April 22, 2021
Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week's edition is about AI music, which can help you be more productive — unless you are a lawyer who has to figure out how to license it — and Facebook's quest to bring more of the real world into VR.
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The Big Story
How Endel brings musicians and AI together
As I am writing this newsletter, I am listening to an endless stream of minimal techno, designed to improve my productivity and focus. The soundtrack comes courtesy of Plastikman, the alter ego of Detroit techno legend Richie Hawtin, and productivity-enhancing AI music app Endel.
Endel uses a bunch of data, including your location, weather, time of day and even biometrics to create an individual soundtrack on the fly. "This is a technology that is designed to help you focus, relax and sleep," Endel CEO Oleg Stavitsky told me this week.
- For the first few years, Endel was just relying on in-house composers to produce short samples that the AI would then remix. Last year, Endel began to also collaborate with outside artists, starting with Grimes.
- For the latest collab, Hawtin supplied a few hundred samples — snippets of up to 15 seconds of sound — to Endel. "He was freaking out a little bit that he was not in control of it," Stavitsky admitted. That's why the company did a few test runs with its AI, giving Hawtin a chance to reject how certain samples sounded in context.
- The resulting "Deeper Focus" collaboration launched on iOS and Mac OS last week, and became available via Endel's Android app and Alexa Skill Wednesday.
Endel's execs have long said that their app is better at helping you focus than random Spotify playlists, or YouTube's Lofi Girl. Now, they do have some data to support this: A study released this week shows that Endel's AI music can improve focus better and more quickly than pre-programmed playlists.
The tech and science behind AI music is intriguing, but there's also a fascinating business story here:
- An AI that creates music on the fly based on existing samples isn't really covered by existing music licensing contracts, and Stavitsky told me that Endel's music industry lawyer was at first a little stumped by the problem. "He was equally fascinated and horrified by it," Stavitsky said.
- The same is true for lawyers representing the musicians that Endel is working with. The team representing Grimes wanted her to approve the final result before it went live — something that's pretty much impossible for real-time generative music. "The lawyers were having a really hard time," Stavitsky recalled.
- Stavitsky didn't want to get into the details of those deals, but he did say that the company essentially had to come up with an entirely new framework for licensing and royalties. "It is uncharted territory for everyone," he said. "The question is: Who owns what?"
"We are inventing a new way to experience music, and we have to come up with everything," Stavitsky said. That also includes Endel's own business model. Most of the company's revenues currently come from subscription fees, with Endel charging users $5.99 per month after a free trial. The company is also in discussion to license its service to carmakers and consumer electronics companies, and has even begun selling enterprise plans to companies.
"Endel is essentially an art project turned business," Stavitsky said.
"We had those 10 years where we were growing smooth as silk, and it's just a little wobbly right now." —Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings, responding to his company's weaker-than-expected Q1 growth.
"For the first five years at Oculus, I really fought to keep us from attempting to do the metaverse, because I just expected it to be a disaster." —Facebook Reality Labs consulting CTO John Carmack during a recent Twitter Spaces Q&A.
A MESSAGE FROM LENOVO
The pandemic upended life as we knew it. Most of us experienced the abrupt shift in the way we work, learn and connect, with blurring lines between office and home. While the future of work continues to evolve, the focus on a more engaged and fulfilled workforce will outlast the pandemic.
Passthrough apps are coming to Oculus Quest
Facebook is taking one small step toward a unified future for augmented and virtual reality: The company will give VR developers access to the Oculus Quest's passthrough video feed soon, revealed Facebook's VP of consumer hardware, Andrew Bosworth, during a recent Q&A session on Twitter Spaces.
- "It is coming, and we are excited about it," Bosworth said, hinting at plans to roll out the feature to developers over the next couple of months.
- Bosworth went on to explain that the challenge had been to make sure that adding passthrough video to VR apps wouldn't lead to the headset overheating. "It's a tricky set of work," he said. "But we are close, so you can look forward to that."
I've been fascinated with video passthrough ever since Facebook launched the first Oculus Quest in 2019, arguing at the time that it offered a peek at the future of mixed reality, and things have only gotten more interesting since.
- The Quest 1 simply used passthrough as a safety feature, using the headset's tracking cameras to switch from immersive VR experiences to a washed-out grayscale camera view of the real world whenever you left the play area.
- The Quest 2's passthrough video is still grayscale, but the headset has made accessing the feature a lot easier: After enabling it, users just need to double-tap the side of the headset to switch back and forth between VR and this lo-fi view of the real world.
- Quest owners can even integrate passthrough into the default Oculus Home view, masking for a more gradual transition from the real world to VR.
More recently, Facebook has made a big push toward integrating more of the real world into VR. Quest users can now use Logitech keyboards and track their desk surface as part of something Facebook calls Infinite Office, and immersive teleworking startup Spatial showed off a demo of its app last fall using the Quest's passthrough video to combine a real office with virtual avatars.
Video passthrough is reportedly also a key feature of Apple's upcoming headset. The device, which Apple hasn't announced yet, will most likely be positioned as a way for developers to build apps for future AR glasses, so we can expect the video quality of the passthrough feed to be quite high. It will be interesting to see how far Facebook can push passthrough on the Quest before Apple's device is being unveiled.
- Quibi shows make a return as Roku Originals. The streamer promises to share additional details soon — but the Quibi brand won't be part of those plans.
- On Protocol: Magic Leap 2 headset coming later this year. In a Q&A with Protocol, Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson shared some details about the company's next product.
- Also on Protocol: Caavo is back … with a service for senior living facilities. An unlikely pivot, and plans to release a new consumer device next month.
- Apple launches podcast subscriptions. Podcasters will be able to charge for early access, ad-free listening — but Apple is taking a 30% cut.
- The balkanization of the podcast ecosystem is coming. An interesting deep dive on what Spotify's, Audible's and Apple's plans mean for podcasts as a medium.
- The new Apple TV: faster chips, a better remote. Apple still isn't making a cheap streaming device, but Apple TV is getting some much-needed upgrades.
- Speaking of that new Apple TV remote: It sort of, kind of looks like a OnePlus remote?
- One more Protocol story: Facebook is going all in on social audio. New phone club, who dis?
Last week, Twitter user @TaxBeast asked his followers to post a picture of the first MP3 player they ever owned. The thread went viral, and it's a wonderful collection of weird old-school technology, with devices from companies like Creative, Sony, iRiver, Samsung and SanDisk, among others. A few iPods made the list as well, but most of the contributions were from pre-iPod days, including an original Diamond Rio with 32 megabytes of space ("about 10 128kbps MP3s"), weird no-name MP3 sticks ("12-16 songs from Kazaa") and the Q-Be, likely the only MP3 player ever that used a headphone port for USB file transfers ("I had to stop using it after I misplaced the cable"). Personally, I was partial to the Archos Jukebox 6000, one of the first MP3 players to feature a laptop-sized 6GB hard drive, giving it enough space for hundreds of songs. It was also super heavy, bulky and geeky — enthusiasts even developed their own open-source operating system for it, which I at one point installed just for the heck of it. The whole thread is great, if only as a reminder of how fun and chaotic those early days of digital music were. Or in the words of TaxBeast: "The replies to this are crazy to me. I had no idea so many varieties of MP3 players existed!"
Thanks for reading — see you next week!