Technology

The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

Category: Disney

Consumer Electronics Show: USC group helps shape future of entertainment

Usc Entertainment executives who can’t attend the Consumer Electronics Show can get a virtual eyeful of the technology that is shaping the industry courtesy of an innovative online project undertaken by the University of Southern California.

USC’s Entertainment Technology Center for the last three years has sent a team of multimedia reporters to Las Vegas to highlight products of interest to companies such as Disney, Sony and 20th Century Fox. The goal is to deliver in-depth, real-time product analysis to executives’ desktops before the rest of the herd gets on board.

But don’t worry, members of the public also can log in to Flickr to see a lightweight version of the industrial reportage featuring photos of products that could in the future affect their entertainment viewing habits.  They can also view more information here

The idea behind it, explained David Wertheimer, the CEO and Executive Director of USC’s Entertainment Technology Center, is “to help studios and technology companies who are interested in where entertainment is going, how it’s changing, and distill and deliver the information to executives and people at all levels of a company.”

The team of a dozen reporters attends product launches and panel discussions, and scours the show floor for products that could capture the imagination of the ETC’s corporate membership, which also includes Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Paramount and LucasFilm. 

Company executives, Wertheimer said, may be too busy attending meetings at the show to get that information firsthand, or could still be at their desks in Los Angeles or New York.  Information delivered to executives includes product analyses, pictures and video posted to a blog, a daily email, and further information posted to Twitter and Facebook. 
 
Products most of interest to the ETC’s reporters this year include Internet and 3D TVs, “sidecar” boxes that can deliver Internet apps or Netflix and Hulu to a TV set, and the burgeoning tablet PC industry.  Wertheimer sees apps based on Google’s Android platform as particularly noteworthy, alongside gestural interfaces. 

“We’ve learned that people really value contextual information. The great thing about what we do is we don’t just report, ‘Here’s a great cool new thing.’ You can get that at other places. We supply people in the entertainment business with what products are interesting and how they can be used to shape the business.

“Over time we’ve gotten good at targeting the way we describe products and keeping it short and to the point.” 

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— Craig Howie

Photos: Taken from Entertainment Technology Center using ng Connect LTE Connected Camera.

 

 

Disney in talks to buy social games company Playdom

Walt Disney Co. is in discussions to buy game developer Playdom Inc. for as much as $750 million, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The Hollywood entertainment giant wants to get into social and mobile games to market its shows and characters.

Playdom has scheduled a board meeting next week to decide whether to accept the buyout offer, the people said. The two sides have been negotiating for more than two months.

"I'm pretty sure it's going to happen. The money is pretty big," said one person. But, he cautioned, there is still a chance the deal will fall apart.

Playdom is concerned about the amount of risk that Disney wants it to shoulder, the person said.

L.A. investment banker Michael Montgomery said Playdom offers Disney strong leadership, opportunity for growth and a toehold in a hot market that is shaking up the multibillion-dollar gaming industry.

The Mountain View, Calif., gaming company plays second fiddle to Zynga Game Network Inc. in the red-hot and increasingly crowded space of social games that are played on Facebook and elsewhere. These games have developed a significant following, generating revenue from advertising and virtual goods. Last year Electronic Arts Inc. bought Zynga rival Playfish for more than $300 million.

Zynga, led by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Marc Pincus, is the hottest start-up in Silicon Valley, on track to generate $835 million in revenue this year and contemplating an initial public offering. Internet giant Google Inc. is rumored to have invested in Zynga, with which it is exploring a partnership.

Disney is already an investor in Playdom through its venture capital fund, Steamboat Ventures, and recently participated in a $33-million financing round. Playdom, which has raised a total of $76 million, has itself has been on a buying spree: It's been snapping up game studios to compete with Zynga, which it trails in users and in revenue.

Disney recently bought Tapulous, which makes music-related games for Apple Inc.’s iPod and iPad. Its ESPN sports cable channel announced a deal with Playdom in May.

Technology blog TechCrunch first reported the acquisition talks, causing a stir in Silicon Valley. Playdom and Disney could not be reached for comment.

-- Jessica Guynn

IPhone, iPad games fly under the radar at E3 2010

 

Apple's iPhone and iPad could be seen throughout the Los Angeles Convention Center during the E3 video game expo last week. Just not on display in most booths.

The touchscreen phones were in the hands of text-message-happy attendees and exhibit staffers. Ardent bloggers working to hastily document and broadcast every detail on the show floor carried iPad tablets under their arms.

These devices are extensions of many people's daily lives, but at a conference geared toward game-industry insiders, Apple's hardware is far from sexy.

Of the many game publishers at E3 that sell games on Apple's App Store, we found just one with any sort of formal display for the iPhone and iPad. That was Walt Disney Co. -- which, by the way, has a seat on its board for Apple chief Steve Jobs.

Several iPad and iPod Touch units (they can play nearly all iPhone apps) sat on a pair of small tables positioned in corners of Disney's booth, overshadowed by large rooms showing Epic Mickey and Tron: Evolution on consoles.

"In their overall budget we're much smaller, but I think it's something that Disney really sees as big and growing," said Disney Mobile's Tom Smith. "They want to be there. They want to be showing all of these great brands on these great devices."

Continue reading »

Twitter tests new Promoted Trends feature with 'Toy Story 3' from Disney's Pixar

Twitter is testing a new potential money-making feature: Promoted Trends. The first promotion is “Toy Story 3” from Disney’s Pixar.

Twitter, which allows advertisers to insert messages into users’ streams through a program called Promoted Tweets, is also exploring the idea of selling its trending feature, which highlights topics popular with its users.

The concept is simple: Advertisers insert their own trend to display on users’ home pages. A big yellow box alerts users that the topic is promoted, not organic. If you click on the link, it takes you to a search results page to see what people are saying about the film.

“As we have always said, we plan to test different advertising and promotional models in these early stages of our monetization efforts. As part of this effort, today we began testing Promoted Trends, which is an extension of our Promoted Tweets platform,” a Twitter spokeswoman said. “These Promoted Trends initially appear at the bottom of the Trending Topics list on Twitter and are clearly marked ‘Promoted.’ As conversations about the topic increase, Promoted Trends may move up the list.”

-- Jessica Guynn

Disney joins rush to embrace Apple's iPad

Jobs-ipad When Walt Disney chief Bob Iger attended Apple Inc.'s unveiling of the new iPad two weeks ago in San Francisco, it seemed only a matter of time before content deals were announced.

Iger told Wall Street investors during Disney's earnings call Tuesday that the Burbank entertainment conglomerate plans to develop casual games and other forms of entertainment for the portable device, including digital books and a new and improved version of ESPN's ScoreCenter app on the iPhone, which provides real-time sores for more than 500 sports leagues around the world. 

"We find that the iPad has a lot of potential," Iger said. "We think it's a really compelling device. We think it could be a game-changer in terms of enabling us to create essentially new forms of content."

The iPad is a tablet-style computer that can display movies and television shows and Web videos, playing video games as well as books and newspapers. Iger said the quality of the 10-inch screen and its wireless Internet access open the door to a different kind of content than would be found on a computer or Internet-connected TV. Its speedier processor make it a more technically robust development platform than even the iPhone, he said.

Fans of an ABC program like "Lost" would be able to do more than merely watch the show on the iPad, Iger noted, and a new digital books initiative from Disney's Publishing Group could incorporate features such as singalong songs or simple animations.

"ESPN ScoreCenter, which is a great app on the iPhone and provides relatively rudimentary information scores basically," Iger said. "Suddenly we have an opportunity with a platform where you can make the scores come to life. We’re thinking about it in those terms."

Disney was the first of the major studios to sell television shows through Apple's iTunes store.

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

Apple Inc. CEO and Disney shareholder Steve Jobs announces the new iPad as he speaks during an Apple Special Event on Jan. 27 in San Francisco. (Credit: Ryan Anson / AFP/Getty Images)

Disney offers KeyChest, but where is the KeyMaster?

Disney, KeyChest, DRM, digital movies, online movies, DECE A day after the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem announced its latest milestones, Disney provided a slick demonstration of the alternative it's developing to promote online movie distribution. Dubbed KeyChest, it has a lot in common with DECE -- both attempt to make legal movie downloads more appealing to consumers, in part by solving the problems caused by the incompatible anti-piracy technologies used by various online retailers (e.g., Apple, CinemaNow, Amazon, Microsoft and Sony) and device makers. They also would create a way to make legal downloads more valuable by giving consumers more options for watching the movies they buy and more assurance that their purchases won't be rendered obsolete by changing technology.

The main difference is that Disney decided to put the KeyChest system together first and look for partners later. That's why its technology is fully baked, while the DECE consortium is still trying to nail down key details.

The demonstration was impressive ...

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Hollywood's content ecosystem moves a few steps closer to launch

DECE logo The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, an inter-industry effort to set open technical standards for selling movies and TV shows online, announced yet more incremental progress today. The group disclosed that it had settled on a common file format (a version of H.264), chosen a company to build a crucial online storage service (Neustar) and settled on five DRM technologies (from Adobe, Intertrust, Microsoft and Widevine, plus the mobile phone industry's OMA V2). Oh and yes, it announced a whole bunch more participants. The group now includes every major Hollywood studio except Disney, all the major consumer electronics and cable set-top manufacturers, a few top PC and mobile-phone companies (but not, ahem, Apple) and a couple of big retailers (Best Buy and Tesco).

The technical accomplishments announced today were necessary but not sufficient for DECE-compliant products to start rolling out. DECE President (and Sony Pictures exec) Mitch Singer said in an interview that the group still has to "finalize" its specifications, a process that he expects to be completed "in the next few months." No disrespect to Singer, but based on the DECE's efforts thus far, I wouldn't be surprised if a few months stretches into next year.

And that's the problem. DECE is trying to make legitimate digital distribution more appealing than it is today, and more competitive with illegal sources online. Its goals are compelling -- enabling people to watch the videos they buy anywhere they go, on any device they own -- but they're predicated on a couple of assumptions that seem to be losing validity with each passing day.

First, the DECE system seems geared toward increasing the sale of downloadable movies by improving the value proposition (both for the consumer and the retailer). And it certainly would do that for people who have multiple DECE-compliant devices -- for example, an Internet-connected Blu-ray player, a laptop and a WiFi-enabled portable video player. But those same devices can make their owners less interested in owning movies and more interested in streaming them on demand from a well-stocked online library. The only advantage that ownership conveys today over renting is that some studios delay their online rentals for a few weeks. That's not much of an advantage. Throw in the possibility of paying a flat monthly fee for viewing all you can stream, as Netflix does (albeit with a smaller selection of movies), and the incentive to buy a title drops even further.

It's worth noting that the number of movie rentals far outstrips the number of purchases, and that the former is rising slightly while the latter is trailing off. Check out this year-end report from Adams Media Research (courtesy of Variety's VideoBusiness.com) for the 2009 numbers. That's despite the fact that the online side of the home video business is still in its infancy.

Second, with Disney pursuing an alternative approach and Apple not interested in joining, DECE can't offer a comprehensive service. That makes the pitch more, err, nuanced -- "Watch most of the movies you buy, on most of your devices!" isn't exactly a stirring call to action.

The best hope for DECE is that it is already headed toward widespread availability based on the individual efforts of its members. For example, DivX and the tandem of Widevine and Sonic's CinemaNow already offer many of the benefits that DECE promises. When DECE's specs are settled, it will be easier for other companies to build on the pieces that DECE members have assembled on their own. And some enterprising company may devise a way to translate the infrastructure the DECE is building into a great on-demand video service that capitalizes on impulsive demand as well as Redbox does. But if the raison d'être for DECE is to persuade people to spend five to 10 times as much to buy a title as to rent one, it may already have run out of time.

Illustration courtesy of the DECE website.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey

Walt Disney, technologist [UPDATED]

Walt Disney
Walt Disney (front) in his backyard on a model train that he designed and named the Lilly Belle. The train will be part of the new Disney museum. Credit: Walt Disney Family Foundation.

Walt Disney — the man, not the company — was known for his imagination, his artistry and even his business acumen. But it turns out he also had a huge appetite for technology.

He pushed the envelope at his own firm, developing new gadgets to help in the making of his movies. He had a passion for the future, promoting ideas through places like his Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. And he often engaged with engineers from other companies, such as Ford Motor Co. and General Electric Co., particularly as he developed exhibits for the New York World’s Fair of 1964.

The geeky side of Disney is one of the elements that will be on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco when it opens in October.

Museum organizers — particularly Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, and his grandson and namesake, Walter E. Disney Miller — gave the press a preview today, showing off the state-of-the-art $110-million facility in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park.

The museum itself makes heavy use of modern processing power, from admissions to displays. To keep tight control of the number of visitors, the museum will sell tickets on the Web for specific times. One could just show up and buy a ticket, “but I wouldn’t recommend it,” executive director Richard Benefield said.

Inside, what Benefield called “every kind of monitor known to man” will be on the walls. And curators have taken advantage of 19 hours of recordings of Disney’s voice to provide a guided tour through his life — his childhood, his early work as a bankrupt cartoonist in Kansas City, Mo., and his most notable achievements, including the creation of Mickey Mouse, “Snow White” and “Fantasia” and his television and theme park operations.

Also on view will be a two-story multiplane camera that Disney used for such effects as rooftop shots in “Pinocchio” and an optical printer used to blend real-life characters with animation in “Mary Poppins.”

Although the museum is not formally affiliated with Walt Disney Co., the company has provided many artifacts and may even provide some technical expertise. After all, its Pixar animation unit is based right across the bay in Emeryville, and a Disney executive told Benefield that the company is stepping up volunteer efforts by employees.

The company even offered to help the museum teach animation classes, Benefield said.

A 110-seat theater in the museum’s lower reaches will open with a three-week screening of “Fantasia.” Later, for the 50th anniversary of "Sleeping Beauty," Disney plans to re-release the film, “and we’ll be showing it in Blu-Ray in our theater,” Benefield said.

Corrected 10:30 a.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Snow White's 50th anniversary would be celebrated this year. In fact, it will be Sleeping Beauty who will be celebrating her 50th anniversary in November.

-- Dan Fost

Rumors of Disney's new 'Tron' game: TR2N

Tronguy
Internet sensation Jay Maynard, a.k.a. the Tron Guy, at ROFL Con. (Photo credit: dantekgeek via Flickr)

Rumors are racing about a new video game based on the sequel to an old movie about a game. That could mean only one thing: "Tron" is coming back.

Disney is working on a film based on the 1982 science-fiction cult classic, and now Variety's Cut Scene blog reports that Disney Interactive Studios may be working on a Tron video game to accompany the movie.

If it happens, it wouldn't be terribly surprising. Movie-game tie-ins are pretty standard fare, and for a franchise based on the concept of gaming -- well, you get the picture.

You might think Disney Interactive's recent layoffs would throw a stick in the spokes, but Cut Scene says the tentatively titled TR2N will go ahead despite the company consolidations.

The film and game are expected to come out in 2011. But if you're eager to dive into the Tron world, why wait that long? There are plenty of copycats based on the Tron light cycles game.

For anyone who wasn't a geek in the '80s, those are the fictional motorcycles the film's characters rode in the virtual arena. Remember the Snake game on the old Nokia cellphones? It's a lot like that, but with many snakes zipping around.

This free online game, called FL Tron 2.0, will give you a better idea. Underground developers have ...

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Stan Lee, Walt Disney Studios launch "Time Jumper"

Stan Lee Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, X-Men and Iron Man, is revered as a superhero in his own right by comic book fans. Now he's rapidly becoming one of Hollywood's most wanted.

Lee's comic book creations have been box-office gold this summer, with "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk" grossing $313 million and $139 million, respectively. 

So, the Walt Disney Co. used the forum of Comic-Con, the annual comic book convention in San Diego, to announce that it was deepening its partnership with Stan Lee's POW Entertainment.

The home entertainment group will work with Lee on a new digital comic book, "Time Jumper." Readers can follow the exploits of a new crew of superheroes, however they choose: online, via mobile phone or old-fashioned comic book format. 

Time Jumper "Time Jumper" blends old-fashioned storytelling with technology that extends well beyond dialog and thought bubbles. In its digital form, it'll include music, voices and fast-paced story-boards.

Now for the geeky narrative details: "Time Jumper" follows the exploits of our hero, Terry Dixon, who is an agent of a secret government organization known as HUNT (short for Heroes United, Noble and True). He has a cellphone called The Articulus that has the one feature you can't get -- yet -- from Apple's iPhone: a time machine.

We wonder if it's possible to travel to a time where there are no dropped calls!

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

Chmielewski, a Times staff writer, covers the Walt Disney Co.

Top photo: Stan Lee. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press

Bottom photo: Time Jumper. Credit: Disney

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