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11/18/2011
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LooxcieLive: Wearable Camera Live Streams Video

With this tiny wearable camera and your Android phone, you can live broadcast to friends and family--even while riding a mountain bike.

Early this year at CES, Looxcie introduced a wearable BlueTooth camcorder that let you instantly post captured video clips to YouTube and Facebook via Android and iPhone apps. The emphasis was not so much on capturing the highest definition video, but on convenience and instant gratification. "Instant" is a relative term, however, and now the company has redefined it to mean "live," as in live streaming, but on a highly personal level. Enter LooxcieLive.

The live streaming service is now available in beta testing, but InformationWeek has been test driving it for the past few weeks. While I wasn't able to test the full social nature of Looxcie just yet, I did put it through its paces (which included providing our video producer with the device.) LooxcieLive is damn fun. Aside from a few early glitches, it worked extremely well and is an amazingly convenient way to share special moments live with friends and family.

The Looxcie 2 camera, released this past summer, has been streamlined since the last time I tested it. Before, it was a single piece that wrapped around the ear, just like any Bluetooth earpiece. Now, the ear attachment is simply one of many for the camera. There are mounts for baseball caps and helmets. I tried them all; in fact, I mounted one to a bike helmet and took it for a spin on a mountain bike--that way, if I was attacked by a bobcat or mountain lion (prevalent in my area), our video producer would have to watch the gruesome scene, possibly scarring him for life.

LooxcieLive Viewing
(click image for larger view)
LooxcieLive Viewing

The camera communicates with an Android phone (running v 2.2 or higher) via Bluetooth. This was never quite as simple as I would have liked--I had to hold down a start button while powering on the camera (why can't a BlueTooth device just turn on normally?), and then allow the phone to find the device. At first, I took my sweet time and ended up having to shut the camera down and restart it, just to get the pairing to take place. The communications somehow time out. The Looxcie software initializes the device, and then it's ready to go.

The basic Android software is pretty easy to use. The two main functions are "broadcast" and "view." The former is understandable, yes? The latter is where users view other streams.

When broadcasting, I was able to choose from a list of viewers. That list gets populated by entering e-mail addresses, Facebook friends, or Twitter contacts. You can select individuals, create groups, drop and add users during a broadcast. You can even chat with viewers during the broadcast; they can also communicate with you using the software's push-to-talk function.

The chat feature worked well, but the only way to eliminate the chat window is using the Android return, or back button; there is no "close" mechanism. The company says this is normal Android functionality. I won't quibble.

Push-to-talk was actually pretty nifty, but we had a few instances of severe audio delay, where the viewer could hear his own voice coming back through the broadcast. Looxcie representatives said this is a known issue over slow mobile networks, and that the company is working to reduce the delay in poor network conditions.

Still, the idea that a relative can watch little Johnny miss the tag at third base, but also actually complain to you about the lousy throw from left field--well, I think it's pretty sweet (and you shouldn't be so hard on Johnny).

When a broadcaster of LooxcieLive invites someone to view video, it essentially invites them to download the free application. You can see how many people are viewing your live video.

LooxcieLive works over 3G, 4G or WiFi, and you can manually select which speed your network thinks it's running, or you can let Looxcie figure it out automatically. If there's a WiFi connection, it will use that by default. When I tried to switch in the middle of a broadcast, it shut down. I tested using all three types of networks, and the experience was similar on all of them.

The company has tuned its service to send only 15 frames per second, at VGA resolution, with lots of compression. In other words, the quality of the stream isn't high definition, nor, at this point would I expect it to be. Looxcie has, however, chosen to sacrifice video fidelity in return for a steady, smooth streaming experience. In fact, except for a few minor (and rare) buffering episodes, LooxcieLive was incredibly smooth. You can adjust some of the lighting controls in the settings menu; for me, a few little tweaks actually improved the quality of the video; proper lighting has a way of doing that.

Audio quality was as good as you can get in a product like this. Flipcams and other small recording devices do their best to pick up your voice, but ambient noise is always going to be an issue. During a bike ride, for example, the wind noise was deafening, but Looxcie picks up voices quite well anyway.

Viewing video streams is also interesting. Live video stream thumbnails appear on the viewing screen. You can scroll through, pick one, and watch; sort of a video presence capability. And you can watch in portrait or landscape mode.

It's also possible to have full duplex broadcasting, with picture-in-picture. Yes, you heard that right. Mom can be at Johnny's game and you can be at Jimmy's piano recital, and when you're tired of hearing yet another version of Three Blind Mice, you can tune into Johnny's game while Mom listens to Jimmy tinkle on the ivories (interpret that however you like). I tested this as well and by-gum if it didn't work.

One challenge with using LooxcieLive: If a user is merely spectating, with phone in hand, all is well; but if you attach the camera to a helmet (for bike riding or skateboarding or skiing), you're not going to have the phone in hand to view the experience (at least, not safely). That's OK, but once in a while the phone would go out of cell range and the entire LooxcieLive experience would stop. Since the phone and camera communicate using Bluetooth, there should be a graceful way for the video to continue being captured; or some sort of signal that lets the you know there's a problem. Looxcie is working on a way to make this better, and told me that it is going to move it up the priority list.

The LooxcieLive streaming service is, of course, cloud based, and as such the company has a few rules about it. One is that replays of videos are only kept for 24 hours. After all, "instant" can only last so long before it's, well, not really instant any more. These replays are only available via the application for now, but in the future they'll be shareable via a link on the web; Looxcie representatives said they plan to introduce this in the beta version soon. Looxcie will also create a web-based URL to the live broadcast some time in the future. There is no limit to the number of replays stored, and Looxcie will use the beta testing period to determine whether it can extend the 24 hour replay window.

One beef I had with the replay feature is there's no scrubbing tool, so a viewer can't fast forward to the exciting parts of the video. Looxcie added this to the beta version (ask, and you shall receive!)

It would be nice to see a Facebook app to stream into; or perhaps a tie-in to Google Plus Hangouts. (There we go again getting ahead of ourselves.) The company is adamant about controlling the streaming platform. The folks at Looxcie believe this is a product intended for sharing with a small, defined group of friends, not doing mass broadcasts via Livestream or Ustream technology. (Maybe in a future "Pro" version?)

The company says there will be a version of LooxcieLive for iOS 5 devices.

There are all sorts of fun add-ons to the Looxcie camera, by the way. In addition to the various mounts, we also tested a 2x zoom lens and a fish-eye lens. These attach to the Looxcie camera using magnetic rings. Unfortunately nobody will ever see it, but using the fish-eye lens during a bumpy bike ride created a pretty nifty end video result. Looxcie made these attachments available in October.

Now battery life: video capture, 3G/4G/WiFi use and constant BlueTooth connectivity are a recipe for battery drain. Looxcie has a setting that lets users choose a maximum broadcast time, which should prevent accidental broadcasting over a costly data plan, let alone battery drain issues. The default is set at 20 minutes. A battery indicator shows what's happening with the Looxcie camera (this wasn't clear to me; the company says it is changing the look to make it clear it is the camera battery indicator).

In my testing, I was able to zap the battery of my Android phone very quickly. Looxcie representatives said that, depending on the phone you're using, a continuous broadcast would drain the battery in two hours or less. So a word to the wise: If you're trying to stream a concert for your cheap friends, you won't have enough juice left to call a taxi to take your drunk self home.

Looxcie cameras cost $149.99 (five hour version) and $179.999 (10 hour version).

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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