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Live video streaming, what does it bring to the online auction party?

Over the past 18 months video content has become a more and more important and interesting medium for the internet. It allows people to express themselves, it provides entertainment and it has provided media organisations with the ability to reach new audiences and embellish news reports. As broadband has penetrated, so has video.

In terms of content delivery, Flash and now Silverlight provide an easy way for the user to access this content. Many web “TV” services have had to accept proprietary video streaming tools put up a barrier to accessing the content and have launched Flash type streaming replacements. Flash represents a ubiquitous and convenient plug-in.

In the auction sector we are often asked about streaming video. Many auctioneers want to join the up the action in the room with the bidding on the internet. It is something that is being used increasingly.

But does it have to be live? Could it perhaps be delivered as short product specific videos demonstrating the main features of the item for sale? The user can view it at their convenience whilst forming their purchasing decision.

There are several implementations in the vehicle auction world, most notably Copart. In all cases these require the user to download and install software prior to viewing the stream. In some cases the IP is considered valuable enough to apply for patent. Given many users are connecting from behind firewalls this can present problems. In many cases most of the FAQs cover connectivity and plug-in versioning issues.

Quite often these proprietary packages provide an integrated bidding console. But is this necessary? To be really effective the video has to operate with zero latency. One of the main reasons auctioneers request this feature is because they believe it recreates the excitement of the auction room for those people bidding online. However, in my view there is a user experience contradiction here. To illustrate this I ask you to think about what you do when you listen to the radio through a digital receiver on your television. With a traditional radio the user decouples the broadcast from the device. You roam can around the room getting on with another task, listening passively. Listening to the radio on the TV usually ends up with the listener “watching” the screen.

There is no doubt video aids the bidder’s purchasing decision and experience in an online auction, but does the video have to from the perspective of the audience? Are we really interested in seeing what the auctioneer looks like?  Would it not be better to provide the online audience with something they can’t get online, the ability to actually look at the items for sale in detail? Perhaps video content might instead take the form of an industry expert describing the items and giving his opinion on the quality and provenance of the lots.

It strikes me video is being used as an attempt to provide a richer experience, but does it serve the user in providing them with help in making a purchasing choice. In a straightforward eCommerce site we don’t need to see video of products in-situ on the shelves in the shop.

In many cases the core piece of information the bidder needs is the current bid and he needs it in a timely real time fashion. Whilst great lengths are gone to throttle or reduce the frame rate of the video to maintain parity with the audio, the current bidding is still supplied by text on the webpage. The contradiction here is bidding is still carried out with the use of the keyboard and mouse. Therefore the user is naturally led to concentrate on the bidding on the page as this will be assumed to be ‘the truth’ in relation to the auction as a whole. The audio and video feeds at this point serve only has a distraction.

My view is that despite its popularity it is gimmicky and the “problem” can be solved in other ways. Consequently, there is isn’t a requirement to see the item “live”. A video of the item will suffice, as will high-resolution pictures of the item. Whilst it might seem cool to have live video and audio streaming, it is a bit of a user-experience nightmare. The latency can cause real confusion with the user. Which price do they believe? The one they hear on the feed, or the one on the web page?

To illustrate this point a recent press release claimed to offer an auction streaming experience that “consistently delivers sub-two-second latency”. Now this strikes me as counterproductive. Certainly in the machinery and vehicle auction sectors we know auctioneers consider this to be prohibitive. In the closing stages of online auctions we have seen bidding be so frenetic that bids are being received by the system at average of one every second. Now this average was taken over a 3 hour period. Empirical evidence showed us there were clusters of bids entering the system at a rate of 20 per second. This would effectively put those users relying on the streaming 40 bids behind the actual bidding and that represents a huge amount of value.

So, in summary, is the industry looking to plug a gap that really just doesn’t exist? Whilst video latency is a problem that will be solved at some point, isn’t this a classic case of the wrong technology solution? In order to sell items online, the web experience should be a different experience aimed at aiding the user in making a choice. It should not try to duplicate the offline experience.

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