Video calling has become such a common feature on social media apps that adding the basic service is no longer a big enough step for companies.
Kik seems to get this, because it’s innovating on the mobile video chat idea. Prior to Christmas, the 300-million-user-strong app joined the ranks of smartphone video chat providers, but it did so in an unusual way. Instead of devoting an entire smartphone screen to a video call, as every other service does, Kik instead limits caller chat windows to tiny thumbnails that float across the top of the screen. The purpose is to let callers continue to use the other functions of the app while they chat.
The chat windows, which can accommodate up to six callers, may be eye-wateringly small, but the idea of multitasking on a social media app is large. With a little added user freedom, these thumbnail chat windows could one day break free of the chat app altogether, and let users communicate face-to-face while they freely roam the internet.
2016: The Year of Video Chat
Last year was a big one for video conferencing. Several of the leading social chat services added video calling functions of some description, leaving us to enter 2017 able to have real-time face-to-face conversations with our friends across all the major platforms.
WhatsApp added one-to-one calls, Google debuted its video-first platform Duo, Messenger added group video chat, Amazon introduced a whole new video calling app, and even Skype caved in to some WebRTC peer pressure and added anonymous, account-free video calling.
None of the above, however, were as innovative as Kik in the execution of their video chat services. They made video calling an all-or-nothing experience, shutting out the other functions of their chat apps while video chatting was in use. That said, Messenger did introduce real-time video messaging that lets users share recorded media streams while staying within a messaging exchange. It’s a fun idea, but it’s also less of a real-time video call connection and more of a human emoji.
But Kik stands alone as offering something genuinely unique in a video chat service. The question is, will users forgive the tiny chat windows when they come with the promise of multitasking?
Video Calling with Kik
Kik does make a little room for your friends’ faces by removing your own image from the screen. If you want to see yourself, you have to actively swipe your chat window back into the main screen, but on our end, we’re happy to go without seeing a distracting mirror image of ourselves in the corner for once.
The hidden self is pretty much the only functional point of difference from other services Kik boasts, outside its small floating chat windows. In terms of helpful features, it allows you to mute anyone in the group chat, and your contact list adds a video icon to anyone already engaged in a chat, but that’s about the extent of things.
The obvious issue is the size of the chat windows. They take up less than a third of your smartphone screen, and a third of a smartphone screen is a very small space indeed. There’s really little to see other than broad gestures and the biggest of grins, but it is true that you can still engage in a face-to-face conversation while continuing to do other things in-app.
And that’s the draw. Kik lays claim to being the communications weapon of choice for 40% of the country’s teens, and it believes those teens want a dynamic service that lets them send messages and emojis, interact with chatbots, and chat with multiple people without having to stop and hold an all-consuming video conversation.
There is at least one potential feature, however, that could make all that squinting worthwhile. If users could take their thumbnail-sized friends with them beyond the Kik app, you’d change the entire browsing experience.
Breaking Free of the App
The next logical step for Kik and its many competitors is to let us break free of the host app and continue our tiny video chat while using our smartphones to wander the wider web.
Skype and other video-first apps already let you collapse your app screen and trawl the internet, leaving the audio connection in place. And there are many apps that let you share screens while video chatting, although generally only one at a time.
Kik should be able to outperform both functions on a smartphone, and maintain the visual connection using its video thumbnails. Right now you can simultaneously use the app’s other functions, like text, while video chatting, but you’re not free to surf the web.
Such a function would let people share their internet experience, making online shopping, live media streaming, even the consumption of news and trending social media topics a communal event.
For example, should your video conversation turn to basketball, all callers could quickly move to ESPN to catch up on last night’s scores, or check in on a player’s stats. All the while the visual conversation would continue, with callers being able to see each other’s reactions to any result or opinion.
Essentially anything you currently do online you could do while chatting live, face-to-face with a friend whose chat window floated in a corner of your screen. Exchange links via the messaging function that still sits at the core of Kik’s appeal, and you could simultaneously browse the same sites.
It would add an extra layer to the both the internet and social media. As long as your eyesight is good enough to make out what’s going on within the tiny chat window.
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