Spotify tests a TikTok-like vertical video feed in its app

TikTok has seen its short-form video feed copied by a host of competitors, from Instagram to Snap to YouTube and even Netflix. Now it looks like you can add Spotify to that list. The company has confirmed it’s currently testing a new feature in its app, Discover, which presents a vertical feed of music videos that users can scroll through and optionally like or skip. For those who have access to the feature, it appears as a fourth tab in the navigation bar at the bottom of the Spotify app, in between Home and Search.

The new addition was first spotted by Chris Messina, who tweeted out a video of the Discover feature in action. He described it as a “pared-down version” of a TikTok-style feed of music videos.

Messina told us he found the feature in Spotify’s TestFlight build (a beta version for iOS), where a new icon in the navigation toolbar brings you immediately to the video feed when tapped. You can then swipe up and down to move through the feed, much like you would on TikTok. In addition to tapping the heart to like songs, you also can tap the three-dot menu to bring up the standard song information sheet, he notes.

Messina also speculated the feature may be taking advantage of Spotify’s existing Canvas format.

Introduced broadly in 2019, Canvas allows artists to create videos that accompany their music on the Spotify app. The feature had mixed reviews from users, as some reported they preferred to see just the static album art when listening to music and found the video and its looping imagery distracting. But others said they liked it. Canvas, however, appears to drive the engagement metrics that Spotify wants — the company reports that users are more likely to keep streaming, share tracks or save tracks when they see a Canvas.

From the video Messina shared and others we viewed, we can confirm that the videos playing in the vertical feed are the artists’ existing Canvas videos. But Spotify would not confirm this to us directly.

TechCrunch asked Spotify for further information on the feature, including whether it had plans to roll this out further, whether it was available on both iOS and Android, which markets had access to the feature and more. The company declined to share any details about the feature but did confirm, via a statement, it was exploring the idea of a vertical video feed.

“At Spotify, we routinely conduct a number of tests in an effort to improve our user experience,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Some of those tests end up paving the way for our broader user experience and others serve only as an important learning. We don’t have any further news to share at this time,” they added.

In other words, the test is still very early and may not make its way to the public. But if it did, it wouldn’t be a surprising move on Spotify’s part. The company has before looked to popular social media formats to engage its users. In the past, Spotify tested a Stories feature that allowed influencers to post Stories to introduce their own, curated playlists. But that option never became available to all Spotify users.

While the TikTok format has been adopted by top social platforms, including Instagram (Reels), Snapchat (Spotlight), YouTube (Shorts) and Pinterest (Idea Pins), it’s also proving to be an ideal format for content discovery. Netflix, for instance, recently adopted the short-form vertical video feed in its own app with the launch of its “Fast Laughs” feature, which offers clips from its content library and tools to save the programs to a watch list or just start streaming them. Similarly, Spotify’s video-based Discover feature could help introduce users to new music and offer a way to signal their interests to Spotify in a familiar format.

Spotify debuts a ‘Netflix Hub’ featuring music and podcasts tied to Netflix shows and movies

Looking for the soundtrack from your favorite Netflix show? Now, it will be easier to find thanks to an expanded partnership between Netflix and Spotify. The streaming music service today introduced a new “Netflix Hub” on its app, which will offer a centralized place for finding the official soundtracks, playlists, and podcasts for top shows and movies on Netflix.

At launch, the Netflix Hub offers soundtracks and playlists from Stranger Things, La Casa De Papel, Narcos: Mexico, Outer Banks, Squid Game, tick, tick…Boom! Bridgerton, Cowboy Bebop, Virgin RiverOn My Block, and others.

It will also include Netflix-tied podcasts, like Okay, Now Listen, Netflix Is A Daily Joke,10/10 Would Recommend, You Can’t Make This Up, and those that delve into popular shows, like The Crown: The Official Podcast or Behind the Scenes: Shadow and Bone, and more.

Other music and fan experiences will be a part of the new destination as well, including an enhanced album for the Netflix Western film, “The Harder They Fall,” which offers fans a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the soundtrack led by Jay-Z. In addition, there’s a content destination for “La Casa De Papel (Money Heist),” Part 5 Volume 2, and a character matching experience where fans get to play a game to find out which “La Casa De Papel” character they are –which feels a bit like a playing a BuzzFeed quiz.

Image Credits: Spotify/Netflix

The hub builds on Spotify and Netflix’s existing partnership, Spotify tells TechCrunch. The two companies have worked together on many official playlists, including most recently, the enhanced album for “The Harder They Fall,” which had been available before the Hub’s debut. They also had worked on the “Money Heist” content experience and the character-matching game ahead of today’s news.

Netflix didn’t purchase access to have a hub on Spotify’s app. In other words, it’s not an ad product, nor did any money exchange hands here. Instead, both companies see the potential in working together to serve their respective fan bases, where there’s naturally a lot of overlap.

Netflix is not the only major company to debut a thematic “hub” on Spotify’s app. Recently, Spotify and Peleton announced a similar partnership that introduced a “Curated by Peloton” Workout Hub featuring playlists from Peloton instructors. And outside its app, Spotify earlier this year partnered with GIPHY to introduce users to music via artists’ GIFs.

Making some of this Netflix content exclusive to Spotify may make sense for the streamer as the other large music and podcast provider on the market, Apple (via Apple Music and Apple Podcasts), is also now a Netflix competitor through its Apple TV+ streaming service. Spotify, at least as of yet, hasn’t expanded into Netflix’s core market, which makes them better suited as partners.

Spotify says that it plans to roll out more exclusive content to the Netflix Hub in the months ahead.

The Netflix Hub will available to all users, both Free and Premium, in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Ireland, and India.

 

Small creators are big business

You’ve likely heard of the “creator economy” already — it’s no longer a new concept, although some people are more acquainted with what it entails than others. But the creator economy needs creators. It says so right there on the label.

Essentially, what we call the creator economy encompasses two groups. The first is a large, decentralized and amorphous group of predominantly independent creatives connected to the digital sphere in one way or another. This includes musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, graphic designers, bloggers and influencers. The second is the companies and platforms that provide the tools that enable this creation, and, by extension, distribution and monetization.

Unsurprisingly, the creator economy’s business side is fundamentally digital, and thus the domain of the tech industry. This has made it easier than ever for independent creators to make a living through their work.

It has also, rather remarkably, kick-started the long overdue unraveling of the superstar model — the old-school way of doing entertainment business in which a small cohort of famous stars made content for everyone, and that was it. That’s not to say subcultures haven’t flourished for decades — they have — but they’ve never made the bulk of the cash.

The creator economy and creator tech sprung up relatively organically. The shift was initially enabled by virality and audience access through newfangled social media channels, but creator tech is now a world unto itself. As such, its very survival depends on the continuation of this slide away from the superstar model.

Kicking holes into the superstar model

In a July 16 letter to shareholders, Netflix acknowledged TikTok as a real competitor, going so far as to note its “astounding” growth. One could even argue that Netflix’s initial begrudging acknowledgment of TikTok’s competitive edge happened last year when the platform launched Fast Laughs, a copycat video feed with short clips culled from its comedy catalog.

Regardless, Netflix has long hitched its wagon to superstars: Zac Efron travels the globe, Paris Hilton cooks, every household-name comedian has at least one special, and original movies and series net the likes of Timothée Chalamet, Jane Fonda, Sandra Oh and Anthony Hopkins, to name but a few. It’s the old guard.

Meanwhile, the biggest stars on TikTok are not “stars” at all, but regular people who happened to be funny or clever or incisive and garnered an audience based on the luck of the algorithm and their creativity alone. They’re not names everyone knows, but many creators have found their niche and a dedicated following. They’re the new guard, and they’re siphoning off precious attention and viewership.

There are no “tentpoles” in the creator economy, a term used to describe a given studio’s big-budget blockbuster that does so well it secures the financial health of the studio itself. This also applies to major labels: Most albums hardly recoup the costs required to make them, but then Adele comes along, drops a record, and pays for all those records that didn’t recoup and then some.

Not so in the creator economy. Yes, TikTok has minted its own type of stars like Khaby Lame, whose hilarious exasperation at overcomplicated life hacks catapulted him to global fame — he’s now shilling for Meta.

But people who follow Khaby Lame don’t open the app, watch his latest video, then close it. (The algorithm is specifically designed so you don’t do this, but that’s a different story.) They also follow any number of smaller creators in addition to those stars, and the majority of the videos they watch are just statistically bound to be made by creators who are not internationally famous.

Smaller creators finding niche success and devoted audiences are changing everything, and creator tech is rising to meet their needs in real time. This is where creator welfare comes in — and why sustaining it must be paramount.

Good ethics = good business

It’s easy to frame the creator payment question as a purely ethical one. But that’s a well-trod argument. Obviously, artists should be paid well for their work. So let’s look at it a different way.

For creator economy tech platforms, fair compensation for smaller creators must be the heart of our business models. Doing so is crucial to our sustainability as platforms and companies. It shores up demand for our platforms by drawing creators to our platforms and retaining them.

It’s also realistic. It’s not the ’90s, and there are no tentpoles in this game. Creator tech needs creator numbers. Large numbers of small creators form the very demand that creator tech relies on.

Creator tech must go all-in on supporting smaller creators. Without supporting small creators and fair payouts, and without continually improving platforms that connect creators to sponsorship and patronage opportunities, all the progress made against the superstar model will be for naught. Creator tech will shoot itself in the foot.

Business plans in which shareholders reap returns that dwarf those of the creators themselves are neither admirable nor sustainable, particularly in a climate with so much audience demand and willingness to pay. Algorithms that punish content creators for taking a day off are ridiculous and need to go. It’s high time for an overhaul of these models and the companies that use them.

Creator tech should continue to embrace and innovate on modern patronage. Creator tech is already fostering a competitive market of patron platforms that cater to specific creators’ needs and, in certain cases, connect brands with creators for profitable partnerships.

Substack is changing the game for freelance writers. Patreon bills itself as ideal for creators of all types, but it’s the unofficial go-to for podcasters. The platforms offering the most — the most money, the most visibility, the most opportunities, the most accessibility — will win.

Continued innovation in terms of licensing, distribution and blockchain certification is as good for artist welfare as it will be for the companies that enable these innovations. How can art auction platforms migrate beyond the legacy galleries and toward the people? Digital music, footage and image licensing is only accelerating and represents an important link within the creator economy among, for instance, video content creators, photographers and songwriters.

In colder terms, there’s money to be made, and no one has to be exploited in the process.

Investing in smaller creators is good for the economic gander

In the age of the individual creator, creator tech’s responsibility to the creators themselves is as much an ethical position as it is one of self-preservation. (No creator tech without a full thriving ecosystem of smaller creators, to err on the side of the obvious.) The superstar economy is ceding ground to independent creators with dedicated followings scattered across platforms and mediums.

If the creator economy is to thrive, the creators must thrive first. Patrons must come from unexpected places and the bottom up. Audiences must be easier to access. Creator tech can’t take the lion’s share and leave pennies for the creators. In other words, creator tech’s success is inextricable from creator success.

Tech has a bad habit of thinking its fate isn’t tied up with that of its users. From a purely business standpoint, creator tech shouldn’t make this mistake. From an ethical one, it will be glad it didn’t.

Roku customers report streaming issues after 10.5 update

A number of Roku customers are experiencing problems with their Roku TVs following the Roku OS 10.5 update. According to reports published to Roku’s own customer forums and other sites, like Reddit, impacted Roku TV owners say many of their streaming apps — like HBO Max, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+ and others, no longer work while others have more intermittent issues, like Netflix.

Some are also experiencing problems with their screens being frozen and their Roku remote no longer functioning, they said, but it’s unclear for now if these are a related or separate issue.

Roku says it’s aware of the problem and working to resolve it.

While the 10.5 update began rolling out in October, Roku tends to update its streaming players first followed by its Roku TV devices. That means many of the impacted customers only recently received the update, as they own a Roku TV, leading to the flood of consumer complaints when the update resulted in favorite streaming apps not working. In addition, the issues impact Roku Ultra devices, as well.

Though the issue began to blow up on the Roku forums last week, some users said they’ve been dealing with a non-functional TV for multiple weeks, leading them to purchase a Chromecast or Fire TV stick instead.

In an 18-page thread on Roku’s community forums, users reported issues with Westinghouse, TCL, Sharp, and Hisense TVs, among other devices. There are many other threads as well, with dozens of responses. Customers with both hardwired and wireless network connections are impacted, according to consumer complaints. A few users said rebooting their TV or router worked, but others said they tried that, as well as a factory reset, without any resolution.

Roku has been aware of the problem for some time, as a Roku forum moderator has been writing back to forum posters since at least last week, asking for information about their devices like the serial number, Roku device model, device ID, and software OS version.

With no official fix yet available, Roku has been forced to roll back the update for some of its users by downgrading their devices to software version 10.0.0. But this option hasn’t been automatically deployed to all customers. Instead, forum members said a Roku representative had privately messaged them with instructions after they shared their device information.

And, as of last week, users were being asked to private message a Roku employee with their device information to receive the downgrade, indicating the fix is being handled on a one-off basis for the time being. This process is frustrating some Roku customers who think a broader rollback should be underway at this point.

The issues arrive at a time when many U.S. consumers will be taking time off from work over the Thanksgiving holidays — meaning they have a lot more time for watching TV. Tuning into NFL football, for example, is part of the Thanksgiving tradition, but live streaming apps like Sling TV and Hulu are among those impacted by the software issues.

A representative for Roku was reached for comment this afternoon but didn’t yet have a statement available.

Later in the day, Roku shared the following comment with TechCrunch:

A small portion of users that have certain older Roku TV models or older Roku Ultra players are experiencing issues with the latest firmware update, OS 10.5. We are actively investigating and working to resolve this as quickly as possible, and will provide our customers with real-time updates [on our website at support.roku.com/contactus and on twitter at @RokuSupport].

 

Walmart will be the first retailer to test Twitter’s new livestream shopping platform

Twitter’s e-commerce initiatives now include livestream shopping and Walmart will be the first retailer to test the new platform. Over the past year, Walmart has invested in live shopping by hosting events across social platforms like TikTok and YouTube, and soon it will debut Twitter’s first-ever shoppable livestream. On November 28, Walmart will kick off a Cyber Deals live event on Twitter, where users will be able to watch a live broadcast, shop the featured products, and join the conversation around the event by posting tweets.

The livestream will begin at 7 PM ET on Nov. 28, 2021, and will allow Walmart customers to shop from Twitter as well as a number of other platforms, including Walmart.com/live, and the retailer’s Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube accounts. Musician-turned-creator Jason Derulo will host the livestream where he’ll introduce the audience to deals in electronics, home goods, apparel, seasonal décor, and more during a 30-minute variety show. Surprise special guests will also drop in, says Walmart.

Image Credits: Walmart

Walmart has been broadening its support for livestream shopping throughout 2021. It hosted its first shoppable livestream last December when it worked with TikTok on its Holiday Shop-Along Spectacular event, shortly after its planned investment in the video app fell through. (Walmart was interested in a deal for TikTok following Trump’s executive order that would have forced a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations. But Trump’s order was blocked by the courts.)

That first TikTok live event proved successful, Walmart said at the time, having delivered 7x more views than had been anticipated. It also helped Walmart grow its TikTok follower base by 25%. Though the retailer didn’t detail the sales revenue the event delivered, it ran a second TikTok livestream shopping event just a few months later.

While Walmart’s bid for TikTok had signaled the retailer’s interest in live, social e-commerce, it saw potential outside of TikTok, as well. Over the past year, Walmart expanded livestream shopping tests to include other platforms. To date, Walmart has hosted more than 15 livestream events across five platforms, including its own website.

Those live commerce initiatives will now include Twitter, which is today revealing its new livestream shopping platform to the public.

Twitter says the Walmart Cyber Deals livestream will serve as the initial test of Live Shopping on Twitter in the U.S.

Image Credits: Twitter

This new platform expands upon Twitter’s existing shopping products and livestream capabilities.

It will include a live broadcast that streams at the top of a Live Event page, followed by a Shoppable Banner and Shop Tab where the products shown in the livestream are featured. Twitter users will be able to toggle back and forth between the “Lastest” tab and the “Shop” tab during the event as they preview the products. When consumers want to make a purchase, they’re directed to the retailer’s website within an in-app browser where the livestream will continue to be broadcast. That way, users won’t miss anything during checkout, Twitter says.

At the bottom of the Live Event page, there’s also a text box where consumers can tweet about the livestream with a suggested hashtag.

“We are honored to have Walmart onboard as the first-ever brand to host a Live Shopping event on Twitter. Walmart is renowned for bringing customers an immersive look into their products and we are excited to bring this experience onto Twitter with them, while helping them reach their business objectives,” said Sarah Personette, Chief Customer Officer at Twitter, in a statement.  “This is just the first of many Live Shopping events we hope brands will be able to bring to market, and we can’t wait for people to watch, chat, and shop — all through Twitter,” she added.

Image Credits: Twitter

The livestream shopping platform builds on Twitter’s earlier tests of a Shop Module, launched in July, that gave brands, businesses, and retailers a way to showcase their products directly on their Twitter profiles. The test was meant to better understand if there was demand for shopping on Twitter, and had included a handful of pilot partners like gaming retailer GameStop and travel brand Arden Cove, among others.

Walmart said it was interested in testing Twitter’s new capabilities because it consistently sees high returns across top- and middle-of-funnel content on Twitter’s platform, which makes it a natural next step for Walmart’s explorations into social commerce.

The new Twitter livestream event represents the start of a bigger push into live shopping over the 2021 holiday season for Walmart. The company says it has over 30 shoppable livestream events planned across eight social and media platforms, including BuyWith, BuzzFeed, Facebook, IGN, TalkShopLive, Tasty, Twitter, and YouTube. (TikTok was not listed, but Walmart told us it’s working closely with the TikTok team on future shoppable livestreams.)

“Twitter continues to be an important platform for Walmart’s business and our customers,” said William White, Chief Marketing Officer at Walmart U.S. “We’ve been focused on charting new territory in shoppable livestreams and are excited to celebrate an important milestone together with the first Livestream Shopping event on Twitter. We’re meeting customers where they are and making it easier to shop incredible deals and find inspiration through dynamic, interactive experiences. We look forward to continuing to bring engaging experiences to our customers that allow them to shop seamlessly while also being entertained,” he added.

Following the initial test of Live Shopping with Walmart, Twitter says it will start testing a new way to house merchant onboarding and product catalog management tools through an interface called the “Twitter Shopping Manager.” This will simplify the process of getting started with Shopping on Twitter, the company says. It also plans to make the Shop Module available to more retailers over the coming weeks.

Twitter told TechCrunch it doesn’t take a cut of the e-commerce revenues delivered through Live Shopping nor are brands paying to be included. But offering live shopping on Twitter could entice more users to join the platform, which has historically struggled with growing consumer adoption.

The live event will be available on Twitter on iOS and desktop in the U.S., starting on Nov. 28th at 7 PM ET/4 PM PT.

Sudowrite’s powerful tools puts writer’s block on notice once and for all

The skyline of the city is a mass of brightly lit office buildings, industrial factories and skyscrapers, the endless hash of lights and shadows making the night seem as if it is teeming with life. Within that urban jungle, we find Amit Gupta, our dastardly hero. He smelled of fresh laundry, hair gel and a faint aroma of peppermint. His suit was a silken blend of powerful cologne and a soft, warm scent of leather and musk. His woolly hat was of a bright hue of burnt ochre. His necktie was of a darker hue of pink. The startup founder’s skin is soft and warm like a newborn baby. He has a strong handshake and a gentle demeanor. His conviction runs deep. The company? Sudowrite. The co-founder? James Yu, who also founded Parse and later sold it to Facebook. The investors? An impressive list of angels. The dollar amount? $3 million.

In the midst of the urban cacophony and an immense symphony of sounds, the sounds of traffic, the sounds of kids playing, the sounds of televisions, of radio, of fire alarms, of police sirens, of mumbling drunks, he received a piece of blood-curdling news. Amit was diagnosed with leukemia, and his life was utterly upended. It was time to take stock, and really examine what was important for him. He took a breath — was he on borrowed time, or was this merely a wake-up call?

Asking Sudowrite to describe what a startup is had me laughing so hard I was gasping for air. Truly, a magical experience. Screenshots: Sudowrite

Gone was the dream of running his existing startup, Photojojo, which was known for its drone rentals, strange photography accessories and creative photo-mounting ideas. He sold it, and ended up spending some time trying to figure out what to do next. The money he got from the sale of his company was no thicker than a thin black leaf, curled like the wings of the devil, thin as paper, thin as smoke, thin as silk; it felt like spider webs.

If the first couple of paragraphs of this article seem weird, that’s because I used the Sudowrite tool to write a bunch of descriptions. It’s hilarious — but also an incredibly powerful tool. Do they make sense? Not always, but that’s not the point — the tool isn’t meant to replace writers completely, but to help summarize or expand, or to spark the creative juices that sometimes are lacking in the writing process. With that in mind — as you can read from the completely bonkers beginnings of this article — it works fantastically well.

“I sold Photojojo in 2014 after being sick and kind of going through some soul searching. I left Silicon Valley completely and did some travel. I did all these things on my bucket list. At some point, it was five years out from the transplant, which meant that like I probably wasn’t going to die of leukemia,” Amit Gupta, founder and CEO of Sudowrite told me. “And then I was like — well, what do I do with my life? I was coaching for a while. And then I ended up writing science fiction for the past several years and getting really into that. It was really fun, and something very new for me, starting all the way at the bottom and clawing my way up.”

In his journey as a science fiction writer, Gupta ran into an issue many writers experience: Writer’s block. It shouldn’t be this hard to write, should it?

“I think Sudowrite solves multiple problems, and I think the specifics are different for every writer. One of the problems I discovered with writing was that it is very solitary. Coming from the startup world where everything is very collaborative. It felt very lonely to be sitting at the keyboard, hitting my head against the desk whenever I got stuck in having no outlet except for my once-a-week reading group which may or may not be able to help. I think our first impulse was, can we create something that acts like a creative partner sitting next to you, so that when you’re stuck you can turn to them and say, ‘I can’t figure this out? This isn’t working, like give me ideas.’ That was the original impulse,” Gupta explains.

The founders, Amit Gupta and James Yu, are found on the peak of a mountain. They have been known to grow to a size just a little larger than a typical house cat. A hodgepodge of human skeletons lay huddled together in the dirt, their eye sockets staring blankly at the sky, nestled in a pile that looks more like a rubbish heap than a grave. The founders gather their wits, shaking the muck from their clogs and steeling themselves for battle. They can hear the dragon breathing down on them. Photo – and image caption – by Sudowrite. We did not fact-check the caption for accuracy.

“We wanted to give you someone who’s almost as good as a human reading partner, to bounce ideas off of. Beyond that, I think as we talked to users, especially people in the entertainment industry such as screenwriters, we discovered there was a specific need. They have a lot of rote tasks that they don’t like doing: they might have a screenplay they’ve written and they might need to generate a one-page treatment, a three-page treatment, etc. It’s all very specific industry stuff, but it’s pretty easy for an AI to do. It’s not very creative work, and a tool like Sudowrite saves them hours and hours of the worst kind of work that they have to do. I think there’s a lot of opportunities like that, but the core product is really about inspiration provocation, helping you stay in flow.”

Inviting Sudowrite to get creative with one of the lines in this article shows how an AI can take a simple sentence and wrestle it into a few different shapes — more description, more inner conflict, or (my least favorite of all time), brevity. Screenshots from the Sudowrite app.

Gupta was trying to fight off the loneliness of writers with a Sci-Fi writing group, where he met his co-founder, ex-Parse founder James Yu. Together they built an early version of the app built on GPT-3, started getting some paid customers, and decided to raise some funds.

“We started thinking we’d raise about $1 million just to get this off the ground. We ended up raising $3 million, almost entirely from individual investors. That was by design: We wanted to have people who were willing to allow us to experiment at our own pace and try some like weird stuff, without the pressure of doing the startup / VC treadmill,” explains Gupta.

The company’s list of angel investors is incredibly impressive, and includes Medium and Twitter founder Ev Williams, Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia, Parse founder Kevin Lacker, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and Rotten Tomatoes founder Patrick Lee. The cap table also includes an impressive who-is-who from the entertainment world, including Big Fish and Aladdin screenwriter John August, Bourne Ultimatum and Oceans Twelve writer/director George Nolfi, and many more.

The company currently has between 300 and 400 users, paying around $20 per month for the platform. The fundraising round enabled the founding team to extend the team a little.

“The primary thing this fundraise unlocks for us is to be able to hire. We hired our first machine learning person, our first developer and a lead designer. Those are the first three roles we just closed, and we’ll probably keep the team at that size for a while as we hit our stride,” explains Gupta. “Our users all came from word of mouth, and cover a wide range. We have people who are writing novels or screenplays. Some of our users are creating Substack newsletters. We have users who write for their occupation. But we have some unusual use cases too: A rabbi who uses Sudowrite to make parables, and someone who uses the tool to write meditations. We also have users who create roleplaying games. We have a very broad appeal,”

Sudowrite is currently in a closed beta. You can join the waitlist on its website. Below, I’m embedding a video demo Gupta recorded. It’s a few months old, but it gives a bit more of an idea what the tool is and how it works.

 

Solving entertainment’s globalization problem with AI and ML

The recent controversy surrounding the mistranslations found in the Netflix hit “Squid Game” and other films highlights technology’s challenges when releasing content that bridges languages and cultures internationally.

Every year across the global media and entertainment industry, tens of thousands of movies and TV episodes exhibited on hundreds of streaming platforms are released with the hope of finding an audience among 7.2 billion people living in nearly 200 countries. No audience is fluent in the roughly 7,000 recognized languages. If the goal is to release the content internationally, subtitles and audio dubs must be prepared for global distribution.

Known in the industry as “localization,” creating “subs and dubs” has, for decades, been a human-centered process, where someone with a thorough understanding of another language sits in a room, reads a transcript of the screen dialogue, watches the original language content (if available) and translates it into an audio dub script. It is not uncommon for this step to take several weeks per language from start to finish.

Once the translations are complete, the script is then performed by voice actors who make every effort to match the action and lip movements as closely as possible. Audio dubs follow the final cut dialogue, and then subtitles are generated from each audio dub. Any compromise made in the language translation may, then, be subjected to further compromise in the production of subtitles. It’s easy to see where mistranslations or changes in a story can occur.

The most conscientious localization process does include some level of cultural awareness because some words, actions or contexts are not universally translatable. For this purpose, the director of the 2019 Oscar-winning film “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho, sent detailed notes to his translation team before they began work. Bong and others have pointed out that limitations of time, available screen space for subtitles, and the need for cultural understanding further complicate the process. Still, when done well, they contribute to higher levels of enjoyment of the film.

The exponential growth of distribution platforms and the increasing and continuous flow of fresh content are pushing those involved in the localization process to seek new ways to speed production and increase translation accuracy. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are highly anticipated answers to this problem, but neither has reached the point of replacing the human localization component. Directors of titles such as “Squid Game” or “Parasite” are not yet ready to make that leap. Here’s why.

Culture matters

First, literal translation is incapable of catching 100% of the story’s linguistic, cultural or contextual nuance included in the script, inflection or action. AI companies themselves admit to these limitations, commonly referring to machine-based translations as “more like dictionaries than translators,” and remind us that computers are only capable of doing what we teach them while stating they lack understanding.

For example, the English title of the first episode of “Squid Game” is “Red Light, Green Light.” This refers to the name of the children’s game played in the first episode. The original Korean title is “무궁화 꽃이 피던 날” (“Mugunghwa Kkoch-I Pideon Nal”), which directly translates as “The Day the Mugunghwa Bloomed,” which has nothing to do with the game they’re playing.

In Korean culture, the title symbolizes new beginnings, which is the game’s protagonists’ promise to the winner. “Red Light, Green Light” is related to the episode, but it misses the broader cultural reference of a promised fresh start for people down on their luck — a significant theme of the series. Some may believe that naming the episode after the game played because the cultural metaphor of the original title is unknown to the translators may not be a big deal, but it is.

How can we expect to train machines to recognize these differences and apply them autonomously when humans don’t make the connection and apply them themselves?

Knowing versus knowledge

It’s one thing for a computer to translate Korean into English. It is another altogether for it to have knowledge about relationship differences like those in “Squid Game” — between immigrants and natives, strangers and family members, employees and bosses — and how those relationships impact the story. Programming cultural understanding and emotional recognition into AI is challenging enough, especially if those emotions are displayed without words, such as a look on someone’s face. Even then, it is hard to predict emotional facial response that may change with culture.

AI is still a work in progress as it relates to explainability, interpretability and algorithmic bias. The idea that machines will self-train themselves is far-fetched given where the industry stands concerning executing AI/ML. For a content-heavy, creative industry like media and entertainment, context is everything; there is the content creator’s expression of context, and then there is the audience’s perception of it.

Moreover, with respect to global distribution, context equals culture. A digital nirvana is achieved when a system can orchestrate and predict the audio, video and text in addition to the multiple layers of cultural nuance that are at play at any given frame, scene, theme and genre level. At the core, it all starts with good-quality training data — essentially, taking a data-centric approach versus a model-centric one.

Recent reports indicate Facebook catches only 3% to 5% of problematic content on its platform. Even with millions of dollars available for development, programming AI to understand context and intent is very hard to do. Fully autonomous translation solutions are some ways off, but that doesn’t mean AI/ML cannot reduce the workload today. It can.

Through analysis of millions of films and TV shows combined with the cultural knowledge of individuals from nearly 200 countries, a two-step human and AI/ML process can provide the detailed insights needed to identify content that any country or culture may find objectionable. In “culturalization,” this cultural roadmap is then used in the localization process to ensure story continuity, avoid cultural missteps and obtain global age ratings — all of which reduce post-production time and costs without regulatory risk.

Audiences today have more content choices than ever before. Winning in the global marketplace means content creators have to pay more attention to their audience, not just at home but in international markets.

The fastest path to success for content creators and streaming platforms is working with companies that understand local audiences and what matters to them so their content is not lost in translation.

New app Snax combines short-form movies with interactive games

Short-form video apps have seen major successes, like TikTok, as well as dramatic failures, like Quibi. Now, a new app called Snax wants to offer a twist on the popular vertical video format by giving users a way to not just watch mini-movies on their mobile devices, but also interact with them. The subscription streaming service in Snax includes a growing catalog of original movies which combine traditional storytelling elements with interactive gaming. Users may be asked to solve a puzzle to help move the story forward, look for clues in a murder mystery scene, make a choice for the characters in a choose-your-own-adventure mode, engage with 360-degree video elements, and more.

The idea for this new type of interactive movie experience comes from the Paris-based app developers at Marmelapp, co-founded by Alan Keiss, Stéphane Fort, and Jérôme Boé. To date, the company has launched 15 apps totaling over 30 million downloads and generates double-digits millions (in euros) per year across its apps.

Marmelapp’s more recent titles include the party game Picolo and the text-based choose-your-own-adventure app Blaze. The latter actually served as the starting point for Snax, we’re told.

“We really enjoyed [Blaze] and got some great feedback. We developed and published 75 original stories on there,” explains Snax’s Head of Content, James Davies. “That was actually quite a lot content because, with all the branching paths, we had multiple endings,” he notes. The team later realized that Blaze could be a lot more fun if it included more than just text — like mini-films to go along with its stories. They initially thought to try to incorporate that concept into Blaze, but it became too complicated.

“It became pretty clear to us that it needed to be a separate project,”  Davies says. That’s how, around 18 months ago, Snax began its development.

Image Credits: Snax

Today, the app features a collection of bite-sized movies (hence the name “Snax) which are meant to be watched as vertical videos. Each episode lasts about 3 to 5 minutes long, and includes stopping points where the user is meant to engage with the content in some way. They may need to solve a puzzle or a brain teaser. They may need to make a choice or find a hidden item in the room. They may need to text with a character. And so on. (Don’t worry, if you’re stumped, there is a “hint” option.)

Users will sometimes do more than just tap on a choice. For example, in one murder mystery movie, you’re presented with a text box where you write in your answer, freeform. To make this feature work, Snax developed a database of possible answers and their potential misspellings, so it would be able to determine when the user got it right.

Image Credits: Snax

The movies themselves are also higher-production quality than you might expect from an entertainment app like this.

Snax explains its seven-person team handles script development and adding the interactive features, but works with professional filmmakers and partnered production companies to create the video content. Currently, these shoots cost in the ballpark of $100,000 euros per project, but Snax is working to streamline production costs by filming more series back-to-back with the same team on different scripts.

Image Credits: Snax

The filmmakers don’t share in the subsequent subscription revenue the app generates, but are paid upfront. At launch, Snax is charging $4.99/week, $8.49/mo, or $47.99/year for its subscription service. (You can watch a couple of episodes for free to try it out, though).

The company began by offering Snax in France earlier this year, but just introduced the app to English-speaking audiences in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia in October. For now, the app features French movies that are dubbed in English, but the long-term strategy is to now start producing content in the English language as well as Spanish.

Since its launch, about half of Snax user base is now in an English-language market and the team expects this to rise to as much as 90% in the near future.

Snax users tend to be young, in the 18 to 24-year-old age demographic, and evenly split between male and female. So far, Snax has found that U.S. users, in particular, seem to be more engaged with talking about and sharing the app, and with the app’s content.

“We noticed that American men and women are a lot more engaged in the content than French users — the uptake of people completing episodes or completing stories…is considerably higher than it has been in France,” says Davies. “That means we need to be producing things for a North American audience.

While some of its earlier movies were with unknown actors, Snax is now ramping up production with higher-profile stars in France, including France’s third-largest YouTuber Norman, actor and comedian Ludovik, and actor Bastien Ughetto. It plans to do more of this as it expands in the U.S.

Snax is now working on adding more variety to its interactions to make them more exciting and more involved. It’s also further developing its own internal software used for formatting its scripts.

Marmelapp plans to spin out Snax as its own company in 2022, and may consider fundraising at that time.

Hulu launches its own online shop, with ugly holiday sweaters and other merch

This summer, Netflix launched its own shopping site that allowed fans to purchase apparel, accessories and other lifestyle products from their favorite shows, like “Stranger Things.” Now, Hulu is doing the same thing. The Disney-owned streamer announced the launch of Shop Hulu, which will feature limited-edition collections of apparel and lifestyle products from Hulu Originals and other titles in the company’s on-demand library, as well as Hulu-branded swag. The site will also make Hulu’s annual release of its “Ugly Holiday Sweaters” available for purchase for the first time.

Hulu began giving away its ugly sweaters to random fans as a promotional perk in 2019. The giveaway was popular enough that Hulu turned it into a sweepstakes event last year, giving everyone a chance to win one of the sweaters, which had then featured Hulu shows like “Little Fires Everywhere,” “Shrill,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and others.

Its 2021 selection of holiday sweaters will be available for purchase starting on Tuesday, November 30.

This year, the lineup includes “Love, Victor,” “Solar Opposites,” “The Great,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” many of which had proved popular in previous years. However, unlike Netflix — which invested in its online store as a new arm of its broader retail business — Hulu’s leading product line is designed to raise funds for charity. Through December 31, 100% of the purchase price from the sale of the Ugly Holiday Sweater collection, minus taxes and shipping fees, is being donated to Feeding America, says Hulu.

In the fine print, the company notes it’s capping its donation at 1,000 sweaters, which is $54,950.

Image Credits: Hulu

Hulu’s shop will continue to feature other products throughout the year, outside its charitable fundraising initiative for the holidays.

Fans of “Solar Opposites” will be able to shop apparel, glassware, stickers, and more as the show’s holiday special premieres on November 22. The collection was designed in collaboration with Executive Producers Mike McMahan, Justin Roiland, and Josh Bycel, the company says.

Also available are household items and apparel from shows like “The Orville,” “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” (select items from the capsule collection from Mitchell & Ness are available), and themed merchandise from acquired shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “American Horror Story,” and “What We Do In The Shadows,” among others.

Hulu will offer shoppers a discount for signing up for its newsletter and plans to make special offers available throughout the year, starting with Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Spotify finally rolls out real-time lyrics to global users

After years of ignoring consumer demand for in-app lyrics, particularly in the U.S., Spotify announced today it will make a new Lyrics feature available to all global users, both Free and Premium, across platforms. The feature is powered by lyrics provider Musixmatch, and expands on a prior deal Spotify had with the company to offer lyrics to users in India, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Last year, Spotify introduced real-time lyrics that sync to the music to users in 26 worldwide markets, after initially testing the feature in 2019. This was the first time 22 of the 26 markets had ever gained any form of lyrics support, the company said at the time. That deal later expanded to 28 markets. Spotify users in Japan have also had access to lyrics through a standalone deal with SyncPower.

But users in other markets have only had access to “Behind the Lyrics,” a feature launched in 2016 in partnership with Genius which offered lyrics interspersed with trivia about the song, its meaning, the artist and other commentary. Meanwhile, through Spotify’s community feedback forum, thousands of users over the years expressed to the company they would prefer a feature that provided real-time lyrics, instead of lyrics that are interrupted with facts and other background information.

Those users will now get their wish.

Spotify confirmed to TechCrunch it will be sunsetting “Behind the Lyrics” to make way for the new Lyrics feature.

Lyrics will be available across platforms from the “Now Playing” view or bar, depending on the platform.

On mobile, users can swipe up from the “Now Playing” screen to see the track’s lyrics scroll by in real time as the song is playing. On the desktop app, you can click the microphone icon from the “Now Playing” bar instead. And on the Spotify TV app, you’ll navigate to the top-right corner of the “Now Playing” view to enable Lyrics from the lyrics button.

The company says the feature will be available on the big screen via its app for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung, Roku, LG, Sky and Comcast.

The new feature also offers built-in sharing from an included button on the bottom of the screen on mobile, which allows users to select the lyrics they want to share and the destination.

There is no difference in the Lyrics experience for Free or Premium users, we’re told.

Real-time lyrics on music apps have had a complicated history. When lyrics aren’t provided by music publishers, companies turn to a third-party provider. But those providers don’t always play fair. Google, for example, was accused by Genius in 2019 for plagiarizing its lyrics collection, which Genius tracked by cleverly embedding secret codes into its lyrics to spell out “red-handed.” Those lyrics later appeared in Google.com search results. But Google said the blame was with its partner, LyricFind. It didn’t drop its partnership, as there are few alternatives for major lyrics deals — the companies tend to work with either Genius, LyricFind or Musixmatch (or a combination).

That’s why it made headlines when Apple in 2018 announced a partnership with Genius for lyrics across thousands of its top songs, and two years later became the exclusive web player for Genius. Among other services, Pandora says it works with LyricFind and Amazon works with both LyricFind and Musixmatch, its website states.

With this expansion, Lyrics will now be available in all markets where Spotify is offered, eliminating one of the big competitive advantages these rivals have over Spotify.

The company says Lyrics will begin rolling out globally starting today.