"Chatroulette without the hairy men and their willies!"
That's how Vive was described to me by a friend last week and immediately it caught my interest; because I like the concept of Chatroulette, to video chat with a random selection of people, but I'm not particularly keen on hairy men's willies.
I sat patiently as the app downloaded, wondering how the creators and moderators would make this as free and liberating as a video chat app needs to be while also keeping out the horny exhibitionists. It was evident almost immediately. Vive requires a Facebook account to sign up, it mines your information to build a profile - syncing your pictures, friends, likes and dislikes. The anonymity that appeals to those seeking to thrust their bits at people's computer screens is lost - its you and everybody knows it. You're required to fill in some criteria about yourself, again helping build your profile but also to match you with people who have similar interests (as well as extract a load of useful, sellable data from you, no doubt). It includes the clever and puzzling question 'how would your friend's describe you?' As well as opening a treasure chest of insecurities and self analysis, the questions require a certain amount of thought that filters those looking for a quick fix from those hoping for a genuinely meaningful experience. It's in Vive's interest for their app to be populated by people who will engage in the way they intended and will do so on a regular bases. My 'application' to join is whisked off to some moderators (who have their eyes on everything you do, apparently) and an impressively quick ten minutes later I'm accepted into the Vive community.
It's easy to see how you'd build the tools of instant gratification like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram into your everyday life - but Vive takes a little more commitment. Before you can embark on the thrilling and slightly tense moment of connecting a video call to somebody, you must actively follow each other and strike up a conversation with them in text form. It's a real investment.
The layout on the iPad version is clear, clean and simple. It looks like a Flickr blog with profile pictures headed by a small quote from the user. "I want to find somebody to teach me a language", "Lets chat about movies", "I can show you there's more to Florida than Disney World."
Clicking on the person's picture brings up a Twitter style profile with elements pulled from Facebook such as mutual friends, interests and education. There's an eBay style comments section where you can leave feedback for other people. "What a lovely guy", "We had a great laugh. Good person to talk to", "I was surprised to see there's so much more to Florida than Disney World". It's set up perfectly for exposing people who abuse the system - you have to be nice, fun and interesting or it simply won't work for you - and so much as a flash of ankle and I dread to think what happens.
I select a few interesting looking people to get me on my feet. There's Tanya, a 19 year old from Portland who probably regrets the pictures Vive have pulled from Facebook; there's quite a lot of Miley Cyrus tongue poses. She looks like a fairly prolific user, though, and claims she can help me get to grips with the app. Then there's Martin. He's into football and looks like the lad you dislike least from the rowdy group in the pub - he looks a little out of place amongst the young, stylish tech savvy Vive community and, relating strongly, I pop him a message. And finally Steven. His profile picture shows him leaning from a shabby train window to high-five some African children looking utterly thrilled by his mere presence. He's the kind of guy you really want to be, but you just can't be bothered. He seems exactly the type of user Vive want to attract too, so I'm in. Follow.
The first to respond is Tanya. She accepts my request and follows back. I say a quick hello and attempt a call. A failed effort on my part is followed by a returned call from her. I'm in a bustling cafe Nero and were it not for the man in front, loudly creating some sort of jingle on his Mac, concentrating so hard he's dribbling furiously into his alt key, I wouldn't have had the confidence to take the call. This is perfect, though. She's a reasonably attractive 19 year old girl and if anything says 'I promise I'm not going to get my willy out' its sitting in a cafe on a Thursday afternoon, surrounded by retired people and loud dribbling jingle producers.
The conversation is brief. It's 08:45 in Portland and she's sat in a shopping mall car park waiting for her friend. They're going halloween shopping. She apologises for the mess in her car and I remind her that I'm in a cafe on the other side of the world, it couldn't be any less of a problem for me. I tell her this is my first ever Vive call with an excitement that seems to wash straight over her. She points out that it's "kinda cool" and that she deleted the app for three months but uses it frequently now. She doesn't ask me a single question. Although she doesn't have time before her signal cuts out and the call is dropped. I message her to say I lost the connection and she simply replies with 'what?'. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take from this and I don't suppose she knows either. Are we just killing time with mindless chatter or are we going to have some meaningful communication, the spread of news, ideas and knowledge? I guess that depends on who you speak to and what you give up yourself. The makers intention is obviously for us to be interesting and interested.
It was, however, notably free of hairy men and their willies but it wasn't the thrilling and enlightening experience I'd hoped for. There's always Martin and Steve to come - and he high-fives African kids.