educational

Live Cam Tech Evolves

Stephen Yagielowicz
While the profound intimacy and immediacy afforded by live video hasn't changed, the variety of applications for the technology, as well as the technology itself, has evolved over the past several years, warranting another look at live video today.

Whether you call it a webcam, live video chat, video messaging, video conferencing, or know it by some other catchphrase, live one-on-one or one-to-many video systems have long been a staple of online adult entertainment, particularly within the amateur adult community where projecting personality is everything.

On the application front, live video is no longer a "sex only" tool, but one that is used for everything from customer and affiliate support to providing enhanced paysite tours and more. While the applications of this technology are only limited by the website operator's imagination, the tools used for live video creation and delivery have traditionally been limited by their underlying technology — technology that has been rapidly advancing with improvements in computing power, video systems and broadband Internet access speeds — and it is this technology XBIZ will focus on.

Most live cam operators today are still amateur "web girls" who will rely on the systems and software provided to them by the networks they join, such as Camz.com or 2Much.net's LiveCamNetwork. But also there are systems available to both individual amateur adult operators who may or may not wish to join a network, and to other business entities wishing to utilize live video services to help spread and support their messages.

One of the most significant improvements in live, web-based video is on the hardware front, where simple USB-based webcams, though still commonplace, have largely been replaced by higher-quality webcams using high-speed USB 2 or IEEE 1394 FireWire connections, allowing for higher resolutions and increased frame rates.

More significant, however, than the new-generation webcams is the now commonplace inclusion of USB 2 and/or FireWire ports on high-quality, low-cost video camcorders, including "prosumer" three-chip and high-definition models, allowing for dramatic, visible improvements in image capture quality, including enhanced color and sharpness. The inclusion of these connectors typically allows for the use of these cameras without the need for special video cards or other capture hardware and provides a much more realistic viewing experience.

Beyond capture devices, improvements in computing power not only allow for better quality imagery to be produced on the fly but allow for more robust multitasking that can permit users to run simultaneous programs on one machine, whereas a dedicated box might have been required previously in order to work in other windows while webcasting a video stream. This is a tremendous boon to customer support staff that in addition to software packages for the video/chat stream also may need access to CRS software and associated databases, as well as web access to client and internal websites — all of which could easily have crippled previous-generation PCs.

Last, but certainly not least, the increase in broadband speeds and market penetration has dramatically improved the quality of live web-video.

To illustrate this, I'll offer my own connections as an example. We first ran an in-house webcam using cable Internet with a 256 kbps upload, which, six years ago, was pretty decent. Wanting to increase the image size, frame rate and consistency required us to upgrade to a much pricier "business class" package that offered a static IP, priority packet switching and a 384 kbps upload — all at three times the price of our "home use" Internet package.

Today, we're back on the "home" package, but this now offers a 6 mbps download and 512 kbps upload — plenty for a high-quality single (or limited number of connections) video stream.

Although these advancements in hardware and related technologies have contributed to an increase in the quality of live video, it's the advancements in the software applications that have driven the growth of its usage.

Of all the limiting factors in the growth of live video, the software used to power these systems has been among the most problematic. Often clunky, prone to crashing and lacking in features, early programs were awkward to use. While most webcams come with a software package, they often rely on the use of a dedicated service to "host" the video stream — services that generally barred adult content in their Terms of Service and were primarily designed to become video-sharing "communities."

This situation left adult and mainstream business users searching for solutions such as the old-school workhorse Webcam32, which could serve as the basis of a homegrown system embedded on the user's own domain and HTML pages. While I initially used Webcam32, it didn't take me too long to switch over to simply pumping a live video stream directly from Windows Media Encoder, avoiding the use of Java and other technologies that were at times problematic for surfers.

Fast-forward to today and what you'll find is the widespread use of video-enabled instant messaging services such as industry-standard ICQ, which allows for individual and group video chat sessions, as well as the increasingly popular Skype, and most other current IM programs, including offerings from Yahoo! MSN, AOL and Google.

This near-universal accessibility has allowed legions of users to experience live two-way video communications without the need of setting up dedicated systems, and will continue to fuel the growth of live video on into the future.

Having said that, these systems are far from perfect, often delivering mediocre image quality and being totally dependent on the host services — as well as requiring that all viewers have the same IM software installed. While this may be adequate for say, an affiliate program seeking to enhance webmaster support while using ICQ, it may be a very far cry from what a solo-girl needs to keep her members happy and recurring.

Regardless of the mechanisms and mechanics involved, the use of live web-video is an unparalleled tool for increasing interactivity and delivering an infinitely more personal touch to member/client communications. Given the popularity of these systems, it's an easy prediction that they will only become better, more robust and more indispensable as time goes on. How will you fit live web-video services into your operation? Your own imagination is the only limit.

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