October 14, 2021
Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: why we'll see many more operator-made smart TVs next year, and how Facebook is looking to kickstart AI for AR.
(Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here.)
The Big Story
Get ready for a wave of operator-made smart TVs
Companies that sell people TV subscriptions now also want to sell them TV sets: First, Protocol broke the news that Comcast is preparing to launch its own TVs under the XClass brand. Then, Comcast-owned Sky announced the launch of its own line of Sky Glass smart TVs in Europe.
Now, operator-made smart TVs could get another major boost. Smart TV OS and services provider Vewd has teamed up with European TV maker Vestel to make operator-branded TV sets. I caught up with Vewd Chief Product Officer Sascha Prueter this week to learn more about the company's new Operator TV offering, and understand what opportunity pay TV providers see in the smart TV business.
- Vewd has been talking on and off to operators about this idea for the past two years, Prueter told me, but has seen significantly more interest in recent months. Now, the company is in serious negotiations with a handful of companies.
- The main reason operators are interested in making TVs is cost. Streaming services are cheap, carriage fees for TV networks keep rising and operators are realizing that they can't raise their prices forever. Eliminating set-top boxes would allow pay TV providers to cut a major operating expense, which in turn could improve margins and help keep pay TV prices in check.
- Some operators have played with the idea of embracing existing streaming devices, but operator-made TVs would give these companies more control over the TV experience. "They don't just want to be an app icon next to Netflix and YouTube," Prueter said.
Comcast's answer has been to build smart TVs from scratch, which involved teaming up with TV manufacturers like Hisense and porting its X1 operating system to their hardware. Most other operators don't have the resources for those kinds of ambitious bets, which is where companies like Vewd come in.
- Vewd has been working with pay TV operators as well as TV and streaming device makers for some time, so the company knows how to combine pay TV, streaming apps and everything else customers may expect from their TVs.
- The partnership with Vestel will allow operators to customize TV hardware and combine it with brands known to consumers. Vestel is Europe's largest TV manufacturer and is selling devices for brands like JVC, Hitachi, Telefunken and Toshiba.
- A lot of pay TV companies operate their own retail stores, which will allow them to throw in a cheap TV set when people sign up for that multi-year phone and TV bundle.
Whether people will buy this TV is still an open question, and everyone in the industry is looking to Comcast for clues. However, some operators seem to be ready to stick their toes in the water with initiatives like Vewd's Operator TV. "We will see the first devices in the market next year," Prueter told me.
- Prueter downplayed some of the backlash against Comcast's plans as the typical early adopter tech bubble, and said that the audience for these devices was rather people looking for easy ways to combine streaming and traditional TV. "They don't want five remote controls," he said.
That being said, some operators seem to be aware of the danger that their TVs could be perceived as part of a lock-in strategy. Expect lots of marketing highlighting things other than pay TV.
Ultimately, these TVs could also change how operators approach their business, with a shift from pay TV to a bigger focus on advertising and online subscription revenues. "They are starting to become super-aggregators," Prueter said.
"Yes Pluto is a 🚀 but get excited for our third Reorg in as many months!" — PARQOR analyst Andrew Rosen, making fun of Viacom prioritizing Paramount over its streaming assets.
"Hey Boz, nice looking research project. Want to trade for a production quality device hot out of our factory?" — HTC President Alvin Wang Graylin, trying to sweet talk future Facebook CTO Andrew Bosworth into sharing some more details on Facebook's VR roadmap.
"No deal." — Bosworth's response.
A MESSAGE FROM ASANA
This fall, as enterprises everywhere decide whether to return to the office, continue working remotely or establish a hybrid working model, collaborative technology platforms will be more important than ever. Asana COO Anne Raimondi shares advice with business leaders as they move into the next productive work phase, whatever shape that may take.
Facebook kicks off POV research for AR, robotics
How do you build AI systems for AR glasses that can make sense of the world from the perspective of the person wearing those glasses? Turns out the best solution may be video recorded from that same point-of-view perspective.
Facebook collaborated with 13 universities and research labs to capture such data as part of a new project called Ego4D. The result has been 2,200 hours of footage recorded by 700 individuals, which will be made available to AI researchers in the coming months.
- Facebook AI lead research scientist Kristen Grauman told me that this type of data will provide very different insights than video people capture with their phones — even if people are trying to record POV footage. "Once your hands are occupied holding [a phone], you're not manipulating [things around you]," she said. And if you want to teach AI about hand-eye coordination, having those hands free is key.
Even if captured from an eye-level perspective, videos shot on a phone aren't very useful when it comes to teaching AI. "I'm still an orchestrator of the content, and I'm creating it in some way, as opposed to just living it," Grauman said.
- A parent may shoot great video of their kid playing soccer, but the same scene captured with a head-worn camera would include them getting out of the car, walking to the field and so forth. "What you really want is [for] someone [to] almost forget they're wearing a camera," Grauman said.
- Researchers used a variety of devices to capture the data, including Vuzix smart glasses and head-mounted GoPros.
Facebook worked with universities from around the world on Ego4D, including the U.K., Italy, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the United States.
- Global participation was key to getting a diverse data set, which in turn will be important to train AI systems. "We wanted that glimpse around the world," Grauman said.
- Not only do cultural differences matter, but there are also myriad ways everyday activities vary from location to location. "Doing laundry looks different depending on where you live," she said.
- Going forward, Facebook wants to expand the data pool even further, and add recordings from people in Colombia and Rwanda, among other countries.
- Early next year, Facebook will also launch a research challenge to get AI researchers to use the video data.
Ultimately, data like the video captured with Ego4D will not only help build AI assistants for AR glasses, but also other technologies that could one day help us in our day-to-day lives. "The dexterous robots of the future have a long way to go," Grauman said. "But if they can learn from watching our skills without having to purely rely on their own physical experience in the world, this will be a much more scalable way to train them."
- On Protocol: HTC is building its own metaverse. The company is scheduled to introduce a new VR headset today, but it has also quietly been working on a social VR world called Viveport Verse.
- Facebook unveils Audio hub, a new central location for podcasts as well as rooms for its Clubhouse clone.
- On Protocol: Magic Leap has raised another $500 million. CEO Peggy Johnson previewed the company's upcoming Magic Leap 2 headset on CNBC this week.
- Google TV gets multi-user support, personalized profiles. This comes after Amazon introduced system-wide profiles on Fire TV earlier this year. Are profiles shifting from apps to the OS?
- On Protocol: DJ 3LAU sees music's future in crypto. No, not that kind of block party …
- Streaming remains more popular than linear TV. U.K.-based Samsung smart TV owners watched on average 32 more minutes of streamed programming than linear TV during the first six months of this year.
- On Protocol: TuneIn's CEO isn't losing any sleep over Joe Rogan. Richard Stern told us why his company doesn't need exclusives, and how COVID changed the world of radio overnight.
- "Squid Game" is Netflix's biggest show to date. 111 million accounts watched the show within 28 days of it debuting on the service.
- Amazon's Dave Limp on the business behind Alexa. The Verge's Nilay Patel got Limp to talk about selling devices at cost, and many other interesting nuggets.
This has been a busy week, as you may be able to tell by the number of Protocol stories linked above. So instead of an elaborate take on the latest AR wizardry, I'll leave you with a joke my 10-year-old told me last night:
What does the magician say to the fishmonger? Pick a cod, any cod.
Thanks for reading — see you next week!