Call fipeo.com a cross between Facebook and Skype, and Tom Houge bristles.

Houge, the site’s founder, said he sees Fipeo as the opposite of Facebook, and the only similarity to Skype is video technology.

Even as he dismisses the comparison, however, Houge, 21, hopes Fipeo takes off like those sites, because that would turn him into the latest social media mogul.

Houge, a 2008 graduate of Cape Elizabeth High School, said the site will be a place for people to talk, face-to-face, to others with similar interests. While Facebook offers a way for people to stay up to date on what’s happening within a circle of friends, largely via text, Houge said Fipeo provides an opportunity for users to get outside their own circle, meet new people with shared interests and do so by actually talking to each other via video links.

The site is in beta testing now, Houge said, but visitors to fipeo.com — the name stands for “find people” and the “eo” evokes “video,” he said — will find an animation offering an explanation of how it will work.

People also can sign up for the waiting list to join the site once it’s fully launched, he said, adding that thousands are already on the list. Those who get others to sign up for the waiting list can gain immediate access as beta users.

Houge noted that Fipeo doesn’t break new ground technologically, but said it uses that technology in a revolutionary way, pointing it toward a different end than many similar sites.

For instance, Facebook and Skype have a partnership, but Hogue noted that most people “converse” on Facebook either by commenting on others’ status updates or through a text-based chat feature.

He said Fipeo’s approach and the idea of actually talking to and seeing other people has gained traction. The animation explaining the site has been viewed in the U.S. and overseas, attracting particular attention in Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy and India.

The waiting list includes not only Americans, but also prospective users in 75 countries.

Fipeo is in the hunt for not only a substantial cash boost, but also a lot of exposure among an influential group with a strong showing in the Intel Innovators competition.

The computer chip maker invited people with fresh technology ideas to submit their proposals in November.

The top 20 ideas are on Intel’s Facebook page (http://apps.facebook.com/intelinnovators/) for people to indicate which ideas they especially like.

Even though Fipeo was posted several weeks after the site went up, it’s currently in fifth place in the competition – and there’s $100,000 at stake, half to be awarded by a panel of judges and the other half based on the number of “likes” the ideas get on Facebook.

For all that attention and potential, Fipeo had a rather modest beginning.

Houge, a National Merit Scholar who has put off college to work on the site, said he hit on the idea for Fipeo while sailing around the world last year during a University of Virginia “semester at sea” program.

At one point, he said, the students on the trip were talking about entrepreneurial ideas. Houge and a friend, Jeff Lucas, were talking about the dozens of languages they had heard on their trip and how it was much easier to pick up a language by listening and watching people converse.

“There are more than a billion people trying to learn a language,” Houge said, and thinking about how people do that intrigued him because he was always interested in how the brain worked. But he also realized that a site that allows people to find shared interests and converse with each other is more than a tool for learning a language.

“This solves a problem that’s in society now, of face-to-face communication really dying,” he said.

Houge and Lucas decided to move quickly to develop a site, sensing that others probably were having the same thought. He noted that Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and an early force in Facebook, is working on a video networking site called Airtime, which hasn’t debuted yet.

Fipeo users, Houge said, will be able to make two 15-second introductory messages, one personal and the other professional. The user will tag the videos with interests and other pertinent information. For instance, a user could tag his personal video with his location; background, such as where he went to school; and interests, such as running or video gaming. The professional video could be tagged with a location, job experience and credentials.

Other users would find the videos by using a search tool on the site. For instance, someone moving to Portland might want to talk to several real estate agents before deciding who he wants to have help with a house search. An avid runner might be looking for someone to run with or talk to someone who has run a road race she’s thinking about entering.

Thumbnails of the videos matching the search criteria pop up, and users can click on the videos of people they might like to talk with. They view those users’ introductory messages and send video messages explaining what they want to talk about.

The recipients can reply, either with a video message or a suggestion of when they might talk in real time over a Fipeo connection.

The site will be supported by advertising, Houge said, with companies bidding for the right to post a video on a page when a specific tag is used. Along with thumbnails of videos from people who pop up when a user searches using the term “runner,” Houge said, might be a thumbnail from a maker of a running shoe or a store selling workout gear.

Houge said Fipeo has a lead investor – his uncle, Adam Weber, an insurance executive in Long Island, New York.

Weber said he invested after Houge told him about his idea and then put together a business plan with Lucas.

Houge and Weber declined to say how large the investment was, but Houge said it was enough to put Lucas, two others and himself on the payroll in the U.S., along with 21 people working for a contractor in India, where most of the coding work is being done.

Weber, by email, said he thinks there’s a future for Fipeo because social networking is “consuming people,” while at the same time isolating them.

He said people have no way to branch out much beyond their initial circle of friends when social networking sites don’t provide a good way to identify others with similar interests.

“Today’s social networking is just an excuse not to communicate, either face-to-face or by phone,” Weber said. “The way for us to get back to positive interaction with today’s amazing technological advances is to get back to traditional face-to-face communication, via this technology.”

Rich Brooks, the president of Portland-based Flyte New Media, an Internet marketing firm, said he thinks there’s a place for Fipeo, although the social media marketplace is getting increasingly crowded.

He said Fipeo is “a mash-up of some other ideas, but presented in an interesting way.”

Brooks said Fipeo wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, when fewer computers came with built-in cameras and before smartphones made it easier to make a video and post it quickly on the Web.

He sees two potential stumbling blocks, however.

One is the users. Those serious about finding people with similar interests would provide a strong base for Fipeo, he said, but users might not be drawn if it turns out to be used mostly by people looking for dates.

“It will come down to the quality of the people who initially join and their behavior once they get there,” he said. “People develop these platforms for a specific purpose, but once you put that platform out there, people are going to use it the way they want to use it.”

The second, he said, is that the social media marketplace may be nearing a saturation point. In addition to Facebook and Twitter, he said, there are dozens of networking sites, including LinkedIn.

“I don’t necessarily think the average person is looking to expand his network,” he said. “I don’t need to spend more time finding more friends, I need to find time to increase the engagement I have with my friends.”

Still, Brooks said the idea behind Fipeo is “really compelling” and said he was intrigued enough to sign up at the site and send the address to several friends so they can be added to the waiting list – and so he could gain immediate access to the site.

Houge said he and Lucas haven’t decided when Fipeo will open to all users. The beta testing is continuing to identify and work out bugs, he said, and the strategy behind the waiting list is to generate some pent-up demand and spread word of mouth while people wait for it to go live. He plans to recruit more beta users and build interest outside the U.S. on upcoming trips to Canada and Israel.

While Houge dismisses comparisons to Facebook, he welcomes a comparison to another huge Web presence.

“Google has organized the world’s information and made it universally accessible and useful,” he said. “Fipeo will organize the world’s people and make them universally accessible and useful.”


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