Google Hangouts is a feature of Google+ that allows you to have a multi-user, live video chat. That part is pretty exciting, but Google is also trying out a lot of experimental new features that really make Google Hangout compete with some pretty expensive Web conferencing tools. Better yet, Google+ is free.
You don't get the extras with the standard Google Hangout. A standard Google Hangout at the time of this writing consists of:
- Up to ten simultaneous participants.
- Participants can be using any combination of video, voice, or text chat.
- Participants can be restricted among your Google Circles or open to the public.
Google Hangouts with Extras
In order to get the extra features, you need to enable Google Hangouts with Extras. Simply start a Google+ Hangout and click on the link that says "Hangouts with extras." Here's some standard warnings. Hangouts with extras is an experimental feature offering tools that may not end up scaling and may not end up in the final product. This is like the Labs component of many products, such as Blogger in Draft or Gmail Labs. However, the features they're offering right now are pretty darn cool.
As of December 2011, the extra features include:
- Sharing Google Docs while chatting
- Sharing your screen to other participants (so they could see what you're working on or typing)
- Free phone calls to US and Canadian friends, so they can join a Hangout by phone
If you think Cisco should be scared of that last feature, we're in agreement. As soon as Google figures out a way to scale Google Hangouts to groups larger than ten people, there's going to be very little reason to purchase a WebEx session for conferences when you could just broadcast them as a Google Hangout for free. That or Google can figure out a way to competitively price their Hangout features within their commercial Google Apps offering.
Now, if you use Google Docs, you can already chat with people who are currently editing a document. What you can't do is video chat with them. Not only is the Hangout with Extras feature something that benefits Google+ users who want to use Google Docs, eventually it could benefit Google Docs users who want to collaborate more efficiently outside the context of a social network.
I'd love to see this pushed further, and I look forward to seeing where Google goes with it. Perhaps ten users could have video or voice chat enabled while the other users could use the text chat and view or hear the videos. If one person were given "microphone passing" capabilities, this could be very manageable. Perhaps Google could really push the limits and have automatic text transcription for accessibility. I'll admit this is really pushing it. Google's current auto transcription services are spotty at best when it comes to accuracy, but maybe others in the hangout would give them a little crowd-sourcing boost.
At any rate, give Google Hangouts with Extras a try and be sure to let Google know what you think. They seem to really be paying attention to user feedback on Google+, and it's exciting to see it grow.