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Smiletime Tries Reinventing Web Video, Using Some Familiar Ideas

The Web lets you do a lot more than just watch video.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Everyone knows the future of TV is video delivered over the Web. But should the TV of the future look like the TV we’re watching today?

No way, says Alex Kruglov. Or at least, not all of it. He thinks some of it should look something like this:

That’s a demo of Smiletime, Kruglov’s new company, which says it is making a “social, multi-camera, interactive, live experience”. (S-M-I-L-E. Get it?) Kruglov wants entertainment companies to use his technology to produce “Smilecasts,” which allow multiple people to appear and interact on screen, and give many more people a chance to participate in the conversation via live polls and messaging.

Kruglov is the former head of content acquisition at Hulu who left late last year. His team includes people who know lots about videogames and multimedia stuff; the backers in his seed round include Miramar Digital Ventures, Machinima founder Allen DeBevoise and game designer Cliff Bleszinski.

“We’re really thinking of Smilecasts as a place for broadcasters to innovate, and for viewers to connect,” Kruglov said.

Wait a minute. Doesn’t this look a lot like something we already know about? Google Hangouts, for instance, have been around since 2013.

It sure looks familiar to me, but when I bring it up to Kruglov he sounds surprised, and says he hasn’t gotten that feedback when he’s shown his tech to various entertainment companies. And for the record, he notes that his software offers things that Hangouts don’t provide, like those onscreen polls.

But after we talk for a while, Kruglov allows that it’s okay if people who see Smilecasts for the first time think they’ve seen something like it before. He doesn’t want them to be overwhelmed with a completely new user experience, he says.

And that’s why Kruglov says he has a whole suite of other features he is deliberately holding back a bit, hoping to get more people familiar with what he’s doing before making it more complicated.

It’s this tension — the desire to create a new way to consume information and the fear that people won’t stick around if you create something too new — that makes Smiletime so interesting to me. It reminds me of other attempts I’ve seen at imagining new video consumption behaviors, like Touchcast (interactive videos that respond to your touch) and YouNow (a mashup of Gchat, YouTube and American Idol).

It’s still too early to tell if any of them will work. All of them face long odds.

Then again, as Kruglov and many other people have pointed out, when the TV first showed up, programmers filled it up by filming radio plays, because that’s the only way they knew to make entertainment for a mass audience. Now we have “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones.”

Or think of it this way: A couple of years ago, no one sent each other texts and photos that disappeared from their phones after a few seconds. Now Evan Spiegel is a (theoretical) billionaire.

So someone is going to figure out the best way for us to take advantage of Web TV’s new capabilities, and one day we’re probably going to look back at sites like Hulu as though they were the Texaco Star Theatre. Maybe those someones work at Smiletime.

This article originally appeared on

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