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Immersive Media Maps Streaming's Future

At the National Association of Broadcasters' show in Las Vegas earlier this year, during my last-day random wandering of the show floor, I came across an intriguing company called Immersive Media. The company, founded by a Hollywood special effects technical director with technology that was as an outgrowth of his film effects work, was intriguing for two simple reasons: First, they had a technology that streamed immersive and 360-degree videos, such as sample videos that were shown of the Las Vegas Strip in which the viewer could choose to watch in any direction at any time. Second, the company wasn't necessarily as interested in selling its technology as it was in licensing content it had captured across the U.S., Canada and the UK.

Speaking to company representatives at the show, I learned that the company was actively advancing on both fronts, upgrading their Immervise Telemmersion System cameras to be capable of higher-definition capture and then renting or leasing the content to a variety of content partners. The emphasis on content partners was intriguing, and we had a brief discussion around partnerships in mapping cities in areas of the U.S. and some key international cities like Mumbai, Taipei, and Istanbul.

Why Immersive placed so much emphasis on retaining the content and licensing it out was made clearer a few days ago: The same video of Las Vegas that I saw at the show is now part of Google's StreetView-an extension of GoogleMaps that was launched last week.

StreetView takes the streaming information, captured on Immersive's Volkswagen Beetle camera car-used, according to company officials, because the Bug's arched design offers the lowest footprint for the 360-degree cameras-and turns the stream into a series of still images which are "unsphered" or flattened out at the particular point of reference; while the edges are blurred, the specific street address is sharp enough that both Immersive and Google received a record five headlines on the news aggregation site DrudgeReport. Visited an average of 15 million times per day, DrudgeReport showed off key street-level images of people engaged in questionable activities, and questioned some of the privacy issues such mapping-a snapshot in time-may entail. (CNET ran an excellent overview of such privacy concerns in this article.)

Fans in High Places
Even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates got into the discussion this week during their first joint interview in 14 years, which took place at the D: All Things Digital conference hosted by The Wall Street Journal. Jobs and Gates talked with WSJ tech writer Walt Mossberg about their sometimes testy relationship, but also about the present and short-term future of technology. Jobs talked about the impact of Google's mapping database (and images) in terms of Apple's greatly anticipated iPhone, promising that the iPhone's mapping client will push beyond anything Google has done, although he would not reveal whether StreetView or a streaming version of the street mapping would be available when the iPhone launches later this month. But when asked about what the next five years holds in terms of technology and form factors, both Jobs and Gates repeatedly mentioned streaming and delivery of content to the living room as one of the driving factors; Gates in particular was also interested in how video could be used for education and semi-immersive products such as Microsoft's forthcoming Roundtable teleconferencing device. (As an aside, kudos to Brightcove for their hosting of the streams for the historic event, which made headlines worldwide.)

But let's get back to the company whose technology will enable those of us who are directionally-challenged to know that we're standing on the right street corner in midtown Manhattan. Besides the immersive streams and mapping of streets with its standard- and high-definition camera systems, Immersive also has a hemispherical tabletop model that it is prepping for general release. Anticipated pricing is set for around $100,000, which sounds significant but at a show like NAB is middle of the road in terms of camera systems. The hemispherical device attracted my attention at the company's booth because it looked quite similar to a product I'd seen demoed by the founder of iPix back in 1992, before iPix retreated to still-image-only immersive solutions.

That earlier solution was designed to allow streaming of content in which a viewer could choose to simultaneously view three standard-definition video outputs, chosen from the entire 4-megapixel hemispherical camera and then flattened out in real time. The examples shown in 1992 were hockey and basketball games, in which two of the video streams covered the team's goal areas while another followed the player with the ball or puck. Discussing this previous attempt with Immersive personnel at NAB, it seems clear that immersive technology's roots in entertainment are not forgotten and that the "choose your own broadcast" sports model may not be that far off from reality, once fiber to the home becomes more entrenched. Immersive looks like a company to watch as a harbinger of what practical streaming content may be worth in the not-so-distant future.

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