Yahoo's Livetext May Be More of a Fix for Texting Than Video Chat

Mobile Messaging App Combines Text Messaging and Video Chat Sans Sound

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Yahoo's Livetext combines texting and video chat without the sound.
Yahoo's Livetext combines texting and video chat without the sound.
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Yahoo has a new mobile messaging app that it thinks will fix the biggest problem with video chat. But it might actually address one of the bigger shortcomings with text messaging.

Yahoo thinks it can fix video chat with a simple formula: Take a text-messaging conversation and overlay it atop a live video feed of the two people having the conversation but mute the audio.

Yahoo has created Livetext, a mobile messaging app that overlays a texting conversation atop a live video feed of both parties with the sound turned off. The company unveiled the app during an event in New York City on Wednesday. It has been testing the app in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Ireland and will roll out Livetext to Apple's and Google's mobile app stores on July 30 in the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and France.

"We created a product where we wanted to bridge the gap between the simplicity and ease of texting with the live connection, the synchronous connection of calling, the expressiveness of that," said Adam Cahan, Yahoo's senior VP of video, design and emerging products, at the launch event. He declined to say how Yahoo plans to make money from the app.

When people use Livetext, they'll be able to start a video chat with one other person -- no group chats. But instead of chatting audibly like they would over Apple's FaceTime, Microsoft's Skype or Google's Hangouts, the actual conversation will happen only over text. There's no way to turn on audio, Mr. Cahan said. While the live video feeds are running, people will be able to type text messages to each other that will appear as overlays atop the video.

In the onstage demo, the app seemed to work without any technical delay. So long as people's phone are on a 3G cellular connection or better, the video should stream fine, said Yahoo's Senior Director of Product Management Arjun Sethi.

But there was one noticeable delay that Yahoo probably won't be able to eliminate: the time it takes to type in a text. That could make the app's default silence awkward -- maybe even more awkward than normal video chats can be -- but it could also reinforce how Livetext is different from a normal video chat service.

While there's no limit on how long Livetext conversations can last, the app may be more useful for shorter, more utilitarian conversations when a text message would suffice but live video could add necessary context. For example an older guy could have a problem doing something on his computer and want to ask his daughter for help but she's in a meeting on the other side of the country. He could try to describe the problem over text. Or he could use Livetext to show her what he's trying to do, and she could respond over text without audibly interrupting her meeting.

Mr. Cahan said one of the biggest obstacles people face in using video chat services is the sound because it makes conversations more public than the parties involved may want them to be. That can limit the situations in which people are comfortable video-chatting with one another. Livetext looks to sidestep that obstacle. People are already constantly staring at and typing into their phones in silence, and Livetext is banking on that behavior to make its video-text chats inconspicuous -= at least until someone nearby glances at the phone's screen.

Like Snapchat, the app is ephemeral in that conversations are erased once they end. "No archiving, no saving," Mr. Cahan said. Also like Snapchat and other messaging apps, people will be able to find friends by cross-referencing their phones' address books or searching for specific individuals. However, both parties need to agree to a friend request before a connection is made between users in the app.

The app stems from Yahoo's October 2014 acquisition of mobile messaging app MessageMe, though the app was built entirely from scratch at Yahoo, said Mr. Sethi, who cofounded MessageMe.