Are Google+ Hangouts the Next Hackerspaces?


On June 28th, 2011 Google released the Google+ social network (“Real-life sharing rethought for the web”) via invite-only and limited field testing. At this time it’s still not 100% open for anyone to join, as they test their new service, but more and more people are joining, many of them makers, hackers, engineers, and electronic hobbyists. On July 14th, 2011, Google announced it reached 10 million users in its first two weeks (as of 7/19/2011 they’re up to about 20M).

The service seems to be a current geek favorite because of the emphasis on privacy and control features, and it’s generally considered that it will become an alternative to Facebook. I’ve called Facebook the “RealPlayer” of social networks for taking too much for too long. It will be interesting to see what Google does if their social network becomes as popular.

For makers, something interesting started to happen almost immediately with the video collaboration feature. The video chat within Google+ is called “Hangouts” and you can have up to 10 people interact via video, text chat, YouTube, and screen images. Within the first week, makers started to experiment with Google+ Hangout video, and I immediately helped arrange the first “DIY electronics show-and-tell.” It was like a mini Maker Faire, Instructables front page, and hackerspace all rolled into one.

As I spoke to more makers, it started to become clear that Google+ Hangouts might just be the “next hackerspace,” not in meat space, but in the online world where skill sharing, project sharing, and collaboration can finally happen (more easily). There were and are other ways to do this, but Google+ Hangouts seem to be the shiny new toy at the moment.

And that’s what this week’s column is about: this new tool from Google and how makers, hackers, and innovators might end up using it. These are my notes from the first week in. I’ve also included a short how-to for streaming a 10-person Google+ Hangout to Ustream (a feature that is not available at this time). This allows 10 people to show their projects and for thousands of people to watch as audience members. I’m also going to share some thoughts and tips on how to get the best out of a Google+ Hangout video with makers, using an agenda-driven approach to keep things moving along. Let’s hangout!

Makers Seem to Like Google+ More Than Facebook

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First up, I’m not sure why, but makers didn’t really flock to Facebook in the same way as they’re adopting Google+. I really think it goes back to the maker mindset of being able to inspect, control, and understand how something works. With Facebook, it was a constantly changing contraption that seemed to always be out to get you. At least in its current form, Google+ is trying hard not to come across that way — for now, Google+ isn’t spam and games.

How It Works

In Google+ you manage contacts by putting them in circles. One of the first circles I made was “open source hardware.” It was all the people I could find on Google+ who make and release open source hardware. These are the folks I like to tune into.

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When I visit my Google+ page, I use that stream to see what folks are making and sharing.

First Experiment Trying a Show-and-Tell

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I’ve been running “Ask an Engineer” with Limor “ladyada” Fried since 2009 or so. One of the challenges is trying to video conference in guests. I’ve tried with Skype and a few other services, but none of them worked that well. As I started to experiment with Google+ Hangouts, the video feature “just worked:” a plugin was installed and I had up to 10 people chatting at once.

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As people came in to the Hangout and spoke, their window became the largest one, their name was on the browser title bar, and I was able to adjust the volume if needed. At this time there are not tools like you’d find on a text/IRC chat “kick/ban,” but that makes sense because you’re likely going to use this most often with Circles you made and trust.

My first attempt was an open-ended chat, just show up and talk. That didn’t work so well, and since everyone was kinda shy, I needed to prod folks to talk. So a week later I came up with an agenda: show-and-tell.

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If you visited the Google+ Hangout, you were asked to be prepared to show a project. This worked out great. I think the right amount of time is 10 or so people for about 30 minutes —- after that it gets hard on the host and the other 9 or so participants. Something worth mentioning is that when folks were done showing their projects, they didn’t want to leave —- there were more cool projects to see! So the idea of cycling out folks once they were done didn’t work out.

Consider these as my own notes that I’m sharing with you as you experiment.

Google also has a good page on how the Hangout invitations work.

Visibility of your Hangout

  • There are a few different ways people can discover that you’re hanging out:
  • If you invite people to join a Hangout, a post will appear in their stream telling them that there’s a Hangout going on, along with all the people in that Hangout currently.
  • If 25 or fewer people are invited, they’ll receive a notification that they’ve been invited to join a Hangout.
  • If you invite individuals that are signed in to chat, they’ll receive an IM with a link to join.
  • If someone invited to a Hangout tries to start their own, they’ll be told that there’s a Hangout already going on and they may want to join that one instead.
  • Since the Hangout you’re in is visible by the circles of the other participants, people you don’t know may learn that you’re hanging out.

One of the biggest requests was “can you stream or record” the show-and-tell. The recording worked out fine —- any screen capture software works (I used Snapz Pro on a Mac), but for streaming it was a little trickier. I think I’ve figured out a way, and I’ll get to that at the end of this article.

Hackerspaces, Communities, and Customer Service

In a previous Soapbox I talked about re-tooling our public libraries and moving them more towards a TechShop/hackerspace model for some type of information sharing and forward-looking skill building for the next generation of artists, designers, scientists, and engineers. What’s a hackerspace?

Image: “DIY Freaks Flock to ‘Hacker Spaces’ Worldwide,”

A hackerspace is usually a membership-based location featuring workshops, tools, and people who generally like to make things.

A hackerspace or hackspace (also referred to as a hacklab, makerspace or creative space) is a location where people with common interests, usually in computers, technology, science or digital or electronic art can meet, socialize and/or collaborate. A hackerspace can be viewed as an open community labs incorporating elements of machine shops, workshops and/or studios where hackers can come together to share resources and knowledge to build and make things. Many hackerspaces participate in the use and development of free software and alternative media and can be found in infoshops or social centers.

There are hundreds of hackerspaces that have appeared, almost overnight, around the world. From my recollection over the last decade, the ones in Europe were really appealing, many makers were traveling around the world (Mitch Altman, for example), and eventually word spread. Now, just about every state in the USA has one, and most large cities have hackerspaces.

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Workshops and a Dorkbot-style “show-and-tell” are using the centers of a lot of weekly activity at many hackerspaces. As I experimented, a few different hackerspaces said they were already experimenting with Google+ Hangout to share their projects with members who couldn’t make it to the physical space, and with other hackerspaces.

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There seems to be an almost generic desire to share projects and skills if you’re a hackerspace member. And while free-form chat is usually filled with dead air, waiting your turn to talk, and some general geek-awkwardness, showing something you made does not: what it is, why you made it, what it does, and the parts you used.

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Hack-a-Day (a site I started almost a decade ago) has already started making plans for doing a Hack-a-Day Google+ Hangout — people can immediately imagine what they’d like to share and show. One of the commenters in the Google+ Hangout said, “This is like being inside a video version of Hack-a-Day” while they were in the chat.

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Even Dell is jumping in and considering doing customer service via Google+ Hangouts. We’ve all been promised “video phones” for decades, but Google+ Hangouts seems to be capturing the imagination of many.

Perhaps it’s because identity is part of it —- you somewhat need to be a real person with circles of friends —- and since Google knows everything about you, maybe there’s less of a chance of Google+ Hangouts turning into Chatroulette.

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There are some timing issues to work out, of course. While Google doesn’t have lists of the upcoming Hangouts or integrated calendar services, etc., some have already made a site where you can publish your Google+ Hangout.

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I’m sure a hackerspace-specific list will appear here shortly.

What’s Next?

As Google+ evolves and allows brands and non-people entities to create profiles and Hangouts easily, I suspect hackerspaces will end up having shared accounts. I think this is when we’ll see a nationwide event listing specifically for show-and-tells.

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You can imagine sites like MAKE, Hack-a-Day, Instructables, and hundreds of hackerspaces using this service to show and share projects, as well as teach small workshops.

We’ll see expert-led panels, and we’ll see creative hackerspaces use Hangouts for fundraising and extending their workshop reach. We’ll see hackerspaces coordinate skill sharing and working on projects together. It’s not because video conferencing is new, but Google+ Hangout (in my opinion) is something actually new for many people, and makers in particular are good at taking tools and services beyond their initial design.

And that’s the next and final part of my article: everyone wanted to stream the show-and-tells outside of the 10 people presenting. I’m sure there are better ways of doing this, but here’s what I did.

Streaming a Google+ Hangout to Ustream

Just to recap, this is a really fast how-to. Over the weekend I helped organize the first “show-and-tell” of electronics projects over Google+ Hangout video, about 1 hour before “Ask an Engineer” (overview here). Since there is a limit of 10 people who can participate and not an audience-only option “stream” at this time, I spent some time on Sunday trying to see if there was a somewhat easy way to do a Google+ Hangout with 10 people and stream that Google+ Hangout to Ustream at the same time. I’m sure eventually Google will have a “stream to YouTube live” audience option, but for now, I was able to do a successful test by doing the following:

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In Google+ start a Hangout, and add the Circles of people or public to allow folks to join your Hangout. Make sure to get this going and let Google+ Hangout get access to your camera first.

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Next up, I used Ustream Producer Pro. It’s $199 but since the live engineering chat I do with Adafruit needs the pro version for all the features, $199 is a good deal for what it does. The pro version has “Launch Desktop Presenter” that can capture and send any window/screen stuff to the live stream. I think Make: Live uses WireCast, and it’s the same thing. When I started up a Google+ Hangout, I then opened the Ustream app (Mac), and it ignored the camera since it was in use, and I chose the Google+ Hangout window when I chose the desktop presenter.

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If and where there is an open source alternative or anything else, I’ll try that. If you have a testable better idea, post in the comments.

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Anyway, it worked, but even on my business-class Time Warner connection and speedy Macbook Pro, stuff wasn’t as fast as usual. During one of the tests, Ustream stopped streaming, and another time Google+ Hangout stopped hanging out. But for the most part, it worked. We’ll see how it goes next week when I try this for real :)

I know there are folks out there experimenting too, so again, if you have a better way of doing this, please post up in the comments. Since Google is likely watching all of this to figure out new features, a “view-only” option was brought up a lot so it could be watched. And for the Ustream developers, a Ustream Producer Pro with 10-person Google+ Hangout integration as a video source would be handy. It works with Desktop Presenter, but that’s not the best way to do this.

I think eventually Google will likely have a “stream live to YouTube” option since they’re testing that now. And they’ll probably have a way to record the Hangouts (or someone else will). There isn’t an API for Google+ yet, but it seems to be in the works.

New Tools are Fun!

Anyway, this is one of those speculative articles, as always. Will this tool end up being something we see and hear a lot of in the maker world? I think so, but only time will tell. For now, I’m meeting more makers than ever, sharing more projects, and seeing many people who I’ve never met in person. Out of all the things technology can do for us, connecting with others and sharing what we make is one of the most important, if not the most important use of any new service I can thing of.