, who’ll be able to see it in the new Rooms discovery tray above the News Feed or inbox and eventually similar surfaces in the other apps. In this case, Facebook may notify some close friends to make sure they’ll see it. Or you can share a link to your Room wherever you want, effectively making it public.

Facebook apparently watched the PR disaster that emerged from Zoombombing, and purposefully built security into Rooms. The host can lock the room to block people from joining via URL, and if they boot someone from a Room, it automatically locks until they unlock it. That ensures that if trolls find your link, they can’t just keep joining from the web.

Choosing to create a separate and extremely prominent space for discovering Room above the News Feed reveals how seriously it’s taking this product. It could have made Rooms just another News Feed post that’s timeliness would get lost in the algorithm. Instead, it was willing to push the feed almost entirely off the start screen beneath the composer, Rooms, and Stories. Clearly Facebook sees sharing, ephemeral content, and synchronous connection as more key to its future than static status updates.

The Uncopyable Copier

Facebook has been quietly working on Rooms since at least 2017, exploring how to make group chats discoverable. It tried a standalone app for group video chat discovery called Bonfire that year. In fact, Facebook launched a standalone app called Rooms back in 2014 for anonymous forums. The genius of this launch is how it combines three of Facebook’s biggest strengths to build a product that copies others but is hard to copy itself.

The ubiquity of its messaging apps and web compatibility make Rooms highly accessible, without the friction of having to download a new app.

The frequency of visits to its feeds and inboxes where Rooms can be found by the family of apps’ 2.5 billion users plus Facebook’s willingness to bet big by sticking Rooms atop our screen like it did with Stories could unlock a new era of spontaneous, serendipitous socializing.

The social graph we’ve developed with great breadth across Facebook’s apps plus the depth of its understanding about who we care about most allow it to reach enough concurrent users to make Rooms fun by intelligently ranking which we see and who gets notifications to join rather than spamming your whole phone book.

No other app has all of these qualities. Zoom doesn’t know who you care about. Houseparty is growing but is far from ubiquitous. Messaging competitors don’t have the same discovery surfaces.

Facebook knows the real engagement on mobile comes from messaging. It just needed a way to make us message more than our one-on-one threads and asynchronous group chats demanded. Rooms makes video calls something you can passively discover and join rather having to actively initiate or be explicitly pulled into by a friend. That could significantly increase how often and long we use Facebook without the deleterious impacts of zombie-like asocial feed scrolling.

For more of this author Josh Constine’s thoughts on tech, join his newsletter Moving Product

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‘The Mandalorian’ Season 3 will premiere on March 1 • TechCrunch

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Disney announced today The Mandalorian’s long-awaited third season will debut on March 1st on Disney+. The company had previously said that the third season would debut in February, so fans will have to wait a little longer than expected to see the upcoming season.

The third season will take place following the events of “The Book of Boba Fett,” in which Din Djarin reunited with Grogu. A teaser for the upcoming season shows Mando fighting armed warriors on Mandalore.

The second season “The Mandalorian” premiered back in October 2020, so fans have had to wait quite some time to see their favorites together again. Carl Weathers, Giancarlo Esposito and Katee Sackhoff will all be returning in the third season of the show.

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YouTube launches its first-ever official trends podcast, ‘Like & Describe,’ with content creator MatPat • TechCrunch

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YouTube launched its first-ever official trends podcast today, the company announced. Hosted by popular content creator MatPat and produced by YouTube’s Culture & Trends team, the “Like & Describe” podcast will tackle lesser-known stories behind the biggest YouTube trends.

Episodes will release monthly on YouTube’s main channel for viewers to watch as well as all on major podcast platforms for listeners, including Spotify, Apple, Amazon and Google. Episode one debuted on December 1 with a second episode set to premiere on January 1.

The announcement comes a few months after YouTube introduced a dedicated podcast homepage. It’s likely the company launched “Like & Describe” to further cash in on the ever-growing podcast industry. Plus, MatPat could draw in millions of listeners since the creator has over 34 million subscribers in total across his four channels–The Game Theorists, The Film Theorists, The Food Theorists and his gaming channel, GTLive.

In the first episode, titled “The Rise of the VTubers,” MatPat explores Virtual YouTubers (aka VTubers), animated characters voiced by humans that garner a collective total of 1.5 billion views every month, according to YouTube.

MatPat meets with VTubers like Gawr Gura, a 9,000-year-old half shark/half girl, and Mori Calliope, a Grim reaper that raps in motion-capture music videos, among others. He also speaks with Earnest Pettie, Trends & Insights Lead of YouTube’s Culture & Trends team, content creator Dave Cherry and other experts.

Unlike most video podcasts where hosts sit in front of a camera and speak into a mic, “Like & Describe” has viewers follow along with graphics as MatPat narrates—similar to his video style for his YouTube channels.

The second episode will have MatPat meet with more special guests from the Culture & Trends team as they provide commentary on the biggest videos and creators of 2022.

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Netflix is letting more subscribers preview its films and TV shows, report says • TechCrunch

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Content is king for streaming services, and Netflix may be going the extra mile to ensure its content is up to par with subscribers. According to the Wall Street Journal, Netflix’s prerelease screening program will soon enlist tens of thousands of subscribers to preview new movies and shows and provide their feedback.

Netflix declined to comment to TechCrunch on the Wall Street Journal’s report.

Similar to how major Hollywood studios have test screenings for new films, the “Netflix Preview Club” has over 2,000 previewers that review Netflix titles before they release to the streaming platform, the Wall Street Journal wrote. The program will reportedly increase by 400% in early 2023, should the report prove accurate.

The program has existed since May 2021, Variety previously reported. Netflix confirmed to Variety that it runs subscriber-feedback panels in the U.S. only.

According to Reddit users who claim to be in the program, the Netflix Preview Club is invite-only. Subscribers are required to sign an NDA before watching the film and then answer a series of survey questions one person wrote. “You get a special Netflix account, and they email when they have a movie in there for you to watch. Usually, you have to watch and review within a week,” the Reddit user added.

Amazon and Hulu have similar programs, the “Amazon Preview” program and the “Hulu Brain Trust,” where subscribers offer feedback on content.

WSJ points out that “Don’t Look Up” was apparently too serious for the Netflix Preview Club, and creators took this feedback and added more humor before it was released. Although “Don’t Look Up” was poorly reviewed by critics and has a 56% Tomatometer score and 78% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, it had four Oscars nominations and broke a Netflix record with 152.29 million weekly viewing hours.

Netflix intends to spend $17 billion on content next year, so it’s imperative that it’s smart about what it invests in. And in order to avoid repeating the disaster of Netflix’s first and second quarters of 2022, the company needs to keep subscribers engaged to limit churn.

Netflix rebounded in Q3 2022, jumping to 223 million global subscribers, so if expanding its preview program proves to be successful, its content could grow its subscriber base even more.

The streamer has seen success with its drama shows like “Stranger Things,” “Bridgerton,” “Squid Game,” and Tim Burton’s newest series “Wednesday,” which just topped 340 million hours viewed. However, Netflix needs more than that if it wants to fill in the gaps. Hopefully, the program will help give the streamer a better idea of what viewers want.

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