Broadcasting live video used to require a huge satellite truck, thousands of dollars in equipment and several strong souls to lug around bulky machines. Then YouTube came along, and all you needed was a camera, a computer and a little bit of Web savvy. Now Web video has gotten even easier. With Qik.com, a free Web service launched in public test mode on July 21, all you need is a cell phone.
Qik takes video from mobile phones and broadcasts it instantly via the Internet. You can share a baby's first steps or a wedding from afar, all in real time. Just point a cell phone at something, press a button, and anyone with Web access can watch what you're seeing as it's happening and send comments or questions directly to your cell phone. Qik videos can be downloaded from the site or embedded on any blog or website or designated as private.
Qik has been in development since 2006, and early testers have so far streamed about 130,000 videos from 55 countries. Much of the footage is unremarkable showing someone's desk, hands or computer screen as people try to figure out what to use the technology for. But once Qik reaches the mainstream, it may prove useful for documenting natural disasters, crimes and sensitive situations in which a tiny cell phone may go unnoticed by prohibitive authorities and before anyone can put a stop to the video's transmission. The feeds are live, so they can't be censored, but the site relies largely on community filtering to identify and bar users who abuse the technology.
Qik's already got competitors. Flixwagon debuted this month with a similar cell-phone-video broadcasting service. Only a few select phones, including the Nokia N95 smartphone, have Qik or Flixwagon capability, but both sites plan to expand their service to other models, including Apple's iPhone, in the coming months. Another similar site, Kyte.TV, has already partnered with the major music labels and artists like 50 Cent. Kyte has broader, slightly more commercial ambitions, enabling professional videos and photos to be broadcast alongside live cell-phone feeds.
The broadcast quality of cell-phone video on these sites is still imperfect it's often grainy, occasionally blurry and nearly always a step below video-camera clarity. Sometimes videos freeze and audio is muffled. For those committed to higher-quality images, Eye-Fi sells a wi-fi-enabled SD memory card for digital still cameras that stores your photos and uploads them automatically via a wireless network to your home computer or to the online photo-sharing site of your choice. (The technology has surprising advantages: in June, a camera thief in Florida inadvertently turned himself in when the images he took of himself with the device were automatically beamed to the owner's computer.) Eye-Fi is mum about its plans, but it wouldn't be surprising if the company expands into automatic and instant video transmission as consumers seek new shortcuts for getting higher-quality video content directly on the Web.
Cell-phone broadcasting has caught on in some unexpected places. Republican Congressman John Culberson of Texas recently filmed and broadcast 25 Qik videos, including one meta-video: live footage of the Phoenix Mars landing from the Jet Propulsion Lab control room in Pasadena, Calif. H2o News, which broadcasts events for the Vatican, has streamed dozens of Qik videos so far, including some documenting the Pope's travels. But even for more mundane occasions, Qik's early fans say it's satisfying to know you could broadcast anything to anyone in the world at a second's notice should the need arise. Digg.com founder Kevin Rose likes the way Qik enriches communication. "Think of the next time you're making a buying decision or attending a concert," Rose says. "Qik allows you to share these experiences and have a live conversation with the people watching. That's extremely powerful."