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Your 24/7 life, with a web cam attached Add to ...

It's being called "lifecasting."

Justin Kan, who coined the term, is the 23-year-old co-founder of a San Francisco-based company and the "star" of an Internet video experiment called Justin.tv. He wears a small camera mounted on a baseball cap, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the video is streamed to his website at Justin.tv.

Eating, working, talking on the phone, shopping, at parties with his friends and co-founders - the camera is always on. When Kan is asleep, the camera is mounted on a tripod pointed at his bed. He even wears it when he's going to the bathroom (although he tilts it up toward the ceiling).

Kan isn't wearing the camera because he thinks his life is all that fascinating; in fact, he freely admits that what he does most of the time isn't interesting at all. And one of the few times that things did get interesting - when Kan went back to a woman's apartment and the two wound up in the bedroom - the camera went dark, while a porn-movie soundtrack superimposed by the team back at justin.tv headquarters.

Kan and his partners didn't fit him with a hat-cam because they think he deserves to be a celebrity. They're doing it because they want to show how easy wearing a camera around all day can be. Kan says they want to create an army of lifecasters - actors, musicians, even "citizen journalists" who could follow political candidates around.

In effect, anyone who wants to wear a camera (and carry around a laptop with a wireless card) could be a star in this new genre. There was a rumour going around that actress Natalie Portman was in Silicon Valley looking for financing for a "lifecasting" project, one that would give people a glimpse behind the scenes. The actress's representatives denied the rumour.

"We've lined up a bunch of people we're really excited about," says Kan. "People who want to promote themselves online and see live video as a way to do that."

While Portman may not be signing up, Kan says he could see actors giving viewers a sneak peek behind the scenes of their working lives using a web-cam. "It doesn't have to be 24/7," he says. "This is just one example of what you can do with live video."

Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says concepts such as Justin.tv could turn out to be the future of Internet TV. He compares it to the way that conventional TV evolved in the early 1950s.

"Television had to develop an entirely new set of programming for the new medium," Thompson says. "They started out adapting radio shows, and using the same stars and so on, but they quickly had to figure out how to do it differently, because pictures added an entirely different dimension."

In the same way, the Web adds new features, such as the ability to interact with Kan, who has a chat window in which people can respond to what he's doing (including complaining when he took the camera off in his date's bedroom). Lonelygirl15, the YouTube star who turned out to be an actress, has similar interactive features on her site.

The TV era effectively began with Texaco Star Theater, starring Milton Berle, Thompson says. "It was the first big hit that kind of said okay, here's how television is going to be done, here's how it's different from radio and vaudeville." Internet TV "has not yet had its Milton Berle show," he says, but Justin.tv is the kind of thing "that could really work in this new medium."

In many ways, Kan's spiritual ancestor is Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto - often referred to as "the cyborg" - who began wearing a portable camera in the early 1980s as part of his research. From 1994 to 1996, he streamed video and text to his website from his camera, which has gone from being a giant helmet to a tiny camera built into a pair of glasses.

Then there was Jennicam. In 1996, Jennifer Ringley set up a webcam and streamed video 24 hours a day on her website - while she slept, when she ate, when she changed her clothes, even (unlike Justin) when she had sex. Eventually, thousands of people were paying a monthly fee to watch.

Kan says the idea for Justin.tv came up while he and his co-founder Emmett Shear were trying to save their previous venture, an online calendar called Kiko which shut down after Google launched a similar service. "Emmett and I were driving around and talking about what to do to save Kiko," Justin recalls. "And I thought maybe other people would like to hear this conversation. And that somehow turned into a live, 24/7 video feed of my life."

Kan has worn the camera for almost two months and says he has become so used to it that it feels odd when he takes it off, which he has done occasionally. In some cases, he has given it to someone else to wear to take a break, or removed it to discuss company business that Justin.tv doesn't want to make public.

Not everyone wants to be on camera. Kan was kicked out of The Gap recently, and the team is also in the process of being evicted from their apartment after some neighbours filed noise complaints. But apart from that, he says, there hasn't been much negative reaction. Even his dad is a fan of the show, because it allows him to keep tabs on his son.

"You know, people have been surprisingly welcoming of the video," Justin says. "I guess that it's a testament to a change in our society. Only about one in 30 or so says 'I don't want to be on camera' or whatever, and I'm quick to turn away and talk to someone else ... I'm not confrontational about it."

Kan says the team also deliberately chose not to use a tiny spy-camera that would be undetectable. "We wanted it to be obvious that you were on film," he says, "because I think it's more ethical if you're going to be taping people that they know about it."

Is Justin.tv the future of Internet TV? Kan's experiment could just be an extension of modern society's narcissistic impulses rather than a new art form. It's hard to see how it could attract enough of an audience to be truly groundbreaking: The camera records Kan eating cereal for lunch, typing on his computer, talking on the phone or sitting on the balcony of his apartment - pretty dull stuff. The company is working on doing some more exciting things, such as kite-surfing.

But then, Uncle Miltie's Texaco Star Theater wasn't initially all that impressive either.

 

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