New IOS app N3twork, available in Apple's app store today, aims, in many ways, to be the streaming video version of the popular music service Pandora, which tries to guess other music you might like, based on music you already like. N3twork is available on iPhone and iPad, and you can stream it to your television through AppleTV. Its database is filled with millions of hours of video from thousands of sources, and its bots index another 1,000 hours of video every day. It's also a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
But there's one big question: Does anybody want to watch video this way? We spent some time with N3twork and mostly enjoyed ourselves, but even we're not sure.
N3twork is a shockingly easy experience to understand. Sign up for the service, and it offers you a few very broad categories (like "sports" and "pop culture") to add to the list of things you're following. Then, it immediately drops you into a constant stream of videos pulled in from a variety of locations — YouTube, yes, but also services like Vimeo and Veoh and the like. (N3twork doesn't contain videos from subscription services like Netflix or Hulu.)
Don't like a video? It's easy to skip it immediately by swiping one direction. Like a video but don't want to watch it right then? You can save it in a library to watch later by swiping in the opposite direction. And, really, that's all anyone needs to do to start watching videos.
There are options for deeper dives, too, thanks to custom hashtags (N3twork's term for what might be thought of as "channels" based on particular topics) and the ability to follow individual users who keep finding interesting stuff you enjoy. You can search for videos or hashtags, too, if you really, really must see a long stream of pumpkin carving videos immediately. And the more users who join N3twork, the better its tagging becomes, allowing for the software to pull in more and more obscure finds that might appeal.
This is actually a surprisingly fun way to watch streaming videos. Going to a site like YouTube can be frustrating, considering how much video the site contains, which means that the vast majority of content on the site goes unexplored. The handful of videos that go viral ending up being the primary traffic drivers. Yes, there are very dedicated users of YouTube, who subscribe to individual channels and users, but doing the exploring to get to that point can be daunting.
N3twork just starts tossing things it thinks you might like at you in a constant stream of information. And it learns quickly. It figured out, for instance, that I really like cute animal videos within about 10 minutes of using it, and it provided me with a bunch of good ones I'd never seen before.
Yeah, guessing someone likes cute animal videos isn't a huge leap to make, but N3twork also quickly zeroed in on my love of baseball highlights and movie trailers. And it kept taking chances on offbeat stuff in hopes I would be into it. It was eclectic, and after about 15 minutes, it was right more often than it was wrong.
N3twork froze up a few times when trying to pull in videos from non-YouTube sources, but that seems the sort of bug that will be cleared up quickly.
It also has trouble navigating if you get too deep down to the level of a specific hashtag. If there aren't a lot of videos under that hashtag, the program can suddenly cease giving viewers the option to skip them, and skipping is one of the most important features the program has. Also in terms of design issues, N3twork presents icons that appear to be buttons, with text describing what they are next to them. Yet clicking on the apparent buttons doesn't work, while clicking on the words does. It's counterintuitive to the way these things usually work.
N3twork could also probably use some sort of further filtering tools. The service tossed a long nature documentary about bonobos at me, and while that's something I might want to watch some evenings, I didn't want to spend 50 minutes on it right before bed. I could just save it, sure, but it might be nice to customize the experience to that level.
Finally, in my limited time with the app, it was hard to tell whether the company has imported video from the sorts of non-professional sources that make some of the best YouTube content. Yeah, the company has a certain quality control assurance when including material from Comedy Central or ESPN, but there are so many great vloggers and webseries out there that would be fun to have pop up as well. And figuring out which of these are worthwhile and which aren't is difficult. Let's hope there are plans to add such things, if they aren't already there, and that N3twork will continue to look for new independent voices worth including.
The big question here is if anyone will want to watch videos this way. Yes, finding great stuff to watch online is a problem people theoretically could have, but is it one that people worry about all of the time? Pandora was ahead of its time, to be sure, but it was clear even early on that it would eventually work, because having music on in the background is something people frequently do. But how often do people just stream videos in the background while doing other things? If you go to YouTube, you're usually looking for something in particular, even if you want to have it on while folding laundry or something.
Yet there's something to N3twork, if the app can capitalize on some of its good ideas. "What should I watch next?" is a question people have, one that things like Netflix's recommendation algorithm can't always answer. N3twork's answer to that question is snappy and surprisingly personal. Now it just needs to find a way to convince you it's something you might need.