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Online ad breaks are terrible. A former Verizon exec wants to change that.

Protocol Next Up

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: wants to improve the online ad experience, and Sonos is exploring using Wi-Fi for gesture control. Plus: Facebook's new logo, maybe.

A new way to fix online ad breaks

It can happen when the screen fades to black just before a scary reveal. Or in the middle of a fight scene, just as the camera changes to a new subject. Sometimes, it even interrupts dialogue midsentence. On free online video services, ad breaks seem to be all over the place these days.

Online video services frequently have vast catalogs of content without the types of ad markings that have been used by TV broadcasters for decades. Perhaps a service acquired a large library of shows from overseas. Perhaps it's content that wasn't previously monetized with ads. Or maybe that kind of metadata just got lost in the licensing process.

The results are often quite disruptive. "It's just hair-raising," former Verizon Digital Media Services President Ralf Jacob told me recently. Jacob left Verizon's digital video unit last year, and is now looking to solve online video's ad break problem with a new startup called Jacob and his colleagues got the idea for Spotz when they were talking about the current boom of free, ad-supported streaming channels, or FAST channels, as they are called in the industry.

These channels are everywhere these days, and growing fast: Samsung, Amazon, Pluto, Redbox, Plex and others all have realized that free leanback programming can be a great substitute for basic cable for cost-conscious cord cutters.

  • co-founder and CTO Ernest Wilkerson actually used to work for Pluto, where he experienced firsthand how sensitive the industry is when it comes to ad placements. "This was always a big issue for our clients," Wilkerson told me.
  • Big services sometimes solve the issue with a lot of manpower, with employees or contractors watching each video to find the fade-to-back moments that signal a scene change. "Most of the time, you have eyes on glass, and someone has to find where the black [frames] are," Jacob said.
  • However, that approach isn't really scalable. "The big guys have the funds to re-encode an entire library, and put the ad triggers in if they have to," Jacob said. Most of the 300 or so online video services out there simply don't have the same resources, leading to badly placed ads. "It's the most horrific experience," he said. now wants to change that with the help of AI, and a more nuanced understanding of what an ad break opportunity looks like.

  • Instead of just looking for black frames, Spotz is also taking changes in the audio levels and other indicators into account to determine the probability for a real break in the action.
  • The company is providing its service via an online API, which according to Jacob is capable of analyzing videos at 20 to 40 times the regular viewing speed, all without ever altering any video source file.
  • Streaming services can influence the process with their own rules, and for instance keep the ad load for the first episode of a show low.
  • Some assets are easier to analyze than others, according to Wilkerson. Animated video in particular is challenging, because the color and light palette is much more controlled than in other types of video.

There's a new type of cottage industry emerging around today's online video services. Up until not too long ago, media companies looking to launch their own streaming services were relying on one-stop shops that promised to solve all of their problems with massive enterprise-grade software suites and custom CDNs.

These days, a lot of these tasks are a lot more decentralized. A streaming company may run its own infrastructure atop AWS, and rely on a mixture of startups to help turn a catalog of videos into a TV-like stream, monetized with advertising. This approach is not only cheaper, making it possible for many more companies to spin up their own channels, it also has led to a lot more innovation. And perhaps, one day, it will even help make ad breaks more bearable.


"The metaverse was a term created by Neal Stephenson to describe a virtual world created by an evil monopolist. [...] That's not at all a focus for us." —Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, alluding to no one in particular, during an interview with The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern.

"The big picture is: No one is really sure." — Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, predicting which impact the pandemic will have on the media in 2022.


Zoom — the communications platform that has become synonymous with streaming video calls — experienced an even greater increase in that same time period. In June 2020, close to 3 million consults took place through Zoom's 100 top EPIC integrations. With its simple, reliable interface that patients — and health care workers — already knew, Zoom became the go-to for health care offices everywhere.

Learn more

How Sonos wants to use Wi-Fi to optimize audio

Sonos wants to make its speakers even smarter: The company has applied for a patent for using Wi-Fi signals to determine where people are in a room and then optimize audio playback accordingly. The patent application, titled "Systems and Methods for State Detection via Wireless Radios," even describes the possibility of controlling Sonos speakers with gestures, which would be identified by an analysis of Wi-Fi signal changes.

Sonos seems to be quite serious about this approach. Companies do patent things all the time; in many cases, these patents are just vague ideas that may never result in any actual products. However, Sonos apparently tested using Wi-Fi signals to locate listeners in the lab.

  • During those tests, Sonos found that some Wi-Fi signals can be negatively affected by water. This can be used for the "detection/absence of a human given the physical properties of humans (which are essentially water)," as the application cheekily notes.
  • Once such a water-rich human is detected, speakers can "adjust audio characteristics, or variables, (e.g., volume, balance, etc.) based on a user's location in the area between the playback devices such that the user is always in an acoustic sweet spot."
  • Presence detection via Wi-Fi could also be used for hand-over of audio from speaker to speaker, which can include "initiating playback when a person enters a room or sits on the couch, stopping playback when a person exits a room, and/or transferring playback to different sets of speakers as an individual moves throughout a home."
  • Sonos is even exploring the idea of using Wi-Fi signals to offer safety and security services, with the option to trigger mobile alerts, activate security cameras and more when movement is detected while the homeowner is gone.

Sonos is not the only company looking to use Wi-Fi for this type of functionality. Wi-Fi platform maker Plume, which powers mesh networking hardware distributed by Comcast and other service providers, has plans to use Wi-Fi sensing technology developed by Cognitive Systems for elder care and other services. "It works surprisingly well," Plume's CEO told me this summer.

  • For its part, Sonos found that it can improve the accuracy of Wi-Fi detection by not looking at an entire channel, but a smaller subchannel.
  • This allowed the company to even use Wi-Fi for gesture control. "Examples of such gestures that may be detected using channel state information include: sitting down, standing up, walking, nodding head, shaking head, waving hand(s), and raising hand(s)," the application explains.
  • At least in lab tests, this type of Wi-Fi detected gesture control actually seems to do its job: "In some tests, classification models [...] have reached between 90%-99% accuracy, depending on various factors such as the measured gestures and the room environment," according to the application.

When asked about plans to implement this technology, a Sonos spokesperson relied: "Building on the 2000+ patents we have to date, you will continue to see us deliver new inventions in different audio technology categories. We don't have details to share on our future roadmap."

Fast forward

On Protocol: How Netflix wants to get the next "Squid Game" Netflix is now producing shows and movies in 45 countries, and is increasingly banking on global hits, executives said during the company's Q3 earnings call.

Roku just bought a new comedy from one of the producers of "Schitt's Creek." The company keeps adding more original content to its Roku Channel.

On Protocol: Facebook is reportedly going to rebrandto reposition itself as a metaverse company.

Tubi is getting an animated "Freak Brothers" show. This is smart: The band of stoners would be a bit too edgy even for Fox, but it might work well on Tubi.

On Protocol: Comcast launches XClass smart TV manufactured by Hisense. Not a big surprise for Protocol readers …

Discovery+ is nixing some of its biggest originals. The ViacomCBS-owned streaming service is not off to a great start.

Auf Wiedersehen

When news broke late Tuesday night that Facebook may rename itself next week, I did what anyone without a proper work-life balance would do: I scoured Facebook's latest trademark filings. Sadly, I didn't find anything that would make for a good company name, as I doubt that Facebook would rebrand as "Rival Speak" anytime soon. However, I did stumble across a curious logo I had never seen before, which Facebook registered as a logo mark in September. The trademark filing describes possible use cases of the logo ranging from VR to entertainment, education, fitness, financial services and more — you know, things a big company like Facebook may be doing or may want to do in the future.

To be fair, it's highly unlikely that Facebook would publicly register a logo for a top-secret name change months before announcing said name change. Still, I figured I should ask my Twitter followers what they would associate with the logo, just to see whether it would even work for that purpose. The answers were great, and included things like "Starfleet," "Weird Chrome," "007," "AOL," "Superman," "Reverse Triforce," "Hurricane lanes in Texas," "Illuminati confirmed" and, my personal favorite, "Chrome's evil doppelganger, just needs a goatee." Just don't blame me if Facebook rebrands as Starfleet next week!

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

Update: This article was updated on 10/21 with a statement from Sonos.

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