I love to visit the Globe’s pressroom and watch as the newspaper is printed. And as I watched on Tuesday, I had plenty of company — 70 other people who joined my pressroom excursion by tuning in on their iPhones.
Apps like these have been with us for years. But suddenly, people are starting to use them. And they are broadcasting just about anything you can imagine: mountain climbing expeditions, a crime scene in Chicago, a New York office building engulfed in flames.
But mostly you get gossiping teenagers, tedious drives through the countryside, or a chance to see us print the Wednesday food section. Personal video broadcasting is a good idea. It will be even better when we can find something worth watching.
Meerkat, an iPhone-only video streaming app, kicked off the current surge. Launched just one month ago, it was generating about 20,000 video streams per day by late March, according to the Twitter analytics service Topsy. Not huge by Internet standards, but decent for a brand-new service.
Meerkat grew rapidly, thanks to Twitter. The app would hook up to your Twitter account and tweet a message to your followers whenever you began a broadcast. Of course, they would have to download the app themselves to watch it. It was a smart way to go viral, but Twitter kiboshed it by blocking Meerkat’s automatic access. Now users must manually notify friends that they are on the air.
Twitter’s move against Meerkat probably helped its own Periscope app, which was launched about two weeks ago. This iPhone-only app has quickly matched the popularity of Meerkat. Certainly, the user interface is much prettier and more informative, including colorful animated hearts that flow across the screen when viewers “like” what you’re doing.
You get a permanent record of who tuned in to watch your broadcast, and the app displays a Google Map to show your location. In fact, the map can show a little too much, revealing your location to within half a block or so. Periscope ought to tweak this feature for privacy’s sake, and just reveal a broadcaster’s approximate whereabouts.
And while both Meerkat and Periscope can store copies of your videos on the phone, Periscope can also store them online, where they can be viewed by followers who missed them the first time.
Video quality in both apps is adequate, though far from high-def. But don’t forget that video streaming uses a lot of data bits. That is not a problem when you are connected to a Wi-Fi network, but heavy users could easily drain their monthly quota of cellular data.
Still, both apps have major defects. First, there is not much good stuff to watch, unless you’re very easily amused. And what little there is can be very hard to find.
You can’t tune in specific kinds of programming — an extreme sports stream, for instance, or a home cooking stream. If you have favorite broadcasters, you can follow them, so you are notified whenever they are on the air. Otherwise, you just look at each app’s front page, to see what’s streaming at that moment and hope to find something interesting.
That probably explains a Periscope stream of my morning jog attracted 40 desperate viewers. They soon came to their senses and logged off.
An older streaming app called YouNow offers the beginnings of a solution. Founded in 2011 and available for iPhones and Androids, YouNow uses Twitter-like hashtags to identify the material being broadcast.
Tag your stream as #chessmaster and people know what you are up to. However, the tags aren’t searchable, as they are on Twitter. So you cannot easily look up all chess-related video streams.
Twitch, the most popular personal broadcaster, licked this problem long ago. Every month, 100 million people log onto Twitch to watch people playing video games. Twitch works because fans love the shows and can easily find them. Just click an icon and you’re watching a “Call of Duty” shootout or a FIFA 15 soccer match. On Twitch, the audience gets what it wants, and fast.
But tune into my Periscope feed and you’ll get only a middle-aged man jogging down Dorchester Avenue. If they’re to be more than a fad, Meerkat and Periscope will have to become a lot more entertaining, and fast.