Clip-Snackin' Good

by , Oct 14, 2008, 2:00 PM
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My ongoing tour of mobile video this week brings me to clip casting, the non-linear VOD experience that lets users "snack" on snippets of TV and Web fare, trailers, music vids, etc. I am not sure we know yet what kind of ritual mobile video snacking is or will become, and this is going to be supremely important to the format.

Just about every major media platform in this century established itself as both an information source but also a cultural ritual. Newspapers, for instance, tended to start or end the day. Radio is all about drive time or office background. TV, of course, started as a prime-time experience for the post-WWII nuclear family structure, but then became for many a radio-like background environment. Even email has a specific place in our daily routines. But mobile video "snacking?" The programmers would love to think we whip out our handsets on bank lines and in waiting rooms, but I am not so sure those opportunistic data grabs map very precisely with video use. When I open up the data channel on my phone I tend to seek headlines, a market update, etc. I am hungry for a specific kind of information, not a particular medium. I don't know if I crave video as a discrete media experience during the day.

Which is not to say there won't be an audience for mobile VOD. But if video snacking is by its very nature opportunistic and relatively random, then it is a hard experience to program. I have had the Verizon VCast and Sprint TV services on review phones since they launched more than two years ago, but the biggest hurdle to using them has been remembering they are there. Surfacing the content more effectively has been job one. Verizon VCast has gotten a lot snappier since it launched almost three years ago, so it no longer feels as if I am warming up the old black-and-white RCA tube TV in my grandparent's bedroom before getting to see anything. To its credit, Big V has brokered countless deals with online and on-air content providers, so that the diminutive menus are so full of promising branded video that the navigation structure is completely overwhelmed. This is an instance where the content clearly is way ahead of the interface to handle it all.

I tend to resort to the Top Videos category, which is the most accessible bucket in VCast. This small menu usually contains a news clip or two, the opening sequence of the latest "CSI" episode (with a tune in promo) and a lot of kid vids. The children's category has been a surprise hit on mobile. Anime, Nick, animal clips, etc. are remarkably popular, even if they don't map against the early adopter demographic we associate with advanced handsets. I am told by some Verizon partners that young moms are a prime target for the medium, and the mobile video handset often serves as a kiddie pacifier. Now that is a ritual use of a medium we can wrap our heads around -- shutting up our kids. Of course, kids themselves will default to the video experience because it is the one they know and love best. But do we?

Not surprisingly, the best pure clipcasting experiences currently are on the iPhone in the AOL/Truveo and vSNAX services. Truveo is more powerful on the content side than the interface. It gathers many of the familiar TV and online brands (Fox, MTV, TMZ, National Geographic, etc) into a channel structure that feels a lot like VOD cable. It also slaps into the mix a genuine video search engine, so you can pull from YouTube and other sources. The iPhone interface makes it easy to drill into any of these channels and peruse clips by oversized thumbnails. The look and feel is unremarkable, but the search engine front end and channel-based layer of featured branded media blends the best of Web, cable TV and video search.

But far and away the best mobile video interface to date is Rhythm New Media's vSNAX iPhone app, because it makes video snacking a pleasure rather than a chore. The interface invites you to move through the dozen or so buckets of content (Animal Planet, Ford Models, CBS, G4, Cele, etc.) across two axes. In the portrait orientation, you move laterally across the channels and then vertically up and down the thumbnails.

But it is in landscape mode where this thing dazzles anyone who has suffered through mobile interfaces. The channels selector moves to the left side and lets you scroll around channels while a filmstrip of thumbnails with info buttons and titles appears as you highlight a channel. You can move laterally through the strip, pop up details of any clip, mark it as a favorite or just view it now.

Then it gets cooler. While viewing a clip, you can bring the navigation menu back up as the video clip continues to run in a dimmed state in background. This is an interface that actually encourages mobile video snacking by making it hard to resist the next related video. Moving across channels and around clip libraries is not only frictionless but absorbing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the vSNAX pre-roll ad model is just as smart. Clicking on most pre-rolls brings up additional information but stays within the vSNAX experience. Unlike other interactive ad models, the media experience is merely paused, not disrupted. The vSNAX library is still too limited compared to Truveo's branded catalog and search engine front end, but this simply is the best mobile video interface I have seen -- by a long shot. If Verizon VCast had this interface and screen real estate, the service could actually live up to the promise still locked somewhere in that enormous library.

The revised Verizon VCast structure, Truveo and vSNAX all point us in the right direction for mobile video, but I am still left wondering if mobile users deliberately pursue video experiences, per se. I still look for specific information when I am on the data channel.

I wonder if AP News Network is closer to the eventual model for this material. It blends text, images and video. I go there to get my news on the go, and it is in that context I choose to opt for multimedia.

Will we really go to mobile video hubs for video information -- or will we expect video material as a part of any branded media experience? I don't think we really know yet how Web users access video as a part of their media rituals, so we may be a long way from understanding mobile access patterns. No matter how advanced the technologies, their success ultimately depends on the most primal human characteristic: habit.

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