How two Aussies threw the switch on power to the people

The UC Davis pepper spray incident shows the power of SwitchCam to shed light on world events. Brett Welch on the roof of his apartment in San Francisco’s Mission district.

SwitchCam lets you watch concerts recorded by camera phone from various angles.

An early mockup of SwitchCam.

Asher Moses in Silicon Valley | Episode 1 | 2 | 3 | 4Crowdsourcing for geniuses: KaggleBe your own video director: SwitchCam

It was the blast of pepper spray that shook the internet and sparked a debate across the US about excessive force by police.

Surrounded by students with camera phones, campus police officer John Pike at the University of California, Davis, was destined to become an internet pariah – and viral sensation – the moment he decided to douse seated Occupy movement demonstrators with the blinding spray.

Now, using a start-up created by two Aussies called SwitchCam, you can watch the entire incident from multiple camera angles and with a selection of audio tracks.

The technology – which automatically pieces together camera phone footage of events ranging from music concerts to political protests – is so powerful that it has just attracted $1.2 million from investors led by US billionaire businessman Mark Cuban.

“These videos exist separately on YouTube but they absolutely belong together because they’re of the same thing, the same time and place,” says SwitchCam co-founder Brett Welch.

SwitchCam’s site is presently focused on music concerts, and there are dozens already available ranging from Gotye’s set at this year’s Coachella to John Mayer performing at the Hollywood Bowl in 2010.

But Welch, 29, says the site will be moving further into sport and news around August or September. He wants SwitchCam to provide a ground-level view of events like the Arab Spring and the London riots.

With 72 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute, he will never be short of camera operators.

“We believe that in the next couple of years – and we’re already seeing this – that the most important moments in human history and also in your life are going to be captured by people on their phones and on their cameras that they have in their pockets,” says Welch.

“We actually want to put that footage together and create something that’s useful and meaningful.”

SwitchCam is also attracting attention from big brands and concert promoters. It recently licensed its technology to South American beer giant Skol who used it for a large music festival in Brazil.

Welch says the “magician” who developed the algorithm that powers SwitchCam is Chris Hartley, also 29, a friend of Welch who left a $150,000 salary job at Macquarie Bank to take a $0 salary in start-up land.

It is more difficult than it looks programming a computer to decipher which YouTube clips belong together and then connecting them in order to allow the viewer to watch the entire event seamlessly.

But Hartley was perhaps uniquely equipped to build the technology, having previously worked coding algorithms for military sonar systems before developing trading algorithms for the finance industry.

“Honestly there are probably less than five people in the world who could build this system and he’s one of them,” says Welch.

Hartley says he saw an opportunity to apply his knowledge to the media space and jumped in head first.

“I wanted to be in control of my destiny and ‘swing for the fences’ as they say in Silicon Valley,” he says.

“I’m happier now than when I was making north of $150k working for the man. Being a cog in the machine didn’t fit for me.”

Fairfax Media visited SwitchCam just before it received the $1.2 million funding injection, when they were just a three-person team.

They appear in episode 4 of Digital Dreamers, which launched on this website today.

Welch has lived in San Francisco since 2009 when the startup he worked at with fellow Australian Bardia Housman, dubbed Business Catalyst, was acquired by software giant Adobe in 2009.

He neatly encapsulates the three “fundamental things” Silicon Valley offers entrepreneurs that are hard to come by in Australia: talent, advice and funding.

“I don’t mean that there’s no talented people in Australia, there are, but the talent that is in the US tends to be a little bit more willing to jump in based on passion, take a pay cut, work for equity – in Australia that’s a little bit more rare,” he says.

———————-See SwitchCam’s journey in Digital Dreamers episode 4———————-

Welch says people in Australia were generally risk averse, and start-ups are inherently risky, so many of our best and brightest who choose to stay in Australia take a big salary and work for one of the big banks rather than joining a start-up.

“The second thing is advice; there’s a lot of people who are here that have done similar businesses who would be able to give me advice about what to do with SwitchCam, how to scale the business, how to sell into different brands, people who’ve dealt with ESPN and Disney.

“That’s a known quantity here and it’s less so in Australia. The market here is much bigger so you’ve always got access to a larger group of people.

“And the final thing is funding, it’s much easier to get angel funding on good entrepreneur- friendly terms in America.”

Welch and Hartley are flushed with cash now but when they started they were working at desks set up in Welch’s house and Hartley slept on the floor. Their next office was so cold they had to work with blankets on their knees.

They’re still working hard – “it’s pretty much 24/7” – and Welch describes the highs and lows of start-up life as being like an “emotional rollercoaster”.

So what is driving this relentless energy in the face of such hard work?

“I know this is the corny answer, but I do want to actually change the world … in my own little way,” Welch says.

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