May 25, 2011 (04:05 PM EDT)
TokBox Offers Customizable Group Video Chat

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The social media potential of Internet video calls is one of the things that got Microsoft excited about Skype, but if you want to make your own website more social by adding video to it, you might want to look instead at TokBox.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced the acquisition of Skype for $8.5 billion. TokBox by comparison is a relatively obscure startup, founded in 2007, that originally tried to take on Skype more directly as one of several free video chat services. Now TokBox is promoting its technology as one you can embed in your own site and customize to taste using its OpenTok application programming interface. TokBox also recently released an OpenTok WordPress plug-in and is working with its developer community on plug-ins and code samples for Drupal, jQuery, and other popular Web development platforms.

Because OpenTok uses Adobe Flash as its video player, users can participate with any browser that includes the Flash plug-in, without having any other software installed. Users are prompted to confirm that the application should be allowed to access the webcam on the user's PC or device. Developers program to the API using JavaScript or ActionScript, the native scripting language for Flash.

Skype supports group video calls, but that feature requires all participants to have Skype 5.0 or higher installed.

The idea behind OpenTok (which is free, with premium upgrades coming soon) is to provide video chat as a generic service Web developers can embed in an application or social experience of their own design. Instead of online event organizers directing users to go to a video chat website, or fire up a separate application like Skype, "we can provide video chat in the context of the activity, wherever that is around the Web," said Micky O'Brien, VP of marketing and developer relations.

TokBox says it can support putting 20 or more webcam video streams on screen at once. Applications can show all webcam feeds in a checkerboard fashion or focus on a few featured participants. Meanwhile, hundreds of other visitors whose images are not shown can be watching in the background--for example, for an online talk show. "The API allows the developers to make those choices themselves," O'Brien said. The experience can match the the personality of the site. For example, online gambling site PokerView uses OpenTok to let players see and talk with their opponents during game play.

Dan Peachey, who is preparing to launch a social site for musicians called Chat With The Band, said working with OpenTok allowed him to concentrate on his specific application, rather than the base video chat functionality. "So far, it's worked very, very well. The actual integration into the video chat API has been seamless," he said. "It provides a lot of functionality out of the box that I'm very happy with."

Because the site is just preparing to enter beta testing, Peachey said he has not yet tested OpenTok on a large scale, but his plan is to give up-and-coming bands a chance to connect more intimately with their fans online through video chat. For larger online meetings, with more prominent acts, the band members and a few featured interviewers could be shown on screen while other fans would be able to watch and listen. "We might show one fan who is talking while the others are viewing that chat," he said.

Jim Russell, director of digital strategy at McKinney, said the firm's marketing consultants used OpenTok as part of an online Christmas card app, Meet Me Under The Mistletoe, which invited friends and lovers to meet virtually in a digital photo booth where they could snap a photo of themselves smooching at each other's images.

"The API was really clean and transparent," Russell said, noting that sometimes cloud services invite you into their platform but "don't let you play with everything." In this case, once the developers came up with the concept, "we were able to bring it to fruition in short order." McKinney has used OpenTok in some other client promotions as well, he said, but not on any standing applications.

While he likes the technology, Russell added, "the crystal ball is a little cloudy about whether this is the right platform for owning and developing your own video experience."

Microsoft's $8.5 billion purchase of Skype set the tech world abuzz and put a new focus on desktop videoconferencing. InformationWeek Analytics is conducting a survey to find out what you think about the acquisition and how it will affect Skype users as well as to determine plans for desktop videoconferencing in the enterprise. Respond to the survey and be eligible to win an iPad. Take the survey now. Survey ends May 24.