Living on a Stream: The Rise of Real-Time Video

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about streaming. I was marveling how easy it's becoming to beam a live video feed, anywhere, not only to a friend or a group, but, essentially, the entire world. The province of the network news team with satellite truck has now extended to anyone with a smartphone.

I ranted that we're only at the beginning of a process that will transform the way we watch moving images, not to mention what those images are and how we produce them. We are well clear of the world of television - where video meant sitting down in a living room and watching carefully scheduled, professionally produced "shows" - and now are about to move from our more fluid, DIY and YouTube-infused paradigm into something different: an explosion of video as its happening now.

Whether the point is to share an environment with friends or co-workers for an extended period of time, to indulge in a slickly produced event enhanced by the knowledge that it's live, or to drop in on the most compelling events on the planet at any time, more and more of what we see will be seen as it happens.

Since my friend was Kevin Kelly, an adherent of the "Long Bet," whereby people on opposing sides of a prediction put money down to back up their hunches, we crafted a challenge: If within 10 years, more than half of all video watched is live, I win.

As soon as we agreed, I pulled out my iPhone and opened an app called Color. I then turned the camera on Kelly and asked him to explain the bet. Within seconds I was able to show him that several people in my social circle were already watching, in real time. I think that shook his confidence a bit.

(OK, there was no audio on the Color feed - but I have 10 years to wait for this stuff to get better!)

Of course, to some degree, we've already become well accustomed to streaming live video. Hundreds of millions of people Skype with each other, sometime for hours. Once a novelty, live-streamed events on the web are now common: Everything from a local government hearing to the Super Bowl can be viewed as it happens. We've even approaching the point where people get annoyed if certain things aren't streamed. But we're creeping up to a big inflection point.

The next step is for everyone to make use of the tiny, high-quality HD cameras in our phones and our computers to routinely stream live to selected friends or everyone.

Companies big and small are rising to provide a stream ecosystem. Right now, the leader in instant streaming is Ustream, which has a real-time broadcast platform that scales to major events. Lurking in the background, though, is the giant YouTube, which hopes to have many millions of channels. No company has the infrastructure and audience of Google and I expect that YouTube's center of gravity may well move from uploaded video clips to real-time live streams.

Google also has quickly become a player in social real-time video. The breakout component in Google+ is Hangouts, a real-time video conference system. (So much so that Google now uses it as its corporate conferencing system.)

But even smaller companies are getting in the game. There's even an open source project called WebRTC, developing a simple plug-in browser technology that implements real-time streaming on a web page.

Then there is Color, the iPhone app that I used to beam my bet to the world. Founded by serial entrepreneur Bill Nguyen, Color lets you become a broadcaster to your social network with the touch of a record button. Tellingly, Nguyen adopted this plan as a business reset after a disastrous initial launch of his app - to save his company, the canny technologist figured out the next big wave.

Color is deeply integrated with Facebook, which has visions of unlimited streams through its Open Graph policy. It's also streamed big events itself.

Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning - co-founders of one of the world's most disruptive products, Napster - are putting their money on real time, with a video startup called Airtime. And still around is Justin.tv, which started as a way for founder Justin Kan to live-stream his life, every minute of it. I just checked the site and found 3107 live channels. A JustinTV spinout, Socialcam, has a few million downloads.

An entire generation already is unaware that it was once thought of as a huge novelty to "be on TV."

But the coming generation will probably never experience a day where they're not on internet-streamed video, for at least part of the time. (If you figure security cameras in the equation, we're already there.) As Socialcam's CEO Michael Seibel told a reporter: "Fundamentally, 30 million Americans are five feet away from a video camera 24 hours a day. It's never been that way before.

One innovative new startup, Prism Skylabs, is devoted to making use of security cameras via analytics and graphic tricks to "combine streams of washed-out and noisy video into gorgeous, photo-like images… ." I'll leave it to privacy activists and sociologists to figure out the implications. Trust me, they are massive.

And what about the traditional purveyors of video, the professionals who provide programming to broadcasters? Increased quality of real-time video means that the vitality of live streaming can move up the food chain.

More and more professionals will adopt it as a technique, much in the way that high-end moviemakers use handheld cameras to add brio to their work. Viewers used to the kick of live video may lose patience with the lack of spontaneity, and demand that studios show live programming distinguishable by high production values.

In order to help kick this revolution down the road, I see the need for two important components that, as far I am aware, don't currently exist.

If you are an entrepreneur looking for an opportunity, feel free to plunder. (Of course it wouldn't hurt your karma to kick back a percentage to me for the idea.)

First, that's a virtual equivalent to the director's trailer at an NFL game. (Ideal name for this product: Control Room.) Running off a laptop, Control Room accepts any number of streams from a single event (or a montage of some related events) and allows the "director" to choose which one is live at any second. All the tools of the control room - titles, telestrators, zoom, etc - are available.

I can imagine every kid's soccer game or high school play will have at least one parent using this to orchestrate a single high-quality production available live over the web to any relative who can't make it. And every demonstration will have its real time Costa-Gavras. Bill Nguyen has told me that Color is already working out a deal with a news provider to help users provide real-time streams of major events.

The second product is a real-time video search engine.

It will hinge on someone coming up with breakthrough that enables search through all millions of the live streams happening at any moment, producing the one that a user wants to see. I don't know if Google is working on this, but I wouldn't be surprised if some genius computer scientist figures this out first.

Again, all sorts of social issues abound here. What do we do about face recognition? (Troubling as the prospect may be, I don't see how we keep it down.) What are the rules when people start leaving on cameras all the time, and streaming the content to the web? Will we all be Justins? Or will we be a society mired in voyeurism?

Obviously, I have no answer to those questions. What I do believe, though, is that as it becomes dead-simple to flick the video on our phones and make the content public, and maybe even make a buck off it, we're in for a wild ride.

Anyone who doubts it has not noticed how much a reflex it is for people, when witnessing any incident that's even mildly interesting, to whip out the phones and start recording. All we're missing is that one push to make video viewable to the world as it happens - to make it as easy to publicly stream a piece of video as it is to Tweet.

Oh, yes, I forgot. There's already a company that's calling itself the "Twitter of video." It's called Klip, led by Alain Rossman, who was on the original Macintosh team and one of the pioneers of tablet computing.

"We're moving to a world where everything is captured and everything is shared in real time," Rossmann recently told Business Week. "Our entire history will be chronicled in a mosaic of video."

Probably the main obstacle to this movement is our woeful rate of high-speed broadband adoption.

Streaming millions of videos is going to flood the spectrum. We'll need better compression, lots more bandwidth, and a kick in the butt to oligarchic powers that want to cap our data.

Otherwise, the real-time video era will hit us more like tsunami than a stream. Every conference talk. Every concert. Every birthday party. Every LOLcat on the verge flopping into the toilet when swiping at catnip. (Will he? Won't he? For aficionados of feline follies what was once a 20-second YouTube clip will transmogrify into a two-hour time killer.) Our cameras will capture more and more of the great moments and the mundane ones of our lives - eventually we may never turn them off, except to charge the batteries.

And, I'm figuring that inside of a decade - maybe even sooner - we will be watching more live video than pre-taped television shows, YouTube clips and recycled Daily Show snippets.

Don't bet against it.

Photo: A livestream via Justin.tv / John C Abell


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