Industry News [Week of July 20, 2020]

This is the regular weekly post where I share updates about things happening in gaming, machine learning, audio, or frankly anything that catches my eye and seems relevant to share or discuss here. Let’s hop right in!

A while ago, some folks from the MIT Media Lab teamed up with Canny AI (video dialogue replacement) and Respeecher (post-production voice conversion) to build a “deepfake” video of Richard Nixon. Specifically, they had him read his backup speech, titled “In Event of Moon Disaster”, for if the Apollo 11 astronauts had never made it back. The whole video with additional context is now online, and offers a great example of how synthetic media can be used to educate and build connections, not merely to imitate or replace.

MIT Sloan also recently published a pretty thorough introduction to synthetic media. While the article certainly calls out many of the concerns around “deepfakes” and other related technologies, I think it does a better job than most at cutting those fears with equally relevant information around the positive potential of the tech. (Disclaimer: I was among the industry professionals interviewed for the article, and Modulate features briefly as an example of one such positive application.)

For one final discussion of the positive uses of synthetic media, check out this Wired article about tools which have helped businesses create educational content during COVID, when it’s been unusually difficult to bring physical actors onto a set to record lessons or seminars. (Though for any actors worried about losing work, they should keep in mind that these tools tend to have very minimal expressiveness, so there’s still a significant need for talented performers whenever one needs to depict deep emotion or connections between individuals.)

Apparently half of all US kids younger than 16 are playing Roblox. These numbers are reported by Roblox, so I suppose they may have chosen a framing (downloads? installs? MAU would be most impressive, but it’s unclear) that makes those numbers as large as possible, but no matter what way you slice it, Roblox is becoming an increasingly potent phenomenon. For instance, just one of the larger games on the platform, Adopt Me, commands over 50m monthly active users. Roblox is also still pursuing new avenues of growth – for instance, given the need to stay mostly indoors due to the coronavirus, they’ve recently launched a new virtual meetup area specifically for events like birthday parties. As a creation platform, Roblox is competitive with the best of them – it offers far less customization for new content than Unreal or Unity, but especially for younger creators, it provides tools that allow them to create new, rich experiences at a previously unprecedented pace. That said, Roblox has struggled so far to pull in older audiences, and it’s unclear whether this is intentional strategically or a difficulty they’ve faced with building the kind of content that would appeal to those users.

COVID has forced many game companies to shift events out of the physical world. Xbox responded by creating the Summer Game Fest Demo Event, which ends this coming Monday, in which they are making demos of over 70 games (including 15 which are being announced for the first time) available for download on the Xbox. This is a really interesting tactic to build excitement, though it clearly misses out on the social engagement of a larger physical event – I’d be interested to see how an event like this went with a larger selection of intrinsically social or multiplayer games that added those relationships back into the equation!

Finally, over the last few years, streaming has evolved from something focused heavily on gaming to include many additional sectors – including a “Just Chatting” category in which the streamer simply engages directly with their audience on any variety of topics which has grown increasingly dominant. Another segment of streaming which has been growing is sports content and commentary, which has been a major focus of disruptive new streaming platforms like Caffeine. Earlier this week, Twitch also announced a new sports category, which will house new content as well as organize some existing content like NBA streams. With TV, sports battles usually relate to which network gets to host the live games, and I suspect some of those battles will continue in the streaming landscape, but I’ll be even more interested in following the emergence of streamers who produce custom narration, highlight reels, or other supplementary content which is more narrowly targeted to a small but passionate audience – the sort of “hypersegmenting” which modern streaming is perfect for.

That’s all for this week! As always, any thoughts or feedback are welcome. Stay safe, healthy, and sane, all!

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