Israel’s Rounds isn’t the first video chat to work within Facebook, but the company claims to have the best interactive games and features.

Rounds founders Dany Fishel and Ilan Leobovitch

Dany Fishel and Ilan Leibovitch demonstrate the effects on their video chat program.

Dany Fishel and Ilan Leibovitch didn’t intend to build one of the hottest new video chat applications for Facebook. They were just looking for a way to help Israeli singles find a match online.

Originally a ‘speed dating’ website, the Tel Aviv entrepreneurs called their startup ‘6Rounds,’ the idea being that six women and six men would meet for digital dating ’rounds.’ The daters would have half an hour to chat and then the program would automatically match participants by profiles.

Worried that their daters would become bored during their five-minute sessions of Web time, Fishel (31) and Leibovitch (29) started adding features – an ‘activities’ screen where they could play games like backgammon and chess; the ability to share pictures and video; easy tools to ‘mark up’ pictures with special effects.

Before they knew it, the add-ons were attracting more attention than the dating program itself. In typical Israeli ‘thinking on your feet’ style, the company dropped the dating, re-branded itself as just Rounds, and last month launched a social networking application that allows friends to video chat without leaving Facebook.

Bridging the online and offline worlds

Rounds already had a sizable base for its post-speed dating website. There were 250,000 users who discovered the site when it was one of the first applications to be integrated into the now discontinued Google Wave, the search engine giant’s attempt to build a next generation e-mail and content management service.

But by jumping into Facebook, the pool of potential users includes the entire 500 million strong Facebook ecosystem.
This has not been lost on investors, who have put some $2 million into the company – $1.5 million last August from Israeli Daniel Recanati’s Rhodium Investment Group, and the rest from a group of angel investors including Startup Factory.

Social community marketing manager Natasha Shine tells ISRAEL21c that Rounds aims “to bridge the offline and online worlds” – to take what two people would do if they were physically together and translate that to the Internet where they might be separated by miles or continents.

Shine proffers her relationship with her mother as an example: “She lives abroad. For five years she’s been saying to me ‘you don’t tell me what you’re doing in your life.’ Using Rounds, we could see each other and browse pictures together on Facebook. I can point to a particular shot with my mouse to show her a party that I went to last week.”

Rounds users

Users can play games, share pictures and video, and add animated characters who prance about the screen.

If Shine is so inclined, she can also take a snapshot of herself within the app, and decorate it with a variety of effects. Look Ma, I’m on fire! There are also animated characters – she could choose a cute little bunny – that can prance around the screen.

Focusing on the best interface

Still, Rounds isn’t all fun and games and its investors expect a return on investment. Its business model includes selling “premium” effects and characters. It does this using the popular Facebook currency of ‘coins.’ While some coins will eventually cost, today it’s all free. And if you share your snapshots with the rest of the Rounds community, you automatically receive extra coins, which you can use to buy more effects.

Rounds is counting on third parties to create the effects. In August, the company released a developer API (Application Programming Interface), which allows outside vendors to build add-ons to the Rounds platform. The company clearly has its eye on Apple and its app store; a product with a digital ecosystem generally has a much greater chance of success.

Shine mentions eventual advertising as well. But “we’re very focused on providing the best user interface possible,” she says. “We don’t plan to bombard users with ads. It will be very subtle.” Virtual (paid) gifts will also be available to purchase within the Rounds world.

Rounds comes in two flavors: The newly-released Facebook app, and its web-based parent. The latter is far more functional than Rounds on Facebook – you can watch YouTube videos together, listen to music and browse external photo sharing sites like Flickr. The company is planning to release its own browser so that users will be able to visit websites together.

Integration with Facebook’s text chat?

Up next is expanding to mobile devices such as the iPhone, and Rounds is using its latest investment to that end, and planning to add new features – for example, the ability to chat with up to six people at once. “A US office is also in the long-term pipeline,” Shine reveals.

There may even be a new version of the original online dating service. For now, only two people who are formally friends on Facebook can video chat, but that may open up into what’s known as ‘chat roulette’ where people can talk freely with anyone (with strict user privacy controls in place, of course). Intimations can already be seen. When you post a snapshot to Facebook, all Facebook users – even those you’re not friends with – can see it and contact you.

Rounds isn’t the only video chat program in Facebook; Friendcam is a notable forerunner. And the company has had some preliminary discussion with the social networking giant, although Shine would only disclose that a meeting between Facebook executives and Fishel and Leibovitch had taken place.

Could Rounds’ video chat be integrated more tightly with Facebook’s existing text chat function? We’ll have to wait for the ‘next round’ to find out.