A black and white photo of George Foreman and Muhammad Ali fighting
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Swerve is reinventing sports TV for cord cutters

Protocol Next Up

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: Swerve Sports is catering to cord cutters, and Meta is developing a haptic glove to make AR and VR feel more real.

'The Sports Movie Channel'

Sports has long been cable's biggest moat: To watch the big games, people still need ESPN, and perhaps a handful of other sports networks that are only available via pay TV. Cord cutters can catch some games on broadcast TV, and a new crop of cheaper services is carrying some events (NBCUniversal's Peacock is streaming Sunday Night Football games, as well as the 2022 Super Bowl). Ultimately, those options are still limited, though.

Former Roku exec Steve Shannon knows this problem all too well. "Cord cutters don't have very much sports to look at," Shannon told me this week. "A lot of people cut the cord, and then just cease having access to most sports programming."

Shannon wants to change that with Swerve Sports, a new linear 24/7 channel that is streaming for free on the Roku Channel, with plans to expand to additional smart TV platforms soon. It's what's commonly known in the industry as a FAST channel.

  • Swerve Sports, which launched this week, bills itself as "The Sports Movie Channel," and carries documentaries like "When We Were Kings" about the 1974 fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, as well as documentaries about Tiger Woods, Lionel Messi and Evel Knievel.
  • "The goal is to provide more premium sports programming for cord cutters," Shannon said.

The one thing you won't find on Swerve is live games, at least not for now. "It's not realistic for us to get things like NFL games or Major League Baseball games," Shannon admitted. However, Shannon believes that documentary content can be a big draw for sports fans. "If you look at the schedule on ESPN, not that much of it is actually games," he told me.

  • In addition to documentaries, Swerve Sports is also looking to add post-game analysis to its programming. "We'll start doing originals next year," Shannon said.
  • Swerve is also looking to launch additional 24/7 channels focused on specific sports or audiences.
  • And eventually, Shannon does want to have games. But he's willing to wait a few years if that means getting access to content that appeals to broader audiences. "Our goal is to stay pretty mainstream and not fall into pickleball, or that kind of thing," he said. "We're not going to do high school games or minor league games."

Swerve is a bet on sports leagues moving beyond the bundle, forced by cord cutters voting with their wallets against the ever-increasing pay TV subscription prices. The alternative would be for leagues to eventually lose their cultural significance, as they cater to smaller and smaller audiences, Shannon said: "With cord cutting going the way it's going, is sports going to be relegated to the domain of the rich?"

Ultimately, the NFLs and MLBs of this world will see the light of day and embrace free streaming, he predicted. "Our goal is to position ourselves for the time when the big leagues start realizing that it's more important to go broad than to go premium," Shannon said.

Overheard

"I think you'll see us doing things in that space. We're actively looking at it." — Niantic CEO John Hanke, suggesting his company may explore NFTs.

"Don't worry about building THE Xverse (what they call Metaverse). Focus on your worlds, your thing. It is a massive, collective project, and there is room for all." — Former Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz, agreeing with John Carmack that setting the goal of building the metaverse is the wrong way to actually get it done.

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Meta's haptic glove will let you touch the metaverse

In the future, pulling a lever in Vacation Simulator may feel a little more like touching one in real life: Researchers at Meta's Reality Labs have been working on a haptic glove that would add the sensation of touch to augmented and virtual reality experiences, and ultimately make the metaverse more immersive.

Meta has given us some sneak peeks at the gloves in the past, including in patent filings and brief video appearances, but this is the first time the company is sharing more details on the project.

  • Reality Labs researchers have been working on haptic gloves for seven years, and they're not done by a long shot: A blog post published Tuesday outlines that the gloves are part of efforts to build technology "for what our digital worlds will look like in 10 to 15 years."
  • The ultimate goal is to build soft and lightweight gloves that can be used to both track hand movements and provide tactile feedback. "The value of hands to solving the interaction problem in AR and VR is immense," said Reality Labs Research Director Sean Keller. "People could touch, feel and manipulate virtual objects just like real objects — all without having to learn a new way of interacting with the world."
  • Current prototypes use pneumatic actuators — small motors that use air pressure to provide tactile feedback — in combination with a microfluidic processor, which is a chip that's directly situated on the glove to control the air pressure valves.
  • Reality Labs researchers have also been developing new polymer materials for the glove itself in order to eventually manufacture it at scale.

Meta is not the only company working on this type of haptic glove for VR applications. Notably, HaptX has also been working on a glove that is driven by pneumatics, and is making its devices available to developers for VR and industrial robotics applications.

  • The similarities between the two gloves were not lost on HaptX, which suggested in a statement that Meta may be infringing on its patents.
  • "We look forward to working with them to reach a fair and equitable arrangement that addresses our concerns and enables them to incorporate our innovative technology into their future consumer products," wrote HaptX CEO Jake Rubin. A Meta spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations.
  • HaptX's glove does show some of the potential of this technology: When I tested an early prototype four years ago, I was able to touch individual flowers in a VR experience, and "feel" objects sliding over my open palm.
  • HaptX's device also shows the current limits of this technology: The startup's glove is fairly rigid and uses a kind of external brace, and needs to be connected to a sizable control box to drive the pneumatics.
  • Much of this could be miniaturized over time, but Meta's researchers acknowledged that VR worlds may never feel 100% real. For instance, a glove may be able to simulate the sensation of touching the top of a virtual table, but it won't prevent hands from passing through the table's surface.

Still, the technology developed for these gloves may have repercussions beyond AR and VR. "While we're focused on building a haptic glove, the breakthroughs we're making in fluidic switching and control — not to mention soft robotics — could lead to radical advances for the medical industry in lab-on-chip diagnostics, microfluidic biochemistry and even wearable and assistive devices," said Reality Labs Research Hardware Engineering Director Tristan Trutna.

A version of this story first appeared on Protocol.com.

Fast forward

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TIDAL has launched a free streaming plan. The Square-owned music service is also moving toward what it bills as a more creator-centric royalty distribution model.

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On Protocol: Unity is acquiring Peter Jackson's Weta Digital. The tools used for the visual effects of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters could soon be accessible to a new generation of 3D artists.

Amazon Prime Video now lets people share short clips. Subscribers can cut 30-second clips to share from within the Prime iOS app.

On Protocol: Q&A with Meta's Andrew Bosworth on fighting harassment in VR. In response to a leak about racism in VR, Bosworth said the company wants to build new platform-wide tools that can help third-party developers tackle these issues.

Apple's AR headset is "approaching liftoff." Morgan Stanley analysts believe a new flurry of activity mirrors the period before the company unveiled the Apple Watch.

On Protocol: Netflix has launched a new global Top 10 site. Every Tuesday, the site will feature the most popular shows and movies of the previous week, based on the company's new watch time metric.

On Protocol: The gaming industry can't escape the chip shortage. Good luck finding a PS5 this holiday season.

Auf wiedersehen

Sometimes, it feels like there are two mutually exclusive versions of AR: playful and goofy phone filters, and utilitarian headgear that seems solely focused on maps, notifications and getting things done. That's largely because existing AR glasses are mostly geared toward the enterprise. But still: How will we actually have fun with these types of glasses once they become available to regular people? Nike recently teamed up with Snapchat to explore just that, and the resulting video is pretty compelling. Who wouldn't want to see music visualizations during their morning run, meet funky little AR pigeons along the way and get celebrated by billboards in the sky after a job well done? On the flip side, I may have just found another excuse to not get in shape for at least a few more years. Because, really, without all of this, why even bother?

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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