The UpStream

Free, ad-supported movies might be coming to Google Play Movies

posted Sunday Mar 29, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Free, ad-supported movies might be coming to Google Play Movies

The business to get your viewership time is a crowded one, and seemingly getting more crowded every day. Movies and television are the focus, but short-form services have also been gaining popularity. But, while Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Netflix proved that a paid subscription service could produce great original content, the focus of licensed content has been shifting. Services like Crackle, IMDb TV, Pluto, and Tubi have shown that a free and ad-supported model works for licensed content.

Following that model, some of the bigger companies have tried to find where they might fit in the market. Crackle from Sony and IMDb TV from Amazon have done a decent job of testing the waters, but other content holders have been looking into the space as well. NBC's upcoming Peacock service will offer a free tier and, if code found in the most recent version of Google Play Movies is to be believed, Google might be right behind.

Inspection of the latest APK has uncovered a tier of content that would be free and ad-supported. This could be an important move for Google, as the Play Movies service has never been terribly popular. Like the Play Music service, which will soon be shuttered in favor of YouTube Music, Play Movies has never been able to attract a large audience. Users tend to find themselves either in the Apple or Amazon ecosystems for purchasing and renting movies. However, neither of these platforms offer free content (with the exception of Prime Video, which is a different model). By offering free content in Play Movies, Google could entice users to live, at least partially, in the Google ecosystem instead.

The code suggests that this launch will not be a small one, either. The safe move would be to try it out with a dozen or so titles, but Google appears to be planning to launch with hundreds of movies. That is a suggestion that Google is not just testing the waters, but planning a big, full-scale launch. A big launch doesn't guarantee success, though, as the Google Play brand has been a huge failure for the company. Play Music is on its way to the graveyard, and most people don't know that Play Magazine and Play Newsstand even exist. Play Movies could eventually become a YouTube branded spinoff, like YouTube Music, which is replacing Play Music.

Google cancels April Fools Day pranks to maintain serious tone

posted Saturday Mar 28, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Google cancels April Fools Day pranks to maintain serious tone

One of the longest-running traditions on the internet is the embrace of April Fools' Day. Internet companies the world over play fun pranks on April 1st every year, keeping their customers and fans on their toes. The most infamous supporter of April Fools' Day online has definitely been Google. The company's embrace of the tradition has led to some truly epic laughs, as well as some high profile product launches. That is because Google has often used the day to announce products that, in the moment, seem like they might be pranks. Most notably, in an age where free email accounts offered 25 MB of storage, Google announced Gmail with 1 GB of storage.

This year, however, the humor of April Fools' Day is going to be significantly lessened, as Google has announced its intention to cancel all of the pranks. In a time where people are spending a lot more time online looking for information on the state of the world, the company believes that it would be the wrong time to prank the internet. Lorraine Twohill, head of marketing at Google, wrote to product managers,

This year, we're going to take the year off from that tradition out of respect for all those fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Our highest goal right now is to be helpful to people, so let's save the jokes for next April, which will undoubtedly be a whole lot brighter than this one.

It's a difficult line to walk this year. On the one hand, many of us could use a good laugh, and Google has always been good for that. Being sheltered in place has caused a level of stir crazy that the world hasn't experienced since F. Scott Fitzgerald's time. Many people have responded in the same way that he did - with humor. However, some people are expecting big companies to take a more serious tone, despite human nature. So, with that, there will be no psychic tulips or virtual screen cleaners in 2020.

Epic Games grows its offerings, officially a multi-platform publisher

posted Saturday Mar 28, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Epic Games grows its offerings, officially a multi-platform publisher

Epic Games has made it clear that they want to grow to be a true competitor for the big boys. While the company has long produced the popular Unreal Engine, it wasn't until Fortnite that the brand became a household name. They have used that position, and the unreal income from the game, to grow their offerings. The Epic Games Store, launched just over a year ago, was the company's first major push. But, there is one aspect of the industry the company has been lacking: publishing.

That changed this week, as Epic Games officially announced Epic Games Publishing. But, announcing a new division is very different from being able to attract developers to publish through the company. The announcement, however, came along with a list of developers who have already signed on, and the list is not made up of unknown studios. The three most notable studios to sign on already are Remedy Entertainment, best known for Max Payne, Playdead, best known for the incredibly popular Limbo and follow-up Inside, and genDESIGN, best known for the Sony exclusive title Shadow of the Collosus.

Why would these well-renowned studios decide to change the way they've been doing business and sign on with Epic as their publisher? It has everything to do with the new division's publishing contract. The most attractive aspect of the contract is that the studios will retain 100% ownership of their intellectual property. This has become more common in recent years, but it wasn't long ago that a publisher got full or partial rights to the studio's game franchise.

In addition, the financial benefits are huge. A studio that signs on with Epic Games Publishing could get full funding of their title, though not guaranteed, and, following a break-even point, will receive at least half of all future profits. That is a great deal for small and large developers alike. There is no word on what these new contracts might produce, but with studios like these, we can be almost certain the games will be Epic.

Virtual Reality is seeing new displays and the end of Gear VR

posted Saturday Mar 28, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Virtual Reality is seeing new displays and the end of Gear VR

While virtual reality has gained some traction over the past few years, it has still struggled to gain significant consumer adoption. There have been several attempts made to find a sweet spot, but thus far, nothing has quite gotten the job done. From phone-based headsets to flagship products, no device has quite captured the imagination of consumers.

Phone-Based VR

The most popular of the phone-based devices has definitely been the Samsung Galaxy VR. Samsung partnered with Oculus to produce a platform that would give owners of Samsung Galaxy phones access to a large portion of the Oculus app and game catalog without the need to purchase an expensive headset. Samsung was so sure that the technology would take off that it included a free Galaxy VR headset with the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ phones. However, the company gave up on the technology shortly after. In fact, the company conveniently forgot to include support for the Galaxy S10.

While the newer phones have not been supported, the existing phones have maintained support for their existing features. Unfortunately, that is coming to an end next month. As of April 1, much of the app and game catalog will no longer be available to Gear VR devices. If you have the apps installed before that date, you will still be able to use them but will receive no future updates. If the publishers change backend capabilities, the apps may fail to function.

Flagship VR

On the other end of the spectrum, though, are the flagship devices. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have held the top spots in the industry for years, but new challengers have entered the arena in rent months. The Valve Index is the newest high-end entry on the Steam VR platform, but there is room for more competition. The newest headset on the Steam VR Scene is coming care of HP and Microsoft.

The new headset is currently being referred to as Next Gen HP VR Headset is likely to be known as the HP Reverb G2. The original device was met with indifference, but HP is wanting this model to be "the new standard in VR." The company has given very little information about the new HMD, but developed in partnership with Valve, who produces the Steam VR platform, and Microsoft, which makes Windows Mixed Reality, is likely to be a heavy hitter.

There is no indication as to a release date, though the listing on Steam says that it will be "coming soon."

Microsoft has divested from facial recognition startup AnyVision

posted Saturday Mar 28, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Microsoft has divested from facial recognition startup AnyVision

In the past few months, governments, companies, consumer advocates, and individuals have put an increasing amount of scrutiny on facial recognition companies. The concern arose because of Clearview AI, a previously secretive startup that was revealed to be mining data to identify people in public for law enforcement. During this time, companies with investments in other facial recognition startups have begun investigating whether or not they want to continue in those businesses. One of those companies is Microsoft, which had a minority investment in AnyVision.

AnyVision was an equally secretive startup that Microsoft invested in before the idea that facial recognition companies would violate the public trust. However, after Clearview AI came a report from NBC News that AnyVision was involved in a military contract to surveil Palestinians. That prompted Microsoft to do its own investigation into the company in order to determine whether or not the company violates Microsoft's ethics guidelines.

Microsoft hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to lead the investigation. This week, the results of the investigation were revealed. They showed that the NBC News report was mistaken and that AnyVision was not involved in Palestinian surveillance. However, Microsoft also announced that the end result of the investigation is that the company was divesting from its investment in AnyVision. In the statement, they said,

AnyVision technology has not previously and does not currently power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank that has been alleged in media reports.

They also intend to suspend any future investments in companies that focus on facial recognition. Both moves are not directly related to the actual investigation results, but more because of the fact that the investigation needed to be performed in the first place. Microsoft believes that there is no way to accurately monitor the culture and behaviors of facial recognition companies, and as such, there is no way to ensure that the companies align with Microsoft's ethics and corporate mission.

Entertainment companies are trying to make quarantine more enjoyable

posted Saturday Mar 21, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Over the past few weeks, the world has definitely changed. As the global outbreak of COVID-19 continues to worsen, more and more people are staying home, not just during their off-hours but during work hours as well. Non-essential businesses are closed worldwide, including all entertainment companies, such as movie theaters, venues, and bars. As the scenario worsens, the entertainment industry has made changes to the way it works in order to make the experience of living and working at home a little better.

Venues and Bars

Local artists, including musicians, dancers, and drag performers, rely on bars and local venues to pay their bills. With these locations being closed, the venues and performers are working together to bring unique experiences to their fans. Many of these groups are doing live streams, either from the venues themselves or remote locations, and making them available through the larger fanbase of the venues. They accept tips to help keep the local scene going.

Movies

Movie studios schedule their theatrical releases sometimes years in advance of the films' releases. For those who have films scheduled to release in the next few months, or that released just before the shutdown, decisions have had to be made. Without theaters to show the movies, they have looked at new ways to distribute those films. As a result, a number of high profile movies, including Pixar's Onward, DC Entertainment's Birds of Prey, and Disney's Frozen II are all releasing on digital well ahead of the planned schedule. Some are available for standard streaming, while others are available for rental or purchase on platforms like iTunes.

The Downsides

As more things move online, the internet's infrastructure and corporate infrastructures are seeing heavier than normal stresses. As such, the streaming companies, who are seeing the largest portion of the increase, are starting to throttle their output. This is happening for a variety of reasons, but mostly because their own networks are not designed for this load. These companies build their networks such that they can handle their customers' standard needs, but no one was prepared for this increase. As streaming companies are also the largest users of internet bandwidth, by reducing the stream quality, they can try and prevent interruptions to other systems being used to keep businesses online.

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