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

Smart speakers get smarter about sound

Smart speakers get smarter about sound

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up, a weekly newsletter about the future of technology and entertainment. This week's edition is all about audio devices getting smarter about sound quality and Amazon expanding its free IMDb TV streaming service beyond the U.S.

Also, please join me for Protocol's first entertainment and technology online event, TV's Tipping Point, on Oct. 28. I'll be hosting a virtual panel with Tubi CEO Farhad Massoudi, Cinedigm Networks President Erick Opeka and Wurl CEO Sean Doherty, who will chat with me about the industry's accelerating shift from traditional TV services to streaming.

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The Big Story

Forget assistants. Speakers are getting smarter about sound, too.

"If Wall-E had an affair with a salt shaker, their love child might look a bit like this" was how The New Yorker described the design of the original Google Home when it was first released in 2016. The speaker's design was arguably an improvement over that of Amazon's first Echo, which vaguely resembled an explosive device from a '90s era sci-fi movie. But both devices clearly didn't try to look like a traditional speaker, and both emphasized voice assistant functionality over audio quality.

Things have changed a lot since those early days. Case in point: The new Nest Audio, which Google started selling as a successor to the original Home this week, not only looks like a proper speaker, it also sounds a lot better than its predecessor. That's because of hardware improvements, of course, but software development also plays an important role, Google Nest Product Manager Mark Spates told me.

"We really invested a lot in the software to make Nest Audio sound amazing," Spates said. To optimize the sound of its speakers, Google developed its own proprietary tuning software to help build the speaker. The software uses a technology known as acoustic holography to measure sound propagation in the speaker's near field. (For more on how near-field acoustic holography works, check out this in-depth presentation.)

The observations gained from this are then used to model the speaker's far-field response at over 2,500 points in a 3D space. The resulting data is used to optimize the tuning and maybe change the bass response to avoid distortion. Settings are then tweaked, and the test is repeated again and again until the sound is good enough for the final product. "That allows us to get the optimal tune," Spates said. "It also allows us to get there faster, because we can do so many iterations."

The Nest Audio speaker also includes a feature Google calls Media EQ, which adjusts equalizer settings to optimize playback of podcasts, music and assistant voice replies, respectively.

Google isn't the only company turning to code to make speakers sound better. "It's a very exciting time for audio," said DSP Concepts CEO Chin Beckmann. Her company has built a software platform for developing audio products that is being used by companies like Tesla and GoPro. "We got this convergence of all these technologies that makes audio interesting," she said.

Chief among them is voice, and making voice work well as speakers are starting to become more powerful is actually a major challenge. More bass, and the distortion that comes with it, can make echo cancellation suffer, explained Beckmann, which is why speaker makers try to isolate mics as much as possible from the rest of the device.

That approach is a bit more challenging for very compact speakers; another solution would be to use psychoacoustic principles that rely on the way the human brain processes sound to make us hear things that aren't really there. "Your ears get tricked," Beckmann said.

Better-sounding smart speakers are good news for consumers, but they could also have a significant impact on the entertainment industry. For instance, affordable smart speakers that actually sound good could make voice control a lot more important for music services. A growing demand for voice-controlled music could change how music services surface some of their content, as consumers tend to interact with voice interfaces differently than with mobile apps.

Even with the hardware and software updates, Nest Audio is not a high-end speaker for audiophiles. But at just $99, it does the trick for people who are looking for a step up from cheap Bluetooth speakers and earbuds.

"People put a smartphone in a cup just to get a little bit more sound," Spates said. "We're taking something that used to be a very high-end experience, and we're bringing it down to anyone who wants to have it. It's really accessible. It's really affordable. And I think that's the audience."

Overheard

"We have arrived at a tipping point for the future of TV as we know it." The Harris Poll Director Abbey Lunney, touting a new report commissioned by Roku that found that U.S. consumers now spend more time streaming than watching traditional pay TV.

"We are building the world's largest repository of 3D images of real-world places hand-in-hand with our players, who have uploaded AR scans across 635,000 different locations." Niantic CEO John Hanke, celebrating the company's fifth anniversary.

A MESSAGE FROM ROKU

Roku

85 percent of Americans now stream, and for the first time ever, a majority of U.S. adults report they now spend more time streaming than they do watching traditional TV. To be successful this holiday season, marketers need to be where their consumers are – streamer-first. Download the report.

Watch Out

Amazon's IMDb TV will soon expand internationally

Amazon is looking to expand its free video streaming service, IMDb TV, into additional markets in the coming months, two sources familiar with the company's plans told me. Some of the initial markets targeted by Amazon include Mexico and the U.K., which could function as stepping stones into Latin America and Europe, respectively, according to one source.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.

IMDb TV first launched under the name IMDb Freedive in early 2019. Amazon rebranded the service in May of that year, and at the time also announced that IMDb TV would come to Europe by the end of 2019. That ultimately didn't happen, and IMDb TV remains a U.S.-only service. But according to one of the sources, the company could finally be making the jump to additional territories before the end of this year.

Prime Video, Amazon's ad-free streaming service for Prime subscribers, is available in over 200 countries and territories. The company has long hinted at plans to similarly make IMDb TV available in many more countries. Just last week, it posted a job listing for a "product manager, international expansion." "Our mission is to build earth's most customer-centric ad-supported premium free video service and make it convenient for hundreds of millions of customers to enjoy," the listing reads in part.

Free, ad-supported video services have gained momentum in recent months, especially as economic pressure forces consumers to revisit recurring expenses. Reelgood, a service that helps people find streaming content across a number of platforms, reported this week that ad-supported services had a market share of more than 30% among its users, compared to 25% in Q2.

IMDb TV could also help Amazon gain streaming market share in countries where the company doesn't maintain an ecommerce business yet, including much of Latin America. Amazon has 150 million Prime members around the globe, and is operating locally in 16 markets.

Fast Forward

Indian antitrust authorities are investigating Google's Android TV. The investigation focuses on Google's practice of preventing TV manufacturers that license Android from also using Amazon's Fire TV system, which I first reported on in March.

On Protocol: Our new gaming newsletter is live! Penned by Seth Schiesel and Shakeel Hashim, Protocol Gaming will be your weekly essential guide to the business of video games.

Quibi may need to raise another $1.8 billion. Bloomberg is estimating that Quibi will run out of money in 2021. Jeffrey Katzenberg's short-form video startup has raised $1.75 billion to date.

Android 11 dropped support for Google's Daydream VR platform. This isn't surprising, as Google discontinued the phone-powered VR headset in October 2019. But now it's officially pulling the plug for any phone running the latest version of Android.

A VR skydiving startup came out of stealth. COVID may have put a stop to location-based VR for the time being, but The Void's former chief visionary officer, James Jensen, believes that his new company, JUMP, will be able to open VR skydiving attractions next year.

Portal TV got a Netflix app. Facebook's TV-connected Portal camera wasn't much competition for traditional streaming boxes when it launched a year ago. Now, it's getting a Netflix app and the obligatory Netflix button on its remote control.

Regal is closing theaters again, and the industry outlook is bleak. The Verge has a deep dive on the theater industry's struggles to reopen.

Apple is pulling Sonos speakers and Bose headphones from shelves. The company's purge of third-party audio gear from its online and retail stores could be a sign that a new HomePod and Beats headphones are on the way. Apple is holding a press event on Wednesday.

A new Android feature enables persistent AR content. Cloud Anchors allow developers to build AR layers for the real world. I'm looking forward to seeing how entertainment companies will make use of this.

Auf Wiedersehen

There. Is. So. Much. Going. On. In. This. World. So much, in fact, that I briefly toyed with the idea of simply concluding this newsletter with a single line reading "This space is intentionally left blank" to give everyone a bit of a break. Instead, I'm just going to leave you with The Postal Service's new get-out-the-vote PSA, which is 19 minutes of hilariousness featuring everyone from Slash to Rick Springfield to Kenny G to J Mascis to Big Freedia to Patton Oswald, and many, many more. Watch it, laugh, cry, reminisce and then go vote!

A MESSAGE FROM ROKU

Roku

Consumers now expect to do nearly 65% of holiday shopping virtually. Streamers are fueling this surge in online shopping with 79% conducting most of their holiday shopping online. Make sure your marketing plan is streamer-first by downloading the 2020 Roku/ Harris Poll Holiday shopping report. Download the report.

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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