Online video has moved way beyond simple video-sharing on YouTube. A growing number of services are allowing users to make video on the fly and stream their material live or near live to the web or from mobile devices. Instant video content, often just conversations between the producer and his or her audience, or video comments back and forth, is much different from content that is recorded, edited and posted onto video-sharing sites like YouTube.
More a communication tool than a platform for creative expression, the video content shared on services like Seesmic and Qik aren’t likely to win production awards, but they do allow for a fast and easy way to get your point across through video.
One interesting thing about these services is that they are hard to classify. Are they video blogging tools? Are they broadcasting (or video podcasting) tools? Are they a video version of Twitter (which in itself is considered a micro-blogging tool)? Further adding to the confusion is how the services actually classify themselves. Some offer the tools to stream and record instant video, and some give users that plus a social networking element, like chat rooms and groups. Some call themselves videoblogging services. Others say they let you create your own live TV show.
Most serve as portals for the content produced by users. These services all let you quickly record video and/or stream video live.
Getting started with these services is pretty simple. Basically all you need is a webcam (or with some services a camera phone with video capabilities), a computer and a high-speed Internet connection. The most important thing to consider when broadcasting live video online is the upload speed dictated by your cable or DSL provider. If you don’t have a fast enough upload rate your video will look rather choppy. Here are a few of the services that let you record on the fly and broadcast online:
UStream calls itself “live, interactive broadcasting.” Users can stream video live from their webcam and chat with viewers at the same time. Like most of the services I’ll discuss here, UStream lets you start broadcasting almost immediately after signing up and is so simple a kid could do it. In checking out a couple of “shows” on UStream a common annoying theme around the chat element emerged. In watching a show which consisted of two different lateral views of a guy behind a desk I didn’t seem to get anything he was saying — it just didn’t make sense. I noticed that he was just answering questions people were shooting to him over chat.
If you can believe it, there’s even less dynamic content. As I write this, I am watching a show that baffles me. I’ve had it on for 4 minutes and the person on the screen, who seems to be watching something or someone somewhere else in the room, hasn’t moved or said anything the whole time. I only know he’s alive because he’s blinked a couple of times and appears to be breathing.
On Ustream, there seems to a theme of people behind their desks talking about geeky stuff. At its best, there is the entertaining and informative Chris Pirillo and The Tech Guy Leo Laporte. At its worst there are people who don’t move or speak. UStream also streams events live, which is a nice thing when you can’t attend an important conference.
The service is named after its founder, Justin Kan, who is best known for wearing a webcam attached to a hat 24 hours a day)#Justin_Kan. He also coined the term “lifecasting” to describe the process of live-filming one’s life around the clock.
What began as a live stream of Justin’s life has now become a portal for other people’s live and recorded video. With a more youthful tone (there’s a video category called “Divas and Dudes”), Justin.TV appears to attract a younger set, with many users still in their teens. Logging on to Justin.TV this week I found a live channel with yet another guy broadcasting himself looking into a screen and typing while not saying anything. Again, I don’t really get it but in the context of the lifecasting idea, I guess it makes sense. Life isn’t always exciting and these videos definitely aren’t either.
On the more animated side of things, there are live shows with a bit more production behind them, and niche shows like the ones done by Bodybuilding.com are good for satisfying a demand for content you might not find elsewhere.
The real attractive thing to me about Justin.TV is the ability to stream professionally produced live content. You can watch movies or live TV and chat with others about what you are watching. Last night as I watched the Spain vs. Russia soccer match on local television, I watched it simultaneously on Justin.TV as another user streamed it live. This capability is extremely interesting to me as I am a fan of place-shifting television. It’s pretty cool that a Colombian living overseas can watch local TV from their country without the need for a Slingbox or some other device.
Seesmic, a streaming video startup and brainchild of French entrepreneur Loic Lemeur, is a service I’ve been reading about for over a year and had never used because I didn’t really understand what it was (not to mention I don’t see a need to communicate my thoughts via video). When it first launched in 2007, TechCrunch referred to Seesmic as “a video-based Twitter,” and that’s probably the best description I’ve heard yet.
What differentiates Seesmic from other “on the fly” video services is that most of the content seems to be centered on a conversation: an initial video and underneath that a cascading list of responses to the video in the form of more videos. Seesmic has a lot of social networking features, and a pretty seamless integration with social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, among others.
Perhaps betting on that social aspect, the company recently acquired a popular Twitter desktop application. Seesmic has a cool feature called topics, which are thematic video threads. The first video in each thread, called Newspop, is professionally produced by Seesmic and is aimed at starting a discussion. A bit jaded after some of the stuff I’ve been watching this week, I watched a video about the gay marriage ban being lifted in California, which was a topic starter. The video itself was interesting, and many of the video responses as well. Unexpectedly I ended up watching more of them than I thought because the conversation and content was compelling.
The newcomer to the quick online video set is Phreadz, a UK startup similar to Seesmic, but it focuses on what they call “threaded multimedia conversations.” What does that mean? Phreadz founder “Kosso” recently spoke on his blog about the comparisons to Seesmic, and this was the most interesting comment he made about his service: “Welcome to Semantic Multimedia, where every post has context, a Ã¢ÂÂpathwayÃ¢ÂÂ to it and plenty of metadata in between. (And a short permalink url!)” That sounds quite attractive to me after checking out other services of this genre.
Mobile streaming service Qik is different in that it is specifically geared toward those who want to broadcast video directly from their cell phone to the web.
Qik content seems to a bit more interesting than a lot of what I’ve seen on UStream or Justin.TV, and the reason is pretty obvious: It’s more engaging to see people out and about in interesting locales than sitting in a dark bedroom illuminated by the computer screen, which is what makes up the bulk of the backdrops for videos posted on these sites. There are other advantages about being able to shoot and record and stream video from an always handy and unintimidating cell phone, like being able to interview interesting people on the fly. Check out how Variety magazine used a phone and Qik to get exclusive footage of Woody Allen at Cannes.
While Qik works in Spain, I couldn’t try it out because my Palm Treo 680 isn’t currently supported, which is unfortunate because it’s probably the only one of these services that I might use as a producer.
Entertainment or Communication?
On Barcelona local TV there used to be a show that was 30 minutes or so of people standing in a public video booth talking to the camera. When what they had to say was compelling, the content was interesting. When they didn’t — which was 95% of the time — the show was really boring.
A few hours into trying out these services I couldn’t help but find myself comparing most of what I see on these services to that show. Another problem is that in many cases videos are responses to other videos and it’s hard to catch up with the conversation. It also seems like a tough circle to break into. In many cases it’s video of people addressing each other like they’ve been pals for years, talking about things I know nothing about. Without context it’s quite hard to become engaged on these sites.
Is this video communication on a whole new level or is it entertainment? If it’s the former, maybe my expectations were too high in that regard and perhaps we can’t ask to be entertained. If itÃ¢ÂÂs communication, then there might be greater potential for these services than what we are curr