Up Periscope, Down Vessel: Mobile Video Growing Pains

Programmers desperately want to rethink, resize, retool and otherwise retrofit TV for the handheld age. From Vine to NowThisNews, 120 Sports to Snapchat, we are in the midst of an invigorating moment of forced creativity on the part of media imagineers. Everyone wants to solve for mobile video. Not that video viewing on smartphones and tablet is necessarily “broken,” per se. After all, millions watch YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and Funny Or Die on mobile every day.

Still, there is much more video ad inventory to be crafted for mobile. And intuitively we all recognize that the hour and half-hour episode format, let alone 15- and 30-second ad spots, are not optimal for small screens and catch-as-catch-can viewing.

I spent some time this weekend with two of the latest (very different) experiments in mobile video, Twitter’s self-broadcasting platform Periscope, and former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar’s subscription-based Vessel.

Periscope, which lets you broadcast any video moment in your life live to everyone, invites some of the same criticisms as the early Twitter. I get a ton of videos in the feed of people recording their morning yawn, or being in a taxi. There was even a stream this morning of someone trying to explain Periscope to someone else in their family.

I must admit that my initial impression of Periscope is not positive. I had to unfollow one of my marketer/contacts who just couldn’t keep himself from streaming every moment of a conference he was attending. His Periscope alerts were driving me nuts.

Justin Bieber seemed to be starting a stream, which attracted loads of immediate likes. But the screen stayed dead until it ended. Justin must have reconsidered?

Most people have uninformative headlines for their streams, so discovering anything of value is nigh impossible. The app itself is nearly as inscrutable as Snapchat and many other messaging apps that create their own nomenclature without explaining their core concepts. It is still unclear to me what streams are and aren’t available for later viewing. And without an easy save-for-later tool, launching Periscope feels more like dropping into a vat of random ephemera. Red Bull, Ge and a handful of other brands are already on Periscope, but good luck finding one of their videos.

Vessel is designed to be just the opposite experience: a highly curated library of premium video from both professional and pro-amateur sources. The big idea for Vessel is that it will not only curate the more polished video now available, but for $3 a month will give you early access to some content.

Yeah, call me when that happens.

Apart from the delusional business model, Vessel struggles to contain and organize the video riches it purports to curate. The main feed of videos is composed of the topic areas you prefer, but its reliance on full-screen splash pages for each clip make the scrolling experience tedious. There is just too much crap to scroll through before landing on something worth loading. I don’t get why I can’t have a feed of the specific providers I follow. The interface makes me drill into a menu to access each individual feed.

The one thing that the interface gets right are the ads. In fact, they are the only things animated in the interface. As you vertical-scroll, a full-screen interstitial comes in and makes a pretty good impression. I saw ads for Ruffles Chips, Chevy Trucks, Lays, Dove and Suave, all of which captured my attention with gentle, short animation. 

Like a full-page magazine ad, these spots were fully immersive -- but also felt truly native to the mobile video experience. They were short loops with no audio. I don’t know if Vessel recommended a slow-motion effect, but it works extremely well on a mobile screen, avoiding the feeling of being assaulted by a pre-roll (which does still precede many of the clips themselves).

Vessel needs a lot more work to make its video interface feel curated. And the subscription model is likely a non-starter. But the ads are a great innovation.  

Meanwhile back at Periscope, Justin Bieber has pestered me and hundreds of others for the third time this morning about a live feed that never materializes. How does this guy still have fans? 

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