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Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Ustream goes mainstream
Video-streaming site lets users broadcast live to a growing fan base and target market
By RICK MARTIN
Special to The Japan Times
From high atop the summit of Mount Fuji last summer, despite miserable weather and poor visibility, 32-year-old tech enthusiast Joseph Tame sent video coverage of a spectacular solar eclipse live to the Internet from an impromptu mobile-broadcasting studio. With little more than a laptop and a Web connection, Tame's high-altitude adventure was watched by about 370 viewers down below.
"The sky cleared just enough to see the eclipse," says Tame. "The party atmosphere was amazing. I'm there with my white MacBook, carrying it around and telling people, 'We're broadcasting live, what do you think of it?' It was incredible."
The Fuji climb was a great example of the promise of Ustream, a live-streaming video service. Having received ¥1.8 billion in investment from Japanese telecom giant SoftBank in January this year, Ustream is now seeping into mainstream consciousness in Japan, enabling aspiring broadcasters to shout their message from the mountains, valleys and everywhere in between — all in real time.
California-based Ustream was founded by John Ham, Brad Hunstable and Gyula Feher back in 2007 as a solution for soldiers stationed abroad to communicate with families back home. Since then it has been used by political candidates, Hollywood celebrities and regular folks around the world, mostly on account of its simplicity.
When you visit www.ustream.tv you must first sign up for a free account. After that, simply name your show and hit "Broadcast Now." Provided your computer or mobile device has a working camera, your show can be recorded and embedded in any Web page, and Ustream offers a chat window to allow the audience to text with the broadcaster in real time. Tame capitalized on the service last year to broadcast his participation in the Tokyo Marathon live.
"I wanted to use the technology to bring the general public a sense of what it's really like to be there on the day participating," he says. "I actually provided a running commentary for the whole course."
Tame also had friends filming along the route with their iPhones, and another person offsite to coordinate all the camera perspectives for display on a Web site. When it all came together, viewers could get close to the total experience of running the marathon, without the huffing and puffing.
Tech-savvy individuals such as Tame are not new to the service. But now that SoftBank is backing it, and since the subsequent establishment of Ustream Asia in May of this year, more people in Japan have started taking notice. Shari Foldes, a representative with Ustream, explains that as of June 1, "Japan has the second-largest Ustream user base. Japanese traffic to Ustream has increased 362 percent since Ustream Asia was announced on Feb. 1"
Take a stroll through local bookstores and you'll likely see a number of paperbacks devoted to explaining, "How to Ustream." Clearly publishers are banking on growing interest in the service by individuals and companies, as Ustream offers one of the most powerful tools that consumers and businesses can use to disseminate their messages.
However, Tame qualifies that simply turning on the camera isn't going to cut it for content producers: "If you don't plan your content carefully, people are not going to tune in." So while the technology is incredibly enabling and novel, just as in old media, if the content is not remarkable, audiences won't tune in. Whether it's foodies streaming shots of their curry rice or nervous talking heads in search of a meaningful voice, there's no shortage of mediocre content on the platform. But this problem is characteristic of the new Internet as a whole, a trade-off in exchange for granting broadcasting powers to the masses.
Toshi Kanda, aka KNN Kanda, is a tech journalist and blogger who can regularly be found broadcasting live on Ustream. He points to the video site's close integration with Twitter as a factor for the platform's success in Japan. When a user goes "on-air," he or she usually announces to the world, "Come check out my show on Ustream" along with a link so followers can click through to the stream.
A wide range of businesses are now realizing the potential of Ustream as well, and that even includes traditional media organizations. According to McClureMusic.com, three Japanese music-rights societies have inked agreements with Ustream allowing users to upload videos with music that falls under their copyright, with royalties paid to the groups.
Some news organizations are also making use of Ustream as a reporting tool. One of the most prominent cases to date has been U.S. television news program PBS NewsHour's live feed of BP's gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Ustream was a cost-efficient alternative to their previous streaming solutions.
"It went viral almost instantly," explains interactive editor Chris Amico. "We were at the top of The Huffington Post. Google put a link to our video at the top of every page of YouTube for a few hours. We broke every traffic record NewsHour has ever had. As you might imagine, the bandwidth got to be extraordinarily expensive in a hurry. Ustream really saved us."
Ustream has been a godsend for long-distance education as well. Keio University's Digital Journalism class, in conjunction with p2pu.org has been live-streaming its ongoing lectures every Monday morning.
Hardware manufacturers are figuring out ways to capitalize, too. One Japanese company, Cerevo, has released a digital camera with direct-to-Ustream capabilities, and just this past week put it to use by setting up a continuing live stream of Akihabara, Tokyo's popular electronics district. Cerevo's online store not only sells the individual camera, but also markets a Ustream kit that includes a pocket Wi-Fi, a wide-angle lens and a mini-tripod.
As this article went to press, Tame was making another trip up Mount Fuji on July 20. He had the Cerevo camera in tow, compliments of the manufacturer, and he broadcasted his second climb with Ustream. For the Internet connection, NTT DoCoMo provided one of their new pocket Wi-Fi devices, the Buffalo DWR-PG.
Tame is quick to point out that even though his extreme streaming can be challenging at times, Ustream is something that almost anybody can make an attempt at.
"If you have an iPhone, you can do it. Anyone who has a computer and an Internet connection — as long as they have a webcam and a mic — that's it. There is no barrier."