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Image: USA Today

AR helps local media shoot for the stars

AR helps local media shoot for the stars

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week's edition is about USA Today's efforts to bring AR to local journalism, and Amazon's embrace of live and linear programming for Fire TV devices.

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The Big Story

USA Today wants to kickstart hyperlocal AR journalism

On Thursday, Gannett's USA Today Network is launching one of its most ambitious efforts in immersive storytelling to date: 13 local newspapers, including Florida Today, Naples Daily News and the Austin American-Statesman, will allow their readers to explore the Mars Perseverance rover in augmented reality within their respective mobile apps. In addition, the experience is also available via the USA Today app.

The release of the app coincides with NASA's latest Mars mission, with Perseverance scheduled to land on the red planet Thursday. Narrated by Florida Today's space reporter Emre Kelly and produced in partnership with the Smithsonian Channel, the AR experience lets readers learn about the critical moment of the touch-down — or as Kelly calls it in the experience, the "seven minutes of terror."

"This mission is to detect life on Mars, which is astounding," said Gannett and USA Today emerging technology director Ray Soto. But for Soto, the launch of the AR experience also lays the groundwork for another ambitious undertaking: USA Today Network wants to get its local news organizations to embrace AR, and ultimately produce local immersive content for their respective audiences.

  • Soto's team began experimenting with AR around three years ago, and has produced a number of experiences for the USA Today app around topics like the Women's World Cup, the 19th Amendment and COVID prevention.
  • In 2020, the team launched a total of eight AR experiences, which were together viewed more than 1.3 million times. AR content resonates with USA Today's audience, Soto said. "They are much more tech-savvy than most people seem to realize."
  • USA Today also began releasing some of its AR content on Instagram, and Soto said that his team wants to experiment with WebAR this year. "We do see an opportunity to expand beyond native app AR," he said.
  • The team also wants to continue to push AR content to local news apps, with Soto telling me that many more signed on to distribute the Perseverance experience than he had anticipated. "We were expecting maybe four," he said.

Syndicating AR content to local newspapers is just a first step for USA Today. The next will be to help local journalists produce AR experiences. "Those newsrooms, they can start producing their own AR content," Soto said.

One powerful tool for local journalists could be the new iPhone Pro, which packs lidar sensors that can simplify the 3D scanning of objects and scenes. Soto's team plans to use its Unity-based framework to help turn those 3D objects into complete experiences that could be distributed through local news apps. "There is an opportunity to create hyperlocal AR content," he said.

Overheard

"Still not convinced this is the best path forward for Roku. Original content differentiates the platform but will take away value from being an independent gatekeeper. They'll need to get [the Roku Channel] on all other platforms now, which will complicate their licensing negotiations." —Evolution Media Capital analyst Tavish Zausner-Mannes, responding to our report that Roku is looking to produce its own TV shows and movies.

"It could work — but definitely changes the model." —Hedgeye Risk Management partner Andrew Freedman vowed to stay open-minded about Roku's content plans, but also admitted that was "not a huge fan of the idea."

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Watch Out

Amazon doubles down on live programming for Fire TV

Live and linear video feeds have become a key part of Amazon's Fire TV platform, and the company plans to add further improvements to the experience in the coming months. Amazon Fire TV VP and GM Sandeep Gupta told me recently that his team plans to test different versions of the live TV guide this year, while also giving consumers more ways to personalize their live TV experience.

  • Amazon first unveiled a live TV guide at the end of 2019. At the time, the company's only third-party integration partner was Sony's now-defunct PlayStation Vue live TV service.
  • Since then, Amazon has added paid live TV from YouTube, Sling and Hulu, while also adding dozens of free channels from services like Pluto, Tubi and the company's own IMDb TV service, among others.
  • Getting those content providers on board wasn't always easy, acknowledged Gupta. "It takes several years to bring partners along," he said. But the guide seems to be working for companies that make use of it: Hulu's live TV viewing on Fire TV grew significantly following the integration, according to a company spokesperson.
  • Live TV clearly is a big deal for Amazon, with Gupta pointing out that the company made it a key part of its latest streaming dongles: "We added a guide button to the remote control."
  • Live is also a big part of the new Fire TV interface, which is rolling out to additional devices next month. As part of the redesign, Amazon reduced the number of top menu items from eight to just four, doing away with individual entries for movies and TV shows. Live, on the other hand, made the cut.

Amazon's love for live is not entirely surprising: Pluto, Samsung and others have seen a lot of engagement for live and linear programming, with consumers effectively replacing basic cable with free online channels for leanback viewing. Just this week, linear video feed integration specialist Wurl announced that it saw its number of monthly active viewers increase by 216% in 2020.

Linear programming is also great for advertising, with Wurl reporting ad impressions across its network of linear channels growing by 357% in Q4, compared to the same quarter in 2019. That's why everyone from Roku to Redbox is adding these types of channels to their services.

Amazon's integration is a bit different in that it aggregates live programming from the apps and services that consumers have installed in their Fire TV devices. It's an approach that Google first pioneered when it introduced Android TV all the way back in 2014. However, Google may have been ahead of its time, as its "Live Channels" framework did not receive widespread support from partners; the company has yet to integrate it into its latest Chromecast streaming device.

For more on Amazon's Fire TV redesign, check out my story.

Fast Forward

  • Sennheiser may sell its consumer audio business. The company is also considering an outside investment to better compete with Apple and other consumer electronics giants.
  • Sonos just added another patent to its lawsuit against Google. The smart speaker-maker alleges that Google copied the way Sonos owners can manage speaker groups.
  • And speaking of Sonos, here's another look at possible Sonos headphones, courtesy of a German blogger who found the sketches in a local patent filing.
  • On Protocol: Disney+ ended 2020 with 95 million subscribers. Executives aren't worried about consumers jumping ship when the service's price increases next month.
  • Fortnite is hosting a short film festival. The game's first-ever film festival will kick off on Feb. 20.
  • Also on Protocol: China celebrated Lunar New Year with ecommerce. The country's New Year's Gala is being viewed by a billion people every year, who are increasingly being targeted for online shopping.
  • YouTube is adding a bunch of new monetization features for creators. In a blog post, YouTube CPO Neal Mohan also detailed design tweaks and feature updates for YouTube Kids, YouTube proper, YouTube VR and YouTube TV.
  • Roku is testing a new remote control. In addition to rechargeable batteries, the remote is equipped with a mic for far-field voice control.
  • How Baobab Studios' "Baba Yaga" was made. The VR studio's CTO Larry Cutler gives us a peek behind the curtain.
  • Android users streamed 935 billion hours of video in 2020, according to App Annie. Half of that were "Bridgerton" streams, according to my Facebook feed.

Auf Wiedersehen

Remember how Girl Scouts across California started to put up tables in front of dispensaries as soon as weed became legal in the Golden State? Business acumen like that can't be stopped by anything, not even a pandemic. This year, the Girl Scouts are resorting to virtual cookie booths, and in my neighborhood, some of them have already put up signs with QR codes to simplify online ordering. One especially ambitious seller from Los Angeles even produced a VR video to sell cookies virtually. "But don't worry, you get cookies in real life," she is helpfully telling her audience. Now, someone please invent teleportation for Samoas!

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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