Get live help from experts over Google Helpouts

Photo From Google
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - 11:00am

You're attempting to make meringue and your egg whites are a runny mess. What if you could pick up your phone or computer and instantly video chat with a cooking expert who can take a look at your kitchen disaster and tell you exactly what you're doing wrong?

Google launched a tool called Helpouts on Tuesday in which people can pay to get help from experts over a live video chat similar to Google Hangouts. Anyone who is a teacher or expert on a topic can trade their services for payment, either by the task, by the minute or for a set window of time. Some Helpouts are scheduled and others are available on demand.

To start, Google has more than 1,000 providers signed up to offer things such as music lessons, cooking demonstrations and basic home repair tips. Yoga instructors can give personal lessons and suggest corrections based on what they see over the video. If someone needs help in a program such as Photoshop, they can screen share with an expert who will guide them.

The company's biggest competitor in the video-help category is itself. YouTube, owned by Google, is filled with how-to videos for every imaginable subject. There are eyeliner tutorials, cooking lessons and home improvement instructions. There are videos for tech support, self-improvement, learning new skills and changing a light bulb. How-to videos are the second most popular type of online video content, with 56% of adults online watching the instructional clips, according to a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project survey.

But some problems and lessons need more than a one-sided demonstration. There is a benefit of having a live video feed and back and forth conversation with the person teaching. The experts can spot issues with their own eyes and bring up questions that clients would never have thought to ask.

"Sometimes all you need is facts, and that's fine. Sometimes you need somebody to look over your shoulder, somebody to show you the way," said Udi Manber, Google's vice president of engineering. Manber said Helpouts remove space and time barriers to make getting professional services more efficient and convenient.

Google has been testing the service in its own offices for months with ergonomic consultants, nutritionist and regular Google employees who have mastered tasks such as getting the best travel deals. One remote employee gave a nutritionist a look inside a refrigerator over a Helpout to get personal dietary feedback.

To show how the Helpouts work, Googlers did some live demonstrations in their San Francisco office on Monday.

Osi Imeokparia, director of product management, had a cooking teacher show her how to properly zest a lemon, and a home repair expert talked her through patching a hole in drywall. She held up her phone so the home repair person could see if she had the right tools and point out that her spackle job was a bit lumpy.

Experts are not just individuals. Sephora has free makeup advice from its own staff of experts who will tell you how to put on the perfect red lip. Making its Helpouts free is smart marketing for Sephora, which can suggest its own products during the video sessions. Other companies signed up include Rosetta Stone, Weight Watchers and One Medical.

To start, Google Hangouts has categories for art and music, computer and electronics, cooking, education, fashion and beauty, fitness and nutrition and home and garden. For now, Google is screening people and companies that want to offer their services through Helpouts. Users review will help control the quality of providers.

The category with the most intriguing potential is health services. People can have a counseling session, consult with a dietitian or get advice from a registered lactation support consultant over the video chats. There are partners doing basic triage through registered nurses, and pet care experts available to talk about why Mr. Fluffersons has lost his appetite.

Google Helpouts are HIPPA compliant to address privacy concerns, and Google is checking credentials for any providers in the medical field. There is no framework for getting a Helpout session covered by insurance, but Google thinks the category has potential to become a regular part of modern health care.

Telemedicine is not a new idea. Companies already offer therapy sessions and one-on-one physician appointments over video. It's great for people who are far from proper medical facilities or who are homebound because of illness.

In addition to the website, there is an Helpouts Android app. People must have a Google+ account to sign up. Payment is handled by Google Wallet, and all the prices are set by the experts offing the Helpouts. Kitchit offers a Helpout on how to prepare stuffing for Thanksgiving for $20. Another cooking expert might charge by the minute to help out with emergencies.

People who want to share their expertise for free could also flock to Helpouts, according to Manber, who said it could open up a whole new new way to volunteer. It could also benefit people in remote areas who either want to make money for their skills or learn things not offered near their homes.

"People who live in small towns have to make a choice right now. If they're talented and want to learn some special skills, they have to leave home," said Manber.

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