Video Chatting and Watching Gets a Social Makeover from Rabbit

Xconomy New York — 

Catching a video online is usually a solitary affair. One startup is hoping to turn that into a shared experience.

The company, Redwood City, CA-based Rabbit, lets visitors to its website create video chat sessions with up to 10 friends or coworkers, where they can watch online media or collaborate on documents together.

That can include YouTube videos and streaming news, articles and Google Docs, or spreadsheets and presentations, says CEO Michael Temkin. The content takes center stage while video chat participants see each other along the bottom of the browser window.

“It’s like sitting around the living room on the couch with a group of friends watching TV together,” he says.

Rabbit, founded in 2011, previously released a version of its service as desktop software for the Mac. It only collected about 20,000 users, Temkin says, which taught the company that installing separate software created too much friction for users.

That version of Rabbit will be retired, Temkin says, as the company puts its focus on the browser-based edition, which was released last week.

Switching to an entirely Web-based service also meant eliminating certain features. For instance, users of the Mac client could stream content from their desktops to others. That is not possible without a plug-in or a download, so the current version of Rabbit dropped that option in favor of Web-based content only. If someone wants to share a document while using Rabbit, Temkin says it can be done through Dropbox or Google Docs.

Without Rabbit, he says trying to watch the same movie online with friends is tedious process. People might use Skype to communicate with other, and then try to coordinate starting the video together. “What people are really trying to do is find a way to feel they’re in the same location as the person they’re talking to,” he says.

Rabbit can also be added to outside websites with a line of JavaScript, Temkin says. He adds that Rabbit is in talks with a content provider to embed Rabbit chat on its site, and hopes to work with other media sources, but it is too early to name names. “We’re going to make it easy for anyone to add this,” he says.

Letting people jointly watch video online might raise some questions about breaching terms of service, but Temkin says people must still login with respective third-party media sources. “We don’t provide a way for people to get around the rules that are put in place by content providers,” he says. “It’s not like you can take your Netflix login and watch that with 1,000 people.”

Rabbit also wants to bring its service to smartphones, despite their limited screen sizes. That may call for changes and tweaks, such as users on smartphones only watching the content but not necessarily seeing the other participants. “It’s a design challenge,” Temkin says. “It took us about six months to move to the Web once we decided that was the direction we wanted to go in.”

Temkin joined Rabbit as CEO late last year. Co-founder Greg Fischbach, who was CEO of now-defunct video game publisher Acclaim Entertainment, became executive chairman. Webutante Ball founder Richard Blakeley heads up business development in New York for Rabbit.

Temkin previously worked with Rabbit’s co-founder and CTO, Philippe Clavel, when both were at Hands-On Mobile, and got his start in Silicon Valley with Excite. “We built some of the first mobile Web experiences back in the days when (mobile) phones were bricks and the screens were nine lines of grayscale text,” he says.

Earlier, Temkin was on the path to a doctorate in particle physics, but dropped out to join a rock band. He later turned to entrepreneurship and founded an online education company, Augniscient, that had a machine learning platform for adaptive tutoring. “The technology was acquired by Rabbit and it’s going to be part of our future strategy,” Temkin says. There is a discovery element to Rabbit, he says, that has not been shown off yet. It lets people see what content is trending online.

So far, Rabbit has $3.3 million in funding from Google Ventures, CrunchFund, Michael Birch, and other individuals. Rabbit has been reluctant to use ads to generate revenue, Temkin says. He sees an ad revenue sharing arrangement with media providers who put the service on their sites as another option. “A faster way to build a revenue stream is through embedding Rabbit chat,” he says.