Hangouts 101: Have fun with Google's video chat service

When Google Hangouts premiered last year as part of the company’s Google+ social-networking site, I (among others) was rather skeptical. Why use a browser-based video chat service instead of something like Skype, iChat, or FaceTime? (And why video chat at all? Do you really want to see your best friend eating potato chips while you play games?)

But you know what? Google Hangouts is not only fun (and—blessedly—free of most potato-chip-eating-action), it’s also pretty useful. Whether you’re organizing a cross-country tabletop gaming experience, having a meeting, performing, or chatting with friends, the service provides a lot of smart touches to make it easy to use and easier to play with.

What you need

Because Hangouts is browser-based, you don’t have to download an app to get started. You will, however, need two things: A Google+ account and Google’s Talk plug-in. (Both of these are fairly painless to set up and/or install, unless you’d rather not sign up for a Google+ account—in that case, you’re out of luck.)

You’ll also need a microphone and a camera. Chances are, if you’re using any Mac, PC, iOS device, or other mobile gizmo released in the last four years, you’ll have both built-in, but you can always opt for fancier hardware. For my own setup, I don’t worry so much about video—bandwidth compression and your friends’ internet connections can ruin even the sharpest image—but for sound, I’ve hooked up one of my condenser mics (an Audio Technica AT2020) to an Icicle converter.

Lighting is also key: You wouldn’t have friends over in a dark apartment; likewise, you don’t want to project video from a darkened room. Table lamps and overhead lights help, as does daylight from nearby windows, but be careful not to position a light source directly behind you or you’ll be horribly backlit.

Getting started

Once you’re all ready to have a video chat, launch Google+’s Hangouts page. There are a few different options, depending on what kind of video chat you’d like to have.

You can join a featured hangout already in progress, started by some other bored Google+ member. These can be fun, though often strange—somewhat reminiscent of AOL’s chatrooms in the mid-1990s. These are limited to just ten participants.

If you want to limit your Hangouts interaction somewhat, you can tune into a Hangout On Air, hosted by businesses or individuals such as musicians, artists, and scientists. You won’t be able to participate, but you’ll be able to watch and listen via a streaming YouTube video.

Though watching concerts and cartoonists is always a pleasure, my favorite Hangout On Air experience was listening to scientists across the globe speak about Venus’s transit across the face of the sun in early June, all while views from telescopes worldwide popped up on screen.

(The nice thing about Hangouts On Air is that they’re recorded to the broadcaster’s YouTube channel for posterity; so if you wanted to check out the Transit of Venus broadcast for yourself, you could do so right now.)

Want to hang out? Click the button.

The last option is, unsurprisingly, the one you’ll probably be using the most: starting your own hangout. Google offers a nice prominent Hang Out button on the Hangouts page; click it, and you can invite whomever you’d like to your video chat. (Note that you're limited to 10 participants.)

By default, your Hangout invite is prepopulated with the rather vague “My Circles” option, which will open your hangout to anyone you’re friends with. You can limit or widen this by choosing specific circles (say, your tabletop gaming buddies), your extended circles (friends of anyone in your circles), or public (the Google+ world). If groups aren’t your thing, you can also type in the names or email addresses of specific people, or select them by choosing their thumbnails from the scrollable directory to the right.

Choose from predefined circles, or cherry-pick specific people with whom you’d like to hang out.

You can even add in a single participant via telephone—though as they can only tune in via audio stream, it takes a little bit of the fun away from hanging out.

Once you’ve chosen your list of folks, you can name the hangout and choose whether you’d like to broadcast it On Air (keep in mind, you’ll need a linked YouTube account for that). If you’ve made the hangout public, you can also restrict minors from joining your stream.

Ready? Set? Hang out

After you press that big blue Hang Out button, you’re brought to the Hangouts screen to wait for your fellow hangout-ees. The Hangouts screen actually has a bunch of features to play with besides just video and audio, including Web apps, text chat, screen sharing, and video effects. But we’ll start with the basics.

Working with your (and others’) video and audio is fairly simple to grok: Your thumbnail is displayed at the bottom of the screen; the current speaker is shown as a larger image above that row of thumbs. You can focus your video feed on a specific participant by clicking on their thumbnail; a blue box pops up around it, and that speaker will stay on-screen until you remove the selection by clicking again.

Mute yourself by clicking on these buttons in the upper right corner of the Hangouts window.

You can mute yourself (or other callers) by hovering your mouse over a thumbnail and clicking the mic icon. You can also mute your audio or video by clicking on the microphone or video camera icons in the top right corner of the window. (Click on one, and it highlights in red and draws a diagonal line through the icon.)

If Hangouts isn’t connecting to the right mic or video input, you can click on the Gear icon and adjust your settings to fix the problem.

Once you’ve gotten the whole video chat thing down, you can experiment with other goodies. Text chat is a good way to jot down information that folks may want to use later on—phone numbers, addresses, the name of that weird-sounding book your buddy’s recommending—while screen sharing allows one person to substitute a live stream of their desktop (or even a specific window) for their face.

Google Docs integration is also great for sharing or collaborating, though your video chat will be relegated to thumbnails while you work on a document or shared sketchpad in the Hangout’s main area.

Google Effects—because not everyone has a trunk full of real props they can pull out during a video chat.

The final built-in Hangouts feature, Effects, is pretty goofy—but that shouldn’t stop you from having a good time. It’s more or less a warehouse of virtual props: You can stick on a chi-chi hat or a pair of glasses that follow the movements of your head. Sadly, you can’t put props on anyone else’s head, but it’s still pretty amusing nonetheless.

From there, you can add more third-party Web apps; Google has several featured apps—including ones for slideshows, doodles, poker, watching YouTube videos together, and adding lower thirds to your video—but you can also view all recently added apps by clicking the Recents tab. Other services, like virtual tabletop platform Roll20, can hook into Google Hangouts with the click of a button.

Closing time

After you’ve hung out, a status will pop up on your Google+ page, as a reminder of your fun.

Leaving a hangout is perhaps the simplest task of all: Just close the window. Oh, sure, if you want to be nice, you could perhaps say “Goodbye!” first. Or you could just click the Exit button in the upper right corner. But it’s not complicated by any means. Google will kick you back to the Hangouts page, where you can start this nonsense all over again—or find something else with which to occupy your time.

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