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The Mobile Video Moment Has Finally Arrived

Do you always feel like somebody's watching you? They are -- because the eyes have it.

Petr Novák/Wikipedia

Mobile video is definitely having a moment.

Consider: It’s helping people feeling connected to each other while broadcasting on new live apps, it’s enabling instant virtual appointments with plumbers and nurses thousands of miles away, and it’s even enabling a guy in South Carolina to drastically shift the path of justice by exposing a cop in the act of murder.

And it’s all happening right now, all the time.

Let’s be clear, this has been a long time coming. Back in the day, I used to write a news blog about online video for GigaOM, and followed the many, many earlier attempts at mobile video. I used to know a lot about codecs and caching that I’ve long since forgotten. But I can remember acutely the frustration of trying to stream using Kyte (or maybe it was Qik) on a Nokia N95 at a Katy Perry set at a YouTube event in 2008 (this was before the iPhone supported video at all, and a month after the first Android phone ever came out). The video hardly worked, and Twitter hardly existed to publicize it, so the whole attempt was vastly pointless.

A few weeks ago, when I saw Meerkat and Twitter’s Periscope pop up as the flavors of the moment, I messaged the founders of Kyte and Qik and kibitzed with them about how, even after all these years, most mobile livestreams were still terribly boring.

But looking a little deeper, I have to admit that it is finally more than that. This revelation came after I spent a day immersing myself in mobile video, both on purpose and because it’s so part of the Zeitgeist, and what I found went far beyond the stuttery, pixelated and little-watched clips of yesteryear.

Mobile video is not like photos — which are fundamentally the same format wherever they were taken, and wherever they are viewed. Video captured on a phone makes sense to watch on other phones, but not really anywhere else. It’s usually oriented vertically, because that’s how people hold their phones. It’s usually shaky, because that’s how people also hold their phones. It’s made and consumed for the mobile world. And that’s okay, because so many of us now live in a mobile world.

My deep dive started when I walked down to the San Francisco Ferry Building for lunch. I turned on the new Periscope app and pointed my phone at the Bay Bridge. A whole bunch of random people from Italy, the Philippines, the Netherlands and elsewhere showed up to see the view (incredibly, a total of like 1,500 people tuned in), ask me what I was having for lunch (asparagus salad) and whether I had seen any sharks in the Bay (no, never).

The conversation wasn’t profound, but we shared a moment.

Later, after I went back to work, I found a quiet spot where I could do a 10-minute call with a Manhattan-based nurse practitioner named Rebecca. I used a new women’s health service called Maven that has an anonymous feature, so I could see her under the pretense of having an educational appointment.

While it’s funny to think of a face-to-face video call as anonymous, for $18 I could ask Rebecca anything I wanted in 10 minutes. I mostly wanted to know about what got her interested in working for Maven, since it was launching this week, and she explained she has three kids under three years old and likes the flexibility of video calls for this time in her life. Many of her patients are in similar situations, and a Maven call costs them about the same as an office co-pay, with much less logistical hassle.

After doing some research for an upcoming reporting trip, I took a break and checked in on Snapchat and watched the app’s daily Los Angeles Story. This is a collaborative diary with each 10-second clip contributed by a different user, edited together into a five-minute compilation by a small team of curators at the Snapchat office in Venice, Calif.

Snapchat’s daily Story from the City of Angels is compelling.
Snapchat’s daily Story from the City of Angels is compelling.

Leave it to the people in Los Angeles to put a narrative arc around little video blips.

“It’s not a collage, it’s a linear narrative. It tells a unique, compelling story about the day from 10,000 different perspectives,” Snapchat director of partnerships Ben Schwerin had explained to me in a call earlier in the week.

The Snapchat team makes a sort of outline before each “Our Story” event, then reviews and selects thousands of incoming clips through a sort of video matrix on their laptops. Snapchat users are eligible to participate in stories based on their locations. This is an experimental product, but it’s already making money; in a story earlier this week about the NCAA championship Duke-Wisconsin game, Universal Studios ran a spot for its new movie, “Furious 7.”

“You have to physically be there to post, but all of our users around the world get the stories in real time, and then the content is available for 24 hours before it disappears,” Schwerin said.

There are only a couple of these Snapchat stories per day, and they typically get tens of millions of views, Schwerin said.

The story of the day in LA, according to Snapchat’s hive mind, started with people complaining about an unusual sprinkling of rain, then jumped into the crowd at the Warped tour and various perspectives at the Clippers/Lakers game. A selfie clip from a host at “America’s Got Talent” was right before someone waiting in line outside. Then the wee-hours partiers passed the baton to the go-getters who were up and jogging at dawn.

A fan tells YouTube stars the Gregory Brothers how Periscope works.
A fan tells YouTube stars the Gregory Brothers how Periscope works.

At the end of my own video-sharing day, I took the train home. When I got there, I hooked up an impromptu consultation with a plumber named Jeremy in West Virginia, who was sitting in his truck outside a convenience mart. We were connected by another new app called Fountain. I held up the pieces in front of my phone camera, and Jeremy correctly identified the gasket I’d bought at the hardware store as the wrong one for the part of my shower that had broken. He told me I should probably just buy a new shower head.

It was my first Fountain call, so it was free, but the 15-minute chat would usually have cost me $7, the app said. Jeremy said he was happy for the extra work between appointments.

Video chat technology is now good enough to become a platform, explained Fountain CEO Aaron Patzer — who previously founded and sold — in a recent interview. Lots of people have smartphones, network connections are finally workable, and there are now open standards such as WebRTC that make it possible to build flexible applications.

In Fountain’s first month of availability, Patzer said, he has been surprised that it’s useful not just for people who have questions about repairs around the house, but for people who want to talk through an issue of taste, like interior design, with a professional.

“In San Francisco, you’ll pay $150 an hour for an interior designer,” he said. “We can do it at a fourth of the cost for somebody who is just as good, but happens to live in a cheaper part of the country.”

Actually, it turns out, we are watching ourselves.
Actually, it turns out, we are watching ourselves.

The next step, technologically speaking, is to improve the ways for computers to identify interesting moments among endless hours of video, because we already have way more video than we know what to do with. Smart analysis tools will be useful both for broadcasters — so apps like Periscope can direct people to good stuff while it’s happening — and for always-on cameras, like home surveillance.

For instance, there’s a startup called Camio that’s working on building neural networks on a per-camera basis, converting old mobile phones that people have hanging around the house into low-cost security cameras. But I haven’t personally tried that. I’m not sure how I feel about always-on home monitoring, although maybe it will be my next home improvement project, with Fountain helping me install it.

After the video call with Jeremy the plumber in West Virginia, I felt pretty proud of myself for accomplishing some home improvement successfully. So I went and checked in on Facebook, and saw that absolutely everyone was talking about the Walter Scott murder.

I had seen the video showing a police officer shooting a guy in the back, as edited for a newscast — but here was the original version, in all its shaky and traumatizing accuracy, bringing the possibility of justice into a situation that might have had none.

The Walter Scott killing is in many ways more momentous than any one little technology trend I had tested that day. But it was perhaps the prime example of this mobile moment.

Before bystander Feidin Santana came forward with his video documenting what really happened last week, Scott’s killer might have been able to have the last word about Scott’s death.

No more. As the old Rockwell song goes, we’ll always feel like somebody’s watching us. Because we are.

Enjoy the very creepy music video, which suddenly works really well now:

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