Facebook to get voice chat: heaven help us!

Need another reason to spend more time on Facebook? If so, you'll soon be able to engage in voice conversations with your Facebook friends, talk trash with gaming opponents, or even chat with customer service reps on the popular social networking site.

Need another reason to spend more time on Facebook? If so, you'll soon be able to engage in voice conversations with your Facebook friends, talk trash with gaming opponents, or even chat with customer service reps on the popular social networking site.

Vivox, a Boston-based software developer of voice chat for games and virtual worlds like Second Life, is beta-testing a plug-in that lets users add a "voice channel" to their Facebook page. "It's a simple browser plug-in. You can invite as many friends as you want to the channel," says company spokeswoman Karen Blondell.

The free plug-in should be available in about 3 to 4 weeks, although the current beta test is closed to the general public, the company says.

This isn't a no-frills, one-to-one chat app either. "As big as your group is, you can hold conference calls, podcasts. You can have two people in a channel, or several," says Blondell.

Users will also be able to talk with people who don't use Facebook. Vivox will provide a phone number for non-users to call in and join the conversation. It's unclear at this time, however, if Vivox will charge for this dial-in feature.

The plug-in should prove popular to third-party Facebook application developers. Example: games with an integrated voice component would be a natural fit for the Vivox app. And retailers who've set up shop on Facebook could use the plug-in to chat with customers.

In many ways, the Vivox app sounds a lot like Web conferencing software such as WebEx and GoToMeeting, albeit on a much simpler scale. For instance, Facebook users will be able to hold broadcast-style conferences in which they speak to large groups. The Vivox app will include a mute switch to prevent the audience from disrupting the speaker's presentation.

The plug-in is for audio chat only, not video. While video could be added further down the line, "it's not the focus right now," Blondell says.

But if you plan to use the Vivox plug-in, be careful. Recent studies show that extensive use of Facebook cuts productivity at work and can send your relationships south. Facebook users may soon learn whether silence truly is golden.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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