Facebook Messenger Rooms
Facebook Messenger Rooms Supplied/Facebook

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the resultant social-distancing measures, namely home quarantine and lockdowns, have given rise to a surging demand for video calling and teleconferencing services such as Zoom. Facebook, which kind of started the entire virtual socializing scene a very long time ago, is not one to keep mum.

Amid the growing the popularity and spike in downloads of Zoom and other videoconferencing services such as Google Hangouts, Houseparty and Skype during the pandemic, Facebook has introduced a new video conferencing feature called Messenger Rooms to capitalize on the growing trend and to take on the competition, especially Zoom.

Facebook's launches new videoconferencing tool

The new video call feature was announced by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who delivered a livestream on Friday, April 24 from home quarantine, where he also announced some of the company's retooled video products, and livestreaming services which prioritize the potential of users to connect while locked inside their homes. Perhaps the best announcement of them all was Messenger Rooms.

"We're rolling out a new product called Messenger Rooms, the first video chat designed with social interactions in mind," said Zuckerberg in the Facebook Live broadcast

It's all in the name

As the name would suggest, Facebook's Messenger Rooms will allow people to create virtual rooms right from Messenger or Facebook for now, and invite anyone to join the video call, even if they don't have a Facebook account.

Like Zoom, which allows up to 100 people to join a video call or meeting from the comfort of their homes, Facebook's Messenger Rooms will ultimately allow group video calls with up to 50 participants and the best part is that the participants can linger on as long as they wish since it doesn't come with any time limit.

More serendipitous and spontaneous than Zoom

Messenger Rooms will display a tiled layout of participants videos, similar to the tiled design offered by Zoom and will, for the time being, show up to 16 tiles on desktop and eight on mobile, although the limit will be increased to 50 at a later time.

However, unlike the more business-centric video conferencing platform like Zoom, Facebook's offering is more tailored for socializing and video chatting with friends and family.

"Messenger Rooms make it easy to spend quality time with friends, loved ones and people who share your interests. Host celebrations, gather a book club or just hang out on the couch with friends," Facebook said in a press release.

Entry by permission only

The room's creator or host can decide whether it is open to all or lock it to prevent uninvited guests from joining, or can theoretically just leave a Messenger Room open at all times and allow people to come and go as they wish.

"When you create a room, you choose who can see and join it. You can remove people from the call and lock a room if you don't want anyone else to enter," Facebook said.

"You don't need to call someone and hope it's a good time or check everyone's calendar first. You can start and share rooms on Facebook through News Feed, Groups, and Events, so it's easy for people to drop by. Soon we'll add ways to create rooms from Instagram Direct, WhatsApp and Portal, too," the press release reads.

No Facebook account or app download required

Even those who do not have a Facebook account would be able to join Messenger Rooms using a link on their desktop or mobile without needing to download any app or software. However, the links can only be shared by existing Facebook users who can share the links via a web browser on both desktop and mobile. This is similar to Skype's recently launched Meet Now feature which doesn't require you to have an existing Skype account or to download any app.

Wider support in the future

For now, users will only be able to start a Messenger Room from their Messenger app and Facebook regardless of whether they have a Facebook account, but Facebook has said that it will soon allow the users of its other apps such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Portal to create and join these rooms as well.

AR Filters and 360-degree backgrounds

While in a room, users can play with Facebook's augmented reality filters or swap out backgrounds for a virtual background just like in Zoom. Some of the backgrounds offer 360-degree views of exotic locales, and there are also some AI-powered filters that will brighten up dark rooms or users' faces.

"If you have the Messenger app, you can play with AR effects like bunny ears, and new AI-powered features like immersive 360 backgrounds and mood lighting," Facebook said in a statement.

No end-to-end encryption

Calls on Messenger Rooms are not end-to-end encrypted, which means that users won't be able to enjoy the extra layer of security that WhatsApp video calls, for example, offer. However, Facebook reassured that it does not view or listen to uses calls.

Also, the creator or host of a room has the liberty to remove participants and even rooms at any time, and can report an illicit behavior to Facebook.

No Zoombombing-like activities

Ever since Zoom became popular, it saw a surge in malicious behaviour on the meeting app with pornographic images being displayed by hackers who hijack a Zoom meeting, a punishable offence called Zoombombing.

Zuckerberg has reassured that Messenger Rooms are designed with strong privacy controls and the fact that the feature relies on connections with your family and friends, unlike Zoom which is mostly used by businesses and schools, makes it less likely that it will be used to harass people.

He also suggested that for groups where people don't known each other, there will be moderators who will kick the harassers out of the rooms.

Global rollout soon

Messenger Rooms is being rolled out in the US later this week and will start rolling out globally very soon.

Video-conferencing tools continue to grow

Despite being marred by privacy and security issues, Zoom recently surpassed 300 million daily users globally, a 50 percent jump over the 200 million users it had last month. Even more significant is a jump from the 10 million at the end of 2019, when the coronavirus pandemic was just starting. Likewise, another video chatting tool Houseparty has 50 million users on board in the last couple of months.

Facebook's other announcements

Facebook also announced a bunch of other live video and video calling features across its family of apps.

The company said that it will soon expand group video calling within WhatsApp to allow people to have group video as well as voice calls with up to eight people.

Facebook Live will bring back a feature called 'Live With' that allows users to invite another person to livestream with them. Also, Facebook Events could soon be marked as Online only and users will have the option to integrate Facebook Live.

The company said it plans to add the ability for Pages to charge for access to events with Live videos on Facebook, giving creators and businesses the option to deliver content ranging from online performances to professional conference.

It also announced that a donate button will become available on live streams which would allow users to raise money through their Live broadcasts in countries where fundraisers are available.

Facebook is also working on making it easier for people with a bad internet connection to be able to access live videos by allowing them to just listen to the audio by using the "audio-only" option.

Instagram will start allowing users to post live streams to IGTV as well as to Instagram Stories after they finish a stream. It also announced that Instagram Live broadcasts can be accessed on desktop for the first time.