More police chiefs at more police departments are thinking about what the ideal cop body camera looks like. One of the more persistent requests, according to makers of police body cameras, is for the ability to livestream footage.
That doesn't mean livestreaming publicly, although that might be a welcome feature for activists. When cops talk about livestreaming, they mean livestreaming back to headquarters. In other words, a video being recorded by an officer can be viewed in real time by someone—the officer's chief, perhaps—located elsewhere.
There are very few companies doing this right now. Maybe just one, in fact.
Most body cameras are their own standalone device. They can record police interactions from a 12-hour shift, typically, onto an internal storage device that an officer carries around on her uniform. At the end of a shift, she goes back to headquarters to upload it to the station's servers or to a cloud service such as Taser International's Evidence.com.
There's one major disadvantage to this uploading setup. If some significant police interaction is going on—such as a deadly hostage scenario in a nightclub—the police brass calling shots at headquarters are basically flying blind. Officers on the scene can report what they're seeing, but those body cameras aren't really doing anything to help the situation at hand.
But what if a police chief had a live feed to the body cameras of officers in various locations? Would the law enforcement agencies responding to the Orlando nightclub shooting—who were questioned after the fact because of the length of time it took to bring the massacre to a close—have lasted as long as it did if police decisionmakers had real time information about what each officer was seeing?
How long is it going to take for one of the big players to catch up, assuming they haven't already?
The prospects are appealing for law enforcement. That's why the CEO of Taser—the company that has cornered the market on "conducted electrical weapons" for US police and now wants to do the same for body cameras—recently promised to roll out livestreaming by 2017.
There is a much smaller company that is already doing this today, however.
Visual Labs is a Silicon Valley startup, founded by Stanford University computer science graduates, that's now in a handful of US police departments. It calls itself "the first body camera company that doesn't produce a camera," according to its chief operating officer. Instead, it's an Android app that allows cops to livestream from their department-issued mobile phones.
This system has some distinct advantages over big players like Taser and Vievu and Digital Ally. The hardware costs are minimal, for one—there's no need to buy a camera or a docking station. Officers can mount the phone in the middle of the chest or on the belt, or use an attachment to fasten a small camera onto the collar. It's also automatically paired to a phone's GPS, so cops are always traceable from headquarters.
Visual Labs is run by a father-son team, both named Alex Popof. (The father, Visual Labs' COO, goes by Alexander.) They operate out of an office down the street from Google headquarters.
"People assume that 'BWC' means 'body worn camera,'" the elder Popof told me. "We don't think of it that way. To us, it's 'body worn computer.'" Visual Labs doesn't build cameras. Instead, it puts its research and development capital into improving the app, and providing protective phone cases that securely mount onto the front of an officer's uniform without falling off.
The challenge for any startup in the police business is getting into the game. Through its electroshock weapons business, Taser already has contracts with 90 percent of the 18,000 police departments in the US. WatchGuard already provides dashboard cams to police departments all over the country. And in addition to having a thriving dashcam business, Digital Ally—another major body camera player—was founded by Stan Ross, whose father, Bud Ross, was one of the law enforcement pioneers behind Kustom Signals' mobile traffic radar system. Through that connection alone, Digital Ally has inroads with departments nationwide. How can Visual Labs—a Silicon Valley company arriving fresh to the police market—compete?
"From our perspective, it's an educational issue," said Alex Popof, Visual Labs' chief executive officer. "Big departments—New York City, Los Angeles—they're going to go with a Taser, a Vievu, a WatchGuard. We know that." But municipal police, campus police, private security services—"we're getting people to listen."
Still, it's difficult "getting the word out that we have something that no one else has," his father said. "You'd think that would be easy to do, but it's our challenge."
And a big challenge it is. An actual livestreaming body camera—one that streams directly to headquarters from a smartphone in real time—may be Visual Labs' current advantage. But how long is it going to take for one of the big players to catch up, assuming they haven't already?
That's one problem. Another is that there are companies that do something pretty close to the livestreaming the Alexes describe already. Utility, Vievu, and some smaller companies can stream video from cameras onto a smartphone if there's a Wi-Fi router nearby (which some departments have begun installing in police cruisers). Utility uses a smartphone app that's only slightly different than what Visual Labs offers.
The startup has at least two other things going for it, though.
First, a very significant chunk of police departments—at least half of big city departments in the US—are without body cameras. And both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have called for expanded federal funding to bring more body cameras to more departments, so the market is destined to grow.
Second, the Popofs are in Silicon Valley. That means even if their innovations are soon eclipsed by larger companies with similar goals, they may not have to quit.
"Money in Silicon Valley is not that difficult to get these days," Alexander Popof said. "And this is a market where people and departments are investing."
That much, at least, seems certain.