Even Amazon can’t quite figure out what Astro is for

Amazon’s cute little Astro robot has been scurrying its way around my apartment for the past few weeks. It has no arms to scratch its own head in confusion, but I am willing to do that for him. As part of Amazon’s Day 1 Editions program, the robot is a $1,000 invitation-only program with limited numbers of robots available, as the company is trying to get them into consumers’ hands with a question: How would you use this?

The company suggests that some use cases include home monitoring — an autonomous home-security system that can wander around from room to room. Astro has the ability to patrol a home with Ring Protect Pro, pop its periscope camera to see the counters, detect unidentified people when in “away mode,” send alerts when it hears sounds like glass breaking and more. You can also use it when you’re home — if you hear the dog barking at night, you can send Astro to see what’s happening without having to leave the cozy cocoon of your duvet-burrito.

The company also suggests that Astro might be a good solution for offering remote care. Your loved one can ask Astro to set and deliver reminders, or you can use Drop In to stay connected. Plus, Astro works with Alexa Together, which allows for remote care for aging loved ones, or for offering care for people who have mobility challenges or other disabilities.

Amazon also offers companionship as a potential use case — it suggests all the fun things Astro can do (things like “Astro beatbox,” or “what’s your favorite animal?” are top items, the company suggests), and it has other features that make it seem more like a pet than a Skynet-harboring robot of death and destruction.

The whole purpose of a Day 1 Edition product is for Amazon’s product teams to get their most ambitious projects into customers’ hands faster so they can provide feedback that, in this case, will help shape the Astro experience. It makes sense. Right now, Astro is a robust system and can handle a wide array of commands and tasks that customers are finding useful. The robot has a little carrying tray and a USB port for extensions that will give it any number of interesting new powers, extendable by hackers and tech-savvy users, much in the same way that someone can write and deploy an Alexa skill today.

Astro’s sensors mean it doesn’t bump into things too often. And the paint along the bottom of the chassis, and the scrapes on the walls of my apartment, indicate that Astro still has a little bit of learning to do on that front. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

Personally, throughout my time with Astro, I thought the robot was adorable. The speakers are good, and it’s kinda fun to have a boombox trail around and play your tunes or podcasts as you are doing chores. As a piece of first-generation tech, it’s an impressive feat that has tremendous potential. But that alone isn’t enough to make a product. In a world where the environment is front of mind, we could do with fewer gadgets that will end up in landfills eventually, not more, and so I find myself wondering what this thing is for. I can imagine a number of niche use cases — including the ones listed above — but I keep being unclear on whether this is a device that needs to exist at all.

I spoke with Anthony Robson, the principal product manager for robotic technologies and consumer robotics at Amazon, to try to get to the bottom of things. It quickly became clear that Astro’s ambition is sky-high, and that the Amazon team doesn’t quite know which direction that ambition will take it. By design, it claims, which I have some respect for, but it seems weird to me to take a “let’s build it and see if they will come, and what they will use it for” approach.

Don’t misunderstand me; I do believe there are places and use cases where Amazon’s adorable little robot friend makes a lot of sense — but when I talk to startups day in and day out, it feels really jarring. I wouldn’t let a startup get away with a solution looking for a problem, and so it feels curious to be tempted to let Amazon — who really should know better — off the hook.

“This is the very first robot in a brand new category of robots. When we started this program, we were like, why not us? Why not Amazon? You know, we have this great ecosystem with Alex and the AI chops to be able to do this. Let’s do it, let’s learn from customers,” comments Robson. “We went out and did a lot of research around what kinds of things people could envision robots helping them in their home. The home monitoring capabilities were certainly the most popular thing people could envision. I’d love to be able to check if I left the stove on, or whether my back door is unlocked. I’d love to be able to check if I need to buy bananas because the fruit bowl is empty. I want to be able to check if the kids came home or to be notified when they come home. I want to be able to talk to them and find them in the house. So that was a very popular use case that people identified. There are a number of use cases.”

Astro Cargo Bay

Astro’s cargo bay is sizeable and has a USB-C port to extend its functionality further. An SDK to build software for Astro is in the works, Amazon suggests. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

The ideas came fast and thick, and every time I found myself wondering; yes, but… Really? Would customers potentially pay $1,000 to solve this problem?

Of course, the additional flexibility of the Astro platform broadens the potential quite a bit.

“We insisted on having some level of extensibility. We’re gonna learn so much about every home — and every home is going to be different and have different needs. So we added a cargo bay area with a USB port, and asked the question ‘how can we extend this platform to do more things for more people?’ We didn’t envision at the beginning of this program that we would have a pet food dispenser at the launch event,” marvels Robson. “We have customers who are working in their home offices on either side of the house sending things to each other using their Astro. We are learning, we are listening and we are adapting. We’re going to extend Astro’s capabilities as we learn from customers.”

The product team does have a few things on its wish list that it wasn’t able to prioritize for launch for various reasons.

“There are a lot of things that, simply from a practical perspective, we couldn’t add. Astro doesn’t climb stairs, for example. The level of complexity that would add to the product would simply make it too costly, and make it so it’s not accessible to as many people as we would like,” explains Robson. “We had to make trade-offs like that. We would have liked the periscope camera to go that little bit higher. But we had to compromise and say, you know, this is just enough to see over the counters. That is perfect — that keeps the device small.”

The product team also suggests that it wanted Astro to be able to move around much faster. At its current pace, you can out-walk it if you stroll briskly through the hallways of your mansion — but speed also equals trade-offs. The laws of physics start getting in the way pretty quickly, in other words.

“Again, the complexity of being able to make sure that it can be safe at all times goes up exponentially. A factor of two, with every increase in speed,” explains Robson. “You have to be very judicious about how much speed you put in because it’s going to make your sensing and your safety solutions twice or multiple times more complex.”

The Astro team hasn’t launched a developer toolkit for the Astro robot yet, but that’s on its way, too.

“We’re working hard with strategic partners. I think [an Astro SDK] is going to be happening. We want to bring that intelligent motion capability to more and more skills and accessories in the future,” says Robson. “It is not something we have ready today, but it’s coming very soon. We’re working on it as hard as we can.”

Amazon Astro with periscope camera

The periscope camera pops out and extends telescopically, enabling Astro to look over obstacles and on countertops. A very elegant design choice. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

The comms team for Astro is excited about the potential of the robot as a comms and monitoring tool. It tells the story of one customer; their father-in-law had fallen out of his wheelchair. The family used Astro to communicate and coordinate emergency service responses to help him get back up. Giving additional, roaming assistance to people living independently seems like a powerful use case — except for the quirk of Astro not being able to climb stairs or open doors.

I did have a couple of fun interactions with Astro that surprised and delighted me. For example, as one part of the setup process, Astro tells you to take a couple of steps back to make space for it to leave its charging dock. As it did that, I swear it flicked the screen representing its “face”, much like one would wave one’s hands to shoo someone away. I was never able to get Astro to do it again, and the product team wasn’t able to confirm whether I hallucinated that, or whether that’s something Astro actually does.

“You know, that’s the thing when you give a robot a body language, depending on what it has to do, it’s going to move in the way it needs to move. Sometimes those things end up being interesting combinations,” laughed Robson. “So I can’t think of exactly why that would happen, but… I have been surprised by Astro before.”

Astro is an extraordinarily well-thought-out robot on a technical level. The big wheels mean it can climb over thresholds between rooms with no issues. It got stuck on my bath mat a few times but managed to dislodge itself every time, which is impressive. When I was testing Astro, I also had a foster kitten, and Astro and Chairman Meow seemed to become good friends, with the two of them chasing each other around the apartment. Astro ran over Meow’s tail once, and Meow got his revenge by folding over the bath mat, trapping Astro in the bathroom for a few hours. I’m not convinced Meow did that on purpose, to be fair, but it did strike me as funny.

The periscope camera is an extraordinarily clever feature that dramatically increases the usefulness of Astra, and the wayfinding tech is impressive. Telling Astro to go to the kitchen, and having it dutifully scurrying its way around my stacks of Amazon deliveries, office chairs and the odd shoe strewn along the flow was entertaining. A lot of work went into making Astro seem non-threatening. It moves slowly and gingerly near people and pets, it doesn’t bump into stuff all that much, and when it does, it does so carefully. The screen and Astro’s “face” are expressive, and cute, and invite a high degree of trust and user-friendliness. It shows that Amazon has the capacity of building incredibly capable robotics, even when it is compromising on product issues along the way.

It’s been fun to have Astro wandering about my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roving boom box that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute, and all, but $1,000 would buy Alexa devices for every thinkable surface in my room and leave me with enough cash left over to cover the house in cameras. I simply continue to struggle with why Astro makes sense. But then, that’s true for any product that is trying to carve out a brand new product category.

I won’t miss it when I return it to its corporate office to be passed on to the next journalist who will be taking a closer look, which is rarely a good sign, but I hope that Amazon learns enough so it becomes better at telling the story of its adorable little robot. It is, truly, a solution that is carefully and adorably scurrying around looking for a use case. If Astro’s persistence is any indication, it will eventually find one.

Hyundai to open $6.5B EV factory in Georgia

Hyundai is the latest automaker to announce plans to open an EV factory in Georgia, the same state where Rivian is preparing to break ground on its controversial plant.

Hyundai’s $6.5 billion EV and battery manufacturing facility outside of Savannah will further the state’s goal of becoming a major regional hub for the EV industry. As sales of electric vehicles start to surge, the Peach State aims to establish a statewide, closed-loop battery-electric ecosystem that includes rare earth mining, battery and chip production, and auto parts manufacturing, according to state officials.

Hyundai’s capital investment, which includes $1 billion from non-affiliated suppliers, represents the largest economic development deal recruited by Georgia, officials said Friday. Hyundai expects to create 8,100 jobs at the 2,293-acre site.

Georgia has become aggressive in its efforts to attract manufacturers, awarding Rivian the state’s largest-ever incentives package of $1.5 billion to build a plant on 2,000 acres east of Atlanta. In return, Rivian has pledged to hire 7,500 workers at an average annual salary of $56,000 by the end of 2028. However, the project has stirred up local controversy; residents have rallied around concerns ranging from land preservation to the use of tax dollars.

The issue became political, as opponents of the Rivian plant mobilize against Gov. Brian Kemp ahead of his race for re-election in November.

Rivian plans to break ground this summer and open by early 2024.

Hyundai’s site represents a collaboration among four Georgia counties that used proceeds from selling property to Amazon to help fund the $61 million land purchase. The partnership which calls itself the Savannah Harbor-Interstate 16 Corridor Joint Development Authority (JDA), pooled the plots to create a “shovel-ready mega-site” for a large manufacturer.

Hyundai said the plant will begin production in 2025 with the capacity to build 300,000 vehicles per year.

Officials hope to replicate the model to attract more mega-site manufacturing projects to the state.

SK On, a South Korean EV lithium-ion battery maker, is building a $2.6 billion EV battery complex nearby. The company, which said its plant will be able to power 310,000 electric vehicles annually, has contracts with Ford and Volkswagen.

Dig emerges from stealth to help organizations secure their data in public clouds

Dig, a Tel Aviv-based cloud data security startup, has emerged from stealth with an $11 million investment to help organizations protect data stored in public cloud environments.

It’s no secret that data is often the ultimate target for some cybercriminals, yet so many organizations don’t have visibility, context or control over data stored in public cloud environments — like the ones run by Amazon, Google and Microsoft — according to Dig. That’s why the startup has developed a data detection and response (DDR) solution, which it claims can help enterprises to discover, protect and govern their cloud data in real time.

“Companies don’t know what data they hold in the cloud, where it is, or most importantly how to protect it. They have tools to protect endpoints, networks, APIs but nothing to actively secure their data in public clouds,” Dan Benjamin, Dig’s co-founder and chief executive, tells TechCrunch. Prior to founding Dig in October last year, Benjamin led multi-cloud security at Microsoft and mentored CTOs at Google Cloud for Startups.

“If you speak to data security teams in large organizations today, most of them work with manual reports and run manual scans. We help organizations analyze and understand how that data is being used,” he added.

Dig claims, like unlike existing solutions, it analyzes and responds instantly to threats to cloud data, triggering alerts on suspicious or anomalous activity, stopping attacks, data exfiltration and employee data misuse. The solution — a software-as-a-service app — discovers all data assets across public clouds and brings context to how they are used, and also tracks whether each data source supports compliance like SOC2 and HIPAA.

“Just the other week, we integrated with a large financial public American company, and after five minutes, we had alerts. What we discovered is that they had all financial reports being copied to an external AWS account that doesn’t belong to them,” Benjamin says. “We see stuff like this all of the time because no-one has real visibility into how this data is being used.”

Benjamin, who founded the startup alongside veteran entrepreneurs Ido Azran and Gad Akuka — the first letters of the co-founders’ names spell “Dig” — tells TechCrunch that Dig currently works with Microsoft Azure and AWS, with support for Google Cloud Platform coming soon. His ultimate goal, however, is to expand beyond public clouds to provide a solution to protect data wherever it sits within an organization.

“Data sits in five main locations for a typical enterprise; endpoints, email, on-premise, SaaS, and public clouds,” Benjamin says. “We only cover public clouds, but I believe that, eventually, customers will want a single platform that protects data wherever it is.”

With its $11 million seed round led by Team8, with participation from CrowdStrike, CyberArk and Merlin Ventures, Dig plans to grow its headcount from 30 to 50 by the end of the year, including in the U.S. It also plans to expand the product, with Benjamin noting that the startup “still has a lot to do” across discovery, context and threat protection.

Zoox reveals close-up of its autonomous robotaxi

Zoox shared a close-up of its commercial electric robotaxi at the TechCrunch Mobility 2022 conference in San Mateo, California, on Wednesday.

The Amazon subsidiary’s four-passenger, fully autonomous vehicle features a white, cubelike body with large black sliding doors, floor-to-ceiling windows, beam-forming speakers to direct audio alerts to distracted pedestrians and a 60-watt USB-C port with enough power to charge a 15-inch MacBook.

The sleek, square silhouette lacks a front and rear end. Instead, the bidirectional robotaxi is symmetrical, with the same sloped face featuring cameras, lights, speakers and a large window on either side. “Internally, we call it a north side and a south side,” Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson said during an interview onstage.

Zoox autonomous driving vehicle

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The design features a sensor pod atop each corner of the robotaxi, which allows the vehicle to see in all directions. The corner architecture helps “see basically everything, including things behind things.”

“The shape of the vehicle is perfect for autonomous driving because each of those sensor pods has a 270-degree field of view,” Levinson said. “Because there’s one on each corner, not only can we see everything 360 degrees but we have an overlapping, redundant field of view that helps us see around things.”

The company revealed the robotaxi in December 2020 on a closed course in San Francisco and has been working toward making it safe and legal on public roads. Levinson declined to give a time frame, but said the company is “really close.” Zoox is already testing the vehicle on closed roads in Seattle, Las Vegas and Foster City, California, as well.

The sliding doors create a wide aperture that opens to a low floor, making it easy for passengers to enter and exit. Each side displays a strip of speakers above the headlights. The beam-forming speakers can shoot sound in any direction with a targeted focus, alerting specific distracted pedestrians with a ping that’s more polite than a honk, Levinson said.

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“They’ll hear it and everybody else won’t.”

Each of the four seats features a seven-inch screen, comparable in size to an iPhone. The simple interface allows passengers to operate the vehicle’s four-zone climate control, check the route and change music.

The simplicity is designed to reduce visual stimuli. “It’s not about super-fancy 3D gaming,” Levinson said. “We’re not bombarding you with like screens and advertisements everywhere.”

The passenger experience “actually is quite boring after 30 seconds,” he added, “but that’s a good thing because people just want to get on with their lives, have a conversation, read a book, play with their iPhone or whatever they want to do.”

Each seat also comes with a wireless charging pad and a 60-watt USB-C port.

The ceiling features a pinpoint light display Zoox calls a “celestial headliner,” modeled after Rolls-Royce’s five-figure starry headliner option.

“It’s a little bit of our prestige feature,” Levinson said. “If we ever have to build a lower-cost version, that’s probably the first thing to go.”

Amazon’s $60 Fire 7 tablet finally gets USB-C

It’s 2022. Frankly, the notion of a company adding USB-C to a mainstream consumer device shouldn’t still feel novel. And yet. Of course, Amazon’s big holdout on the nearly ubiquitous charging port isn’t quite the same as Apple’s stubborn refusal to drop Lightning. It’s more that the company has been — very slowly — replacing micro-USB, device by device.

Following on the heels of the Fire 10 and Kindle Paperwhite, it’s finally the Fire 7’s time to shine. Amazon today announced a new version of the budget tablet — along with its kids-focused counterpart — featuring the port, along with a 40% upgrade in battery life to a stated 10 hours.

Image Credits: Amazon

The new version of the 7-inch tablet runs $60 and features both an upgraded quad-core processor and double the RAM, at 2GB. These aren’t bleeding-edge specs we’re talking about here, but probably enough for some very basic tasks like web browsing and watching video. Amazon says the 7-inch model is its bestselling tablet, no doubt owing to that rock-bottom price point.

The device has rear- and front-facing cameras, capable of shooting in 720p. The tablet is made from 35% recycled plastics, and the company claims the device is “twice as durable as the latest iPad mini in tumble tests.”

Per usual, the company is also launching a Kids version alongside the tablet. That adds a year of Amazon Kids+ content, a parental dashboard, a “kid-proof” case and a 2-year warranty. That version runs $110. Both models are up for preorder today and start shipping on June 29.

Facebook and Twitter still can’t contain the Buffalo shooting video

Ten people were murdered this weekend in a racist attack on a Buffalo, New York supermarket. The eighteen-year-old, white supremacist shooter livestreamed his attack on Twitch, the Amazon-owned video game streaming platform. Even though Twitch removed the video two minutes after the violence began, it was still too late — now, gruesome footage of the terrorist attack is openly circulating on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, even after the companies have vowed to take down the video.

On Facebook, some users who flagged the video were notified that the content did not violate its rules. The company told TechCrunch that this was a mistake, adding that it has teams working around the clock to take down videos of the shooting, as well as links to the video hosted on other sites. Facebook said that it is also removing copies of the shooter’s racist screed, and content that praises him.

But when we searched a term as simple as “footage of buffalo shooting” on Facebook, one of the first results featured a 54-second screen recording of the terrorist’s footage. TechCrunch encountered the video an hour after it had been uploaded and reported it immediately. The video wasn’t taken down until three hours after posting, when it had already been viewed over a thousand times.

In theory, this shouldn’t happen. A representative for Facebook told TechCrunch that it added multiple version of the video, as well as the shooter’s racist writings, to a database of violating content, which helps the platform identify, remove and block such content. We asked Facebook about this particular incident, but they did not provide additional details.

“We’re going to continue to learn, to refine our processes, to ensure that we can detect and take down violating content more quickly in the future,” Facebook integrity VP Guy Rosen said in response to a question about why the company struggled to remove copies of the video in an unrelated call on Tuesday.

Reposts of the shooter’s stream were also easy to find on Twitter. In fact, when we typed “buffalo video” into the search bar, Twitter suggested searches like “buffalo video full video graphic,” “buffalo video leaked” and “buffalo video graphic.”

Image Credits: Twitter, screenshot by TechCrunch

We encountered multiple videos of the attack that have been circulating on Twitter for over two days. One such video had over 261,000 views when we reviewed it on Tuesday afternoon.

In April, Twitter enacted a policy that bans individual perpetrators of violent attacks from Twitter. Under this policy, the platform also reserves the right to take down multimedia related to attacks, as well as language from terrorist “manifestos.”

“We are removing videos and media related to the incident. In addition, we may remove Tweets disseminating the manifesto or other content produced by perpetrators,” a spokesperson from Twitter told TechCrunch. The company called this “hateful and discriminatory” content “harmful for society.”

Twitter also claims that some users are attempting to circumvent takedowns by uploading altered or manipulated content related to the attack.

In contrast, video footage of the weekend’s tragedy was relatively difficult to find on YouTube. Basic search terms for the Buffalo shooting video mostly brought up coverage from mainstream news outlets. With the same search terms we used on Twitter and Facebook, we were able to identify a handful of YouTube videos with thumbnails of the shooting that were actually unrelated content once clicked through. On TikTok, TechCrunch identified some posts that directed users to websites where they could watch the video, didn’t find the actual footage on the app in our searches.

Twitch, Twitter and Facebook have stated that they are working with the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism to limit the spread of the video. Twitch and Discord have also confirmed that they are working with government authorities that are investigating the situation. The shooter described his plans for the shooting in detail in a private Discord server prior to the attack.

According to documents reviewed by TechCrunch, the Buffalo shooter decided to broadcast his attack on Twitch because a 2019 anti-semitic shooting at Halle Synagogue remained live on Twitch for over thirty minutes before it was taken down. The shooter considered streaming to Facebook, but opted not to use the platform because he thought users needed to be logged in to watch livestreams.

Facebook has also inadvertently hosted mass shootings that evaded algorithmic detection. The same year as the Halle Synagogue shooting, 50 people were killed in an Islamophobic attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which streamed for 17 minutes. At least three perpetrators of mass shootings, including the suspect in Buffalo, have cited the livestreamed Christchurch massacre as a source of inspiration for their racist attacks.

Facebook noted the day after the Christchurch shootings that it had removed 1.5 million videos of the attack, 1.2 million of which were blocked upon upload. Of course, this begged the question of why Facebook was unable to immediately detect 300,000 of those videos, marking a 20% failure rate.

Judging by how easy it was to locate videos of the Buffalo shooting on Facebook, it seems the platform still has a long way to go.

Candle Media, the new media company co-backed by former Disney execs, acquires Gen Z-focused ATTN: for $100M

Candle Media, the new media company headed by former Disney execs, Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, has made another acquisition — this time with an eye on social storytelling and reaching a Gen Z to millennial audience. The company announced today it will become the new owner of ATTN:, a media company that uses entertainment to discuss topical issues that help explain the world to a younger audience — particularly those who consume content on social media.

Of note, ATTN: also launched its own TikTok studio last year to provide production services for brands that wanted to reach the TikTok user base. Clients on that effort have included big name brands like Google, Madewell, MTV and even TikTok itself, which partnered with ATTN: to manage its own “TikTok for Good” channel. That deal was recently renewed for a second year.

Candle explained its interest in ATTN: had to do with the company’s ability to effectively engage a social audience.

“ATTN: has a deep, digital-native understanding for how to cut through the noise and reach today’s audiences through engaging content on social media. We are excited for them to join Candle and provide the benefits of their talented team’s expertise across our brands and franchises,” read a statement by Candle co-CEOs, Mayer and Staggs.

Launched in 2014, ATTN: has created original series for Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Twitch, in addition to networks ABC, NBC, CBS, MTV, Freeform and Discovery as well as for streaming services like Hulu and Apple TV. Its brand studio and agency have relationships with companies like Amazon, Ford, Google, Intel, Mattel, P&G, Target and T-Mobile.

The acquisition offers ATTN: scale, capital and expertise to accelerate its growth, Candle Media said in a press release. ATTN: co-founders Matthew Segal and Jarrett Moreno, along with the existing senior management team, will continue to oversee day-to-day operations, original content, production and studio work, the announcement said.

Variety reports the deal for ATTN: is around $100 million in both cash and stock but could be worth up to $150 million with additional earn-out provisions. Candle confirmed this figure to TechCrunch as well.

Blackstone-backed, L.A.-based Candle Media was founded with an eye on aggregating brands to build an independent media operation — a rarity at a time when most media companies are now running their own streaming services.

In an interview with Deadline, Mayer explained that Candle’s lack of a streamer was an important part of its strategy, as it believes demand for content itself is going to grow “extremely robustly” in the months ahead.

After coming onto the scene last year, the company has been making several high-profile acquisitions, including that of kids content company and “CoComelon” owner Moonbug for $3 billion; “Fauda” maker Faraway Road Productions for somewhere south of $50 million; and Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine for around $900 million.

This year, it also took a more than 10% stake in Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s media company, Westbrook, and was said to be in talks to acquire NFT company Notables.

Candle has also been hiring, having recently added former UTA and Disney execs as its chief development officer and CFO.

The company says it expects the deal for ATTN: to close in about 30 days.

Updated, 5/17/22, 5:06 PM ET with confirmation of deal price. 

Amazon’s free streaming service Freevee launches on Apple TV 4K and Apple TV HD

The free ad-supported streaming service (FAST), Amazon Freevee (formerly IMDb TV) announced that the Freevee app is now available through the App Store on Apple TV 4K and Apple TV HD.

After recently undergoing a rebrand, Freevee has also been aggressive with new releases and promised a 70% year-over-year increase to its originals slate last month. New Freevee originals include “Hollywood Houselift with Jeff Lewis,” cooking contest “America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation,” family-oriented competition “Play-Doh Squished,” and more.

Also announced recently was a short-term film licensing agreement with Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution, bringing Disney titles like “Logan,” “Deadpool,” and “Hidden Figures,” among others, to the FAST service.

In addition, Freevee offers Amazon Studios shows like the premiere of the crime drama “Bosch: Legacy” and “Pretty Hard Cases,” which just announced a second season pickup.

At its NewFronts presentation for advertisers in early May, Amazon announced that it is beta testing Virtual Product Placement in original shows. This will be an improved advertising method as more streaming services compete with ad-supported tiers.

The Freevee app is also available on iOS, Android, Roku, Samsung smart TVs (2017-2021 models), LG Smart TVs (2018-2021 models), Comcast’s Xfinity Flex, Xfinity X1, Chromecast with Google TV, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 consoles.

Aside from third-party devices, it is available as an app on Fire TV, Fire Tablets, and a free Channel within the Prime Video app across hundreds of devices.

 

Google Cloud launches new software supply chain and zero trust security services

Google Cloud is holding its annual Security Summit this week and unsurprisingly, the company used the event to launch a few new security features. This year, the announcements focus on software supply chain security, Zero Trust and tools for making it easier for enterprises to adopt Google Cloud’s security capabilities.

It’s no surprise that software supply chain security makes an appearance at this year’s event. Thanks to recent high-profile attacks, it’s been the focus of White House summits and, just last week, an industry group that includes Google, Amazon, Ericsson, Intel, Microsoft and VMware pledged $30 million to work with the Linux Foundation and Open Source Security Foundation to improve the security of open-source software.

At today’s Summit, Google Cloud announced the launch of its Assured Open Source Software service, which gives enterprises and government users access to the same vetted open-source packages that Google itself uses in its projects. According to the company, these packages are regularly scanned, analyzed and fuzz-tested for vulnerabilities and built with Google Cloud’s Cloud Build service with evidence of SLSA-compliance (that’s ‘Supply-chain Levels for Software Artifacts,’ a framework for safeguarding artifact integrity across software supply chains). These packages are also signed by Google and distributed from Google’s secured registry. “Assured OSS helps organizations reduce the need to develop, maintain, and operate a complex process for securely managing their open source dependencies,” Google explains in its announcement today.

Also new today is BeyondCorp Enterprise Essentials, a new edition of Google Cloud’s BeyondCorp Enterpirse Zero Trust solution that promises to “help organizations quickly and easily take the first steps toward Zero Trust implementation.” The company says it includes features like context-aware access controls for SaaS applications and other SAML-connected services, as well as threat and data protection capabilities, in addition to data loss prevention, malware and phishing protection in Chrome.

Finally, Google is also launched a new Security Foundation solution for enterprises that aims to make it easier for them to adopt Google Cloud’s security capabilities. It joins Google’s other ready-made solutions, which so far have focused on specific industries (retail, media and entertainment, financial services, etc.) as opposed to this more general security-centric package. “This solution is aligned to the prescriptive guidance from our Google Cloud Cybersecurity Action Team, and codified in our Security Foundations Blueprint, so that you get the controls you need for data protection, network security, security monitoring, and more to help make your deployments secure from day one–and to do it more cost-effectively,” Google explains.

Virtual product placement ads are coming to Amazon Prime Video and Peacock

Announced at this month’s NewFronts, Amazon and Peacock demonstrated new ad formats that use similar virtual product placement (VPP) tools, a post-production technique for inserting a brand into a TV show or movie scene.

Amazon presented its new VPP tool, currently operating in beta, that lets advertisers place their branded products directly into streaming content after they have already been filmed and produced. Meanwhile, Peacock’s new “In-Scene” ads will identify key moments within a show and digitally insert a brand’s customized messaging or product post-production so the brand is showcased in the right TV show/movie and at the right time.

Product placement is nothing new and has long been a holy grail of the advertising industry. In 2019 alone, product placement in the U.S. garnered about $11.44 billion, per Statista data. That same year, approximately 49% of American viewers took action after seeing product placement in media.

Brands that use product placement in movies and TV shows capture target markets and promote products in a subtle way. Research by Sortlist revealed that, on average, customers are being sold 12.61 products per movie without even noticing.

However, the strategy is outdated, and products used in the content, for instance, a can of coke on a table, are decisions that are made months in advance.

Streaming services are rethinking this technology and using virtual product placement allows the platform to introduce new ads in the future and remonetize a piece of content over and over again.

In an illustrative video, Amazon demonstrated how its new VPP program enables brands to strategically insert products post-production into content streaming from Amazon Prime Video and the newly rebranded Amazon Freevee. The video shown at Newfronts had an M&Ms billboard (pictured above) that was digitally added way after the show had been filmed.

Colleen Aubrey, Senior Vice President, Advertising Products & Tech at Amazon, explained to the audience, “Working with content creators and using machine learning, we’re able to insert products and branded findings into a TV show or movie.” Billboards, signs, and screens in any chosen show can now have specific messaging on the streamer. Amazon will now be able to integrate different products into episodes at different moments and scenes.

She added that the M&M’s virtual product placement drove an almost 7% increase in brand favorability and almost a 15% increase in purchase intent. This gives advertisers the ability to bring their brands “in the content instead of just around,” she said, giving more flexibility and opportunity for customers to easily discover and engage with products. “Amazon ads are helping advertisers create long-term connections with customers in very everyday interactions,” Aubrey said.

The virtual product placement beta program has already been implemented in several Prime Video and Freevee original series such as “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” “Bosch: Legacy,” and the overall Bosch franchise, “Reacher,” and “Leverage: Redemption.”

Henrik Bastin, Chief Executive of Fabel Entertainment and Executive Producer of “Bosch: Legacy,” said, “Virtual product placement is a game-changer. It creates the ability to film your series without thinking about all that is required with traditional placements during production. Instead, you can sit with the final cut and see where a product could be seamlessly and naturally integrated into the storytelling.”

Image Credits: Peacock

Peacock also announced their own digitally inserted ad strategy at NewFronts. The new In-Scene Ads are designed to strengthen commercial opportunities with marketing partners, seamlessly blending products and/or messaging with content during post-production to insert advertisements during scenes that are deemed relevant to customers.

John Jelley, SVP of Product and UX at Peacock, said, “The majority of Peacock customers are opting for our ad-supported experience,” he said, “and we remain focused on collaborating with our brand partners to develop innovative, personalized ad experiences that continue to enhance the customer experience.”

While maybe not as “mind-blowing” as people think, the possibility of customizing ads for different users is fascinating to think about.

The unique technology brought forth by Peacock, Amazon Prime Video, and Amazon Freevee has the potential to transform ad-supported streaming. The insertion of carefully curated, digitally implemented ads could become the new way streaming platforms and their marketing partners target audiences and increase ad revenue.

We’re curious to see how other streaming services improve their advertising methods. Especially now that ad-supported options have become more popular. Netflix and Disney+ are the latest to announce upcoming cheaper ad-supported tiers.