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Going Live, Online: Ustream’s John Ham and “35”s Kathryn Jones

If YouTube has become the personal television of the Internet, Ustream.TV, despite its name, veers closer to live theater?a place where you can interact with the audience, but any mistake gets broadcast: there is no ⁠take 2.”

The service was conceived by West Point graduates John Ham and Brad Hunstable, and built by Gyula Feher?going live in 2006. Its most visible competitor, at least here in the U.S., is Justin.tv. Ustream.TV has been especially attractive to American politicians, with virtually every candidate, Republican and Democrat, making an appearance. There have also been bands, rappers, TV stars, and as you’d expect, the usual random zaniness that can only be found on the Internet.

But if going live has its advantages, it is a bigger challenge to keep interesting, because you can’t go back and edit out the boring parts. The phenomenon of livecasting?video streaming your life second-by-second?has the same kind of experimental tang as Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of the Empire State Building. But most of us are too busy living our own lives to stayed glued to the screen.

I spoke first with Ustream’s John Ham on how the service got started, whose using it, and what’s the potential, and then with Kathryn Jones of synchronis.tv, whose scripted ⁠35⁠⁠ production on Ustream suggests where the medium is headed.

You were a West Point graduate along with Brad and the original idea was to connect soldiers with their families?
John Ham: Absolutely. There are three founders: myself and Brad Hunstable , who are both West Point graduates?we met while we were cadets there?and Dr. Gyula Feher, our senior technologist. What we saw was that there wasn’t really a good one-to-many solution for helping soldiers overseas communicate with their families.
You had been in that position?
Yes, I was deployed one year to South Korea and then for a short period to Iraq. So I know first-hand that soldiers don’t get a lot of time to get on the phone and have personal communications. Skype is great, but if you have 10 different relatives, you have to have 10 different Skype conversations. With video broadcasting, you can be front-and-center with everyone you care about, both family and friends, all chatting, asking you questions, and interacting with you. It’s more efficient than a one-to-one model and that was the genesis behind this.
Why did you think a realtime video feed was technically possible?
I saw three converging trends. One is that broadband capacity is increasing over the years. According to a recent Morgan Stanley research report, 60 percent of all US households have a broadband connection of 300 Kbps or more. The second is that bandwidth costs have been decreasing year over year, so that the delivery costs associated with rich media like video have been going down. The third has to do with the prevalence of webcams. When the MacBook came out with an embedded webcam, I thought that was a big, big deal?a huge hardware enablement trend. I spent a lot of time thinking about what that camera could be used for. Broadband is going up, bandwidth is going down, and webcams are near as your laptop: it seemed to me the market might be primed for adopting something like Ustream.
Over time, has Ustream attracted the people you expected, or have there been some surprises?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised. We’ve gotten some presidential candidates, for example. Considering the high-stakes games candidates are playing right now, their trust in Ustream means a lot to us. And musicians like The White Stripes and Plain White T’s. For them to trust us with their brand has been a great surprise.
What are the advantages of Ustream and livecasting in general over a more on-demand medium like YouTube? How do people view it differently?
YouTube is great. I can see my favorite comedian, Craig Ferguson, on YouTube at any time. But the experience is one of leaning back and passively watching?I’m consuming media. But if Craig were on Ustream, I could interact with him. So Ustream offers a richer experience over the Internet. The other difference is the timely and relevant delivery of information. For example, when the Virginia Tech massacre happened, the campus shut down, barring the traditional press from getting the story in the usual way. But a student turned on his webcam and started reporting live from the dorm where it happened. We found out about this because CBS Nightly News had captured the footage and rebroadcast it on their evening program.
There are of course happier reasons for livecasting. Recently, a Google employee wanted to share the moment of the birth of his child with family members who couldn’t be there in person. He didn’t actually stream the delivery part, but those precious moments after where you are seeing the baby for the first time?he was able to share that.
You’ve cited quite a range of users: from presidential candidates to informed amateurs. Are you seeing growth in one direction or the other?
Right now the growth is pretty evenly distributed across the spectrum. We are seeing premium branding content, such as ABC’s premier of its show ⁠Dirty Sexy Money⁠⁠ and FX interactive’s premiere of Nip/Tuck. We’re also seeing streams from aspiring musicians and podcasters. Then we have everything to the long tail. My favorite example is someone who is streaming the inside of a honeycomb?you can actually see live bees creating honey.
Where do people get the time to watch other people’s livecasts? Is there a saturation of content?
The concept of sharing your life is not new, although in some ways, what we’re seeing is a renaissance. JennyCam is one of the best examples. [In 1996, college student Jennifer Ringley began what would become seven years of livecasting.] But it’s true that a lot of live streaming is boring. The interesting content is often comparatively sparse. That why Ustream is encouraging more episodic content, in which there’s a definite start and a definite stop. We’ve seen a lot of success with this kind of format?such as ⁠35⁠. The show is truly live?there are no edits?and that’s the lure: you never quite know what is going to happen.
The episodic content enforces a kind discipline on the content creators.
Exactly. When you know you have only a finite amount of time, then you start to think more in terms of creating something with value. That’s true for presidential candidates, as well. For example, when Barack Obama was on Ustream this morning, he had a very specific reason to appear. He was on for about an hour, and in that timeframe, he delivered a tremendous amount of value by talking about the major highlights of his current position. In other words, he went online for a reason. He had something to say, something to share. He had a focus.
Do candidates take advantage of Ustream’s interactivity?
Some candidates get that more than others, but they are all beginning to figure it out. For example, Dennis Kucinich actually picked up the laptop and gave a personal tour of his campaign headquarters. And when I was with Plain White Teeth in Philadelphia, they were interacting with fans in real time. Those fans were located all over the globe, including Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Asia. When went back to the comment list on that show, so many people said: ⁠Oh my gosh, the Plain White Teeth answered my question⁠⁠ or ⁠The Plain White Teeth said ⁠hi⁠⁠ to me.”
Is there also corporate interest in either marketing to customers or internal communications?
We have a lot of interest from Fortune 50 companies that want to work with Ustream and incorporate live streaming, and we are seeking strategic partnerships that make sense for us. For example, we are helping a big corporation here in the Silicon Valley incorporate live streaming into what they are already doing with Facebook. They are interested in using Facebook as a social network for a distributed workforce, to create a sense of community. Live video would be a nice complement, especially for people who don’t see each other every day.
Facebook has its own API and has been encouraging developers to develop applications specifically for the site. Is that something you’d consider?
We have a Facebook app. You can go in and be live in your Facebook profile.
What does it take for you to run Ustream?
It is daunting. In our early days, we used just a handful of servers. Now, I walk into our server farm and I’m amazed, realizing there are all the boxes deliver video streams around the world.
How do Web designers link your technology into a conventional website?
We have HTML embed code next to every stream, which you can paste right onto an HTML page. Once you’ve done that, you’ve essentially embedded a live stage?a performing space.
Can Web designers themselves use Ustream?
It’s perfect for that. Design work is both visual and highly iterative. By incorporating the live streaming technology, designers can iterate in a visual medium in consultation with clients who aren’t physically present. This is a great way to collaborate. I’ll just go to my page and I’ll show you the work in progress. You can tell me on the spot if, for example, you like this color?and if not, I can try something else.
It sounds like this is a new medium and the possibilities have not been fully explored
I agree. This is a very nascent, developing space. I was at a conference talking about this with some companies who are still trying to figure out how to monetizing the content they create. The business models still need to be worked out, as well.
Who are you competing with? Conventional broadcasters? YouTube?
I think of Ustream as a complement and a supplement rather than a substitute to conventional video sites?for two reasons. The first is that it is very difficult technologically to integrate into live streaming.
So the base technologies are different?
The infrastructures are completely different. They cannot just flip a switch and do what we do.
The second point is that we are seeing many partnership opportunities. For example, we can do live events from the home page of a big site. Or we can do a co-promotional opportunity in which a YouTube page and is accompanied by a live video. Are the synergies here? I definitely think there are.
YouTube has signed partnerships with content creators like the BBC. Are you ultimately going to find yourself in competition with them?
I believe we are complementary because we are a different format. The same content creator can deliver content in different ways.
Silicon Valley attracts all sorts of people, but you’re the first West Point graduate I’ve talked to. Were you able to bring something different to it because of your background?
I think so. From a company team perspective, Brad and I bring a lot of leadership philosophy and thought to the process. And as Ustream grows up, it would be very exciting to see if Ustream becomes a more ethical company than the norm, and if so, why.
In terms of the site, are we bringing anything different? The overall team is pretty balanced?a senior technologist and two generalists. Brad and I think we are pretty mainstream America. We’ll often say hey, mainstream America may not understand this button you’re putting on the site?can you make it bigger, can you make it red, can you make is say ⁠start broadcast⁠?

“35”’s Kathryn Jones: Don’t Just Wing It

One of Ustream’s more original offerings was the experimental drama ⁠35,⁠⁠ a 10-episode live show streamed over Ustream last year on consecutive evenings, beginning on September 19th. The production was shot with three cameras on four floors of a building, mixed in real time, with volunteer actors and crew, and about $35,000 in hardware, most of it donated or bartered. The production was presented by synchronis.tv and co-produced by the Digital Film Academy, both of New York City.

I spoke with co-producer Kathryn Jones, whose acting career has usually played out place on stage, rather than the Intenet. But as she describes the making of ⁠35⁠⁠ you get the sense that the Internet has taken its place in the outer edges of the ⁠fringe⁠⁠ theater.

How did “35” come to be?
Kathryn Jones: I’m an actor/producer who had been working on a film, which lead to a podcast, which opened up this entire world of social media. One day I was on Twitter and two people I know were doing a live show on Ustream?so I tuned in. It was a live show from [VoIP pioneer and Vonage co-founder] Jeff Pulver’s studio. I’m chatting in the chat box with them and others I knew from the social media community and realizing how quickly and interactively the response: it felt like an amazing combination of community and online media. My heart started to pound as I was watching this because I knew there was something in this for me, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
I finally realized that what makes me different from a lot of people in the tech world is I come to it from an entertainment perspective. I had been following a little of what was going on with Justin.tv which is pure lifecasting, and realized that this is a medium where my experience as an actor and producer, in podcasting and social media, could come together. I also was noticing that in this medium, people are often not especially prepared and the programming is not especially dynamic. So I thought: I can bring something to this that no one has brought before.
What did you see in this medium that you did not see in a straight podcast?
One thing is interactivity with the audience. We didn’t take advantage of that with ⁠35,⁠?it can be difficult with a scripted piece--but I’d like to do a lot more. Also, there’s an excitement in watching something live. Many of our viewers told us that. We used three cameras, we mixed the feed in real time, and we shot on four floors of a building: so it was a little
“dangerous.⁠⁠ But going live was exciting both for the viewers, and certainly for us.
Did you conceive of 35 as totally scripted, or [like the HBO series] Curb Your Enthusiasm, a combination of plot and impromptu.
Totally scripted, which isn’t to say always say them line for line. But we had 10 episodes written by a wonderful writer. And we rehearsed.
So by using a script, you were making good use of everyone’s time, including the audience’s.
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but absolutely. That’s one of my complaints. I tune into a lot of live broadcasts because I’m interested in the medium; but it seems that a lot of people think that if it’s live, they don’t have to prepare. When that happens, I find myself annoyed and bored, because the medium has so much possibility out there. If you are doing a show, I think you owe it to your audience to prepare. That’s true whether it’s a podcast or live.
What else should people consider?
One challenge we ran up against were the huge technical requirements: things neither our experienced technical director or Ustream knew. We also had a really difficult time with sound. When you are shooting from your webcam and you are just talking, sound is difficult to reproduce. It was much more difficult for us, of course, with all our mikes and our four floors. By our tenth episode, we had learned a lot.
For example, and I’m not sure this is true just about Ustream, the transmission would stop when there was silence. That makes sense from the standpoint of conserving bandwidth. But with a scripted drama, there was meant to be silence. The sound transmission would stop and then take a couple of seconds to kick back in: so you would miss things. What we finally did on our last episode was to run music underneath the entire thing. That actually made the episode better, but in addition, Ustream got a sound signal from us, so we stayed solid the entire time.
What about shooting live video?
We shot with three cameras and mixed the signals in real-time using a piece of equipment called TriCaster Studio, which runs around $5,000 to $10,000 depending on the model. That’s one way to get sophisticated production for a relatively small cost.
There’s also a website: Mogulus.com, which allows you to do the same kind of thing. You can have multiple cameras, each set up to a different computer?then you can switch cameras with Mogulus.com. It’s an amazing site. There are others, includingOperator11 [which calls itself a ⁠social television network⁠]. I’m a fan of Ustream, of course, and there is also BlogTV.com?another place you can go to create live shows on the fly.
You mentioned audience participation. How would you do it for a show?
This is a perfect medium for an improvisational show. You would keep that chat room open and interact with it. And I think it would be good in drama as well; I’d like to play around with that at some point.
There is also audience participation among themselves. During the first few episodes, I kept the chat room closed while the show was going because I didn’t want to distract from the show. I changed my mind about that midway through. If the audience wants to chat among themselves, that’s the point of the medium. So we kept the chat room open during the show. The thing that I see people do very successfully is build a community around their show. I tune into some shows once or twice a week--and I ⁠know⁠⁠ a lot of the people. I know them in the sense that because I have an Internet relationship with them. It is not the same as a person-to-person friendship, but I still have a sense of community.