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Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital is a SaaS company now

Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital is a SaaS company now

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: New Zealand's visual effects powerhouse Weta is making its tools available to competitors, and Google signals some willingness to change its tune on voice assistant interoperability.

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The Big Story

Visual effects powerhouse Weta Digital to launch SaaS offering

Soon, visual effects creators all around the world will be able to utilize some of the same tools used to create movies and TV shows like "Lord of the Rings," "Avatar" and "Game of Thrones." Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based visual effects powerhouse co-founded by Peter Jackson, has teamed up with Autodesk to bring some of its key tools to the cloud, to be sold SaaS subscription-style to competitors and independent artists alike.

The new offering could be transformative for the visual effects industry, Weta Digital CEO Prem Akkaraju told me this week. "We will be releasing our battle-tested tools," he said. "It's never been done before."

WetaM, as the new SaaS subscription will be called, will consist of several visual effects tools built on the API of Autodesk's 3D application Maya. WetaM will go into private beta in Q4, with pricing and other details still to be determined.

  • Weta has spent a considerable amount of time and effort on creating custom visual effects tools in-house, and won more than a dozen scientific and technical Oscars for its software. "We've been developing tools for 26 years," Akkaraju said. "We have literally hundreds of tools." Much of that work had been informed by the demands of directors like Jackson himself.
  • Not all of these tools will be part of the SaaS offering from day one, and the final lineup is still a work in progress.

Some of the first beta testers will likely be experienced users of these tools. The company has seen thousands of artists pass through its facilities over the years, and still keeps in touch with many of them through alumni groups around the globe.

  • While WetaM is very much a byproduct of the work that Weta has been doing for years, selling it to customers will require additional staffing, Akkaraju said: "It will be a whole new division within Weta."

WetaM is just the latest sign for a rapid evolution of the way movies are made. Over the past few years, Hollywood has doubled down on open source, embraced game engines and other real-time tools, and shifted some of its production workflows to the cloud.

  • Akkaraju told me that WetaM was in part informed by a rapid growth of content production resulting from the global streaming wars. He predicted that there will be more content produced over the next 10 years than the last 30, which in turn would require many more visual effects artists.
  • While the company will be initially targeting professional visual effects artists in the entertainment industry, it is also looking for ways to bring WetaM to students as well as professionals in other industries.
  • Game industry professionals could be particularly interested in WetaM, predicted Autodesk entertainment and media solutions SVP Diana Colella. "This expands into multiple industries that we are not even thinking of right now," she said.

"Our ultimate goal is democratization of visual effects production," Akkaraju added.

Overheard

"It's a good business if you can scale it, and that requires a ton of cash." —MoffettNathanson founding partner Michael Nathanson, explaining during this week's StreamTV show why Netflix and others need to spend billions to make streaming work.

"Cord cutting accelerated by one or two years during the pandemic." —Amazon entertainment devices & services VP Daniel Rausch during the StreamTV show.

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Watch Out

Is Google ready to compromise on voice assistant interoperability?

Something interesting happened during this week's Senate hearing on smart home tech: Google's senior public policy director, Wilson White, said that there were technical issues that prevented smart speaker makers from running two voice assistants at the same time on their devices.

Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus essentially called BS on this, saying that his company had a solution ready to demo. White's unexpected response was to tell Lazarus that he'd love to see that demo, effectively extending an informal invite to talk things over.

"I already [emailed] Wilson," Lazarus told me after the hearing was over. "If he's serious, we're going to go up there and do it."

Google won't allow device makers to run the company's Google Assistant if they simultaneously offer access to competing voice assistants. For Sonos, this means that its customers have to choose between making Amazon's Alexa or the Google Assistant the default voice assistant for its microphone-equipped smart speakers.

But that's not how Sonos would like to handle this issue. Sonos has developed technology that allows the concurrent use of multiple voice assistants, effectively leaving it to end users to choose whether they call on Alexa or the Google Assistant to handle certain tasks. That way, someone could ask Google for the weather, and then tell Alexa to add something to their Amazon shopping list, simply by using different wake words.

  • "Google contractually prohibits us from using that technology," Lazarus told lawmakers Tuesday. "You can't mix and match between the big companies."
  • White defended Google's approach, but also said that there would be technical challenges to implementing this.
  • Lazarus explained that Sonos has the technology, which led to White's invitation for the demo.

Not all tech companies are as protective of their voice assistants as Google. Amazon in particular has been a proponent of a more open approach; the company founded the Voice Interoperability Initiative to promote solutions similar to that developed by Sonos.

However, Lazarus suggested that this was an easy position for Amazon to take, given Google's refusal to play ball. "Because of Google's stance, Amazon's Voice Interoperability Initiative is an onramp into the Amazon ecosystem," he said.

Lazarus also told Protocol that voice interoperability is only one of a number of issues Sonos wants regulators to address. Other points of contention brought up during Tuesday's hearing included tech companies selling smart home products below cost, and allegedly pressuring smaller companies to give up trade secrets in order to integrate with their smart home platforms. These issues may be much harder to resolve than whether Alexa and Google Assistant can be accessed concurrently.

"This is an easy one, but one that would be great for consumers," Lazarus said.

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

Fast Forward

  • Apple is finally out of HomePods. The company's online store now lists the discontinued smart speaker as "sold out."
  • Epic Games teams up with Tribeca. The Fortnite maker wants to teach independent filmmakers how to use its Unreal Engine.
  • Spotify gets to "Call Her Daddy." The music-streaming service spent a reported $60 million on Alex Cooper's popular podcast.
  • Sonos and Ikea unveil picture frame speaker. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and this smart speaker sells for $199.
  • Rakuten exec says chip crunch is "much worse" than expected. Shortages could last two more years, according to Rakuten Mobile CTO Tareq Amin.
  • Niantic was looking to sell itself to Microsoft last year, Bloomberg reports. The startup has plans to launch an advertising marketplace for AR games and apps.
  • Facebook is starting to test VR ads. Talk about in-your-face advertising … so far, it's only a small test run.
  • Netflix is getting a fictionalized series about Spotify next year. How long until Spotify will retaliate with a podcast about Netflix?

Auf Wiedersehen

By constantly resurfacing photos and videos from years past, Facebook and Google Photos have effectively become visual time machines. There's an obvious downside to that, as some of these memories can be quite painful. But there's also a lot of potential for extending this into the 3D realm as photogrammetry and lidar capture become more popular. Case in point: Former Nickelodeon exec Chris Young recently re-created his daughter's childhood bedroom in VR, allowing her to revisit her old bunk bed, stuffies and artwork with a Quest. Young posted a pretty amazing video of the experience on LinkedIn. Go check it out, and then start capturing!

Thanks for reading — see you next week!


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