Feature Story

FaceFlow Videoconferencing Uses Just a Browser

By Tom Keating, Chief Technology Officer and Executive Editor  |  February 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2011 issue of Unified Communications Magazine

Wouldn't it be great to have a free group video call using just your browser? Forget downloading Skype! Besides, Skype charges you for group calling. Well, look no further than FaceFlow, a new startup that offers P2P video calls leveraging Flash.First, some background. Back in August 2010 I wrote how the latest version of Adobe Flash Player 10.1 adds support for RTMFP groups. This is hugebecause it enables clients to communicate easily with other clients in a network to share the transport of media and communications without maintaining a connection to every peer in the group. Groups can be defined by their functionality and access can be controlled by the client application, whether it's a VoIP app, chat app or a social networking app.It also added support for directed routing, which enables a developer to create communication applications and send data messages to a specific peer in the group. Critical features of RTMFP include low latency (critical for VoIP), end-to-end peering capability, security and scalability. In the past, to scale you had to add additional Flash Media Servers, but with RTMFP groups you can instead have application-level multicast for increased scalability. With Flash 10.1, you can have a very scalable one-to-many (mesh architecture) leveraging the RTMP protocol, Status 2.0, and P2P communication.

Well, this new Adobe P2P voice/video technology is exactly what FaceFlow is leveraging. It greatly reduces the need for centralized servers (or supernodes like Skype (News - Alert)) as well as the bandwidth requirements. I took FaceFlow for a spin. It was easy to sign up and register. Once registered, I registered a second account on another PC to make my first video call. I “friended” my second account and after accepting the friend invite I made a video call from my first account to the second account all on the same LAN segment. The video frame rate is excellent; however, it seems the company compromised a bit on video quality. The video had artifacts in it at times, especially when moving. But overall, the video was pretty decent.

Currently, you can only search on name or username, so FaceFlow needs to have better profile searching. Of course, it only asks for your name, username, and birthday, so it would also have to ask for city and state if it wanted to provide more useful searching for dating applications or if trying to find a friend or classmate in the local area. It does have the ability to attach a picture to your profile, which you can easily change.You can be notified via e-mail when you get a friend invite. I think the company should add a report feature.

I got three friend invites from people I don't know in three days. Granted, I get friend requests on Facebook (News - Alert) too, but that's a much larger user pool that might be "spammy", and I just joined FaceFlow, so no one even knows I'm on it.I spoke with the Dany Pelletier, founder of FaceFlow about the offering.First, I asked him if the company’s solution supports more than three video participants. He said: "So far, we are only accepting three-way video calls. If everybody around the world had good bandwidth, we'd easily be able to add additional webcams, but that's not the case right now."

When asked about the video quality he responded: "We are currently working on a system that will adjust users' bandwidth (video quality) according to their Internet speed, by reducing or increasing it optimally in a way to stay at a given FPS rate. With that said, people with high bandwidth will have a high-quality video with good FPS, and people with lower bandwidth will have a lower quality video with good FPS. You would need very low bandwidth to have a very bad video quality anyway."

He then commented on how I said my two-way video had some artifacts. "About the actual quality, we've just increased the quality for two-way video chat, but the same quality that you've seen when testing the website has been kept for the three-way video chat – still a decent quality, however – until we have the FPS/bandwidth management system in place.

"I asked about monetization and he stated: "We have a lot of plans for FaceFlow. For example, one eventual project would be to add VoIP for landline calling, at very competitive rates, so people can use FaceFlow for their communication needs on any computer, anywhere without having to download anything." He continued: "I don't intend to make any features besides landline calling a paid feature. I want as many people as possible to use the service, and we might be adding ads eventually, such as in-video ads similar to the Google ads you can see in YouTube (News - Alert) videos. We have no monetization plans confirmed yet, but the service will be free to use for sure (except an eventual landline calling feature.)"

Next, I asked about the architecture. He responded: "Our backend right now is entirely peer-to-peer, there is no client-server-client communication at all. We are also working on new communication features such as broadcasting and chat rooms, which will be using the newest features in Flash 10.1, such as multi peer-to-peer. These flash 10.1 features will also be useful for an effective scalability of the videoconferencing system."I then commented that it is P2P, which makes infrastructure easier –  less bandwidth requirements, and you just have to do the handshaking/call setup and then all the peers communicate together.

Pelletier responded: “In fact, there are a lot less bandwidth requirements when using P2P, which makes an effective scalability easier, and allows me to offer the service for free even when features such as six-way video chat will be available. You are right, the server has to do the handshake to connect the users together, and then P2P takes place. Flash 10.1 will be required when in a videoconference with many people, for example, when there are more than four webcams. The bandwidth management between the peers is very effective, and this is what we will be leveraging.”

Tom Keating is Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Technology Marketing Corporation, and Executive Technology Editor/SEO Director for TMCnet.com. To read more of Tom’s articles, please visit his columnist page. He also blogs for TMCnet here.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi