The action camera market is top-heavy, to say the least. GoPro has dominated for years, and its closest competitors — Sony, Garmin, and TomTom — are no slouches, either. So if you're going to enter it as a startup, you better have a unique take on the idea of an action camera. A new company called Sioeye is doing just that in the form of what it's calling the Iris4G: the world's first Android-based action camera that can live stream over LTE.
The camera looks like an all-black version of a GoPro Hero 4, and is just a little bit bigger. But that's where the similarities end. It has a narrower (but still relatively wide) field of view of 150 degrees, it doesn't have nearly the same accessory ecosystem, and — of course — there's the live streaming functionality.
There are a few likely reasons that GoPro and its competitors have shied away from live streaming. One is, simply, image quality. Sioeye is capping the Iris4G's streams at 480p to make sure they remain uninterrupted, trading quality for reliability. (You can opt not to live stream and record to a microSD card at 4K, 2K, or 1080p. The Iris4G can also record 1080p footage locally while simultaneously live streaming.) Companies like GoPro, on the other hand, hang their business largely on image quality, so it behooves them to wait until users can reliably stream at least 720p HD footage before they even consider the feature.
480p live streaming, but 4K recording on the camera, too
Another is bandwidth. Even if you could ensure a high-quality stream, cell service is usually spotty in the places that action cameras are typically used, like on the tops of mountains or out in the middle of the forest. To deal with this problem, the Seattle, Washington-based Sioeye is already working with AT&T and T-Mobile on optimizing for their networks.
"Most mountains out here actually have really good coverage," says David Abramowski, general manager of Sioeye. "AT&T will cover one mountain, T-Mobile will cover another." It's just a matter of which SIM card do you have, he says, and whether that SIM card allows roaming. As for Verizon, he says, "we still have work to do."
The Iris4G streams about 1GB of data per hour at 480p, and the battery can last through about one hour of continuous live streaming. Along with that, there's also a gyroscope, a barometer, and GPS. "We can tell speed, we can tell altitude, we can tell g-force on the body, we can tell body position," Abramowski says. "Then we broadcast that along with the stream so that you can see things like how fast people are going."
Most of GoPro's competition try to either match the company's specs or image quality. Some are also trying to add new features on top of that — TomTom, for example, has put a lot of weight behind its automatic editing software.
But the future of action cameras might hinge on the immediacy of the content. One only has to look at the success of Periscope, or even Snapchat, to understand that. When I interviewed pro skier Tom Wallisch for an episode of Top Shelf last year, this was one of the things he was most excited about.
"We already use GoPros so much, just because it's so easy to have them on and have them rolling," he said. "But if you were able to stream it and share it live? That's the dream." Wallisch said it's one thing to record a clip and instantly share it, but it's another thing entirely to instantly share a whole run's worth of footage live — or even to show fans the grueling, hours-long process of setting up a particular shot that his team might be filming for a movie.
Live streaming is one of the next big steps athletes are asking for
This is partly why, earlier this year, GoPro built an antenna rig called HeroCast for its cameras that enabled them to live stream on television broadcasts (like the X-Games). But none of this tech has made its way into the GoPro cameras that you find on store shelves, which is why Sioeye — which promises to deliver its cameras in the first quarter of 2016 — has a decent chance at funding its Kickstarter.
Next to the live streaming, Sioeye is also introducing this idea of an Android-based action camera, which could open up an entirely separate set of new opportunities. Third-party developers could write applications for the express purpose of being used on the camera, ones that could take advantage of not only the live streaming, but also the live telemetry. "A lot of different cool things can be done," says Abramowski. "People can write apps and put them on Google Play, and they can be downloaded right into the camera."
In the end, though, Abramowski says Sioeye's success really hinges on the live streaming feature. "There’s such a battle going on with who’s got the better specs," he says, "but we want to be the best at helping people connect."