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App developed at MIT, Northeastern looks to connect strangers via video chat

Countless industry conferences have had to go virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic. But this has ruined one of the biggest benefits of real-world conferences — the casual meetings with total strangers that often produce new ideas and business opportunities.

Now, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and Northeastern University think they’ve found a way to generate the same kinds of accidental meetings in the virtual world. They’re testing a new video chat service called Minglr that lets online conference-goers bump into each other virtually.

Minglr was invented for use in online academic gatherings, but lead developer Thomas Malone, professor of management at the Sloan School, thinks it could be a popular tool for corporate conferencing, and even for consumers looking to make new friends. Malone predicts that Minglr, or something like it, could become a standard feature built into video conferencing services like Zoom.

Video chatting with strangers isn’t a new idea. About a decade ago, a Russian teenager invented Chatroulette, a consumer service that automatically hooked people up with each other at random. For a few months, it became an online sensation. But Chatroulette and a number of similar services never gained a mass following, perhaps because users had to scroll through dozens or hundreds of video encounters to find someone interesting. Minglr is designed for groups with shared interests, like attendees at virtual trade shows or delegates at an online political convention.

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Malone, founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, worked with MIT Sloan doctoral student Jaeyoon Song and Chris Riedl, an associate professor at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at NU, to build the Minglr prototype, which has been tested at a couple of academic conferences.

In its present form, the software is bare-bones simple. Users sign up at the Minglr website, list their interests, and declare their willingness to chat with all comers. Visitors to the site see the icons and names of other users, along with a few words describing their primary interests. If a Minglr user sees someone online who sounds interesting, he or she clicks the icon. If the other party is interested, the two enter a one-on-one video meeting room run by Jitsi, a free open-source conferencing service.

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“It was so much better than being in just one giant Zoom meeting,” said Malone, who tried out the system at MIT’s Collective Intelligence 2020 virtual conference in June. “I had all the kinds of conversations you’d have in the lobby of a conference.” A survey of attendees who tested Minglr found that 86 percent liked the system and wanted it made available for future conferences, he said.

Minglr is still pretty primitive. Right now it only supports one-on-one meetings; Malone said an upcoming upgrade will allow for larger get-togethers. Also in the works is a feature to let users home in on strangers who are interested in talking about specific topics. Attendees at a large virtual literary conference, for instance, could agree to meet up with devotees of Jane Austen, while ignoring Maya Angelou fans. And there’s a plan to add a random-matching feature that would connect like-minded people by sheer chance — like striking up a conversation with the first person you bump into at a biotech convention.

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But Malone and his team aren’t interested in turning Minglr into a standalone business. “This is probably closer to a feature than a product,” he said, because it would be easy to add the functionality to conferencing programs that are already used by millions worldwide, such as Zoom, Microsoft Skype, or Google Meet.

“I think that all of the video conference systems should add functionality like this,” Malone said. He and his team plan to publish Minglr as open source software, so that anybody can study it and build their own versions.






Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.