What Ooyala is Up To

Rather than carve out a safe little niche, Ooyala is essentially out to create an entirely new online video ecosystem.

For three twenty-somethings intent on finding ways to make money on online video, you’d think Bismarck Lepe, his brother Belsasar and Sean Knapp were already in the right place as of a year ago. Both were respected vets at Google, owner of online video giant YouTube. Instead, they chose to leave to start Ooyala. “Your parents may have the most beautiful mansion in the world, but it’s still you’re parents’ mansion,” Knapp explains. “This was an opportunity to build something of our own.”

I suppose that’s the kind of confidence (or delusion, as the case may be) that millions in the bank, not to mention being part of Google’s world-altering success, can bring. But these guys evidently mean what they say, because they’ve drawn up a blueprint for big mansion, indeed. Rather than carve out a safe little niche, Ooyala is essentially out to create an entirely new online video ecosystem. More after the break.

With just 18 people, they've managed to build a lot in just six months. First, there's a distribution/syndication platform called Backlot that video owners, with just a few clicks, can use to control where their content is viewed, not to mention a suite of analytics tools to help them carefully track traffic trends. Then there's a media player with an inventive new user interface for consumers to use (more on that later). Most ambitious, they're planning to roll out a technology early next year that they hope will revolutionize on-line video advertising. Rather than inject TV-style spots, viewers would be able to click on objects within a clip that they're interested in--say, the leading man (to find out what else he's been in, for example), or the car he's driving (to see an ad, or be linked to a local dealer).

Sounds a lot like trying to boil the ocean, but they seem to be off to a promising start. Besides the obligatory foosball table and the catered sushi lunches, they've also got some paying customers. These include Comedy.com and online gaming site VOIG.com, and word is that they're in talks with YouTube, Facebook, ESPN and others. Among the attractions: the Backlot "video management platform" is designed to let content owners efficiently distribute (either very quickly, or in HD quality, as the situation requires) for a flat $.08 per viewed hour. Lepe claims that is many times cheaper than rivals such as Brightcove. Liz Gannes over at NewTeeVee was seems to have been similarly intrigued when she got a gander at Ooyala's plans a few months ago. (By the way, Liz, Lepe tells me that Ooyala's backers include angel investors such as former Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle and venture capitalist Kip Hagopian from Redpoint Ventures, though that next round of funding is said to be imminent.)

The new advertising model is the most radical part of this vision. The company has hired six experts in computer vision, who've developed a way to catalog various objects within a video. When a viewer clicks on a football highlight featuring Patriots' QB Tom Brady , for example, Ooyala's technology will know it is him and will bring up relevant information (this could be anything from links to products Brady sponsors, his statistics, or maybe a message board where fans can discuss his latest exploits). Lepe says the experience could be tailored in many ways. The video could pause, or requests for information on objects could be sent into a shopping cart, to be explored after the video ends.

Then there's the new interface. It's Apple-esque in its look and feel, and offers an interesting wrinkle: it provides a way for content owners to bundle related clips together in what Ooyala calls "Channels". The clip the viewer asked for shows up front and center, but other clips can be seen floating off to the side or behind (it's vaguely reminiscent of Apple's iChat videoconferencing, come to think of it). This might be a useful way for a movie studio to show trailers of all of its new releases. A cooking channel can show all clips about making dishes involving artichokes. A band could show footage of each song performed at its latest concert. Or a reporter, like this one, could show highlights of an interview.

But better to show than tell. So here is what this looks like. NOTE: After Lepe's face appears, you can either hit play to watch portions of the Q&A in sequence. Or to see the "Channels" view, click on the little icon with the three boxes. You can then navigate and choose the clip based on its title (though for any video that isn't just talking heads, just a quick look would ID what it is, obviously).

Finally, a quick note of thanks to Ooyala marketing manager Alexa Lee. She pitched me on the idea of showing portions of the interview using Ooyala's technology, and even offered to shoot and edit the video--which she did, per my instructions.

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