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It can get awfully crowded at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District, where at times dozens of people stand in line to get their hands on an almond croissant or a goat cheese sandwich. That’s why some fans of French baked goods have been making a habit out of going online first before they head down to the Tartine. A vendor across the street has a camera in his window, sharing a live view of what’s going on outside of Tartine through the yet-to-be launched ambient video app Koozoo. And if there’s no line to be seen, people head down to grab a quick bite.

Koozoo's app provides live streams of public places.

Koozoo’s app provides live streams of public places.

That kind of real-time access to information is exactly what Koozoo was built for, explained company co-founder and CEO Drew Sechrist during a conversation about the app Tuesday. “People want access to what’s happening right now,” he said.

Koozoo, which is currently running a private beta test in San Francisco, wants to provide that kind of access by encouraging users to make use of their old phones. The idea is for users to sign up for the app, download it to an unused old smartphone, and permanently point the device out of the window where it can provide live streams of public places.

Koozoo is gearing up for a public launch in 2013, and it just secured a $ 2.5 million round of seed funding led by New Enterprise Associates and Tugboat Ventures to follow through on that promise. The company’s idea is unique and their use of otherwise obsolete technology charming; but the premise of Koozoo’s app goes much further.

We all have tons of cameras surrounding us 24/7. Chances are, you’re looking at a screen with a built-in camera right now, and there might be another one in your pocket. And yet, we rarely use any of them – and if we do, we tend to record clips that often remain unwatched.

From security footage to emotional connections

A new generation of startups is setting out to change that with what some like to call ambient video — a stream of moving images that’s always on, accessible at any time. Another intriguing example of ambient video is Perch, a Vancouver-based startup that recently released an app for a kind of always-on video messenger.

Perch's iOS app starts to record once it detects motion - and unmutes the mic once it recognizes a face.

Perch’s iOS app starts to record as sonn as it detects motion – and unmutes the mic once it recognizes a face.

The idea is simple: Users mount an iPad or an iPod touch to their wall, and leave the camera on 24/7. The app starts recording once it detects any motion — and it opens up its microphone as soon as someone directly faces the camera to leave a message. Perch’s app automatically fires off a notification to family members once a new clip is recorded.

Perch initially worked on an app that would transform iOS devices into security cameras with motion detection. But when Perch CEO Danny Robinson used that app for a while in his own house, he began to realize that the camera continuously captured something completely unintended.

“Those were not bad guys, they were members of my family,” he said. His daughter would start sharing things she brought home from school with him through Perch, and his wife replayed the day through viewing Perch clips in the evening

Robinson and his team quickly recognized that an always-on messaging app could convey a kind of emotional connection that was almost like being there. The company changed course in May, and replaced its security app with the new Perch app three weeks ago. Now it is looking to build a version for Android tablets like the Nexus 7, and also extend the functionality of the app. Perch is looking for third-party developers who want to use its gesture recognition technology to trigger web actions, which could range from controlling the volume of a music stream to tapping into the functionality of a Nest thermostat.

Like in a science fiction movie

Adding this kind of functionality could help Perch to get more users to dedicate an iOS device to the service, which Robinson described as largely a psychological barrier. Refurbished iPod touch players can be bought for as little as $ 130, which is cheaper than some networked cameras — but users can still shy away from turning a capable multifunction device into what basically amounts to a single-purpose camera with a touch screen.

The other question is whether ambient video can be monetized. Both Koozoo and Perch are still coy about their business models, with Robinson only hinting at some kind of premium offering that will eventually be available in addition to the current free app. But both companies seem confident that they can make it work. “The economics of ubiquitous ambient video are all lining up right now,” Koozoo’s Sechrist told me, pointing to the availability of cheap devices, broadband and cloud storage.

Robinson pointed to another reason why ambient video will be successful: it’s something we’ve all been expecting from technology for a long time on one level or another. After satellite photos and Streetview, it’s only natural to expect live video of places coming to mapping apps. And that always-on messenger also doesn’t look all that foreign once you start using it, Robinson argued. “A lot of people have already seen what we are working on in Science Fiction movies,” he said, adding: “It’s gonna happen, it’s already been foretold.”


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