Want to watch video of unedited life? Take a dip in a steady stream

June 2, 2011

Five years ago, the city of San Diego set up a camera on the beach as a tourism aid. Surfers could log on to check wave swells and see if it was worth the drive down to the shore. Sunbathers could check if a haze blotted out their tanning potential. And I, living in a landlocked city 8,106 miles from my childhood home, could log on and meditate on the waves crashing — just as I did when I lived there as a teenager.

I assumed it was a somewhat pathetic way of assuaging my homesickness. Who else would watch a rather boring, static scene unfold on her laptop? Waves crashed. People occasionally strolled past. Yet still I was captivated.

It turns out that thousands of other users have come to love what I had discovered on that flickering screen, so much so that live-stream videos are fast becoming the largest growing division of online video. YouTube just launched its YouTube Live channel in April, to compete with a field already well populated with companies such as the popular UStream, LiveStream and Justin.TV. More than 100 million people have logged online to watch eagles hatch eggs, and 72 million people opted to see the royal wedding on a computer instead of on a television.

So just when our television watching has been freed from the confines of time and space by TiVos and DVRs, we’re seeking raw, unedited, uncontrollably in-the-moment viewing experiences online.

Why?

There are a few reasons, and most echo what’s appealing about the Internet in general.

For starters, live streaming levels distance, like much of the Internet. When Chris Hondros died in Libya, the photographer’s funeral was aired on UStream, the most popular live-streaming site. The world traveler had far-flung friends and admirers, and the streaming allowed them to grieve together as a community without flying to New York.

When President Obama landed in Dublin two weeks ago, joking he was there “to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way,” John O’Donovan had a front-row seat to the festivities that greeted the president, even though O’Donovan had moved from Ireland to Philadelphia two decades ago. For four hours, the home renovator found himself glued to RTE, the Irish national broadcaster, which streamed the event, unlike any American news channels, which only showed clips. “I hooked it up to my TV and watched the whole thing like I was watching TV in Ireland. It was clear as day.”

Also like much of the Internet, live streaming is a social experience. As cable operators struggle to move users between the television set and online conversations, live streams often offer up live chats in tandem with the stream. Pat Lillis started watching two eagles in Decorah, Iowa, after a friend there mentioned the show to her. “She knew that my husband and I adored seeing the huge female bald eagle that spent the winter next to our property in Aztec, New Mexico,” she said. The live cam was set up by the Raptor Resource Project, a nonprofit organization specializing in the preservation of predator birds. Dubbed “Real World Decorah,” the eagle cam hit a critical mass when the eggs started to hatch the first week of April.

Lillis, who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said she also liked the “bustling chat” that accompanied the experience, where people could share information, jokes and the glee over seeing the chicks first appearing on screen.

On- or off-line, people enjoy the notion of experiencing things simultaneously with thousands of others. It’s the reason why going to a sports game is fun even for the avowed sports cynic (guilty) — everyone’s in it together. There’s a keen satisfaction in noting the ambient numbers: 26,370 others logged on to watch the eagle with me Tuesday.

The original San Diego webcam didn’t have a view counter, but it’s nice to know now I’m not the only one staring at a laptop enjoying being virtually somewhere else.

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