VideoStir is a sophisticated platform that lets small businesses do something simple — create floating videos to interact with website visitors
It’s a cliche that we live in the age of the selfie, with narcissistic young people (and not so young people) using any opportunity to snap photos of themselves and quickly post them to social media.
But the truth is that others enjoy looking at selfies just as much the self enjoys taking them. That is because human beings are social creatures and our attention is instinctively drawn to the human face. On Instagram, photos with faces get 38 percent more likes. Our eyes automatically look where someone else’s eyes look.
An Israeli startup called VideoStir is tapping into the magnetic power of the selfie by letting business owners take videos of themselves to post as floating videos on their website. Shy Frenkel, the company’s CEO and founder, launched VideoStir in 2012 and has raised $777,000 in a seed round funding lead by TheTime Innovation. On Wednesday, VideoStir officially launched is floating video platform.
In the past, posting a floating video on your website was a lengthy process that involved using a green screen and possibly hiring actors and a professional video crew. But VideoStir allows anyone to do it with their smartphone in a matter of minutes. They are even offering free pre-made clips for simple actions, such as calls to subscribe to email lists and download products, for a limited time.
“Videos on websites improve conversions and engagement. People stay and watch them. When you have a video, people can understand more complicated messages,” explains Shy Frenkel, VideoStir’s CEO.
“Let’s say you are renting an apartment on Airbnb and someone appears, an average guy, not a model, and says, ‘Come on in! I’m Shy.’ That’s a personal touch and it’s missing today.”
Frenkel shows Geektime VideoStir’s website with an actor walking across it, pointing to where to click to get started.
It probably alleviates the anxiety of the type of person so video-phobic that they tend to put their thumbs over the lens. Frenkel says VideoStir requires no skills beyond knowing how to use your smartphone camera and following simple directions.
A difficult computational problem
Although you’ve probably seen floating videos on websites before, the fact that the process has been automated and made accessible to non-video professionals is new, explains Frenkel.
This is because what looks simple to the human eye — separating a human being from their background — is a very difficult computational problem that hasn’t been fully solved.
“The reason videographers use a green screen is that then you can tell a computer to remove everything green. But if you take a video against a white wall, white is everywhere. That makes it a challenge.”
The process of separating a person from their background, called segmentation, is harder than it looks not only because a human being contains multitudes of pixels in different colors, but also because of light and shadows.
“Let’s say you have some pixels that are gray, not white. Are they part of the person, or their background?”
Apparently, there is part of our brain that does this instinctively, so that even a baby raised by wolves can recognize a human face and tell it apart from a wall behind it. But science still has no idea how our brains do this. Instead, computer vision and machine learning are used to “teaching” VideoStir’s platform what a leg, hair, and person look like from different angles by feeding the program thousands of examples.
“We have an algorithm developer who develops algorithms all day to help our platform to recognize the human body. No one can achieve perfect results segmenting someone against a white background, but we’re better than 90 percent.”
Play before you pay
VideoStir has a revenue model your grandmother would recognize. Once you are ready to post a video on your site, you can choose one of several payment plans, depending on how many views you anticipate and how many times you plan to replace the video. For a one-time fee of $19 you get one clip that can be viewed 10,000 times. For $99, you can get a replaceable clip and 100,000 views. The videos can be embedded on any website, HTML newsletter or Facebook app page. In the future, says Frenkel, he hopes that marketplace sites like Airbnb will offer a button that launches a floating video.
But before you press buy, you can change your shirt ten times and experiment with different facial expressions while sharing the embedded clip with up to 100 people. It’s a selfie-lover’s idea of a fun afternoon. And if you’re camera shy, you can choose from a series of boilerplate videos performed by actors, or even create a floating animation or use a pet.
Most of VideoStir’s clients are small businesses. Frenkel says the videos that are most effective are when you’re the one providing the service — say a doctor, dentist, small shop owner or real estate agent — and potential customers get to see your face.
“These people see a huge uptick in engagement when they embed the video. It’s more effective than using an actor.”
The challenges ahead
While the business opportunity is clear and many small- and medium-sized businesses will surely use the service, particularly e-commerce sites and other companies that would benefit from having a floating video guide first-time users through a site, the design of the product is a bit lacking (as is their website). Floating videos can either enhance or detract from user experience, so design will be a critical element to focus on going forward.
One positive note is that the videos do not affect the loading time of websites because they come on later, after a website has fully loaded. We confirmed this by testing the floating video icon on their website and another page. The technical aspects of the floating videos, including the automation and DIY capabilities, are impressive.
So, if this company can make the product a bit prettier, we imagine it will have customers and investor interest for a Series A.
Laura Rosbrow contributed reporting.
*A note of disclosure: Geektime participates in TheTime’s incubator.