What if people all over the world randomly decided to setup motion detection webcams and then send feeds from these webcams to a single website that would centralize the video data for anyone to search, view, and manipulate? Hot off of the heels of our story yesterday about the implications of cameras recording everything in our lives comes a website called Ugolog that does exactly this. The concept is both spooky and captivating all at once. The privacy implications are just out of control, opening the door to all sorts of immoral and illegal invasions of people's privacy. On the other hand, the power and usefulness of such a network is extremely compelling.
When you go to the Ugolog website you are immediately impressed with the simplicity of the site (I sure hope they keep it this way!). No advertisements, no stupid gimmicks, no complicated interface. The site offers a bare bones, yet elegant design that allows you to do one thing quickly and easily: setup a motion detecting webcam and send the feed to Ugolog. No software is required, only a web browser and a properly configured camera. Don't know how to setup the camera? No problem! The site has tutorials that tell you everything you need to know. Once Ugolog has a feed from one or more of your cameras, the data will be available for you and anyone else in the world to view along with all of the other feeds on the site.
No big deal, many will say! Its just like Justin.tv - the website that already carries thousands of live video feeds from all over the world, boasting more than 80,000 simultaneous viewers earlier today. Yet if you think about this a bit more, you will see that there is indeed a difference between Ugolog and Justin.tv. The difference is their focus - the type of content that the two sites will offer.
Justin.tv offers all sorts of video feeds, including news, sports, random idiots doing stupid random things, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. This is a useful and powerful model, yet Justin.tv's focus on serving up all kinds of video leaves it open to attack by more narrowly focused sites. Ugolog focuses only on surveillance video. By targeting this specific category of video the site just might be able to carve out a unique niche in the online video space that can really gain some traction. Justin.tv could of course create a category on its site called "surveillance", but a category on Justin.tv devoted to the surveillance might have difficulty competing with Ugolog's website, community, and employees devoted completely to surveillance.
Highlighting the specialization available on the site Ugolog founder Alexander Uslontsev says "Compared to sites like Justin.tv and Ustream.com, that work with webcam only, Ugolog works with webcams AND 'professional' security cameras that can upload pictures via FTP or HTTP. In this case Ugolog acts only as 'dropbox' for images and expects all motion detection and scheduling to be done in camera."
Ugolog is in beta now and has only recently launched, but the site could easily take off like a rocket in a short amount of time. The idea is powerful. The site is easy, simple, and free. Add this all up and you have a solid recipe for explosive growth in users and content.
Success is not guaranteed, however. Explosive growth can be its own curse, being extremely difficult and expensive to keep up with. Video is especially resource hungry and may keep the folks over at Ugolog (and their wallets) quite overwhelmed.
Another potential stumbling block is the intense legal scrutiny that the site will certainly encounter. We can envision massive feeds of video that invade privacy and break the law showing up on the Ugolog website, creating a virtual feast for lawyers everywhere. One way around this legal mess is probably to allow comprehensive controls over who can see what. Indeed, this appears to be the case at the moment, as most (all?) feeds seem to be currently viewable only by the owner. Yet clearly in the future it will take only the click of a single checkbox to "open a feed" to the public.
Focusing on the positive side for a moment, there are several interesting applications that can come from a site like Ugolog. One such application would be the fulfillment of truly legitimate surveillance needs. Ugolog allows individuals to quickly setup a powerful surveillance system for their own homes. Taking this a step further, perhaps a neighborhood would setup its own surveillance network to increase safety and monitor for theft and other crimes. Consider also more academic applications, such as researchers setting up cameras to monitor glacier growth, animal species patterns, and so on.
Of course the negative and destructive potential of surveillance a la Ugolog is hard to deny. Yet whether we like it or not, ubiquitous video is here to stay. We are increasingly likely to fall under the surveillance of one or more cameras multiple times throughout the day. Ugolog may come and go, but the trend cannot be stopped. Fight the trend if you want, but I for one intend to embrace it!