Have a Spare Smartphone? Koozoo’s New Angle on Public Webcams

Photograph by Jasper James

Koozoo, a San Francisco-based startups, is aiming to offer free live video feeds from people's windows all over the world.

As the Internet began to take off in the mid-1990s, several dot-coms tried to strike gold with the same idea: Show what’s happening at locations around the world by connecting to live video feeds from webcams.

The market never really materialized then, but Silicon Valley venture-capital firms New Enterprise Associates and Tugboat Ventures are betting that now is the time for on-demand video of public places. Together they led a $2.5 million round in Koozoo, a San Francisco-based startup with a new take on the concept.

Instead of relying on webcams, Koozoo is turning to those old, spare smartphones laying around in people’s homes. The startup wants users to download its software and point their devices outside the front windows at home. Anyone will be able to use Koozoo to then view the live video being captured by clicking on each stream’s location, marked as a pin on a map.

About 100 people are broadcasting views of their neighborhoods as part of a trial of the service, said Drew Sechrist, who co-founded Koozoo in 2010. The company, which has around a dozen employees, doesn’t display the names of users alongside their videos by default on the website to protect their privacy, he said.

“If you have an old smartphone, and you know how to download an app, you can participate,” he said.

Of course, not everyone has a smartphone, let alone one to spare. Koozoo, which plans to release the app globally early next year, will start by targeting gadget fans in its hometown. It’s a group more likely to have an extra iPhone or two in a drawer at home, as well as a Wi-Fi connection. It’s a demographic that also might think to check the feeds for weather conditions before heading to the beach or to see how long the line is outside their favorite restaurant.

“When we started the company, the concept of old smartphones didn’t really exist,” said Sechrist, who spent about 10 years at Salesforce.com before starting Koozoo. “We’re kind of at this magic confluence of a bunch of things. The cost of bandwidth is dropping so that it’s becoming a negligible expense.”

David Bohnett thought the world was primed for a similar service nearly two decades ago. His company, Beverley Hills Internet, stationed webcams in tourist hot spots around Los Angeles. “I was fascinated by the technologies of the early Web cameras,” he told me a few years ago. He eventually abandoned that to help start GeoCities, a web hosting company that sold to Yahoo for more than $3 billion.

Some ventures from that era still exist. EarthCam, founded in 1996, is one of the most popular live webcam sites even today with broadcasts from locations as varied as Times Square and the panda exhibit at Zoo Atlanta. The site gets about 1.1 million visitors per month, according to research firm Quantcast. The streams help promote the company’s security-camera business.

Jon Sakoda, the partner at NEA who arranged the investment in Koozoo, doesn’t want to let this one go.

“Wi-Fi adoption is now pervasive,” Sakoda said. “It’s a much easier and more compelling experience than having to buy a webcam and string a 17-foot ethernet cable over to your window.”

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