Facebook launches a Zoom rival with immersive video backgrounds
Video conferencing calls have quickly become a mainstay of socializing in 2020, and now Facebook is throwing its sizeable hat in the ring with a new service called Messenger Rooms. It carries a lot of the same functionality as Zoom and other video conferencing software, but with the promise of immersive 360-degree backgrounds featuring iconic places from around the world.
Facebook announced Messenger Rooms over the weekend and, in essence, the tool is designed to make it easier to hop onto a video call with friends or family than the current feature built into Facebook Messenger allows for.
Rooms can be created in the Messenger app or Facebook itself and anyone can be invited to join regardless of whether they have a Facebook account or not. These rooms will soon accommodate up to 50 people and can be accessed from a phone or computer without the need for additional software, with those that are open to you to be visible from the News Feed, Groups or Events menus.
The idea here, which might sound like a wonderful convenience or absolute nightmare depending on your sentiment toward video chatting, is that friends and family can simply drop into a room and leave again as they see fit. No “need to call someone and hope it’s a good time or check everyone’s calendar first,” as Facebook puts it.
Rooms can be locked by the owner so not just anyone can enter, which is a key feature of video chat mobile app Houseparty, which has also shot to fame in the COVID-19 era. The room creator can also remove guests at any time.
On the lighter side of things, some of the AR features of Messenger will be available in Rooms. These include things like adding bunny ears or appearing as an alien onscreen. Facebook also plans to introduce immersive 360-degree backgrounds featuring iconic places, along with AR effects for birthdays or “stay-at-home camping” with friends.
Facebook goes to some lengths to explain its approach to privacy with Messenger Rooms, noting that it doesn’t view or listen to the calls. However, data, such as device and browser type, will be collected and shared with third parties for the purposes of improving the service, but not to inform ads (Messenger Rooms won’t feature ads).
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its track record, Messenger Rooms has raised concerns among cybersecurity experts, namely because of these data-sharing agreements, which is precisely where it has run into trouble in the past. There is also the issue of end-to-end encryption, or lack thereof. Facebook says there are significant challenges with this technology for video calls with large groups of people, though it is “actively working toward" it for both Rooms and Messenger itself.
In any case, Messenger Rooms is available in selected countries this week and will expand globally in the weeks to come. The company also plans to add a similar feature for other Facebook-owned entities Instagram, WhatsApp and Portal.