Big Brother for everyone

Fancy your chances as the new Nasty Nick in your own television show? Well now it's easier than ever, thanks to a website called Spotlife, which is bringing internet broadcasting to the masses.
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The Independent Online

The fuss over Channel 4's Big Brother proves that there's no end to the public's curiosity about other people's private lives. But you don't need Channel 4's help to broadcast the details of your personal life to people via the internet.

The fuss over Channel 4's Big Brother proves that there's no end to the public's curiosity about other people's private lives. But you don't need Channel 4's help to broadcast the details of your personal life to people via the internet.

A new website called Spotlife allows anyone to set up a live "personal broadcast" of their own for free, without having to create their own site or pay for expensive video server equipment.

Of course, there's nothing new about the cult of the webcam. There are already thousands of people who have set up their own websites in order to broadcast images captured on a low-cost webcam. But this is still very much a minority hobby, and one that requires a fair amount of work to get started. You have to set up your own site, design all the pages and then link them to your camera. And that's just for a website that shows a series of still images that are updated every couple of minutes. Setting up a live video stream is more complicated.

Spotlife's big breakthrough is that it makes the broadcasting process so simple. You don't need to set up your own site, as all the broadcasting is done via Spotlife's site. All you need is a webcam that is equipped with the Spotlife software. You plug the webcam into your computer, install the software and then simply connect to the Internet. Once you've logged on to the Spotlife website their computers do all the work for you.

Amit Goswamy, Spotlife's CEO, refers to it as "point, click and broadcast". The company's aim, he says, is "to bring personal video broadcasting to the mainstream with an easy-to-use and affordable Internet broadcasting solution." And that's not just hype. The Spotlife software really is easy to use. When you start the camera software you simply press the "Broadcast" button and it automatically connects you to the Spotlife website and sets up the broadcast. You can create a "public" broadcast that can be viewed by anyone visiting the Spotlife site, or you can set up a password that limits access to a specific group of people. There's even an option for setting up a text-based chat room so that people watching your broadcast can send messages back to you.

"The opportunities are endless," says Goswamy. "Imagine broadcasting your own talk show, sharing family moments with relatives, or giving video demonstrations to colleagues over the Internet."

If you're worried about the telephone bill, you also have the option of capturing video clips or still images and uploading them into a personal "album" that is stored on the Spotlife site. This allows people to view your album even when you're not online. Spotlife's current charter membership scheme is free and provides users with 240 minutes of live broadcast time each month, as well as 15Mb of space for storing the contents of your album. Other membership schemes are planned that will charge a fee for increased broadcast time, but the details haven't been finalised.

The Spotlife website has only been running since March, but it already has more than 80,000 registered users who make thousands of regular broadcasts. These broadcasts are divided into a series of "channels" such as Groove, which carries music and entertainment broadcasts, the Blister channel for outdoors, sporty types and the children's Zap channel. There's no pornography, though. Spotlife employs full-time supervisors to make sure that no sexual content is transmitted via its website, and anyone viewing Spotlife can hit a "Yikes!" button to warn the supervisors about any dodgy material they might see.

It's a terrific idea, and it's been well executed. There are a couple of catches, though. The first one is simply that the Spotlife software is currently only available with webcams produced by one company - the peripherals manufacturer Logitech. Most of Spotlife's executive team are former Logitech employees, and the bulk of their initial financing came from Logitech. As a result, Logitech has the exclusive rights to the Spotlife software for several months.

However, Laura Buckley of Logitech UK says: "We want Spotlife to succeed on its own", and that owners of other types of camera will be able to obtain the Spotlife software after the initial marketing campaign for Logitech's new range of webcams. Spotlife has just done a deal to bundle its software with a new range of home PCs from Compaq, and Goswamy says that the company hopes to announce deals with other camera manufacturers "in the near future". Unfortunately, the Spotlife software only runs on Windows at the moment, although Goswamy says that the company hopes to produce a Mac version at some point.

The other problem is that the speed of ordinary 56K modems limits you to fairly small image sizes and low-frame rates. However, the arrival of broadband services such as ADSL and cable modems should allow Spotlife to really come into its own as an affordable personal broadcasting system.

Goswamy also says that Spotlife is working on a "pay-per-view" option that will allow you to charge people for watching your broadcasts. Unsigned bands will be able to drum up a bit of cash by charging for online gigs, or you can sign up for some personal cooking tips from your favourite celebrity chef. And, although Spotlife is very much family-oriented, it wouldn't be surprising if the company were to license its technology to other users who had rather more adult broadcasting scenarios in mind.

Anyone can view broadcasts on Spotlife, even if they don't have a webcam for creating their own broadcasts. All you need is a browser and the free Real Player (available from www.real.com). So take a look at Spotlife and check out the broadcasts from Dave The Rave, Mason's Magic Show and the Demonic Pumpkin Patch - they might just be the future of TV on the internet.

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