SEOUL When tens of thousands of Koreans converged in the center of Seoul on Tuesday for a mass protest against the new president, many were clutching two vital items: a candle and a mobile phone loaded with snazzy features.
The protest movement, which started in early May to oppose U.S. beef imports, has since become a stage for a broad range of political grievances against the government -- from high fuel prices to health-care privatization and the cost of education.
But in this country, one of the most wired and technology savvy in the world, the month-long series of gatherings has also been a valuable testing ground for the latest communication devices, gadgets and websites.
From high-resolution camera phones to instant broadcasting software and water cannon-resistant camcorders, the latest advances in communications were in evidence during the five weeks since the protests began.
Many demonstrators rely on Internet forums to get information on rallying points, weather forecasts and riot police presence. With powerful camera phones, they are able to shoot photos and videos that they can instantly upload on Internet sites thanks to high-speed wireless technology.
Some gadgets recommended by local papers and protesters include Sanyo Electric Co's 6764.T compact camcorder "Xacti" ("It's light and ergonomic so it won't strain your hand even during prolonged use," according to an Internet article), Olympus Corp's (7733.T) water- and shock-resistant digital camera model ("It will be fine even in case of a tussle") and LG Electronics Inc's (066570.KS) camera phone "Viewty," which comes with image stabilizer and smart-lighting features.
Meanwhile, protesters worried about getting arrested can browse Internet bulletin boards detailing the number of arrests and giving advice in case of police violence.
A blogger suggests: "Take pictures and videos whenever police use violence or arrest people. Send the footage to Ohmynews by dialing #5055," referring to the dedicated upload number for a popular Internet news site.
Politically minded citizens don't even have to leave the comfort of their homes to experience the thrill of a mass protest in real time.
Dozens of sites have been offering live broadcasts of the demonstrations using footage collected from volunteers and uploaded instantly, with some even hiring commentators to enliven the action.
Self-broadcasting website Afreeca (www.afreeca.com/), operated by Nowcom (067160.KQ), has seen its audience almost triple since the beginning of the protests.
"Roughly 2 million people visited per day in April, but as of June 1, there are 5 million to 6 million people viewing Afreeca's content every day," spokeswoman Kim Mi-ryung said.
Cheaper, lighter and more available laptops and equipment are helping with this sea change.
"In the past, it took billions of won worth of equipment, including satellite, to broadcast something live from the street. Now all you need is a camera and a laptop computer with a mobile connection," said Lee Jong-ho, a producer at OhmyTV (www.ohmynews.com/).
Lee says daily viewership for OhmyTV reached 1.2 million during the candlelight protests, compared to 200,000 before they started.
(Additional reporting by Park Ju-min; Editing by Mark Porter and Jonathan Hopfner)