This week, Google quietly rolled out a new facet of it’s video conferencing service Hangouts. The new service, known as Helpouts, is a real-time video learning service which allows users to gain access to live video help from “experts” in a wide array of subject areas. While the Helpouts service is currently in a limited beta release, the service will roll out a general availability soon. Helpouts not only allows users to connect to experts in an area that they are interested in or need assistance with, but also allows users to become educational vendors, turning their dormant skills into a free or paid teaching session in a matter of moments.
“Real help from real people in real time,” the Helpouts website tagline reads. Built around Google’s Hangouts service, Helpouts will allow potential students or troubleshooters to browse for experts in any given area of interest – car repair, for example, or computer programming – and connect to a live video chat with an expert in that area. Each expert can choose to either provide their services free of charge, or set an hourly wage for their time.
This means, of course, that not all of the help that you’ll find on Helpouts will be coming free of charge. While the idea of democratizing self-education and DIY projects is by no means new, Google’s solution does bring some new elements to the table. Yahoo’s Answers and Amazon’s Askville, both long-time favorite services for crowdsourcing solutions to user questions and queries, are built around a spirit of generosity that is effective and helpful at best, and frustrating and difficult at worst. When users provide free assistance online, there isn’t an inherent expectation that the user offering help provide an accurate solution. It is free, after all.
Helpouts aims to solve the quality control issues that plague both Yahoo and Amazon’s offerings by allowing expert users to actually make money for their skills – a major component that has been missing from other services. In addition, the use of video conferencing technology to connect users allows for a more robust system of receiving help. Real-time interaction with another user, for example, allows users to actively work on their problems while connected with a given expert, and opens multiple other channels of communication that might be necessary for receiving useful assistance.
The real-time component of Helpouts reall harps on a major problem that other DIY help services have had. Text-based assistance services (like Answers or Askville) oftentimes require users to already possess a working knowledge of a subject. When working with DIY car repair, for example, it is very difficult to provide help to a user who doesn’t know where their rear differential is located. By utilizing the Hangouts platform – which is already available on desktop and mobile hardware and allows for screen-sharing, multi-user video chat, and other features – this means that users can receive help when they are actively working on a problem in the exactly location of the problem itself. Expert users will also be able to see the problem a user is having as opposed to the user’s written description of the problem itself. A user can show the expert exactly what part on their car, for example, is clicking, squealing or thunking, and that user can verify whether it is, in fact, a click, squeal, or a thunk. A video feed to the expert allows for an objective view on the problem, so that both users can see the problem the same way, which has been one of the biggest bulwarks to any kind of long-distance support out there. To put it more simply: video doesn’t lie – but sometimes words do. And that’s where Hangouts has a big chance to succeed.
That flexibility of the video chat platform doesn’t only provide an objective view on the problem, but also opens the possibility for real-time assistance, which vastly expands the type of services that experts can provide. Until now, DIY help from Answers or Askville has primarily been left to skills, trades, or trivia – pieces of information that are particularly well-suited to a text-based service. Computer programming, for example, is a skill that is done almost entirely in text, and the service Stack Overflow has been massively popular because programming is a topic well-suited to text-based support. Helpouts, on the other hand, opens up possibilities for receiving help with non-text skills and more. As evidenced by the Helpouts landing page, Google intends for the service to be used for more than conventional support and help, but also for skills or activities that require a kind of teaching or coaching, such as a personal trainer who can help and motivate you as you do home exercise, or real-time music lessons to help people learn to play piano or guitar. These kinds of help were largely off-limits to most users online up to this point. Of course, there have been individual vendors who offer these kinds of services over third-party video services like Skype (see Jeffrey Thomas’ Skype guitar and bass lessons, for example), but Google’s platform should provide a unified service for all of these individual vendors to work within, allowing users to easily track down help on a variety of subjects within a single ecosystem.
The new service also represents something interesting in Google’s strategy with it’s Google+ ecosystem. While Skype retains the lion’s share of personal video calls, Google seems to be catering to more particular niche audiences. News organizations have largely adopted Hangouts as a platform for doing live Q&A, round-table discussions, and other video services due to the more robust multi-user support that Google has built into the service. Last year the Whitehouse even utilized Google+ to allow the President to field questions from everyday citizens. So it would seem that Google’s approach with Hangouts (and now Helpouts) is to integrate video calling into other facets of our lives. Rather than tackling Skype head-on, trying to steal away it’s hefty share of person calling revenues, Google is choosing to gain traction by expanding into other areas where video calling can improve an existing service.
Helpouts could, however, run into some issues. Much like Yahoo Answers has garnered a bad reputation for the amount of bad or incorrect information that it dispenses, if Google doesn’t play “gatekeeper” on the content that users are providing, Helpouts could turn into a wasteland of people masquerading as experts or promulgating false information. Presumably Google’s the service will have a rating system baked-in, allowing users to positively or negatively respond to the help that they’ve received from other users. This will allow users to get some background information on any given expert before they connect or agree to pay a user for their time. Nonetheless, with Helpouts Google is walking a fine line between providing a valuable service to the DIY learners of the world and another half-rate help site.
Google Helpouts: https://helpouts.google.com/welcome