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Protocol Next Up
Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.

Before AR glasses, prepare to be immersed in sound

Before AR glasses, prepare to be immersed in sound

Welcome to Next Up, the newest member of Protocol's growing family of newsletters. Next Up is a weekly newsletter about the future of technology and entertainment, from AR and VR to smart speakers and TVs, from companies trying to own the next big thing to regulators keeping an eye who's seizing control of the industry. Let me know what you think by emailing janko@protocol.com, and please forward it to your friends and colleagues if you like it!

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The Big Story

Before AR glasses, prepare to be immersed in sound

Last week, my wife and I attended a play. Well, we attended one the way you do in 2020: We stayed home, downloaded an app to our phones, put on our headphones and closed our eyes.

The play was Darkfield Radio's "Double," a shelter-in-place-friendly immersive theater production that cleverly uses 360-degree audio to set the scene. It makes use of sounds from objects everyone has in their home, like the buzzing of a refrigerator or a knock on a door, to blur the lines between storytelling and reality. The play is the work of Darkfield, a group that has been putting on in-person immersive theater experiences in the U.K. and beyond for five years.

  • "All our work has relied on creating a doubt in the audiences' mind about what is real and what is imagined," explained Darkfield's artistic director, David Rosenberg, via email. "The immersive sound is so convincing it is often difficult to tell for sure if the banging on the door is happening in the recording or in your house."

Actually, immersive audio is gaining some momentum, and theater nerds aren't the only ones embracing it.

  • Just last week, Facebook revealed that audio will be a key part of making its upcoming AR glasses more immersive. "It's one thing to see something," explained Facebook Reality Labs Research Chief Scientist Michael Abrash. "If you hear something, you understand at a much more kind of visceral level that it is real."
  • Apple has also been working on perfecting the 360-degree audio features for its AirPods and is likely going to add similar features to its still-unannounced AR glasses.

Still, getting immersive audio right isn't easy, even for a hardware company that specializes in sound. Case in point: Bose wound down its ambitious audio AR project earlier this year after it failed to gain traction with consumers, as Protocol was first to report.

  • Bose AR did get some love from developers. One project exclusive to the platform was Traverse, an app that let people experience an Elvis performance in spatial audio, complete with the ability to walk up to individual instruments.
  • Traverse was a hit with people who got to try it at SXSW in 2019, but founder and USC MxR Lab Director Jessica Brillhart told me that relying on Bose's tech severely limited its potential audience size.

Increased accessibility might be an important step in making immersive audio a success story. Brillhart is now working on bringing Traverse to regular headphones and wants to make it more approachable overall. "We just need to dumb it down a lot," she said. However, she also believes that there's a bright future ahead for immersive audio, especially when combined with future AR glasses. "Audio will be a big part of it," Brillhart said.

  • And until AR glasses are a mainstream consumer product, creatives will push the envelope on immersive audio with a combination of existing technologies and new ideas. Said Rosenberg: "The audiences' imagination is the most important tool for creating the feeling of immersion."

Overheard

"Leave the conductor and the sheet music behind. Build a jazz band instead." Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings argues in his new book, "No Rules Rules," that creative companies need to give up control to embrace a culture of innovation.

"Theaters are dead even if nobody is willing to admit it in 2020." Lightshed Partners analyst Richard Greenfield on "Tenet," which made just $20 million this past weekend in the U.S., and its chances of bringing theaters back from the COVID-19 crisis.

A MESSAGE FROM ROKU

OneView

Introducing the OneView Ad Platform. From Roku.

A single platform for marketers and content owners to reach more cord cutters and measure performance using TV identity data from the No. 1 TV streaming platform in the US. Advertisers can manage their entire campaigns – including OTT, linear TV, omnichannel, and more – all in one place.

Learn More

Watch Out

Airtime's pivot to social TV

Co-viewing has been a big hit during the pandemic, with Chrome extensions like Netflix Party attracting millions of viewers looking to hang out together while isolating at home. Now, one of the original hangout apps wants a piece of the pie: Airtime, which was founded by Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame, is preparing a web version that allows viewers to video chat while watching movies together.

  • The company has described this in a job listing as "an immersive, state-of-the-art web and social TV experience," and Airtime's site teases the web version as "dropping soon."
  • I've actually been able to take a sneak peek at a preview version, which featured movies like "Coral Reef 2," "Love Stinks" and "The Boondock Saints" — the type of older catalog fare you might find on a free, ad-supported streaming service. Users are also able to watch YouTube videos and Twitch streams together.

For Airtime, this is just the latest pivot. Originally launched as a Chatroulette competitor on the web in 2012, Airtime briefly rebranded as OkHello two years later. The service then reemerged under the original name in 2016, ditching the web version to focus on mobile video chat — only to apparently rediscover the web for social TV in 2020.

Airtime Marketing Director Steve Labella didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the upcoming web version. Worth noting: This is the same Steve Labella who became Snap's VP of marketing a year before the company's IPO. And Labella isn't the only significant hire made by the company in recent months: Airtime also added former CBS and Hulu exec Robert Schildhouse as its chief content officer and former IAC and iHeartMedia exec Steven Cutler as its COO. All this certainly looks like Airtime is getting ready to go big.

Fast Forward

  • "Mulan" created a 68% spike in Disney+ app downloads on its release, app analytics specialist Sensor Tower estimates. Streaming content aggregator Reelgood reports that "Mulan" was the most popular movie among its users last weekend.
  • Amazon launched an Alexa service for property managers. Its "Alexa for Residential" service will allow them to maintain a bunch of Alexa devices across all of their apartments, reports Techcrunch. The logical conclusion is surely that your landlord will Rickroll you every time your rent is past due.
  • On Protocol: Apple patented a VR glove. Sources say it feels magical and revolutionary.
  • Chinese AR startup Nreal has raised $40 million. The round was led by Kuaishou, a video startup, according to Bloomberg. In March, we wrote about Nreal's plan to beat everyone else to mainstream AR glasses.
  • HTC CEO Yves Maitre resigned less than a year after taking the job. The company is now being led by Cher Wang, who was already its CEO back in 2015. Maitre is said to have left for personal reasons, but one has to wonder what it means for the company's VR strategy.
  • The Apple TV app launched on Vizio smart TVs. That means apps for Apple's video service are now available on almost all major smart TV platforms, with Google's Android TV being the sole exception.

Auf Wiedersehen

Thanks so much for reading the first edition of Next Up! And while Next Up is all about the future of tech and entertainment, I'm going to end this week's version with a bit of nostalgia, courtesy of the Winamp Skin Museum. As some of you may remember, Winamp was the first truly popular MP3 player app, and one of its key features was the ability for users to completely customize its UI. The Winamp Skin Museum features 65,000 such skins, and you can even try all of them online. It's glorious. Now if I could only find the Winamp skin I made 20 years ago …

A MESSAGE FROM ROKU

OneView

Introducing the OneView Ad Platform. From Roku.

A single platform for marketers and content owners to reach more cord cutters and measure performance using TV identity data from the No. 1 TV streaming platform in the US. Advertisers can manage their entire campaigns – including OTT, linear TV, omnichannel, and more – all in one place.

Learn More

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

Correction: This was updated on Sept. 11 to correct the name of Darkfield Radio's play.

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