September 16, 2021
Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: Comcast is entering the smart TV business, and Google smart speakers are getting a "Walking Dead" voice experience.
The Big Story
Why Comcast is getting into the smart TV business
Earlier this week, I broke the news that Comcast is getting ready to launch smart TVs under a new XClass TV brand. The story elicited a bunch of questions on Twitter and elsewhere, so I decided to break things down a bit.
Comcast has developed its own operating system for set-top boxes and streaming devices called X1. Last year, we broke the news that Comcast was looking to bring X1 to smart TVs.
- Those TVs are being made by Hisense, and come in two screen sizes: 43 and 50 inches. No word on when these will be available for purchase, but it appears that a launch is imminent.
- XClass TVs will offer voice control via Comcast's own voice assistant, and run a bunch of apps for the most popular streaming services. One notable exception: Comcast doesn't have a deal with Apple to carry Apple TV+ on its devices yet.
- Comcast will also use some of its own assets to promote XClass: TV buyers will get a year's worth of Peacock Premium for free; Peacock Premium usually costs $4.99 per month.
Why would anyone want to buy a TV from Comcast? Good question, and time will tell if people actually want to. But here are some clues as to how Comcast wants to convince people of its TVs.
- Simplicity: The company filed for a trademark for the phrase "smart meets simple" earlier this year, and I expect this to be a major part of the XClass marketing. Comcast built X1 with cable customers in mind, and has put a lot of effort into things like universal search and voice control. Sure, those things are available on other platforms as well, but you can still expect the company to emphasize its experience catering to a non-technical audience.
- Price: We don't know yet what the first XClass TVs will go for, but there are plenty of clues that suggest budget pricing: Comcast reportedly struck a partnership with Walmart to sell its smart TVs, and Hisense tends to cater to more budget-conscious consumers as well. I'm hearing that the TVs are very similar to Hisense's lower-priced A6 series. With all of that in mind, I wouldn't be too surprised if the 43-inch set sells for less than $350. Add a sticker to the box that promises $60 worth of free streaming, and the TV starts looking like a pretty good deal.
Is this an attempt to compete against other cable companies? Or, in other words: Why is Comcast even doing this?
- Comcast execs have long insisted that they had no interest in selling its services to people outside of the company's cable footprint. Now, someone who is a Charter customer may pick up an XClass TV, and perhaps ditch Charter's cable TV service in favor of streaming.
- But the real targets aren't other cable companies. In fact, Comcast would love it if those companies just licensed its operating system as well (and already has a deal like that with Charter).
Instead, Comcast is responding to a massive power shift in TV land: Cable companies long used to be the gatekeepers to the living room, complete with the ability to monetize a chunk of cable network ad slots.
- With streaming and cord cutting, that gatekeeper power is moving to the companies operating streaming devices and smart TV platforms.
- Roku alone generated $1 billion in revenue with advertising and services fees during the first six months of this year; Amazon, Samsung, Vizio and others are all busy scaling their post-cable ad business as well.
And here's the kicker: Consumers happily subscribe to multiple streaming services, but they'll only have one TV in their living room. Owning that relationship is crucial, which is why LightShed analyst Rich Greenfield summed up the XClass news this way: "tvOS battle = the real #streamingwars."
AR faithful before an Apple event: "All signs say this is the big Apple Glasses announcement!"
AR faithful after: "Tantalizing clues to Apple Glasses!! The Watch has accelerometers! They used the word 'immersion' twice!!" — Disney animator Bruce Wright a year ago, but he might as well have tweeted it this week.
"This feature is gonna be amazing for user researchers! It's basically allowing a remote observation without installing any app." — Design researcher Daniel Souza with an interesting take on Apple's new SharePlay feature.
A MESSAGE FROM ROKU
Millennials will spend more on holiday gifts this year than any other demo, according to the 2021 Holiday Report from Roku & The Harris Poll. Plus, 1/3rd have cut the cord. The takeaway: to reach millennials, you need to buy TV the way they watch TV. Download the report today.
'The Walking Dead' is coming to smart speakers soon
Australia-based voice experience startup Xandra has built some of Hollywood's most ambitious smart speaker skills, including "Westworld: The Maze," which won a Grand Prix in Radio and Audio at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in 2019.
Now, Xandra is back with a new "Walking Dead" voice experience. "Walking Dead Pathways" hasn't launched yet, but Xandra CEO Zach Johnson told us a little bit about the experience during Protocol's Future of Voice event last week.
- "We licensed the 'Walking Dead' IP from AMC, and created a whole new story line within the 'Walking Dead' universe," Johnson said.
- "Walking Dead Pathways" has been developed for Google's smart speakers, but has yet to launch.
The story puts smart speaker owners into the "Walking Dead" universe, where they get to pick a team to go on a mission with, and hopefully make their way back alive to Alexandria.
- Johnson said that Xandra used a lot of the lessons it learned from "Westworld: The Maze" to make "Walking Dead Pathways."
- One of those lessons: People do like to engage with expansive voice experiences. The "Westworld"-themed Alexa skill was made up of more than 11,000 lines of script, offering people up to 400 potential choices. "In terms of recorded audio, 'The Walking Dead Pathways' is twice as long," Johnson said.
Xandra also doubled down on visuals for this experience, adding custom illustrations for every single scene, to account for the growing popularity of smart displays. "It's a game that you can really immerse yourself in, literally spend hours feeling like you are in the 'Walking Dead' world," Johnson said.
Johnson was joined by Pandora Senior Product Manager Ananya Sharan and Sonos VP Joseph Dureau on The Future of Voice panel. Together, they talked about multimodal interfaces, multi-assistant environments and ways to reach the 50% of smart speaker users who never activate a voice assistant. Check out a recording of the entire session on YouTube.
- Video startup Amagi raises $100 million. One of the key companies behind the FAST channel explosion just got a major new cash infusion.
- Apple TV will relaunch "Yo Gabba Gabba!" Too sad that any upcoming seasons won't have beatboxing lessons from the one and only Biz Markie (RIP).
- Oculus firmware mentions the Quest Pro headset. The premium device may feature face and eye tracking as well as improved hand tracking, according to code snippets discovered by a Reddit user.
- Music industry revenues are up 27% this year. The U.S. music industry made $5.9 billion with streaming during the first six months of 2021, according to new RIAA figures.
- South Korea has fined Google for its anti-fragmentation agreement, finding that it prevented companies like Samsung and LG from building their own versions of Android. Remember, this is a big deal in the smart TV space as well.
- Qualcomm has acquired Wikitude for an undisclosed amount. AR tech from the Austria-based startup is being used in more than 40,000 apps.
- Pay TV operators lost another 1.35 million subscribers in Q2. There have been worse quarters, but the overall downward trend remains the same.
- Roku has released a new streaming report. A bunch of interesting data in here, with an admittedly unsurprising conclusion: "TV streaming has passed a tipping point."
Computer vision is dealing with some really hard problems these days. Think self-driving cars, AR surface tracking or hand control for VR headsets. And then there's this Roomba, forever trapped in a prison of his own making due to overzealous algorithms. Will someone please think of the robots?
A MESSAGE FROM ROKU
Millennials engage ads in ways that aren't possible on traditional pay TV. Nearly 3/4ths pause ads to shop, and most millennials watch ad-supported streaming. To win over millennial holiday shoppers, you need to buy TV the way they watch TV. Download the Roku & Harris Poll 2021 Holiday Guide today.
Thanks for reading — see you next week!