-- Looking for something fun to watch online? How about a live video view of Christmas tree lights or an amateur Italian band rehearsing in the basement as it's happening?
If those offerings on Ustream.tv don't grab you, there's always the Florida sunset from contributor Don Browne's patio on Justin.tv, or tech blogger Robert Scoble's video test of a new Nokia phone, streamed from his cellphone in Barcelona.
Online video used to mean prerecorded and edited clips on YouTube and other video-sharing sites. But as the year comes to a close, one of the fastest-growing trends is showcasing live video on websites such as Justin.tv, Ustream.tv and Mogulus and via cellphone at Qik and Kyte.
"Live broadcasting was something only done by the rich news organizations," says Michael Seibel, CEO of San Francisco-based start-up Justin.tv. "So when you bring it to the masses, the public gets really excited."
According to measurement service Quantcast, Justin.tv attracted 11 million visitors in November, compared with Ustream's 5.6 million and Mogulus' 2.1 million. That's a far cry from YouTube's 71 million, but the sites are seeing traffic nearly double. Justin.tv had just under 6 million visitors in October, and Ustream, 3 million.
Both Justin and Ustream are geared toward consumers, while Mogulus (partially owned by Gannett, publisher of USA TODAY) targets consumers and businesses. About 7 million folks watched Ustream.tv's live webcasts of the Republican National Convention in September; nearly 100,000 tuned in to Mogulus' live streams on election night.
"It's live, anything can happen, and the editorial filter has been lifted," says John Ham, co-founder of Ustream.
Aggregating an audience
For the Web-based live video sites, anybody who ever wanted to host a TV show can do it with an Internet-connected computer and a webcam.
Much of the live streaming is targeted at niche audiences. But multiply a lot of mini-niches several times, and these companies could potentially end up with huge aggregate audiences, says Max Haot, CEO of Mogulus. "Everyone loves content that's relevant to them," he says.
"High school meetings, political events, stuff that only a few thousand people would be interested in watching. Now they have access to it, with live streaming."
Prominent tech blogger Scoble uses mobile services Kyte and Qik to stream live video from his iPhone — an experiment that shows just how early in the process the new mobile services are.
The iPhone has a still camera, not a video camera. But software is available to "jailbreak" the iPhone to give it video capability. Doing so voids the warranty.
"We all have video cameras on cellphones now that weren't there before, and people are starting to use them," Scoble says. Instead of just snapping a quick picture, "We can call our parents and say, 'Hey, watch my baby,' or 'I'm at the Louvre museum in Paris, watch me,' and that's cool."
Sure, you could take a quick video and e-mail it when you return home. But this way, you place a quick call, connect your friends or loved ones to the live video link — and you're on the mobile Internet.
The appeal of Qik is "sharing moments of what you're doing live with friends and family," says Qik co-founder Bhaskar Roy. "It's instant messaging with a video picture on the cellphone."
Roy says Qik works with many different phones but not all. They tend to be the more expensive smartphone variety — think BlackBerrys and Windows Mobile phones. Roy says a majority of his 100,000 registered users opt for the iPhone or Nokia N95, a $595 phone that none of the major U.S. wireless carriers sells with subsidized contracts.
According to market tracker ComScore Media Metrix, about 6.5 million people watched live mobile video in August. Besides amateur live video, that includes streaming video from mainstream sites such as MSNBC and CNN.
But will any of these companies ever make money? Right now, profits are non-existent. Seibel says Justin.tv is "approaching" profitability, while Ustream's Ham says he's making money on advertising but is more concerned with growth.
Qik, which recently laid off five employees among 50 in a belt-tightening move, will offer premium services next year in a bid to move toward profitability. Mogulus' $350 monthly "pro" version just went on sale last week — it can be tweaked to remove ads and branding.
Like Web video before YouTube
"Right now these sites remind me of where Net video was before YouTube," says Phil Leigh, an analyst at Inside Digital Media. "It's an application that will become really popular, and the survivors have a real opportunity to eventually make money."
They can also make for controversy. Nasty headlines flew recently when a teenager committed suicide live on Justin.tv. The 19-year-old Floridian had said he would do it, and many bloggers, including NewTeeVee, suggest that he was egged on by viewers on message boards.
Scoble says that's what happens when the camera is always running. "You're going to see lots of happy times, like the birth of babies, and nasty things, like murder and houses burning down from fires. You can't control that. It's the dark side of live video."