Facebook is introducing new Messenger Rooms which can host groups of people on video – including those who do not have an account.
The social network is rolling out the new service from today, alongside a host of expanded live video-focused features across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, in an apparent attempt to take on the sudden popularity of Zoom.
Though the person setting up the chat will require a Facebook account, others without one can be invited along, participating on mobile or desktop.
Messenger Rooms will soon hold up to 50 people with no time limit, as well as privacy and safety “top of mind”, the company said.
“We don’t view or listen to your calls, and the person who creates the room controls who can join, who sees the room, and if the room is locked or unlocked to new guests,” explained Stan Chudnovsky, Facebook’s vice president of Messenger.
“The room creator must be present in order for the call to begin, and the creator can remove guests at any time.”
The service will also play host to AI-powered immersive 360-degree backgrounds, such as the beach and a luxury apartment on the water.
Users can start and share rooms on Facebook through News Feed, groups and events, while plans are under way to allow rooms to be created from Instagram Direct, WhatsApp, as well as Facebook’s video chat device Portal.
It comes amid a surge in people turning to video chat technology as a means of staying in touch during lockdown, with Facebook reporting demand for video calling on Messenger and WhatsApp more than doubling in areas most affected by coronavirus.
WhatsApp Group Calls will now be able to host a maximum of eight people instead of four.
Views of Facebook Live and Instagram Live videos also increased significantly in March, both of which will receive updates of their own.
Facebook’s Live With video feature is making a return, allowing people streaming a live video to invite another person to participate alongside them.
Zoom emerged as one of the more popular platforms in recent months, though it has been marred by security issues which the company has addressed with an update to the software.
Among the problems has been “Zoombombing”, in which a stranger accesses a meeting uninvited and displays offensive material – in some cases child abuse footage, which the National Crime Agency (NCA) says it is investigating.
The NSPCC expressed concern about Facebook’s new offering, saying it should “not rush into this without guaranteeing the safety of children”.
Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said: “Our research shows one in 10 children who have video chatted have been asked to remove clothes, so if Facebook are serious about safety being ‘top of the mind’, they must immediately set out how they intend to respond to the very real risk of sexual abuse.
“Facebook should not rush into this without guaranteeing the safety of children, as services like this can be a gift for offenders if they do not come with the safety features required to identify and disrupt grooming.
“It’s also unclear how safety measures would be maintained if Facebook goes ahead with planned encryption of its platforms that would blindfold itself from combating child sexual abuse.”