Sure, You Can Watch Video on Your Phone—If You Can Find It; Andover-based Veveo Wants to Help

Some of the time we spend viewing video on the Internet is time stolen from older types of media consumption, such as watching network television. But thanks to broadband-connected mobile devices, Internet video is also filling up those interstitial moments when we weren’t previously jacked into the mediasphere—on the bus, for example, or at the cafeteria table.

There’s just one problem with these moments: we’re usually stuck with what Murali Aravamudan, founder and CEO of video-search startup Veveo, euphemistically calls “input- and display-constrained devices.” He’s referring to cell phones that feature 12-button keypads or tiny QWERTY keyboards—making it difficult to enter search terms the way we would on a PC browser—and that handle just one or two media playback formats, such as Windows Media (on Windows Mobile devices) or MP4 (on the Apple iPhone). The vast majority of Internet video is therefore either in the wrong format to view on a given mobile device or is too hard to find in the first place. Even the iPhone’s YouTube application limits users to just a small slice of the full YouTube catalog (those that have been converted to the H.264 video compression standard).

Aravamudan has a solution, of course. It’s vTap, the Andover, MA, company’s mobile Internet video search application, scheduled for public launch on September 10. I’d been following the coverage as Aravamudan made the blog rounds (NewTeeVee, Webware, Scobleizer, VentureBeat)—but when his road show arrived at the Xconomy offices yesterday, I was still surprised at just how painless it was to use vTap to find and watch Internet video search on the wireless gear Aravamudan had brought along, including an iPhone, a Samsung Blackjack, a Palm Treo 700, and a Sony Vaio ultra-mobile PC.

While Veveo is trying to keep its marketing message simple—“video at your fingertips,” as Veveo marketing VP Guru Pai intoned during Aravamudan’s presentation—vTap really introduces several innovations at once, any one of which might have been enough to build a company around. The fact that Veveo has rolled them into a package might be what attracted venture backers Matrix Partners, North Bridge, Norwest, and OmniCapital Group, who have together ponied up an impressive $28 million in two funding rounds.

Demonstrating the title search window of Veveo’s vTap video search application on the Apple iPhoneThe first and most visible advance is a character-by-character search algorithm that narrows down video options as you type. Say you’re looking for a video of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Start up vTap on a smart phone, and by the time you’ve typed “B-E-E,” Beethoven is the top result (followed by Beetlejuice and Beet.TV). Enter a space, type “E-G,” and you’ve made it to the Egmont.

This so-called “multi-prefix” searching—the ability to act on fragments of multiple words—is totally beyond Google’s capabilities, and is one of the most striking things about vTap. What’s also impressive is that the character-by-character filtering of results all occurs on a remote server, with the narrowed-down results zapped back to the phone so quickly that you’d almost think you were searching a live database stored in the device’s memory.

Another important element of Veveo’s service is the search index, which is also optimized to hurry results back to the user. For example, it pre-categorizes video files into clusters based on the title and description metadata people have uploaded for them; if you’re searching for Beethoven videos, for example, the system will quickly be able to tap into clusters of related results such as the Ninth Symphony or Fidelio. (Unlike competing video search companies such as Blinkx, Veveo does not attempt to use speech recognition or other fancy machine-learning-based natural language processing technologies to search the actual content of videos. Aravamudan argues that the return on that kind of analysis is low, since the files that contain statistically significant spoken phrases, such as university lectures, are likely to have excellent metadata anyway.)

To improve the relevance of search results, according to Aravamudan, the index also takes advantage of “social graphs,” or records built up over time of the content favored by other Internet users. If you’re searching for videos of Hindustani classical music performances, for instance, vTap will consider which Hindustani performers’ YouTube channels have the most subscribers. “We can figure out which clips are favored by the social networks around micro-genres,” he explains.

Finally, once you’ve located a video using vTap, Veveo performs the crucial service of transcoding it on the fly for your specific device. That’s a big deal, since it means you don’t have to have a laptop with you to watch videos encoded in PC-only formats like Flash. It also means iPhone owners will be able to watch any YouTube video, not just the ones pre-transcoded for the H.264 ghetto. “Mobile users ought to be able to watch the Web videos that they would otherwise be able to enjoy only on their PCs,” says Aravamudan.

Indeed, using vTap I was able to find and view the same recently posted “Battlestar Galactica” fan video over all four of the devices Aravamudan brought within about 10 seconds each time. But while vTap will be available to everyone on September 10 (everyone with a Windows Mobile phone or an iPhone, anyway—versions for J2ME-compatible phones and other devices are to come later), Veveo’s main focus is on licensing vTap to cellular carriers and makers of set-top boxes equipped to show IPTV (television signals transmitted in the form of Internet Protocol packets). Already, Veveo provides the video search interface for Verizon’s FiOS fiberoptic video and data service.

“It matters if people know who we are and what we do, but the licensing work will be what pays the bills,” says Aravamudan. And as cheap, all-you-can-eat broadband data plans become a standard part of the consumer wireless market, the edge mobile providers gain from offering easy access to video content might well open up Veveo’s path to profitability. “Over the next three or four or five years,” says Aravamudan, “it is my belief that you will come to expect this kind of easy, impromptu video search experience on many kinds of phones and mobile devices, whether it is through Veveo or not.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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