Walt Mossberg

New Spin on Video Chats Brings More to the Party

Holding video chats on your mobile devices can be a great thing. But many of the common video chat apps only allow two-party calls, at least for free, or require you to have an account with a large service or social network.

Now, there’s a new video-chatting service for mobile devices and it’s free. It allows up to 10 parties in a single chat session and it doesn’t require an account to participate in a chat. This new service, called Spin, also allows you to share photos and videos with others during a chat. And it’s built for touch so you can swipe or flick in and out of chats, which it calls “gatherings.” Or you can pinch and zoom to enlarge the whole gathering, or just the small tile representing an individual in that group.

Spin launched Tuesday evening for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. An Android version is in the works for the first quarter of 2014. The app comes from a San Francisco company called Net Power & Light, which produces apps for education.

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A gathering in action, with participants shown in tiles

I’ve been testing Spin in recent days on two iPads and an iPhone, and found it to be a nice way to communicate. It has a dash of whimsy, and good video and audio quality. But Spin is so different from traditional video-chatting apps that it can be a bit confusing at first, something the company says it recognizes and promises to take steps to ameliorate.

In one test that included six people on a Saturday, some of us were at home, one was at a sidewalk cafe and one was in a vineyard. Photos and YouTube videos were shared and anyone could flick through the pictures, or advance or reverse the videos, for all to see. The person at the vineyard switched between front and rear cameras, alternately showing herself and the endless vistas of vines. In another test, a friend showed me photos of a trip to Japan while she was eating breakfast and we were talking.

When you launch the Spin app, you’re presented with a large tile representing yourself and a series of smaller tiles arranged in piles, or “stacks.” These include stacks for people you have either chatted with before, or those you’d like to invite to a gathering; invitations to gatherings on future dates; and photos and videos you may want to pull into a gathering. The photos can either be those on your own device or those you’ve stored on Facebook or Flickr. The videos can be from YouTube, or from your own Facebook videos. You can participate in a gathering without sharing any photos or videos. These stacks and tiles appear to float atop a background photo of the ocean, and you can flick them around on the screen in any arrangement you like.

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Invitations can be sent for gatherings for future events, such as video chatting while watching football.

There are two ways to initiate a gathering. You just drag a tile or tiles from your People stack onto your own tile, and Spin generates invitations to the people to join the gathering. If they have the Spin app and are using it at the moment, they can join in seconds. If they aren’t active in Spin, they get an email invitation.

The other method is to set up a gathering for a specific date and time — say, the time of a televised sports event. Each person gets an email invitation to the planned gathering. If they don’t have Spin, the invitation includes a link to learn about it and get the app. Spin has accounts called Spin IDs. They aren’t needed to take part in gatherings but you need one to convene a gathering.

Once in a gathering, you not only can see and hear each other, and share photos and videos, but you can do other things. These include writing and doodling in different colors and triggering effects, like sending a stream of hearts, throwing a tomato, launching a paper airplane or triggering an animated standing ovation. I found most of these effects juvenile, but I could see how they’d be fun while everyone was watching a game on TV.

One cool feature lets you adjust the audio while watching a video to either emphasize the video’s own audio track, or the conversation about the video from participants.

You leave a gathering by just dragging your tile out of it.

Spin emphasizes that it isn’t a social network, it has no advertising and it isn’t out to gather information about you. It hopes to make money by selling premium features.

The company says it is devoted to privacy. Spin says only people who are invited can see who is in a gathering you convene and nobody can join unless you invite them, or someone you’ve invited does so. Similarly, nobody can drag you into a gathering without your consent, and nobody can see your photos and videos unless you choose to show them.

So what’s not to like about Spin? Well, I found it confusing to use at first. It wasn’t obvious how to drag people or photos in and out of gatherings for the first couple of sessions, and I resorted to an overlay of tips pointing to things on my screen. I was annoyed by the many times when I was trying to zoom a gathering to full-screen size, or shrink it, or move it, but ended up drawing colored lines instead, because there’s no clear way to turn the drawing function off.

Also, if you invite someone with one email address, but they sign in with another, they won’t show up. Spin is planning to make this clearer in invitations, and over the next month, it plans to make it easier to join gatherings from multiple emails.

On two occasions, Spin warned me I was having network problems, even though I was on a fast, reliable network that worked for other apps. The company says it’s looking into this.

Overall, Spin is worth a try for people who want to hold free group video chats on Apple devices.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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