November 17, 2006 11:45 AM PST

Social networking melds with videoconferencing

Boaz Frankel loves to talk politics. During the recent elections, the computer consultant knew debate would be burning up blogs, message boards and chat rooms.

Instead, he turned to Paltalk, another online soapbox from which to speak his peace--one that allowed his voice not only to be heard but also enabled his audience to see his face.

Paltalk is a profitable, 8-year-old company trying to wed two of the hottest trends on the Internet: social networking and video.

"Voice is OK, but it lacks the richness of sight."
--Joel Smernoff, Paltalk president

Company executives hope they'll be at the forefront of the next wave of Internet excitement. What Skype was to the early days of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications and YouTube is to video sharing, Paltalk wants to be to a new generation of companies that allow users to see multiple people transmitting video on their Webcams just as easily as you could see a group of people chatting in virtual worlds like Second Life.

By all indications, humans enjoy interacting online. Social-networking and video-sharing sites such as MySpace and YouTube are among the most trafficked on the Web. But communication on the Internet is still largely dependent on text--pecking out missives via instant message or e-mail.

What's lacking are faces connected to voices, according to Joel Smernoff, Paltalk's president and chief operating officer. He said the New York City company wants people to interact online more like they do in face-to-face discussions. When a group of friends get together in person, they can see and hear each other. Paltalk can re-create that experience on the Web.

"Lots of companies are doing a good job connecting people one-on-one," Smernoff said. "What we're doing is connecting one to many. We also call this group-video application. It's really allowing users to build a community where people genuinely know each other."

To illustrate his point, Smernoff, in a Paltalk demonstration for CNET News.com, showed a chat room where an instructor was teaching students from different parts of the country to speak French. The teacher can see each of her pupil's faces on her laptop and they can see hers, as well as their classmates'. Frankel, who lives in Los Angeles, said he uses Paltalk to give demonstrations to customers or to help troubleshoot problems.

Can you see me now?
Online videoconferencing has been around for years, of course, but until now it hasn't been applied on a wide scale to social networking. Big corporations were typically the only ones that could afford to pay for the service, according to Smernoff.

Of course, big companies may be the only ones with a need for videoconferencing, notes Jennifer Simpson, an analyst with research firm the Yankee Group. Her consumer studies don't indicate a large demand for online collaborative tools, she said. Such services may eventually catch on, Simpson said, but she isn't convinced video will be the big winner. Voice services that allow people to participate in online group discussions stand a better chance of catching on, at least in the near term, according to Simpson.

"I think voice has a better chance," Simpson said. "There's already a bunch of companies providing voice and most computers are equipped with microphones. Very few of them have built-in Webcams. Right now, only a small percentage of Internet users own Webcams."

That doesn't spook Smernoff. He said YouTube and other video companies are successful because people want images.

"Voice is OK, but it lacks the richness of sight," Smernoff said. "I think that's why...you don't have an audio YouTube. Humans like to see faces and expression."

CONTINUED: Keeping things private…
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