In a city like San Francisco, where tech culture reigns supreme and people flow down the streets on Tron-inspired electric unicycles, the contraption that really caught people’s attention was a backpack with a camera mounted on the shoulder.
I took a Twitch dev’s streaming backpack, for a test run during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, broadcasting my rainy walk from Twitch’s office to the Moscone Center and accosting any friends I came across, yelling excitedly that I was streaming live. I had a total audience of one — Justin “Gunrun” Ignacio, a broadcast success engineer at Twitch who designed the bag.
I won’t try to hide my initial inhibitions about his product. This isn’t the first streaming backpack ever developed, and the ones that have come before it haven’t really caught on. The bags were too heavy, the streaming quality was laggy or the aesthetic was downright atrocious. There’s no point in investing in a backpack if it’s something you’re embarrassed to be seen wearing — especially in a city like San Francisco where backpack culture rages.
Ignacio’s backpack is perfectly unremarkable. It’s solid black front with a mesh side pocket where the computer’s main control system lives. The backpack’s interior is packed with the wires and gizmos that make streaming possible. Peeping into its interior is intimidating — I’m someone who’s obsessed with online communities and entertainment, but unfortunately with little knowledge of how computers actually work, and I didn’t want to touch anything. Luckily, the bag was handed to me pre-packaged, put together by Ignacio.
My experience with the backpack would have been extremely different if I was in charge of figuring out how to make it work. Instead, simply I plugged a streamkey into a Safari link on my iPhone 5 and tapped a button that said “start streaming.” By opening up the Twitch app and monitoring my own broadcast, I could keep in touch with Ignacio and watch as the footage I was capturing appeared on my phone. There were some hiccups along the way, including a frame rate issue that Ignacio fixed remotely, but I was mostly impressed with how simple Twitch turned mobile streaming into. All I had to do to end the stream was tap the “stop streaming” button. It’s almost bewildering in its straightforwardness.
Walking through the streets of San Francisco’s SoMa district, crossing the trolley-lined roads and offering a quick, strategic apology to anyone I gently pushed aside as I raced back to the Moscone Center, I realized the simplicity of the backpack didn’t matter. No one cared about what lay inside the bag attached to my body; they couldn’t take their hardened, suspicious eyes off the bouncy camera firmly attached to my shoulder. People seemed to immediately distrust me when I walked into the Moscone Center or into a room. Although we’ve been walking around with tiny computers that can capture live video and stream it to Facebook or Twitter — or even Twitch — for years, the appearance of an actual camera still puts people on edge.
This is still weird
I was testing the backpack for a couple of reasons. I wanted to see if it was easier to stream playing a game by attaching a camera to a backpack and going completely hands free at an event. Ignacio’s bag isn’t the most ideal situation, but if you’e headed to GDC, San Diego Comic-Con or E3 scenario, it’s not a bad idea. The battery lasts 10 hours and allows people to go from booth-to-booth without having to worry about plugging in equipment and getting less time capturing the game. The bag can’t replace current capture methods, but if I wanted to IRL Stream GDC, it also lets me show off some of the games I’m seeing. Ignacio’s backpack would function fin in that regard, but it doesn’t feel like it was designed for games.
Instead, his bag feels like the next step in live news coverage or IRL streaming at events. Instead of relying on an iPhone or Android device to capture what you’re seeing, connecting that to its own battery park, and walking around trying to get the appropriate angle with a camera, Ignacio’s backpack takes care of all that planning. I was walking through the city, filming what was happening around me, and slowly choreographing my movements to ensure my audience saw what I wanted to broadcast. It’s the perfect type of camera setup for independent journalists or activists who want to capture everything they’re doing with minimum lag and decent quality.
It still doesn’t, however, erase the eerie feeling of being the odd one out. Walking around a city, talking to yourself aloud and pointing your shoulder in different directions, tends to catch the attention of people walking around you. I noticed that the closer I got to people, the more difficult it became to be my annoyingly loud and enthusiastic self. I was hyperaware of the stares the camera was receiving. Trying to put on an entertaining stream is increasingly more difficult when you’re aware that everyone is staring at you — and not for particularly fond reasons.
It’s been a day since I streamed, and I can’t stop thinking about this disconnect between our community — the one that understands people IRL stream, walking around and speaking to their phones instead of directly into the receiver — and everyone else. Despite how mainstream streaming has become, whether it be video games or news events or vloggers, we’re still transfixed by the people who walk down the street with a giant camera held in front of their face. Or in my case, attached to my shoulder.
I spends just about every waking minute thinking about our relationship to the internet and digital culture. I report on it every day for Polygon. I’ve stopped thinking about our real lifestyles and the ones we carry online as two different cultures — I believe they integrated years ago. Online culture is simply culture, and therefore, online streaming entertainment is real entertainment.
We’re still not there yet
Walking through San Francisco, however, streaming my journey through the rain and having a conversation with myself, I was instantly reminded that IRL streaming and backpacks with cameras attached to their shoulders are still fringe. But it’s getting better. Twitch just became even more of a household name, thanks to Drake partnering with Ninja for a Fortnite stream and the Paul brothers splitting their time between YouTube and Twitch. There’s no question that Twitch culture impacts just about every corner of the internet. Even our parents can at least conceptually understand that people stream themselves playing video games or vlog as a way to generate a livable income.
That changes the minute we try to bring our Twitch selves into the real world.
The day when you can walk down the street in any city, camera attached to a bag’s shoulder strap, and have people instantly understand what’s happening is still a long way off — and that’s a good thing. There are security and privacy questions we should be asking when people can be shown on camera and potentially streamed to an audience of thousands without their permission. IRL streaming in particular has been associated with doxing, because how easy to uncover someone’s location from their live footage. No one would call IRL streaming dangerous, but there’s a reason it’s not totally mainstream just yet.
What this backpack proves, however, is that the technology is here. It’s easy to use and doesn’t physically impose on your body. Ignacio has designed a plain black backpack that does everything I want a streaming backpack to do. Unless I’m going to a rally or an industry event, however, I’m probably not going to wear it just yet. The backpack represents more than technology progress; it represents a fundamental change in our understanding and acceptance of a 24/7 streaming culture that, right now, has only happened online.
There’s no doubt that we will eventually understand streaming culture better than we do now. Until then, I’m more than happy to be the person that walks around with their camera out in front of their face, just like everyone else. I’d argue most people feel the same.