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Amazon launches $1.2 mobile Prime Video plan in India

By Manish Singh

Amazon is doubling down on one of the biggest strengths of Prime Video streaming service: Aggressive pricing.

The e-commerce giant on Wednesday launched Prime Video Mobile Edition, an even more affordable tier of the on-demand video streaming service — now also bundling some mobile data.

Prime Video Mobile Edition, for which Amazon has partnered with Indian telecom network Airtel, will feature 28-day mobile-only, single-user, standard definition (SD) access to customers in India for Rs 89 ($1.22). This tier will include 6GB of mobile data that customers can consume during the subscription period. There’s also a slightly expensive plan for Prime Video Mobile Edition that will charge customers Rs 299 but will offer 1.5GB mobile data for each day of the subscription. To anyone who subscribes to Prime Video Mobile Edition, Amazon says it will pick the tab for the first month.

Amazon Prime subscription costs $1.7 a month in India and includes access to Prime Video and Prime Music.

The new Prime Video plan is currently only available in India. Its launch comes two years after Netflix unveiled a similar plan in India.

Affordable pricing is key for on-demand steaming services that are looking to make inroads in India, the world’s second largest internet market. Even as more than 600 million users are online in the country today, only a fraction of them currently pay to access digital subscriptions. In a recent report to clients, analysts at Goldman Sachs estimated that gaming, and video streaming market in India could clock as much as $5 billion in gross value transactions by March 2025.

“India is one of our fastest growing territories in the world with very high engagement rates. Buoyed by this response, we want to double-down by offering our much-loved entertainment content to an even larger base of Indian customers. Given high mobile broadband penetration in the country, the mobile phone has become one of the most widely used streaming devices,” said Jay Marine, Vice President, Amazon Prime Video Worldwide, in a statement.

Airtel, the second largest telecom operator in India, is the first roll-out partner for Prime Video Mobile Edition, said Sameer Batra, Director, Mobile Business Development at Amazon, suggesting that the company may ink similar deals with other telecom operators in the country as it looks to expand the “reach of our service to the entire pre-paid customer base in India.”

Nearly every on-demand video streaming service in India, including Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar, maintain various partnerships with local telecom operators and satellite TV providers to reach more users in the country. Amazon did not explicitly say when or if it plans to extend Prime Video Mobile Edition outside of India.

Nielsen says ‘The Office’ was the most popular streaming series of 2020

By Anthony Ha

Because streaming services only release viewership numbers selectively, and because each one uses its own methodology, it can be hard to compare the popularity of different streaming shows and movies.

So Nielsen, which provides the standard ratings for traditional TV (and is working to combine those ratings with streaming data), is offering some apples-to-apples comparison today at CES by releasing its own lists of the most popular streaming content in 2020, across Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Hulu.

These lists are limited to U.S. viewership. And unlike Nielsen’s linear ratings, they don’t just reflect the total number of people watching, but focus instead on the total number of minutes watched. That also makes for a striking contrast with the ratings that Netflix releases, which count the number of households who watched at least two minutes of a program, but don’t distinguish between someone who watches two minutes versus two hours versus 20 hours.

Still, the TV series lists are absolutely dominated by Netflix, while Disney+ puts in a good showing on the movies list. The other services don’t crack any of the three Top 10 lists.

On the original series side, the surprising winner (at least, surprising to me) was Netflix’s “Ozark,” with 30.5 billion minutes streamed, followed by “Lucifer” (19.0 billion minutes) and “The Crown” (16.3 billion minutes). “Tiger King,” which seems like one of the defining hits of the pandemic, came in at number four, with 15.7 billion minutes streamed — though Nielsen’s methodology puts it at a disadvantage, since it only has eight episodes. The same could probably be said for “The Mandalorian,” the first non-Netflix series on the list, with 14.5 billion minutes streamed.

Nielsen 2020 list

Image Credits: Nielsen

The numbers were even bigger for acquired series — all of them streaming on Netflix last year, although the number one show, “The Office” (57.1 billion minutes streamed) just moved to Peacock. The other shows in the top five are “Grey’s Anatomy” (39.4 billon minutes), “Criminal Minds” (35.4 billion minutes), “NCIS” (28.1 billion minutes) and “Schitt’s Creek” (23.8 billion minutes).

On the movie side, the biggest title was “Frozen II,” which came early to Disney+ and was streamed for 14.9 billion minutes, followed by “Moana” (Disney+, 10.5 billion minutes), “The Secret Life of Pets 2” (Netflix, 9.1 billion minutes), “Onward” (Disney+, 8.4 billion minutes) and “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” (6.2 billion minutes). This seems to be a category where family films have advantage, perhaps because kids are more likely to watch them multiple times.

Beyond releasing these lists, Nielsen is announcing a new product designed to measure viewership of theatrical video on-demand, a.k.a. movies that are released for rent or purchase online. While studios should already have access to basic purchase data for these titles, Nielsen says it can provide “the entire media food chain” with more detailed information about things like the age, gender, ethnicity and geographic territory of who’s watching.

In a statement, Nielsen’s general manager of audience measurement Scott N. Brown said:

As this unprecedented pandemic continues to influence consumer behavior, perhaps even through a prolonged state of recovery waves, being able to measure and help clients appropriately monetize new revenue streams has never been more crucial. A bigger question might be what will audiences do following any recovery, how the behavior adopted during stay-at-home orders might influence habits when consumers have the ability to go back to theaters to enjoy that experience and how content creators will leverage data to make the best decisions regarding distribution platforms in the future.

 

Flexible expressions could lift 3D-generated faces out of the uncanny valley

By Devin Coldewey

3D-rendered faces are a big part of any major movie or game now, but the task of capturing and animated them in a natural way can be a tough one. Disney Research is working on ways to smooth out this process, among them a machine learning tool that makes it much easier to generate and manipulate 3D faces without dipping into the uncanny valley.

Of course this technology has come a long way from the wooden expressions and limited details of earlier days. High resolution, convincing 3D faces can be animated quickly and well, but the subtleties of human expression are not just limitless in variety, they’re very easy to get wrong.

Think of how someone’s entire face changes when they smile — it’s different for everyone, but there are enough similarities that we fancy we can tell when someone is “really” smiling or just faking it. How can you achieve that level of detail in an artificial face?

Existing “linear” models simplify the subtlety of expression, making “happiness” or “anger” minutely adjustable, but at the cost of accuracy — they can’t express every possible face, but can easily result in impossible faces. Newer neural models learn complexity from watching the interconnectedness of expressions, but like other such models their workings are obscure and difficult to control, and perhaps not generalizable beyond the faces they learned from. They don’t enable the level of control an artist working on a movie or game needs, or result in faces that (humans are remarkably good at detecting this) are just off somehow.

A team at Disney Research proposes a new model with the best of both worlds — what it calls a “semantic deep face model.” Without getting into the exact technical execution, the basic improvement is that it’s a neural model that learns how a facial expression affects the whole face, but is not specific to a single face — and moreover is nonlinear, allowing flexibility in how expressions interact with a face’s geometry and each other.

Think of it this way: A linear model lets you take an expression (a smile, or kiss, say) from 0-100 on any 3D face, but the results may be unrealistic. A neural model lets you take a learned expression from 0-100 realistically, but only on the face it learned it from. This model can take an expression from 0-100 smoothly on any 3D face. That’s something of an over-simplification, but you get the idea.

Computer generated faces all assume similar expressions in a row.

Image Credits: Disney Research

The results are powerful: You could generate a thousand faces with different shapes and tones, and then animate all of them with the same expressions without any extra work. Think how that could result in diverse CG crowds you can summon with a couple clicks, or characters in games that have realistic facial expressions regardless of whether they were hand-crafted or not.

It’s not a silver bullet, and it’s only part of a huge set of improvements artists and engineers are making in the various industries where this technology is employed — markerless face tracking, better skin deformation, realistic eye movements, and dozens more areas of interest are also important parts of this process.

The Disney Research paper was presented at the International Conference on 3D Vision; you can read the full thing here.

Google brings ‘The Mandalorian’ to AR in its new app

By Sarah Perez

Google has teamed up with Disney and Lucasfilm to bring the Star Wars streaming series “The Mandalorian” to augmented reality. The company announced this morning the launch of a new Android AR app,  “The Mandalorian” AR Experience, which will display iconic moments from the first season of the show in AR, allowing fans to retrace the Mandalorian’s steps, find the Child, harness the Force, and more, according to the app’s Play Store description.

In the app, users will be able to follow the trail of Mando, Din Djarin and the Child, interact with the characters, and create scenes that can be shared with friends.

New AR content will be released for the app on Mondays, starting today Nov. 23 and continuing for nearly a year to wrap on Oct. 31, 2021. That makes this a longer-term promotion than some of the other Star Wars experiences Google has offered in the past.

Image Credits: Google/Lucasfilm

Meanwhile, the app itself takes advantage of Google’s developer platform for building augmented reality experiences, ARCore, in order to create scenes that interact with the user’s surroundings. This more immersive design means fans will be able to unlock additional effects based on their actions. The app also leverages Google’s new ARCore Depth API, which allows the app to enable occlusion. This makes the AR scenes blend more naturally with the environment that’s seen through the smartphone’s camera.

However, because the app is a showcase for Google’s latest AR technologies, it won’t work with all Android devices.

Google says the app will only support “compatible 5G Android devices,” which includes its 5G Google Pixel smartphones and other select 5G Android phones that have the Google Play Services for AR updated. You can check to see if your Android phone is supported on a list provided on the Google Developers website. Other phones may be supported in the future, the company also notes.

Image Credits:

While the experience requires a 5G-capable Android device, Google says that you don’t have to be on an active 5G connection to use the app. Instead, the requirement is more about the technologies these devices include and not the signal itself.

Google has teamed up with Lucasfilm many times over the past several years for promotional marketing campaigns. These are not typically considered ads, because they give both companies the opportunity to showcase their services or technologies. For example, Google allowed users to give its apps a Star Wars-themed makeover back in 2015, which benefited its own services like Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Chrome and others. It has also introduced both AR and VR experiences featuring Star Wars content over the past several years.

The  “The Mandalorian” AR Experience” is a free download on the Play Store.

NASA sends Baby Yoda to space aboard SpaceX Dragon alongside astronauts

By Darrell Etherington

NASA added a surprise fifth passenger to the Crew-1 mission currently en route to the International Space Station – a plush The Child (aka Baby Yoda) from The Mandalorian. The doll is what’s known as the “zero-gravity indicator” – typically a soft, small object that is allowed to float free in the spacecraft cabin to provide a simple, but effective confirmation of when it passes into the phase of a spaceflight where Earth’s gravity no longer holds significant sway.

Crew-1’s other four passengers are all actual people – NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi. They’re on their way to the ISS to staff it for the next half a year, on NASA’s first operational commercial crew mission, courtesy of partner SpaceX, which certified its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft for human flight earlier this year.

Baby Yoda won hearts with its debut on Disney’s original streaming show The Mandalorian last year, and continues to woo audiences with this year’s second season. It earned its colloquial nickname because it’s a juvenile version of whatever the heck the original Yoda from the Star Wars saga is. In the new series, the youngster regularly earns reprimands from the series’ titular bounty hunter for messing around with his spacecraft controls.

The Child merch is already white hot, but zero-G indicators of past have also notably become hot ticket items following their trips to space. On SpaceX’s first human spaceflight mission, the Demo-2 test flight that took place earlier this year, a Ty Flippable dinosaur called ‘Tremor’ quickly flew off shelves following its own free-floating antics.

Are subscription services the future of fintech?

By Walter Thompson
Joshira Maduro Contributor
Joshira Maduro joined the LendingTree team in April 2020 and uses her background in market research and branding to write about credit card news and better ways to spend.

Subscription services are on the rise. During the pandemic, Americans have been spending more time at home and more money on the digital products that make navigating our new normal easier.

More than ever, Americans’ lives are aided by companies like Netflix, Instacart and, of course, Amazon, which reported record-setting earnings from its 2020 Prime Day savings event.

A recent survey even found that spending on subscription services had more than tripled since March, with one in three respondents saying they’d purchased a new online subscription while quarantining.

Now, a new concern lingers: Is the market getting oversaturated? The question doesn’t just apply to streaming services and food delivery companies — it’s an issue financial technology businesses can’t afford to ignore.

As subscriptions become an increasingly alluring business model, fintechs will be forced to consider whether this proven strategy is worth the risk.

Fintechs should take note of subscription services

In the CompareCards survey, two-thirds of respondents said they purchased a new streaming service mainly for entertainment. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for fintechs to carve out their own space.

Bradley Leimer, co-founder of the financial consulting firm Unconventional Ventures, said he’s certainly seen more fintechs exploring subscription models. As Leimer explained, the financial services industry may have not fully embraced the idea, but it’s “starting to take notice.” Leimer, who has more than 25 years of experience in the industry, believes fintechs can learn a lot from subscription services — provided they’re willing to look in the right place.

One major lesson? Transparency. Subscription services give companies an opportunity to be upfront about their fees, as well as their benefits.

“When we talk about subscriptions, the more clear and more transparent we are, the better,” Leimer said.

Acorns is an easy case study. The microinvesting app offers three subscription levels — lite, personal and family — each with a clearly explained list of features. For what it’s worth, the company added more than 2 million users between March 2019 and March 2020, according to Forbes.

Leimer said fintechs should also take note of the way subscription services collaborate. For example, he pointed out how Amazon users can add an HBO subscription to their Prime Video account, essentially “bundling” two subscriptions into one. Fintechs, Leimer said, could stand to take a page out of that playbook.

“There are a lot of ways to sort of skin that cat — for a fintech company to generate income and for a customer to get value on top of that,” Leimer said.

Bob Iger goes from managing Mickey to directing a milk replacement startup as new Perfect Day boardmember

By Jonathan Shieber

Bob Iger, the chairman and former chief executive at Walt Disney is trading his mouse ears for milk substitutes as the new director of massively funded dairy replacement startup Perfect Day.

Milk substitutes are a $1 trillion category and Perfect Day is angling to be the leader in the market. Iger’s ascension to a director position at the company just affirms that Perfect Day is a big business in the big business of making milk replacements.

Unlike almond milk or soy milk companies, Perfect Day is angling to be a direct replacement for bovine dairy using a protein cultivated from mushrooms.

The move comes as Perfect Day ramps up its development of consumer products on its own and through investments in startups like the Urgent Company. That’s the consumer food company Perfect Day backed to commercialize technologies and create more sustainable food brands.

For Iger, the Perfect Day board represents the first new board seat the longtime entertainment powerbroker has taken since he left Apple.

“Innovation and leadership are both key to world changing ideas,” said Iger, in a statement. “Perfect Day has established both innovation in its use of technology and novel approach to fighting climate change, and clear leadership in building a category with a multi-year head start in the industry they’re helping to build. I’m thrilled to join at this pivotal moment and support the company’s swift growth into new categories and markets.”

Iger joins Perfect Day’s co-founders Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, and representatives from the company’s international backers and lead investors, Aftab Mathur, from Temasek Holdings, and Patrick Zhang, of Horizons Ventures.

Until yesterday, Perfect Day was the most well-capitalized protein fermentation company focused on dairy in the world. That’s when Impossible Foods, the alternative meat manufacturer which has raised $1.5 billion from investors, unveiled that it, too, was working on a dairy product.

Perfect Day, by contrast, has raised $360 million in total funding to-date.

“We’re thrilled to have Bob Iger join our team, and are confident his tenured operational expertise and visionary leadership style will further help us scale our ambitions,” said Ryan Pandya, the chief executive and co-founder of Perfect Day, in a statement. “We’re focused on rapid commercialization in the U.S. and globally. But we know we can’t do it alone. That’s why we’re excited and humbled to have a proven leader like Bob to help us thoughtfully transform our purpose-driven aspirations into tangible and sustainable impact.”

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