Last Friday, after Congress turned off its lights for summer recess, about a dozen Republican congressmen remained on the floor to discuss energy policy. There were no press releases issued and no reporters on the scene. Still, the event was broadcast live. How? Rep. John Culberson, a Texas Republican who has emerged in recent months as a partisan Twittering one-man C-Span, pointed his Nokia N95 mobile phone at Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and began filming. "We are calling on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call this Congress back into session immediately" to count a vote on opening up domestic reserves for drilling, said Pence. "We're going to use the people's house to call on the American people—to call on this Congress and this speaker—to bring this institution back into session immediately."
The plea went unheeded, but it didn't go unheard. Culberson was using a new service by Qik.com, a Silicon Valley startup that lets users stream live video directly from their video-enabled phones onto the Web. Qik isn't the only new program that can turn your mobile phone into a pocket-size television station. Kyte.tv and Flixwagon also recently opened to the public, for free. (And last week Flixwagon even began offering an application for unlocked iPhones.) All three services let you embed a video player on your own site, so you can stream from your homepage. Once your live broadcast is done, the video is stored on their servers, making them easy to replay or even edit. And since the video camera lives on your cell phone, anyone watching your live broadcast can message you as you film—and send in questions, commands or other feedback.
These services are still so new that what they portend isn't exactly clear. But the immediate implications are evident: with the right mobile phone, anyone can cover breaking news as fast as the pros—faster if the network trucks don't arrive on the scene in time. "It's big. It's a fundamental change in how news will operate," says Jeff Jarvis, a prominent media blogger and City University of New York journalism professor. "If the news is what we care about, then waiting for a news person to get there is no good." Seasoned media outlets are, some have argued, more capable than laymen to provide cohesive, balanced and well-reported narratives after the fact. But the first mobile-phone video that ever aired on CNN was taken during the Virginia Tech shootings last year. Should anything as terrible occur again, expect the first essential footage to potentially be live, unfiltered and uncurated by any major network—for better or worse.
In fact, Steve Garfield, one of the Web's more beloved video bloggers and Qik beta tester, claims already to have "scooped CNN." During the New Hampshire primary, he stumbled into interviewing Republican presidential candidate Rep. Duncan Hunter, who happened to be on his way to a press conference. Garfield live-cast Hunter's news online (that he wasn't dropping out of the race, just yet) before anyone else. Of course it's not every day you bump into a congressman with news. Garfield has also recently streamed a live stroll along the beach because "a lot of people I know are stuck in the middle of the country." He's also shot footage from a concert by the rock band Boston, which hints at the latency of this technology. Boston's lawyers may or may not be thrilled to know that someone was broadcasting live from the audience. Still, the technology is far enough under the radar that it may come in handy not just for breaking news but also shooting video covertly, be it for good or ill.
An example of the good: Laura Fitton, a Boston-based blogger and consultant, was visiting with her paternal grandmother in hospice care. Fitton's father, who was in Florida at the time, wasn't sure whether he ought to fly up. "I had the Qik phone with me," says Fitton. "I told my dad, 'Hey at 6:15, be at this Web site and we'll be able to videoconference live.'" Her father saw his mother and, based on that alone, decided to fly immediately to her bedside. Because of Qik, he was able to be with her just hours before she died. Fitton, who so far has primarily shot footage of her family, also believes that live mobile videoconferencing has great business potential. "Instead of launching a whole business trip and sending a team out to a trade show or conference," she says, "you can send one person with a phone, tell them to walk up to a table, ask a question and beam the answer back live."
For now, these services only function on a small number of video-enabled phones, mostly Nokias, and the quality of the stream is about what you'd expect coming from a cell phone (a far cry from HD). But it could be only a matter of time before we're all carrying portable TV studios everywhere we go. Even the Vatican—the Vatican!—is already live-streaming Qik video of the pope's travels abroad. "The more we share, the more we witness, the more we document," says Jarvis, who adds he has carried a camera with him ever since he emerged from the subway to see the South Tower of the World Trade Center come crashing down on 9/11. "I think it's a good thing that the world is quickly becoming equipped with the tools to record what they witness." Maybe Orwell had it backward, because it looks like the future belongs to Little Brother.