Google+ Hangout

Virtual communication through e-mail, forums and conference calls is unfortunately a necessity.  Even if travel were affordable (or sensible given concerns about CO2 emissions), face-to-face meetings can be hard to arrange given our busy schedules.  However, getting teams to 'gel' in a virtual world can be challenging and time consuming.  Being able to see team members while they are talking can make a big difference.

There are numerous platforms that try to provide richer web-based communication, usually for a monthly fee.  Skype has group audio capabilities but does not scale well (all inbound and outbound communication passes through the Internet connection of the person who initiated the call).  In addition, each participant has to be invited to join.  Video is available but only on a one-to-one basis.  Paltalk Express runs in a browser, supports multiple platforms and appears to be more scalable.  It only supports multiple video in the premium service and suffers from severe echo problems if any participants are using a built-in microphone rather than a headset.  One advantage is that a chat room can be created for a specific topic and left open for anyone to join. 

Google+ Hangout also runs in a browser, runs on Windows XP+, Mac OS X 10.5+ and Linux, supports up to 10 participants and appears to scale well.  Participants need to be registered on Google+ which is less of a problem now that Google+ members have 150 invites to pass around.  Anyone starting or participating in a Hangout is prompted to install a plugin.

Starting a Hangout session is straight-forward.  From your Google+ session click on the green button in the right sidebar.  You can check your settings to ensure the right audio/video devices are selected and working.  You can control who will be notified to join the Hangout session: everyone in your Circles, specific Circles or individual Google+ members.  You can also send people the URL at the top of the Hangout window even if they are not in the invite list.  You need to click on the green button to actually start the Hangout.

 Anyone you have invited who is currently logged into Google+ will get a notification via their Google+ Stream.

 

When participants Join this Hangout they have the opportunity to check their own settings and then click on the green button to complete the operation.  The Hangout will display a large image of the person currently speaking as well as a row of thumbnails of all participants.  Video quality depends on the frame rate of the user's webcam as well as the Internet connection speeds.  Audio quality is generally good due to excellent echo suppression. 

A few 'feechurs'.  There appears to be no way to set a topic or title for the hangout.  If you open the Hangout to a group and do not let them know ahead of time, each may think that you want to have a one-on-one discussion with them.  Resizing the Hangout window to reduce the size of the image of the speaker can reduce the volume of Internet traffic.

Although Google+ Hangout does not have whiteboards or the ability to upload images and files, it can be an effective communication tool for ad hoc team meetings.  If you have tried Hangout, please post your comments.

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