Rick’s American Cafe is the most popular bar where I went to school in Ann Arbor, MI. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, rain or shine, the line to get into Rick’s wraps around the block. One entrepreneurial student with a great view of the bar jerry-rigged his webcam to broadcast live from his bedroom window to a website, and the site went viral. RicksLine.com was meant "to create a method for people to have this view of the line and get in faster without the hassle of waiting in the cold," co-creator Will O’Leary told The Michigan Daily. The site went on to make money flanking its video feed with ads, but eventually shut down once its creators moved away. A new RicksLine hasn’t yet emerged, despite the fact that doubtlessly hungry students live in the same house.
Once you download Koozoo, setting up a video stream takes less than a minute
"The problem was that it was a weekend project, was difficult to set up, and was hacked together," says Drew Sechrist — who is today launching a free app called Koozoo that turns any old iPhone into a 24 / 7 livestreaming video machine. "We found RicksLine and that was exactly the problem," he says. "People don’t have the time, patience, or technical aptitude to put this together." Once you download Koozoo to an old iPhone or iPod Touch (and soon, Android devices), setting up a video stream over either Wi-Fi or 4G takes less than a minute. The company will even mail you a window suction cup mount to give your old device the best possible view. Sechrist envisions a future where it’s easy to open the app, search for a place, and see a live video feed of traffic, parking spots, lines for bars, surfing conditions, and more. For now, you're only allowed to livestream "public" spaces in San Francisco and Austin, TX.
"Today we have ubiquitous smartphones, but also ubiquitous old smartphones," Sechrist says. "There are billions of dollars of smartphones sitting in sock drawers all over the world." The idea came to him while he was homesick on vacation in Mexico in 2008. "I had a BlackBerry — I can see any piece of data in the digital world right now, but why can’t I see my neighborhood back in San Francisco?" Webcams require software, and software requires a computer, and complete home security set-ups from SkyMall cost a grand. But Sechrist really just wanted to see what was up at the coffee shop down the street. Nearly five years later, Koozoo can help you do just that, backed by a $2.5 million round of funding led by New Enterprise Associates and Tugboat Ventures.
One of the clever aspects of Koozoo is that your phone doesn’t actually broadcast all day and night. The phone takes a snapshot every few minutes to use as a thumbnail, and only broadcasts live when a viewer using the Koozoo app tunes in. Video streams out at between 200 and 800 kbps, depending on your internet connection, which can max out at about 720p fidelity video, Sechrist says. Koozoo plans advanced features for those who "share their view," and perhaps even reward those with the most popular feeds. If you don’t have a spare phone to use, Koozoo gives you the ability to record short video snippets other users can see on a map. If you just feel like spectating, you can always browse the app's library of live feeds organized neatly on a map, and also by category.
Koozoo doesn’t transmit audio in order to preserve some semblance of privacy — a word the company should be paying close attention to. What gives you the right to stream live video of your neighbor’s front yard? Koozoo’s terms of service dictate that only public spaces can be streamed by users, but Sechrist and his co-founders know everybody isn’t going to stick to the rules. "Unless a front yard is obscured in some way, it is visible to the general public. I do expect that there will be a large, dynamic public discussion about this with many varying viewpoints expressed," he says, but that doesn’t mean users aren’t going to livestream videos of their bedroom.
Koozoo servers and team members plan to approve each feed individually before it goes live
"There’s never been anything like this that makes public spaces of our metro areas visible to all by making it super simple to do," Sechrist says, which is exactly why the service is ripe for abuse. Koozoo servers and team members plan to approve each feed individually before it goes live, and even use some algorithms to decide what might be bad content. Koozoo has erected defenses against those who might move their iPhone after their feed was approved. "If a camera in a window get bumped or moves slightly the system will not flag it," a Koozoo spokesperson says, "but if a camera is turned around to face into a bedroom after a view of a street corner was approved, Koozoo would take the feed offline until it is reviewed again."
Just like Instagram and Vine, Koozoo will face a never-ending struggle with users who cross the boundaries of what’s acceptable as public content. "There will be grey areas of what’s appropriate content and what’s not," Sechrist told TechCrunch, "and we are building an advisory board of some of the world’s leading experts at the intersection of privacy and computer science, and we’ll be looking to those guys to advise us on those grey areas." Another challenge is providing users with concrete reasons they might want to set up a Koozoo phone in the first place. Color did an OK job livestreaming what’s currently happening to you, but Koozoo focuses more on what’s currently happening somewhere specific, like your yard, or the park outside your office building. Keeping that sense of utility in mind, it could herald in a world where privately owned cameras blanket our cities with video coverage 24 / 7. That might sound like a scary world, but it seems like one that’s increasingly inevitable.