A cool place to hang out
When we think of social networking, many of us immediately think of Facebook, with its more than 800 million active users. But Google Hangouts, the video conferencing feature of Google+, may yet give Google an edge over the reigning king of the social media world.
Yes, Google+ and Facebook have more than a passing resemblance: their interfaces are similar, as are the 'like' button on Facebook and the +1 button on Google+. Some diehard Facebook fans have even accused Google+ of ripping off Facebook's features.
But that's where Google Hangouts comes in. The service enables live video sessions between as many as 10 participants. Facebook's similar feature, thanks to a deal with Skype, only allows one-on-one video chats.
Thanks in no small part to Hangouts, Google+'s fan base is growing fast. It now has more than 170 million users - and counting.
Other fun features on Google Hangouts include the ability to record a video gathering, broadcast it on YouTube, and track the number of viewers. Users can also play dress-up with a range of amusing digital effects: they can don elaborate hats, clown faces or snorkelling masks - all of which detect and follow their head movements.
What's more, Google+ can also provide those who are hearing impaired with a transcript of what is going on in a video session in real time, letting them participate, too.
A video 'hangout' can be started at any time and from anywhere - even a mobile phone. By simply pressing the blue Hangout button, users are brought to the Hangouts screen where many other features are available, like Web apps, text chats and screen sharing.
The size of a hangout can be limited or widened by choosing either 'specific circles' (groups of people compiled by the user), 'extended circles' (friends of people already in existing circles) or 'the public' (everyone on Google+). They are all part of another Google+ feature called 'My Circles'.
Businesses have already embraced Hangouts, as a video conferencing tool. Dell, the US technology giant, uses Hangouts for communicating with its customers both as part of its customer support services and as a marketing tool.
Test preparation companies such as Kaplan have also taken an interest in the latest Google+ component. Google Docs can be a useful learning tool as it lets participants exchange notes or access documents, making online tutoring faster and more convenient. Google also continues to woo famous people with its myriad social networking features, enabling artists and celebrities to connect with their audience.
Last September, the Hangouts On-Air feature was first broadcast to the world by will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas. Many other artists have come onboard since.
Hong Kong celebrities Denise Ho and Wong Yuen-man are both on Google+, as are many overseas stars like Lady Gaga, Rihanna and David Beckham.
US President Barack Obama aired a live Hangout on the official White House Google+ page discussing his State of the Union address with citizens. Talk-show host Conan O'Brien set up a live Hangout for a Q&A session where viewers were able to tune in. Even the Dalai Lama joined Hangouts to wish South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu a happy birthday.
Then there are all those self-made internet stars. Robynn Yip and Kendy Suen are two talented YouTube sensations from Hong Kong. They, too, use Hangouts. With their 37,000 subscribers, the two continue to build an avid following, recently streaming their Robynn & Kendy Dream Together Live concert via Google+ Hangouts On-Air, a feature that allows users to broadcast streams worldwide.
'Google Hangouts is a convenient way to have a video conference with our friends and to connect with our fans,' Yip said.
'As musicians, we jam together through Google Hangouts ... We use it to write songs together and rehearse'.
Facebook had better watch out. Google Hangouts clearly means business when it comes to social networking.