Katherine Boehret

An Appointment for Sharing Online Videos

It’s still too hard to share personal videos with friends and family in a truly satisfying manner. Huge video files take a long time to upload and download. And, even when you share clips via online streaming services that eliminate tedious downloads, you don’t get the fun experience of watching your videos together with others.

This week I tested SeeToo, a free service that lets you share videos in the same time that it takes to open and watch them on your own computer. Even better, you get to watch the video along with the people with whom you’re sharing it and type comments to each other in real time.

SeeToo works when one user selects a video to share with other people, who get an emailed hyperlink to SeeToo’s Web site, seetoo.com. After opening the link, these people join a SeeToo session during which everyone can watch the same video at the same time.

With SeeToo, you and your “buddy” can watch and chat about a video at the same time.

While the video is playing for the group, each viewer can pause, rewind and fast-forward the video. A space below the playback screen allows friends to send instant messages to one another during the session. There aren’t any limits to the size or type of video file that is shared, and other types of media — including music and photos — can also be shared on SeeToo without size restrictions.

SeeToo sounds too good to be true, and in many of my tests, it was. The service became available to the public in January in its beta, or test, stage. But I’ve used many other products in beta that were in better shape than SeeToo. And there is one major catch: Once a video-sharing session is over, the participants, other than the person sharing, can no longer access the video.

People who are invited to watch videos on the service can do so using any popular Web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari) on Windows (MSFT) computers and Macs (AAPL). But the person actually supplying the video and initiating the sharing session can use only a Windows PC. The initiator also must download a browser plug-in, which seems old-fashioned in the world of Web-based applications. And sharing sessions time out after 15 minutes of inactivity on the initiator’s side, after which point the email link doesn’t work.

I was able to successfully initiate a SeeToo session using Firefox and Internet Explorer on an older Windows XP computer but had trouble with two computers running Windows Vista: Neither worked with SeeToo using Internet Explorer and only one worked using Firefox. SeeToo says this is due in part to Microsoft’s new Service Pack 1 for Vista, and the company claims it will have this problem fixed by today. I also had trouble with the sound.

The concept behind SeeToo is also somewhat limiting. Some people may not be able to watch a video exactly when someone else wants to watch it. Some might rather watch videos alone than with others. And typing out back-and-forth chats while videos are playing could be somewhat of a distraction from watching the video.

I tested SeeToo by sharing video with family and friends and watching video they shared. My sister and I got a kick out of watching video footage from a wedding I attended in October. I shot the video using an inexpensive, low-resolution Flip Video camera and the footage looked pretty good. But SeeToo’s site shares video on a rather small screen, and we both wished it were larger.

We sent instant messages to one another in a small space below the screen, making comments about the guests’ dance moves and the DJ’s choice of music. I used on-screen tools to pause the video when the camera passed by a friend whom I wanted my sister to see. To take a second look, she selected her screen’s Take Control button and rewound the footage to see my friend.

For the first two seconds of a video, users can see a small image in the top right corner of their screen that displays what the other people are seeing. SeeToo explained that this is a way of confirming one person is indeed seeing the same screen as another person.

I originally invited three people to watch the video with me. One friend I invited was at work, where his computer restricts him from watching videos. When he got home that night, the email hyperlink didn’t work — nor did it explain that the session had expired. Instead, it crashed his Firefox browser. I also invited my boss to watch the video with me, but he only saw my invitation two hours later when the session was over.

I didn’t even try to invite my parents to see the video because neither of them sit in front of a computer all day long and they wouldn’t have received my invitation in time to see the video.

In some ways, it was probably better that the other people I invited to watch the video weren’t able to see it, because the instant-message chat screen currently labels everyone as “buddy,” without distinguishing one person from another. SeeToo hopes to change this in future versions of the service by offering users a chance to register, thus receiving a specific nickname for chatting purposes. As of now, no one who uses SeeToo needs to enter any personal information such as a name or email address, which is a plus. SeeToo is also ad-free as of now, but the company plans to monetize parts of the service sometime this summer.

I also shared music and photos with friends using SeeToo, but this feature isn’t obvious; the site is primarily focused on sharing videos. Music playlists can’t currently be shared with friends, nor can photo slideshows be shared. Instead, individual songs or photos must be selected and shared within a session, one at a time.

SeeToo has high hopes of adding many features in the future, probably by June. Those features include a full-size, higher-resolution viewing screen for sharing and watching videos; a fully Web-based, download-free version of SeeToo; photo slideshows; using names to distinguish viewers; and sharing sessions that don’t time out. In addition, it hopes to let Mac users initiate sharing sessions. The site aims to be out of its testing stage by September.

Right now, SeeToo can come in handy if you know someone else is at a computer and ready to watch a video. The invited guest never downloads anything and neither party needs to register to use SeeToo. But its screen is a bit on the small side, and the service needs to become more versatile before it can be seen as a reliable sharing site.

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