Video chat needs to escape its current social limitations, and Duo is the first attempt.
The act of communicating in real time through video hasn't really changed in nearly 20 years. Two devices with the same software initiate a connection, you wait for the video to load, and if you're lucky the connection is good enough for a conversation to happen at a close to real world cadence. The technology surrounding video chat has changed in amazing ways, but the act of starting that conversation and having that conversation remains mostly the same.
For years we've been sold on the idea that smartphones with great front-facing cameras would enable the ability to simply pick up your phone and call someone through video, but rarely does that experience go smoothly even between two people who are familiar with how the tech works.
This is where Google wants its new video service, Duo, to shine. Google is positioning Duo to make video chat a human experience, and from what we've seen so far they might just pull it off.
In many ways, Google already managed the "best" video chat service with Hangouts. As a highly functional group video service and a fantastic mobile solution for person-to-person video chat, Hangouts is great as long as everyone using the service is fairly technically minded. My family, which is currently stretched across the world for various reasons, frequently takes an hour to bring everyone together via Hangouts. I take my Pixel C over to my grandparents, start a chat, and invite everyone who can't be there in person. As long as I'm there to handle everything, it goes off without a hitch.
When I'm not around, things frequently go differently.
If Duo is able to improve on what Google already has for video chat, it's going to be a big deal.
It's easy to be frustrated by video chat when it doesn't "just work" the first time. Explaining that sometimes there are connection delays, lag, mobile network issues, and the occasional need to reboot the app isn't ideal — and each of these things is enough for someone who just wants to talk to family to lean on an alternative or just decide to try again later. This is one area Google promises will be different with Duo. Video and audio quality adjust seamlessly to match the network quality both sides are currently experiencing, and transitioning from WiFi to mobile networks is expected to be equally as smooth. We've seen small attempts to make this happen in Google Hangouts, and over the last year there have been tremendous improvements. If Duo is able to improve on what Google already has for video chats, it's going to be a big deal.
The most important part of Duo for Google's target audience, however, is this one tiny detail in "Knock Knock." Google has made a big deal of how you get a video call and see live video of the person calling through this Knock Knock feature, and that does seem very cool. It gives you a reasonable idea of the connection quality, and lets you decide if you're going to answer the call quickly. The big feature here is what happens next. You agree to accept the call and you pick up live with that person, there's no stutter to start the call or anything because it already happened when the video feed initiated a few seconds ago. The connection is already smoothed out because of Knock Knock, and all of the settings and controls disappear so there's nothing on the screen but you and the person you're talking to.
There's obviously still plenty about Duo we don't know yet, and won't know until it is finally available later this summer. What we've seen so far promises a lot, and it's on Google to deliver. Assuming that happens, Duo has the potential to be a huge deal when it comes to showing people that video chat isn't clunky and mechanical anymore. It's possible that Duo can start the process of encouraging people to use video chat as though it were a normal thing, and not just for special occasions and meetings. If you haven't already, you can pre-register for access to Duo right now.