Though it’s still unclear how many competitors the live-streaming app market can viably host, that hasn’t stopped a number of startups from taking on the top contenders, Twitter-owned Periscope and independent alternative Meerkat. The latest to join in the fray is Rhinobird, which is touting a number of technical advantages over the incumbents as its point of differentiation. These include the ability to broadcast faster without lags, browser-based broadcasting in addition to mobile, support for “multi-broadcasting” (where groups of broadcasts are published together based on their hashtags), support for broadcasting to multiple social networks, and more.
Rhinobird first launched its web and Android application into beta during the Boston Marathon around two months ago. Following that launch, which saw a couple of thousand sign ups, the company has been working to improve the user experience and the streaming technology under the hood. Now the app is available as an public beta, with an iOS version arriving soon.
According to co-founder and CEO Felipe Heusser, whose background includes experience in the field of civic-oriented technology, the idea for Rhinobird wasn’t originally sparked by wanting to improve upon the technology of live streaming itself, but rather was focused on helping people experience the “bigger picture.”
Before Rhinobird, Heusser had founded the civic-tech NGO Ciudadano Inteligente in Latin America, and Subela.cl, an online radio service in Chile. But he says had been intrigued by the democratization of media for years.
“As a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, I have been interested in the problem of information asymmetry when it comes to social media, and how technology can provide us better solutions to understand the world around us in a way that is more open, and participatory,” he says. The TV sector was the most interesting to him because it’s in the hands of fewer gatekeepers, Heusser explains. “I’m extremely motivated with the idea to open and democratize the TV sector, starting with ‘live TV’ powered by mobile technologies,” he says.
Heusser had experimented with capturing live video as far back as 2011, when he used a phone tied to helium balloons to broadcast student protests taking place in the streets of Santiago, Chile. Rhinobird grew out of this experience, and was later backed by a Knight News Challenge the company won in 2012. Now a team of eight in New York, the startup is closing a seed round with angels from the U.S., Latin America and China.
The Rhinobird app today is not as polished design-wise as Twitter’s Periscope, but is able to broadcast to Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. Plus, the company says it uses WebRTC technology to stream without lag. Because other apps struggle with latency, they can’t offer synched multiple broadcasting feeds as Rhinobird does, Heusser claims.
Rhinobird publishes all the streams with the same hashtag (#sxsw, #baltimore, etc.) to the same page. Then, viewers can move between live video sources to the scene from different angles, and they can also choose to stick to one audio source as they switch between videos.
Of course, Twitter-owned Periscope has tools of its own for finding related videos: it lets users zoom in on a map interface down to the street level to find live streams by location. If you’re looking to find videos related to a current event, this technique works fairly well. Of course, hashtags also make sense as a way to aggregate videos. (And if anyone could introduce this feature, surely Twitter-owned Periscope could).
Heusser admits that entering the live streaming space with yet another consumer-facing app could be a challenge. Not only are there already two dominant players, there’s the issue of relying on other platforms. Meerkat, as you may recall, faced problems by leaning too heavily on Twitter’s social graph – and Twitter, in a competitive move, blocked them. The company is still correcting its missteps – for example, today it deepened its ties to Facebook’s API to further reduce its reliance on Twitter.
Rhinobird doesn’t want to depend on any one platform, Heusser says. “If you don’t want to borrow someone else’s social graph, then its better to grow an audience by inviting ‘communities’ to participate, rather than just ‘individuals’,” he adds.
That’s why the company is now working with universities, civil society groups, concert organizers, conference venues, and others who want to take advantage of multi-angle streaming. A white label version will be made available to these organizations as a way to generate revenue. In this scenario, for example, a media organization could collect and organize all the live streams with a given hashtag, then curate them in real-time before sharing on their own websites or with a TV audience. While its technical underpinnings are what Rhinobird is boasting about today, in the end, it could be the company’s business model that actually sets it apart.