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Rabbit wants to put a new face on video chat

Video chat is about to get a new look, if a company called Rabbit has anything to say about it.

On Thursday, Rabbit took the wraps off its video chat and content-sharing application that lets chat participants watch videos, listen to music, and look at documents together while talking. The application--Mac-only for now--is entering a closed beta; interested participants can sign up at the Rabbit website.

Anyone who does sign up will find a video chat offering that's quite different from Skype and Google Hangout. Rabbit promises chats with unlimited numbers of participants, simplified content sharing, and the ability to easily move from one group to the next. All of this takes place in a chat environment designed to mimic a party or get-together as opposed to a more traditional online chatroom.

"We wanted to totally transform the way you do video chat from the ground up," said Stephanie Morgan, a Rabbit co-founder.

That's apparent from the moment you log into Rabbit. You can create rooms, either choosing one of Rabbit's provided backgrounds or uploading one of your own for that extra touch of personalization. Those rooms can either be open to the public or restricted to friends of your choosing. Because Rabbit integrates with Facebook, you're able to invite friends to join your chat. The application notifies you whenever a friend is active on Rabbit.

Rabbit chatrooms come with a supplied background; you can also upload your own for a personalized touch. A drop-down menu and Facebook integration makes it easy to invite friends to video chats.

Rabbit puts the emphasis on sharing in its video apps. A built-in SharePad feature promises one-click sharing (based on integration with content services such as Hulu, Spotify, Vevo, and YouTube). The idea, Morgan explains, is that you can watch movies or listen to music with friends, even if they're not in the same room. Rabbit will let you share other kinds of content as well, such as documents and images, but you're only able to view them, not edit or collaborate on them. For that reason, Rabbit seems better suited for study groups and socializing than as a video conferencing service for businesses.

Rabbit's SharePad taps into services and applications to let chat participants share all kinds of content.

And that's probably intentional: Morgan says the target audience for Rabbit are users in the 17- to 25-years-old age range. The application's design certainly takes a youthful approach. Individual chatrooms appear as bubbles; a number on the bubble tells you how many people are chatting and if you hover your mouse over it, the faces of chat participants (and their Facebook-listed interests) fan out before you. Rabbit boasts advanced audio features that let you listen in on conversations before joining a room--the din is reminiscent of being in a room and hearing snippets of conversations going on around you--which Morgan touts as another way to "make you feel connected to people and not make [video chatting] so utilitarian."

Hover over a chat, and the people participating will fan out before you. You can also see a list of their interests.

The din of audio suggests that I am likely not in Rabbit's target audience, but even I can spot some of the clever features that have gone into the application after watching a brief demo. For instance, once you enter a chat, whoever is speaking appears at the top of the screen right underneath the built-in camera on your MacBook--it's a deliberate design decision aimed at promoting eye contact with whoever's talking. Chat participants appear in circles; Morgan says that de-emphasizes what's going on in the background, again putting your focus on the speaker.

Once, you're in a chat, Rabbit moves the chatroom's participants to the top of your screen, making it easier to maintain eye contact. You can also keep an eye on other chats going on in a particular room.

Rabbit will be free to use. So how do Rabbit's creators plan to make money on the service? "The monetization models will come," Morgan said. "The really important thing now is getting everything in place for an awesome experience for people."

That experience is limited to Mac users running OS X 10.7 or later for now. Ultimately, Rabbit hopes to expand to other platforms, including Windows, iOS, and Android. The initial Mac-only focus is by design, Morgan said: "It's a really good community for directly engaging with developers and giving really good feedback."


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