Saturday, September 10, 2005

Geeks are doing it for themselves

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Blogs gave we the little people a soapbox from which to preach, prophesise and disseminate information. These rapidly evolved into more intimate, full-bodied podcasts, and yet this development marks only the beginning for homebrew, digital creatives. As subscription-based, audio-on-demand approaches its first anniversary, independent bedroom broadcasters are once again raising the stakes by turning to full motion video to convey their message. Veejays, not deejays are the flavour of the month!

Video blogs - or vlogs for short - allow enthusiasts of all kinds to create their own digital content and broadcast it to the world via the web. All that is required is a camcorder or webcam, an average home computer and a dash of technical know-how.

The practicalities of directing, editing and starring in your own 'TV' show are mere formalities; the main challenge as I see it is capitalising on the extra visual dimension, or in other words, offering something over and above a typical, podcast audio feed.

Some early adopters of the vidcast format have been content to film themselves - with a static, tripod-mounted camera - sitting on a sofa delivering their commentary or conducting interviews, while others are beginning to produce content which wouldn't look out of place in the line up of a national TV network.

I seem to be in the minority here, but I really don't see the point in offering video for video's sake. If I'm watching an internet TV broadcast I want to see some computer graphic overlays, screenshots, out-in-the-wild footage and so on - something, anything to justify the extra bandwidth and hindrance of having to be tethered to my computer instead of getting some exercise while I absorb my techtainment fix.

By failing to do this, many vidcasters are shooting themselves in the foot; when you're out and about, making your way from A to B and back again, you're a captive audience - you're looking for some form of entertainment to fill the void of your monotonous journey and so your expectations are lower than they would be if you were at home with a broader range of things to do. In effect a vidcaster has to work much harder to grab your attention than a podcaster, even if the material is virtually identical.

When it comes to releasing pointless video feeds, Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht of Diggnation take the biscuit. Their weekly round-up of the most dugg Digg stories began life as a podcast, and an excellent one at that, don't get me wrong. The video-on-demand feed (vodcast), vidcast, IPTV series, or whatever you want to call it, soon followed, but to what end? It features two guys sitting on a sofa, chugging beer and discussing the latest tech news (and goofy, highly dubious animal 'research'). Why we need to know they're sitting on a sofa in a living room is a mystery to me. I don't know about you, but my imagination can just about stretch to filling in these blanks. For any listeners struggling to picture the scene perhaps there could be a public service announcement at the beginning of each podcast. Thereafter they could adopt the style of a police interrogation recording; "for the benefit of the tape Alex just took a swig of beer and Kevin scratched his backside".

Moaning aside I really enjoy the hyperactive banter, insight and insider annecdotes. Kevin and Alex make a great team - they ooze with enthusiasm and truly know their stuff. Diggnation is so captivating you can even forgive the constant Bill and Ted-esque exclamations of cool, awesome and dude!

They must be doing something right because every other vidcasting upstart is trying to emulate them at the moment. 99.99% of tech vidcasts seem to have covered war driving at one stage or another (a topic Kevin addressed in great depth in an episode of The Broken, one of his other internet-only shows). It's not just subject matter the copycats are borrowing; many have also incorporated identical props, namely beer. I'm not sure if the inclusion of booze is supposed to lend a 'guy's night in' feel to the shows or if they're merely trying to shake off the geeky image associated with knowing a lot about computers. Either way it's quickly becoming a tedious gimmick.

Traversing the vlogosphere (don't you just love these hip buzzwords?) I couldn't help noticing how cliquey the vlog community is. Nine out of ten vidcasters appear to be either ex/current TechTV presenters or friends of an ex/current TechTV presenter. When they're not plugging each other's shows they're making guest appearances on them. This may have become a turn-off but for the fact that all the best shows are hosted by this circle of friends and colleagues: Patrick Norton's Digital Life TV, CommandN courtesy of Amber (and brother Jeff) MacArthur and Mike Lazzazzera, the aforementioned The Broken and SystM, yet another Kevin Rose brainchild. Incidentally this phenomenon isn't limited to vidcasts: refer to TechPhile, TWiT, Security Now and so on, for their podcast counterparts.

The common thread running throughout is superior production value and highly polished, professional presenters (well all except for the self-proclaimed 'hot stuff Lazzazz' who sounds like a creepy version of Mickey Mouse and makes me squirm in my seat). I can't make up my mind if his super-perky co-host, Amber, is cute, annoying, or both at the same time, but I digress. Even when a segment is so geeky your vacant eyes begin to glaze over (the whole of SystM for me) you can't fail to admire how much work has gone into preparing the demonstrations and CGI. If you happen to fall into the niche target demographic you'll think you've died and gone to mod-heaven.

While the vlogosphere (teehee) is currently dominated by tech talk, there's at least a handful of shows dedicated to each category you would expect to find listed in a more traditional blog directory, and the number is set to rise along with the availability of broadband connections.

You can subscribe to vidcasts in the same way you would a podcast e.g. using iTunes (4.9 or above) or a similar podcast client. Many of them are released in multiple video formats (Windows Media Video, QuickTime, DivX, Xvid, H.264) and so are equally accessible to Linux, Mac and Windows users.

When the mainstream media networks catch on to the IPTV concept, where will that leave the traditional goggle box, and will anyone care?

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