Lirpa Labs Mob Cam VR App

PRICE Free (App); $5 to $20 per hour

Eliminates airfare, hotel, and dry-cleaning bills
Diffuses “line rage” caused by waiting in too many lines for too long
Lets you bypass prickly security checks
Vertically held camera phones result in narrow, picket-fence-like view on widescreen
Surge pricing and data overage charges passed onto consumer quickly add up
Lacks 4K video and 7.1- channel audio support

Mob Cam VR will appeal to the weary, the non-ambulatory, or anyone so disgusted with the idea of returning to a massive trade show that they’d do anything to opt out.

Mimicking business plans pioneered by Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit in which anyone with a car, room, or broom can offer transportation, a bed, or cleaning service to strangers, the Lirpa Labs Mob Cam VR is a new app that empowers smartphone owners everywhere to work as on-location cameramen for one or more distant viewers willing to pay for a live video feed.

In order to try out the service as a consumer, I volunteered to forgo my annual trudge to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Press Day was a no-brainer since all the major companies streamed their events live to anyone willing to put up with frequent utterances of the phrase “connected to the cloud” and endure multiple stage appearances by some guy from Netflix.

The real test would come the next day when the show floor opened and I was faced with the task of getting my avatar down the aisles. Mob Cam VR lets each viewer chose an identifying avatar associated with text chat that appears on the screen of the camera operator as well as on the screens of others watching the same live video. Since Hello Barbie was taken, I chose a likeness of New York’s famous Flatiron Building because its leading edge seemed capable of slicing through crowds with the grace of an ice cutter.

But first I needed to check out the registry of smartphone bearers offering to be my eyes and ears. I immediately rejected #ManWithDrone who claimed to have permission to launch an aerial photography platform inside the Sands Expo and maneuver it anywhere the client wanted. Unfortunately, he insisted on $600 an hour just to cover his insurance costs. For that, I could have flown to the show myself.

I also rejected #FastOnHoverboard, fearing that the last thing I’d see before losing the video feed would be flames from an exploding battery.

Since my main requirements in booking a show sherpa were economy and reliability, I finally settled on #SharpElbows44. This dude described himself as an aging millennial and part-time blogger. He claimed to have access to CES—a strictly trade-only event—thanks to his uncle Steve, an appliance store owner outside Fresno, for whom he worked parttime delivering refrigerators.

Rates charged by show sherpas are regulated by Lirpa Labs, Mob Cam VR’s developer. If I agreed to share #SharpElbows44’s view with up to 98 simultaneous users, my cost would be a mere $5 per hour. But surge pricing would kick in if user demand reached three digits. Then the rate would double. At four digits, the rate would double again, bringing my costs to as much as $20 an hour. After crossing my fingers and entering my credit card info, I signed on the dotted screen.

As the show floor opened on January 6, I was seated in pajamas in front of my home PC logged onto Mob Cam VR. I could see the backs of shoulders streaming into the Las Vegas Convention Center. #SharpElbows44 appeared, headed to one of the sprawling booths featuring walls of cascading TVs. Along the left side of my screen, I could read the text chat from other followers suggesting he head to Sony. “No,” said someone else. “Samsung!”

I wanted to steer #SharpElbows44 to a small booth along the hall’s periphery where I’d heard the company that introduced smell-o-vision in theaters had perfected an HDMI-compatible scent dispenser for the home. But the chance of my request being acted upon among the endless stream of text chat was slim.

It was time to consider one of the in-app purchases that enable a user to take Mob Cam VR to the next level. For an extra $2 per message, I was able to boldface my request. Too late. Everyone else was bolding as well. The only thing left was the nuclear option—outbid everyone so that #SharpElbows44 would take steering directions exclusively from me. I clicked over to the auction screen and discovered that his price had already been bid up to a whopping $200 an hour. Sound & Vision, as well endowed as it is, would never allow me to expense that.

I resolved to e-mail the smell-o-vision guy after the show. Meantime, I decided to buy into the VR part of the Mob Cam VR app. For an extra $3.60 an hour, I’d have access to #SharpElbows44’s external orb cam, empowering viewers with what Lirpa Labs promised would deliver “a mind-blowing wraparound experience.” I logged on with my smartphone, inserted the screen into my Google Cardboard holder, and peered in. I looked up to see the 1800–1900 sign above the aisle.

I turned my head around as a PR lady came up on #SharpElbows44 to pitch him on bringing his followers to her client’s booth for a quick demo. But just then, I nearly gave myself whiplash when a marauding band of booth bunnies all dressed as Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens whizzed by. I think they were promoting a line of dishwasher-safe, rechargeable lightsabers, but I couldn’t be sure.

Video motion was surprisingly smooth, though blocky artifacts occasionally appeared. According to a spokesperson for Lirpa Labs, the company prioritizes 30-frame-per-second motion over image resolution. But the only time I noticed Full HD was on the last day of the show when the crowds had thinned out. What came across the screen at peak times was more like VHS quality. The company says that the resolution is automatically degraded in order to compensate for bit congestion over an overtaxed Wi-Fi or cellular network— a situation that Lirpa insists it can’t control, especially at techie-infested shows like CES where everybody wants to be online all at once.

The audio (confined to stereo) exhibited few dropouts, though considering the din from the show floor, I couldn’t always make out what people addressing the camera were saying. I used text chat to insist that a closed-captioning stream be added.

By now, #SharpElbows must have been starting to feel the strain of the incessant demand from his gaggle of viewers. He wrote back, “I only have two hands, jerk!”

As I was thinking that maybe I’d hitched my periscope to the wrong horse, an out-of-control drone suddenly buzzed overhead a little too close for comfort, nearly bestowing #SharpElbows44 with a Mohawk. It seemed to be headed straight for Adele, who had been paid a small fortune to appear on the main stage in the foyer. Fortuitously, one of the Rey warriors leaped up, wielding her lightsaber and whacking the drone into a rack of trade show dailies no one wanted anyway.

With this kind of excitement, I was grateful to be deskbound and still in my PJs. It brought to mind a bit of wisdom that Dr. Loof Lirpa, founder of Lirpa Labs, had imparted when the company launched Mob Cam VR via video conference from an undisclosed location last fall. As Dr. Lirpa put it, “Why go out when you can just stay in?” Exactly.

In that sense, Mob Cam VR succeeds brilliantly, showering the user with the bragging rights of being able to say he or she has been anywhere that matters. After all, in a world of heightened safety concerns and bag check lines that stretch from Vegas to L.A., wouldn’t you rather just not pack at all?

Broadcasting Requirements: iOS- or Android-based smartphone or tablet with camera running the Mob Cam VR server app and access to Wi-Fi or cellular (3G or greater) service • Viewing Requirements: Windows or Mac computer logged onto or an iOS- or Android-based smartphone or tablet running the Mob Cam VR client app with Internet access