It Started with Justin
It’s no coincidence that my blog and podcast went quiet right about the time Justin.TV went live. Indeed, for a couple of weeks, I became so obsessed with Justin Kan’s life in San Francisco, I started a blog about it. And that blog did so well, the Justin.TV crew made it an official part of their website.
We watched him awkwardly chat up girls. We watched him drive around listening to bad music. We watched him answer e-mail, brush his teeth, and go to sleep. And we watched him get interviewed, first by the local press, and soon by the national networks. Justin.TV was on to something.
Then Came Ustream.tv
Not long after Justin made the Today Show, the live video streaming site Ustream.tv started making waves. It was quickly labeled as a home for “wannabe Justins,” but Ustream.tv was actually running long before Justin showed up. The Ustream.tv folks freely admit, though, that it was the buzz surrounding Justin that helped them find their niche.
Justin.TV was a remarkable achievement, to be sure… built on a “hatcam,” a mysterious backpack full of gear, an apartment full of geeks, and VC funding. But the folks at Ustream.tv leveraged multimedia features already built into Flash to allow anyone to stream live video.
It’s so brilliant, so simple, no doubt YouTube (which already uses the Flash link to allow users to record videos) is furiously coding up their “live” feature this very minute.
Ustream.tv spread among Alpha Geeks with amazing speed. Chris Pirillo was playing with Ustream.TV when news of the Mexico earthquake broke, and we watched as he established a live videoconference link with a blogger in Mexico City. (The next night, he farted.) The next day, Robert Scoble decided to do him one better, and broadcast live while driving around California. Jeremiah Owyang took us to the Web 2.0 Expo, letting us sit in on panels most of us probably couldn’t afford to attend. And right here in Hawaii, Todd Cochrane of GeekNewsCentral took the world with him and his family on a house-hunting trip, answering questions while driving over the Ko’olau mountains and through the Harano Tunnels.
To top it all off, he and another local geek, Paul Lawler, both showed up at Friday’s “Bytemarks” lunch downtown with cameras and EVDO connections, streaming the meeting from opposite ends of our small table, making for a curiously local, yet global, gathering of tech heads.
Getting Sucked In
Suffice it to say, I’ve been obsessed with “live” for a few weeks now. The podcaster in me was always curious about TalkShoe, which has made live audio shows incredibly easy. Frankly, recorded, edited, archived audio programs were already starting to seem a little stale. But I never would have thought, when Justin.TV broke out, that live video for everyone was right around the corner. It was already there, actually. Someone just needed to open up that Adobe Flash Player control panel and let the genie out of the bottle.
Ustream.tv did. And I wanted to play.
Ustream.tv for Macs
My first hurdle? I’m a Mac user. While Ustream.tv isn’t hostile to Apple fans, it’s definitely not built for us. There’s absolutely no documentation on the Ustream.tv site for any platform, but I imagine “it just works” for Windows machines. Mac users have to figure it out on their own… but fortunately, we’re smarter than the average bear.
Also, in order to get the Ustream.tv Flash tool to recognize my MacBook’s built-in iSight camera, I had to dig into the Adobe Flash Player’s control panel, which is hard to find if you’re not looking for it.
You have to control-click or right-click in the video window, and choose “Settings…“:
Then, you need to click on the camera tab to select the video input source. Curiously, for my MacBook’s built-in iSight camera, I had to choose “USB Video Class Video”:
There’s another tab to set the source for your audio as well. As you change your settings, you can see and hear the results, so you’ll get things running pretty quickly. It’s just finding these settings that was the real challenge.
Getting Out and About
So, now I could do my own Ustream.TV show. But how interesting is my fat head and my messy family room? Or my drab cubicle at work? I couldn’t bring myself to flip it on very often. Live video from a desk was around in the Jennicam days, so apart from having a sexy workspace like Chris Pirillo’s (he apparently bought part of the Starship Enterprise set from Paramount), things really haven’t progressed that far beyond 1997.
That’s where Justin comes in. And Robert and Jeremiah and Todd. They went mobile. And that’s where I think the real magic lies. Going for a drive. Going to a conference. Going to a party. That’s “lifecasting.”
I’m not sure I want to watch anyone 24/7, and I know I don’t want to watch myself or anyone else at their desk (unless they’re doing something interesting… like podcasting!). And I think it’d be exhausting to be “on” all day, every day. But when there’s a special experience that someone wants to share, there’s just something about experiencing it live. I felt it when I went with Justin on a bike ride around San Francisco. And I felt it with Todd to check out houses in Pearl City, asking about prices and commenting on fixtures.
And I wanted desperately to share something like that myself.
One Small Drive for a Geek…
So today, I did. After waiting a week for Sprint’s online store to get its act together, I just drove down to the Sprint Store at Pearl Kai and bought a Novatel Wireless Ovation U720 EVDO Rev A USB modem right off the shelf. I had to hook it up to a Windows PC to activate it, but after doing that (and installing Sprint’s updated Mac drivers) I was online in under an hour. I also picked up a CyberPower CPS160SI so I could get power for my MacBook in the car. No need to fuss with MagSafe adapters with a standard power plug.
Also, the U720 EVDO takes up two USB ports. It doesn’t have to, according to the documentation, but it “is recommended for increased performance.” And I wanted increased performance. Since my MacBook only has two USB ports, I pulled out my old-school FireWire iSight camera. A quick trip into the Flash settings to change video sources, and I was good to go.
Of course, one way broadcasting is no fun. While letting people watch was great, I wanted to interact with them as well. And the biggest weakness of Ustream.tv is that the only way to get feedback is through its built-in text chat… and it wasn’t working, anyway.
So the last piece of the puzzle was a live teleconference bridge provided by LiveOffice. A free conference call that I could launch and moderate and anyone (up to 250 people) could join. I dialed in, switched my Treo to speakerphone, and put it next to the iSight on my dashboard. Voila, a live video stream where viewers could talk to each other and to me as Katie and I hit the road.
It was great. We were joined on the call by podcast and Twitter friends in Wisconsin, Virginia, Austin, and Chicago, and even Makiki. We drove up through Wahiawa and Haleiwa, and I pointed out “LOST” filming sites along the way. Katie provided commentary as well.
The EVDO signal dropped out past Haleiwa (though the cellular link to the teleconference didn’t), so I turned around and parked at Haleiwa Beach Park. Then, we got out of the van and sat right on the beach, watching the waves lap the sand, watching Katie frolick in the water, and watching the sun slowly sink below the horizon.
It was beautiful. A Hawaiian sunset experienced together with people thousands of miles away.
If you told me just a year ago that I would be able to do something like this with such relative ease and at such modest cost (I used to do conference planning, and we’d blow six figures easy for live video), I would’ve thought you were insane. Yet tonight, my mind is spinning with ideas, possibilities, other places to share, and other ideas to explore.
So, stay tuned. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Note to self: When doing something cool, remember to record it! Turns out I failed to click the “Record” button in Ustream.tv once I arrived at Haleiwa Beach Park. So, the most beautiful scenes perhaps ever captured by the service are now merely memories in the minds of the dozen or so people who were watching with me.
UPDATE: I decided to repeat the experiment on Sunday. See the results, archived by Ustream.tv: