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Hulu deepfaked its new ad. It won’t be the last.

Expect less demand for expensive actors and studio time: Now producers are showing it's easy to use algorithms to make compelling clips.

Hulu ad

This ad is fake: Hulu used face-swapping algorithms to create its latest commercial.

GIF: Courtesy of Hulu

How do you safely shoot a commercial during a pandemic? Hulu simply decided to fake it.

The streaming service launched a new ad last weekend to publicize the restart of sports on its TV service. It features athletes such as Damian Lillard and Skylar Diggins-Smith unenthusiastically trying their hands at favorite quarantine hobbies; think painting self-portraits and baking sourdough bread.

But there was a problem: Lillard has been in the NBA's bubble in Orlando, and in-person shoots didn't seem like a good idea for the other star athletes, either. That's why Hulu shot the commercial with body doubles on an otherwise unoccupied set in Los Angeles, and then used deepfake algorithms to superimpose the faces of the stars into the resulting clip.

The deepfake algorithms were trained on footage of the athletes that was shot exclusively over Zoom, explained Hulu marketing VP Ryan Crosby. "Throughout each shoot, we captured several different facial angles including straight-to-camera, 45-degree angle, 90-degree side angle, looking up and looking down," he said. "Athletes were asked to say the vowels ('A' 'E' 'I' 'O' 'U') at each angle along with 'Hulu Has Live Sports Again.' We also recorded several different facial expressions that pertain to their specific movements and speaking lines within the spot."

Hulu worked with Sao Paulo, Brazil-based VFX studio Tribbo on the clip, which also used some still photographs of the athletes to beef up the training data for the AI algorithms. The whole production process took about six weeks, Crosby said.

Hulu isn't the first company to use AI video manipulation for its commercials during the pandemic. In April, State Farm ran a commercial that featured doctored footage of former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne. In it, a much younger Mayne predicted that ESPN would air "The Last Dance" in 2020. "It's going to be lit. You don't even know what that means yet," the clip has 1998-Mayne saying.

And it's not just for high-end commercials anymore. The AI video startup Synthesia, which promises customers the ability to produce videos without actors and film crews, has seen a 10x growth in demand since the beginning of the pandemic, according to co-founder and COO Steffen Tjerrild. Synthesia's AI dubbing tech takes text input and then manipulates mouth movements of archive footage to produce custom clips, like this one.

AI will eventually do to video production what apps like Instagram filters did to photography, Tjerrild predicted. The need for companies to hire actors and book studio time will in many cases go away when they can just manipulate existing footage with the help of cloud-based algorithms. The cost savings alone could be significant enough to make this stick around even after the pandemic is over. "Allowing anyone to create videos at one hundredth of the cost and 1,000x the speed is here to stay," he said. "The quality and authenticity is only going to get better and better as this space matures."

For now, it's still possible to tell the difference between AI-produced and "real" video. "We knew the biggest fans of these athletes, and sports fans in general, would recognize the imperfections," Crosby said. That's why Hulu hinted at the trickery in its own social posts and on the social feeds of participating athletes. Lillard, for instance, told his fans on Instagram: "Why did Hulu put my face on some random guy's body? Cause I'm too busy getting buckets in the bubble to shoot commercials."

Protocol | China

Chinese ed-tech firms’ poignant pivots

Beijing’s tutoring ban has forced ed tech and private tuition companies to explore new opportunities, from clothing to coffee to agriculture.

Some Chinese online tutoring firms are pivoting away from education. Others continue offering classes, but a different kind.

Photo: Liu Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Management at China’s leading tutoring and ed-tech firms has been racking brains in an effort to pivot away from the once-lucrative but now moribund K-9 tutoring business. Pivoting has become a necessity ever since Beijing delivered a devastating blow to the private tutoring industry this past summer by banning many types of after-school tutoring outright.

The Wall Street Journal in November reported that several major Chinese tutoring and ed-tech companies were in discussions with China's government to resume K-9 tutoring, under the condition they run their businesses as nonprofits. But some companies have decided to sever their K-9 operations altogether, exploring completely different businesses: agriculture ecommerce, garment-making and even coffee houses. Others will stay in the business of teaching but place their bets on professional education and “well-rounded education”(素质教育), which is not schoolwork-oriented and instead involves extracurricular activities such as arts, sports, science, technology, engineering and civics.

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Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at shenlu@protocol.com, or via Twitter @shenlulushen.

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Most people don't even realize they're using open banking services today. If they connected their investment and banking accounts in a personal financial management solution or app, they're using open banking. Perhaps they've seen ads about how they can improve their credit score by uploading pay stubs or utility records to that same app – this is also powered by open banking.

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Bob Schukai
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Protocol | Workplace

Calendly thinks it can save you from group meeting scheduling hell

Add another tool to your arsenal for that 15-person, multi-time zone meeting you need to schedule.

Calendly now offers meeting polls.

Image: Calendly

Scheduling a one-on-one meeting over email requires its own multi-email song and dance. But scheduling a meeting for seven people over email is a full-blown nightmare. Add in multiple time zones and incomplete email responses, and you’re deep in a distressingly long email thread. So far, scheduling app Calendly has tackled one-on-one scenarios: The host sends a Calendly link and the invitee chooses the time slot that works for them. Group meetings were still a hassle, despite a few features allowing for round robins or multihost meetings. With the company’s Thursday launch of meeting polls, Calendly joins tools like Doodle and When2meet in solving group scheduling nightmares.

Srinivas Somayajula, Calendly's head of Product Operations, hopes that new and existing users will recognize Calendly as a tool for both the one-on-one use case and complex group scheduling. “We've got the capabilities in the toolset to support either of those extremes and everything in the middle,” Somayajula said.

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Lizzy Lawrence

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Protocol | Workplace

CTO to CEO: The case for putting the tech expert in charge

Parag Agrawal is one of the few tech industry CTOs to nab the top job. But the tides may be shifting.

Parag Agrawal’s appointment to Twitter's CEO seat is already alerting a new generation of CTOs that the top job may not be so out of reach.

Photo: Twitter

Parag Agrawal’s ascension to CEO of Twitter is notable for a few reasons. For one, at 37, he’s now the youngest CEO of an S&P 500 company, beating out Mark Zuckerberg. For another, his path to the top as a CTO-turned-CEO is still relatively rare in the corporate world.

His leap suggests that CEO succession trends may be shifting, as technology increasingly takes the center stage in business and strategy decisions not just for tech companies, but for the business world more broadly.

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Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

Protocol | Workplace

Google contractor says she was fired for 'ungoogley' behavior

According to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board, "ungoogley" is Google's term for having a bad attitude.

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job after asking about pay.

Photo: Future Publishing/Getty Images

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job for "ungoogley" behavior after asking about holiday pay at a meeting with management, according to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board by a lawyer for the Alphabet Workers Union.

Tuesday Carne said in an interview with Protocol that she was fired after just nine days of working in the data contracting facility in South Carolina. Carne's termination letter (which Protocol reviewed) called her behavior at the meeting "unacceptable and 'ungoogley'" and claimed that her behavior was the reason for her firing.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

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