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Rabbit aims to lift the limits on video chat, Mac beta coming next year

Considering how long it took for the videophone to truly reach the mass market -- the first public video telephony service was launched in Germany more than 75 years ago -- it's pretty remarkable how many video chat options we have today. From FaceTime to Microsoft's Skype to Cisco's WebEx, Fuze Meeting to Biscotti to Google Hangouts, there's a video chat approach for every preference and budget.

Adding another video chatting option might seem to be gilding the lily, but the four-person founding team behind the upcoming Rabbit service isn't daunted. These tech execs all come from the gaming world, specifically massively multiplayer online games; CTO Philippe Clavel was the Technical Director at Sony Online, wrangling millions of players at once on the company's back end. With that mindset, they approached the video challenge with the tools of online gaming. "[We saw an] opportunity to do something more compelling around video chat," says Rabbit co-founder and ngmoco veteran Stephanie Morgan. "While video chat tools enable live interaction, they aren't social. Social networks give us new connections, conversations and discoveries, but they're not live," she says.

Rabbit, which is launching a Mac-only private beta early in 2013, plans to take the shared video experience from a one-on-one or few-to-few scenario and scale it up to MMOG levels. The chat landscape will feature unlimited customizable rooms (public or private), and each room is designed to host unlimited numbers of participants. Users can "listen in" on a public room to preview the participants, social interests and ongoing conversation before jumping in. Once inside, the video focus shifts to the current speaker (similar to Hangouts) and the audio profile changes subtly to reflect the "room tone" adjusted to the number of participants.

With hooks to the Facebook social graph, you'll be able to easily spot your friends (or friends-to-be with similar interests) who are active on Rabbit. The platform is designed for persistent, hours-long open rooms, so there's an element of companionship and "drop in" interactivity in play. The top-level room avatars are actually live video themselves, so it's easy to see at a glance if a room is active or not.

When you're hanging out with your friends, you might want to share an activity or some media. Rabbit will make this as easy as a single click; you can include your own screen content and audio, narrowing focus to a particular application or screen region. For content from the wider world, you can simulcast streaming movies, music or video in sync to watch as a group. Rather than muting the participant audio completely while the movie plays, though, the service does smart ducking to allow you to keep chatting (politely and discreetly) during your flick.

Of course, the coolest video chat application on the planet doesn't do much if nobody's there to chat with. The Rabbit private beta launch will be Mac-only during the initial phases, but the company fully intends to work toward a ubiquitous client portfolio including Windows, tablets and smartphones. You can follow along with the product's progress via the @LetsRabbit Twitter feed.

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