By Andy Carvin
Ever since the iPhone 3GS rolled out this summer with video recording capability, I've wondered how long it would take for a video streaming app to hit the App Store. Video streaming isn't completely alien to the iPhone -- Qik has had an app for jailbroken iPhones for some time now -- but no one had successfully gotten a full-blown streaming app past Apple's App Store gatekeepers. All of that changed yesterday with Ustream's rollout of their Live Broadcaster app for the iPhone. With this free app, any iPhone 3GS can record and stream live video to the Web.
As far as apps go, it's fairly straightforward. You give it your login info for an existing Ustream account, or create a new one. It then activates the iPhone's camera, with a big green "Go Live" button on the bottom right of the screen. Click the button, and whammo -- you're streaming video directly to your Ustream account. You can also set it up to send a tweet that you're broadcasting live. When you're done streaming, you can upload a copy of the video to Youtube or Facebook.
Some observations about the experience:
It's not so easy to shoot video of yourself on an iPhone without cutting your head in half. As I make it painfully obvious at the start of the video, it was difficult to figure out how to position the iPhone in my hand so I could record my own face as I talked. In a previous take I held it about a foot from my face but my head dominated the entire screen. Stretching my arm out as far as I could go, I could get some background around me, but I couldn't maintain a particularly good angle. Perhaps it's just camera's field of view, but this was never a problem when I've shot video of myself on other stream-friendly phones like the Nokia N95.
Speak up, sonny!Eyder and I shot the video in our office when it was really quiet. We spoke at normal conversational volume, but you have to crank up the sound in order to hear us clearly. Again, this may be less of a Ustream problem than it is an iPhone mic problem, but it was noticeable.
There's a delay, but it's not bad. Streaming over our wifi network, the video delay was sometimes as good as three or four seconds. Using AT&T's 3G network, the delay was more like 8 seconds. Both seemed pretty acceptable to us.
You can see viewer comments on the screen. If anyone posts a comment on your stream's page while you're still live, it appears on your phone, so you can respond in real time. This is a feature I always loved about Qik on my N95, so I'm glad to see it works with this app on the iPhone, too.
Twitter notification is good, but not great. My first attempt at a stream sent out a Tweet with the text "Hey! I'm live on Ustream from my iPhone," along with the link. The next time I did it, the text changed to "Look my new video on Ustream." Why the difference, I'm not sure, perhaps there's a variety of stock text they have available for these tweets. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to change the text from my phone. While Ustream lets you generate a tweet with custom text on their Web site, it doesn't seem to work in the app. With Qik, for example, I can type out a title for the stream and have that go out in the tweet. Here, though, I was stuck with their default text. Generally this might not be a big deal, but my Twitter friends wouldn't know the difference if I was streaming a video of my cat playing with a ball of string, or if I was streaming protesters getting roughed up at a demonstration. One is less newsworthy than the other, and it'd be nice if the tweet that gets sent out could explain the difference.
No landscape mode. Generally this is also no big deal - it's easier to hold an iPhone vertically with one hand. But if you're one of these video geeks that likes to experiment with iPhone camera mounts like the OWLE, it's possible that your mount can only grip the iPhone horizontally. If you stream video this way, the result would be the world askew by 90 degrees.
If your iPhone goes to sleep, so does your video stream! As I recorded Eyder, I noticed the phone kept wanting to go into sleep mode. Mind you, this had nothing to do with Eyder -- he's a captivating guy in real life, I swear -- but my iPhone's settings were set to start sleeping after one minute of idle time. From the phone's perspective, simply shooting video is idle time, because I wasn't touching the screen as we recorded. I managed to tap the screen on a few occasions whenever I noticed it was a problem, but watch what happens around 3:18 into the video. I was aiming the phone at myself and lost track of time, and the phone went completely to sleep at that point. Amazingly, the stream continued, but my image was replaced by the iPhone's closed camera shutter image! You could hear everything I was saying, but not see me. And when I finally went to shut down the stream, I had to wake it up by double-clicking the main button and then typing in my PIN code to unlock it. This meant the video kept streaming while I fumbled with it.
So my first experience with the Ustream app wasn't perfect. But that's okay. I'm sure some of the bugs will be worked out in future releases, and camera mounts (or practice, for that matter) could solve some of problems I had with audio and positioning of the shot. All of this is mere quibbling, though. Ustream has now made it possible for anyone with an iPhone 3GS to stream live video, all without the need to jailbreak it. That means millions of people, in theory at least, can become video broadcasters at a moment's notice. It's just a matter of time before a big news story breaks live because someone had their iPhone in the right place at the right time.