December 31, 2020
Hello, and happy new year! This week, Protocol Next Up is all about what's in store for entertainment-related consumer electronics in 2021, as well as ways to capture VR with and without green screens. And as a bonus: fireworks!
(Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here to get Next Up every week.)
The Big Story
2021 consumer electronics trends
TGI 2021, amirite? If this were any other year, right now I'd be busy getting ready for CES in Las Vegas, jotting down booth numbers and constantly checking the monorail map to make sure I could actually make it to all my meetings in time.
Alas, CES will be virtual this time around, and all my briefings will happen on Zoom. Still, we will see plenty of interesting announcements over the coming weeks and months. Here are my best guesses for what's next for consumer electronics.
- Smaller companies will turn up the volume. Big corporations are bad at making big speakers. Google discontinued its Home Max smart speaker in December. Apple introduced the HomePod Mini in October to restart its flailing audio business. And remember Samsung's Galaxy Home? Apparently, neither does Samsung. With the big guys focusing on devices priced $100 or less, there's an opening in the market for bigger, louder and more expensive speakers. Still-somewhat-stealthy startup Syng is about to release its $1,500 Cell Alpha, and Sonos is overdue to announce a successor to its Play:3, but we may also see other companies try to fill that void.
- The first crop of AR glasses will focus on audio. Facebook is set to release its first smart glasses in partnership with Ray-Ban in 2021, but don't expect the wearable to offer fully immersive AR. The glasses will instead heavily focus on audio, and be more like a mixture of Snapchat's Spectacles and Amazon's Echo Frames. And with true consumer AR devices not yet on the horizon, we can expect a bigger focus on audio AR and personal assistants.
- Everything becomes a Zoom screen. 2020 taught us to stop worrying and love cameras, if only for Zoom trivia nights. First, we used our laptops, phones and tablets. Then, we embraced smart displays. And now, it's TV's turn. Amazon added support for video calling to its Fire TV Cube in December, and you can expect similar announcements for smart TVs and other streaming devices in 2021.
- There will be more weird stuff than ever. 2020 was a tough year for hardware startups. COVID shut down supply chains and disrupted Kickstarter campaigns, and global shipping delays didn't exactly help, either. With things hopefully inching back to normal, we can expect a wave of weird and wonderful devices from hardware startups in the coming months. Phone chargers with built-in disinfectant; VR shoes, vests and keyboards; wristbands that turn your dance moves into music; 2021 will have it all.
- The way we shop for all this stuff will change as well. Casually browsing store shelves won't feel normal for a while, but buying new devices can be daunting, and review sites don't really make up for that in-store experience. Expect a lot more stores to offer guidance from product experts over Zoom, a resurgence of home shopping channels, and even shoppable AR filters to make online shopping feel more personal in 2021.
"Fubo may be the most compelling short we have ever identified in our career as analysts." Lightshed Partners Rich Greenfield, Brandon Ross and Mark Kelley in a note to investors that panned the valuation of the online TV service as "just plain egregious."
The lockdowns this year have transformed our homes into offices, schools, concert halls, movie theaters and gyms. Our homes are working harder for us, but so is our technology. The device that is working the hardest is perhaps the TV—becoming our lifeline to a far more virtual world.
Mobile capture is coming to VR
Sony is looking to make virtual reality a lot more participatory, if some of its recent filings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are any indication: The PlayStation wants to use mobile phones in conjunction with VR headsets to give bystanders a closer look at what the headset wearer is up to.
Sony's work on a "second screen virtual window into VR environment" started all the way back in 2017; a recently updated patent application was published shortly before the holidays.
- When someone wears a headset, this technology would share their view of the VR world with a bystander's phone.
- Facebook's Oculus Quest headset has offered casting to mobile and TVs for some time. However, Sony's take on mobile second screens would go much further, and actually incorporate the headset wearer as well.
- To do so, the bystander would point their phone at the headset wearer, which would allow the phone to superimpose the headset wearer over a view of the virtual world. Kind of like reverse augmented reality, if you will.
It's worth noting that Sony has filed for all kinds of VR patents in the past. Some of those applications featured a number of different form factors for VR controllers, always leading to speculation about a next-generation PSVR system being just around the corner. In reality, a lot of those technologies will probably never make it to market. Plus, Sony has been extremely secretive about its plans for future VR products, frustrating many VR developers.
Still, the kind of mixed reality mobile capture envisioned by Sony isn't all that far away.
- Facebook built an app to capture Quest VR gameplay this way in 2019, which still required using a PC, a camera and a green screen — great for developers looking to produce demo videos, but not exactly a solution for your average consumer.
- A few open-source developers improved upon Facebook's work with Reality Mixer, a capture app for iOS devices that does away with the need for PCs and green screens.
The app is still in development, but users can already try it out by joining its Testflight, or installing it via an alternative app store.
- The Reality Mixer team has a bunch of features on its wish list, including the ability to replace the camera view of the VR user with a custom avatar, superimposed with the help of iOS ARKit body tracking. This would make it possible to view and record VR gameplay with animated avatars instead of people wearing headsets.
To be fair, Reality Mixer is still very much a DIY project, but the resulting videos are already impressive. And with Sony researching the same idea, it's a safe bet to assume that someone at Facebook has experimented with mobile VR capture as well. Add a new generation of mobile devices with Lidar sensors to the mix, and you can imagine mobile VR capture and co-viewing becoming another way of AR and VR coming together.
Last week was pretty light, news-wise, so I decided to instead link back to some important stories of the year:
Why Apple is betting on mobile AR. Lidar sensors, AR apps, instant experiences: This is how Apple wants to succeed in AR even before it sells glasses.
Cop watch. Cell phone footage has been at the center of a new civil rights movement.
No one watched Quibi. And no, it was not the pandemic's fault. This Vulture story was the beginning of the end.
We all watched Quibi fail. No one really expected Quibi to make it, but few thought it would fail so quickly.
A metaverse guide for dummies. Mathew Ball has been singing the praise of Fortnite for some time, arguing that it is at the center of the metaverse.
Magic Leap had a leadership problem. Rony Abobvitz was great at selling a vision. Executing on it? Not so much.
How Spotify turns obscure B-sides into hits. Algorithms. Mysteries. Pavement. This story has it all.
On Protocol: Last week's edition of Next Up had some of Protocol's best tech and entertainment stories of 2020. Check it out here, ICYMI.
I've been in the U.S. for close to two decades now, and I still haven't gotten used to the fact that the country celebrates the new year by slowly lowering a weird glass ball three hours before it is midnight on the West Coast. Back in Germany, we used to quite literally have a blast, burning $150 million worth of personal fireworks in a single night. Except, not this time around.
In 2020, Germany has banned fireworks to make sure that hospitals overburdened by COVID patients don't have to deal with drunks who accidentally throw away the lighter instead of the firecracker. Residents of Cologne are being encouraged to turn on and off their lights at midnight instead — which isn't exactly the same. Luckily, there's another way to safely celebrate 2021: Fireworks simulation software FWsim is completely free this week to help us all end this awful year by blowing things up in style.
Thanks for reading — see you next week!