Google just wants to help out. Right?
The company is launching Helpouts, a live video-chat network of more than 1,000 experts on subjects like technology, fitness, beauty, nutrition, home repair and maintenance, music, cooking and more. These experts—selected through a screening process—set their own prices, and provide users with individualized advice and assistance. Google calls it "real help from real people in real time." (This is different, by the way, from Google Hangouts, which also involve video chatting, though I've never met anyone the least bit helpful there.)
Unlike myriad pre-recorded how-to videos and tutorials on Google's YouTube and elsewhere, Helpouts facilitate truly interactive learning, with students asking questions and instructors instantly evaluating their progress and demonstrating proper techniques. ("This is how to play a G chord … see which strings my fingers are on?" Etc.) Screen-sharing is available for those needing help with Photoshop, Word and other software programs. Several notable companies have signed up to host Helpouts, some offering advice for free. These include Rosetta Stone, Weight Watchers and One Medical. Google says medical Helpouts are compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to ensure privacy, and that experts in health and wellness will be thoroughly vetted.
On the one hand, of course, the service provides a way for Google to make itself even more ubiquitous. Beyond spending time with the Helpouts site and Android app, you'll need a Google+ account to sign up, and you pay through Google Wallet. Do we really want to let Big G broker every single bit of information on the face of the Earth? Personally, I don't—and yet, the interpersonal nature of Helpouts, the one-to-one connection, makes it seem less calculated and Big Brotherly than most of the company's recent machinations.
In fact, there appears to be a corporate trend toward adding soul to the machines and humanizing, to some extent, our digitally driven lives. Nods in this direction include the Mayday video-chat feature on Amazon's new Kindles, and Skype's emotional attempt to promote its service based on forging human connections.
Hey, these Helpout peeps are peeps, right? They're not really sinister super-sophisticated bio-replicant programs capable of interacting just like flesh-and-blood humans, are they? That would actually be kind of cool, but also terrifying. Helpout? More like … help, get me outta here!