Mobile webcasting with Darwin Streaming Server and Helix

When I began the investigation I'm documenting in this series of columns, one of my aims was to learn how to work with live audio or video streams. Since I'm particularly interested in solutions that anyone can use, I started with a pair of free products from Apple: Darwin Streaming Server (DSS) and QuickTime Broadcaster. Using this combination, I was able to take an audio/video stream from the iSight camera on my TiBook, bounce it off DSS, and receive it in the QuickTime player. When I moved DSS to an internet-visible server, my TiBook became a mobile webcam. From any WiFi-connected location, even behind a NAT or firewall, I could broadcast live to the world. My upstream bandwidth limits this capability to a handful of streams, but it works. Sure, webcams have been around forever, but if you've never set one up for yourself--and I hadn't--you'll still be amazed that it's possible to create global telepresence in this way. The mobile aspect adds a new and, to be honest, slightly scary dimension. Pointed inward, the iSight camera I use while sitting in Starbucks is a videochat tool. Pointed outward, it can produce live television.

From DSS, I moved on to the Helix DNA Server, the open source version of RealNetworks' commercial media server. Helix handles QuickTime streams in the same way that DSS does and also--naturally--supports Real streams, so it multiplied my mobile webcasting options. I could stream from the iSight on my Mac or from my Logitech camera attached to a Windows or Linux laptop. [Full story at O'Reilly Network]

At the end of this piece, I ask and answer the question: "If it's free and relatively easy to do live streaming, why does hardly anyone (pornographers excepted) bother?" There are, of course, scads of fixed webcams all around the world, and have been for years. In the scenarios I outline, the webcam becomes dramatically more portable. Now the all-seeing eye can be attached to a laptop that can be in a conference room, or a public park, or any WiFi-connected location. But it is still, for all intents and purposes, a fixed webcam. So my answer to the question is that, perhaps, the ignition point for this technology awaits the arrival of camcorders that stream live video over WiFi:

Imagine the following scenario. It's 2007, and a major political rally is happening in Philadelphia. The downtown has been a WiFi zone for over a year. Bloggers are walking around with camcorders that do what my camera-equipped laptops can do today: encode video and send it via WiFi to a streaming server. Not everyone's blog server also runs a streaming media server, but there are enough of them to spread the load.

Here's the payoff: bloggers will democratize video reporting of the live event in the same way they've already leveled the playing field for conventional reporting. The TV networks will still score most of the big interviews, but the collective eyes and ears of the videobloggers will supply a wealth of otherwise missing viewpoints. And their archived videoblog posts will be stirred in to the blogosphere's bubbling cauldron of links, commentary, and aggregation.
We have fixed webcams, we have video chat, but this would be a very different use for streaming video.

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