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Main article: Digital media

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UK names its pick for social media ‘harms’ watchdog

15:05 | 12 February

The UK government has taken the next step in its grand policymaking challenge to tame the worst excesses of social media by regulating a broad range of online harms — naming the existing communications watchdog, Ofcom, as its preferred pick for enforcing rules around ‘harmful speech’ on platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in future.

Last April the previous Conservative-led government laid out populist but controversial proposals to legislate to lay a duty of care on Internet platforms — responding to growing public concern about the types of content kids are being exposed to online.

Its white paper covers a broad range of online content — from terrorism, violence and hate speech, to child exploitation, self-harm/suicide, cyber bullying, disinformation and age-inappropriate material — with the government setting out a plan to require platforms to take “reasonable” steps to protect their users from a range of harms.

However digital and civil rights campaigners warn the plan will have a huge impact on online speech and privacy, arguing it will put a legal requirement on platforms to closely monitor all users and apply speech-chilling filtering technologies on uploads in order to comply with very broadly defined concepts of harm — dubbing it state censorship. Legal experts are

.

The (now) Conservative majority government has nonetheless said it remains committed to the legislation.

Today it responded to some of the concerns being raised about the plan’s impact on freedom of expression, publishing a partial response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper, although a draft bill remains pending, with no timeline confirmed.

“Safeguards for freedom of expression have been built in throughout the framework,” the government writes in an executive summary. “Rather than requiring the removal of specific pieces of legal content, regulation will focus on the wider systems and processes that platforms have in place to deal with online harms, while maintaining a proportionate and risk-based approach.”

It says it’s planning to set a different bar for content deemed illegal vs content that has “potential to cause harm”, with the heaviest content removal requirements being planned for terrorist and child sexual exploitation content. Whereas companies will not be forced to remove “specific pieces of legal content”, as the government puts it.

Ofcom, as the online harms regulator, will also not be investigating or adjudicating on “individual complaints”.

“The new regulatory framework will instead require companies, where relevant, to explicitly state what content and behaviour they deem to be acceptable on their sites and enforce this consistently and transparently. All companies in scope will need to ensure a higher level of protection for children, and take reasonable steps to protect them from inappropriate or harmful content,” it writes.

“Companies will be able to decide what type of legal content or behaviour is acceptable on their services, but must take reasonable steps to protect children from harm. They will need to set this out in clear and accessible terms and conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently. The proposed approach will improve transparency for users about which content is and is not acceptable on different platforms, and will enhance users’ ability to challenge removal of content where this occurs.”

Another requirement will be that companies have “effective and proportionate user redress mechanisms” — enabling users to report harmful content and challenge content takedown “where necessary”.

“This will give users clearer, more effective and more accessible avenues to question content takedown, which is an important safeguard for the right to freedom of expression,” the government suggests, adding that: “These processes will need to be transparent, in line with terms and conditions, and consistently applied.”

Ministers say they have not yet made a decision on what kind of liability senior management of covered businesses may face under the planned law, nor on additional business disruption measures — with the government saying it will set out its final policy position in the Spring.

“We recognise the importance of the regulator having a range of enforcement powers that it uses in a fair, proportionate and transparent way. It is equally essential that company executives are sufficiently incentivised to take online safety seriously and that the regulator can take action when they fail to do so,” it writes.

It’s also not clear how businesses will be assessed as being in (or out of) scope of the regulation.

“Just because a business has a social media page that does not bring it in scope of regulation,” the government response notes. “To be in scope, a business would have to operate its own website with the functionality to enable sharing of user-generated content, or user interactions. We will introduce this legislation proportionately, minimising the regulatory burden on small businesses. Most small businesses where there is a lower risk of harm occurring will not have to make disproportionately burdensome changes to their service to be compliant with the proposed regulation.”

The government is clear in the response that Online harms remains “a key legislative priority”.

“We have a comprehensive programme of work planned to ensure that we keep momentum until legislation is introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows,” it writes, describing today’s response report “an iterative step as we consider how best to approach this complex and important issue” — and adding: “We will continue to engage closely with industry and civil society as we finalise the remaining policy.”

Incoming in the meanwhile the government says it’s working on a package of measures “to ensure progress now on online safety” — including interim codes of practice, including guidance for companies on tackling terrorist and child sexual abuse and exploitation content online; an annual government transparency report, which it says it will publish “in the next few months”; and a media literacy strategy, to support public awareness of online security and privacy.

It adds that it expects social media platforms to “take action now to tackle harmful content or activity on their services” — ahead of the more formal requirements coming in.

Facebook-owned Instagram has come in for high level pressure from ministers over how it handles content promoting self-harm and suicide after the media picked up on a campaign by the family of a schoolgirl who killed herself after been exposed to Instagram content encouraging self-harm.

Instagram subsequently announced changes to its policies for handling content that encourages or depicts self harm/suicide — saying it would limit how it could be accessed. This later morphed into a ban on some of this content.

The government said today that companies offering online services that involve user generated content or user interactions are expected to make use of what it dubs “a proportionate range of tools” — including age assurance, and age verification technologies — to prevent kids from accessing age-inappropriate content and “protect them from other harms”.

This is also the piece of the planned legislation intended to pick up the baton of the Digital Economy Act’s porn block proposals — which the government dropped last year, saying it would bake equivalent measures into the forthcoming Online Harms legislation.

The Home Office has been consulting with social media companies on devising robust age verification technologies for many months.

In its own response statement today, Ofcom — which would be responsible for policy detail under the current proposals — said it will work with the government to ensure “any regulation provides effective protection for people online”, and, pending appointment, “consider what we can do before legislation is passed”.

The Online Harms plan is not the online Internet-related work ongoing in Whitehall, with ministers noting that: “Work on electoral integrity and related online transparency issues is being taken forward as part of the Defending Democracy programme together with the Cabinet Office.”

Back in 2018 a UK parliamentary committee called for a levy on social media platforms to fund digital literacy programs to combat online disinformation and defend democratic processes, during an enquiry into the use of social media for digital campaigning. However the UK government has been slower to act on this front.

The former chair of the DCMS committee, Damian Collins,

today for any future social media regulator to have “real powers in law” — including the ability to “investigate and apply sanctions to companies which fail to meet their obligations”.

In the DCMS committee’s final report parliamentarians called for Facebook’s business to be investigated, raising competition and privacy concerns.

 


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15 Tickets Left to TechCrunch Winter Party Tomorrow

23:30 | 6 February

On February 7, aka this Friday, the Bay Area startup community will descend on Galvanize to celebrate everything great and small about tech startups at the 3rd Annual TechCrunch Winter Party.

Lucky for you, we have just 15 tickets left! They’re available on a strictly first-come-first-served basis, so if you want to join us for an unforgettable night of fun and opportunity, get your ticket now before they’re gone for good.

The TechCrunch Winter Party provides the perfect atmosphere to relax and connect with your peers while enjoying delicious canapes, signature cocktails and convivial conversation. It’s also the chance to converse with some of the community’s major movers and shakers — including investors and partners from Uncork Capital .

Want to know the essential party particulars? We’ve got ’em right here.

  • When: Friday, February 7, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Where: Galvanize, 44 Tehama St., San Francisco, CA 94105
  • Ticket price: $85

No TechCrunch party is complete without games, activities, swag and door prizes. And this event will deliver on all fronts. Planning to go to Disrupt San Francisco 2020? Party-goers have a chance to win free tickets.

Grab these tickets before they’re gone.

 


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Tech companies, we see through your flimsy privacy promises

21:12 | 31 January

There’s a reason why Data Privacy Day pisses me off.

January 28 was the annual “Hallmark holiday” for cybersecurity, ostensibly a day devoted to promoting data privacy awareness and staying safe online. This year, as in recent years, it has become a launching pad for marketing fluff and promoting privacy practices that don’t hold up.

Privacy has become a major component of our wider views on security, and it’s in sharper focus than ever as we see multiple examples of companies that harvest too much of our data, share it with others, sell it to advertisers and third parties and use it to track our every move so they can squeeze out a few more dollars.

But as we become more aware of these issues, companies large and small clamor for attention about how their privacy practices are good for users. All too often, companies make hollow promises and empty claims that look fancy and meaningful.

 


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Shadows’ Dylan Flinn and Kombo’s Kevin Gould on the business of ‘virtual influencers’

19:24 | 19 January

In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don’t perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.

Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of “virtual beings,” I outlined two categories of these characters:

  • virtual influencers: fictional characters with real-world social media accounts who build and engage with a mass following of fans.
  • virtual companions: AIs oriented toward one-to-one relationships, much like the tech depicted in the films “Her” and “Ex Machina.” They are personalized enough to engage us in entertaining discussions and respond to our behavior (in the physical world or within games) like a human would.

Part 2 of 3: the business of virtual influencers

Today’s discussion focuses on virtual influencers: fictional characters that build and engage followings of real people over social media. To explore the topic, I spoke with two experienced entrepreneurs:

  • Dylan Flinn is CEO of Shadows, an LA-based animation studio that’s building a roster of interactive characters for social media audiences. Dylan started his career in VC, funding companies such as Robinhood, Patreon and Bustle, and also spent two years as an agent at CAA.
  • Kevin Gould is CEO of Kombo Ventures, a talent management and brand incubation firm that has guided the careers of top influencers like Jake Paul and SSSniperWolf. He is the co-founder of three direct-to-consumer brands — Insert Name Here, Wakeheart and Glamnetic — and is an angel investor in companies like Clutter, Beautycon and DraftKings.

 


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Instreamatic signs deals to allow people to talk to adverts on streaming services like an Alexa

18:39 | 19 December

Most in tech would agree that following the launch of Alexa and Google Home devices the ‘Voice Era’ is here. Voice assistant usage is at 3.3 billion right now; by 2020 half of all searches are expected to be done via voice. And with younger generations growing up on voice (55% of teens use voice search daily now), there’s no turning back.

As we’ve reported, the voice-based ad market will grow to $19 billion in the U.S. by 2022, growing the market share from the $17 billion audio ad market and the $57 billion programmatic ad market.

That means that voice shopping is also set to explode, with the volume of voice-based spending growing twenty-fold over the next few years due to voice-based virtual assistant penetration, as well as the rapid consumer adoption of home-based smart speakers, the expansion of smart homes and the growing integration of virtual assistants into cars.

That, combined with the popularity of digital media – streaming music, podcasts, etc – has created greenfield opportunities for better brand engagement through audio. But brands have struggled to catch up, and there has not been many ways to capitalise on this.

So a team of people who co-founded and worked at Zvuk, a leading music streaming service in Eastern Europe, quickly understood why there is not a single profitable music streaming company in the world: subscription rates are low and advertisers are not excited about audio ads, due to the measurement challenges and intrusive ad experience.

So, they decided to create SF-based company Instreamatic, a startup which allows people to talk at adverts they see and get an AI-driven voice response, just as you might talk to an Alexa device. 

Thus, the AI powering Instreamatic’s voice-driven ads can interpret and anticipate the intent of a user’s words (and do so in the user’s natural language, so robotic “yes” and “no” responses aren’t needed). That means Instreamatic enables brands which advertise through digital audio channels (streaming music apps, podcasts, etc) to now have interactive (and continuous) voice dialogues with consumers.

Yes, it means you can talk to an advert like it was an Alexa.
 
Instead of an audio ad playing to a listener as a one-way communication (like every T.V. and radio ad before it), brands can now reach and engage with consumers by having voice-interactive conversations. Brands using Instreamatic can also continue conversations with consumers across channels and audio publishers – so fresh ad content is tailored to the full history of each listener’s past engagements and responses.

An advantage of the platform is that people can use their voice to set their advertising preferences. So, when a person says ‘I don’t want to hear about it ever again,’ brands can optimize their marketing strategy either by stopping all remarketing campaigns across all digital media channels targeted to that person, or by optimizing the communication strategy to offer something else instead of the product that was rejected. If the listener expressed interest or no interest, Instreamatic would know that and tailor future ads to match past engagement – providing a continuous dialogue with the user.

Its competitor is AdsWizz which allows users to shake their phones when they are interested in an ad. This effectively allows users to “click” when the audio ad is playing in the background. One of their recent case studies reported that shaking provided 3.95% interaction rates.
 
By contrast, Instreamatic’s voice dialogue marketing platform allows people to talk to audio advertising, skipping irrelevant ads and engaging in interesting ones. Their recent case study claimed a much higher 13.2% voice engagement rate this way.
 
The business model is thus: when advertisers buy voice dialogue ads on its ad exchange, it takes a commission from that ad spend. Publishers, brands and adtech companies can license the technology and Instreamatic charges them a licensing fee based on usage.

Instreamatic has now partnered with Gaana, India’s largest music and content streaming service, to integrate Instreamatic into Gaana’s platform. It’s also partnered with Triton Digital, a service provider to the audio streaming and podcast industry.

This follows similar deals with Pandora, Jacapps, Airkast,
and SurferNETWORK.

All these partnerships means the company can now reach 120 million monthly active users in the United States, 30M in Europe and 150 million in Asia.

Thet company is headquartered in San Francisco and London with a development team in Moscow and features Stas Tushinskiy as CEO and co-founder. Tushinskiy reated the digital audio advertising market in Russia prior to relocating to the U.S. with Instreamatic. International Business Development head and co-founder Simon Dunlop previously founded Bookmate, a subscription-based reading and audiobook platform, and DITelegraph Moscow Tech Hub, and Zvuk.

 


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Watch Sacha Baron Cohen skewer Zuckerberg’s “twisted logic” on hate speech and fakes

15:11 | 22 November

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has waded into the debate about social media regulation.

In an award-acceptance speech to the Anti Defamation League yesterday the creator of Ali G and Borat delivered a precision takedown of what he called Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “bullshit” arguments against regulating his platform.

The speech is well worth watching in full as Cohen articulates, with a comic’s truth-telling clarity, the problem with “the greatest propaganda machine in history” (aka social media platform giants) and how to fix it: Broadcast-style regulation that sets basic standards and practices of what content isn’t acceptable for them to amplify to billions.

“There is such a thing as objective truth,” said Cohen. “Facts do exist. And if these Internet companies really want to make a difference they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL and the NAACP, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”

Attacking social media platforms for promulgating “a sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and to some degree our planet”, he pointed out that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach.

“This can’t possibly be what the creators of the Internet had in mind,” he said. “I believe that’s it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.”

“Voltaire was right. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities — and social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people,” he added.

Cohen also rubbished Zuckerberg’s recent speech at Georgetown University in which the Facebook founder sought to appropriate the mantle of ‘free speech’ to argue against social media regulation.

“This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people — including some of the most reprehensible people in history — the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet.”

“We are not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society, we just want them to be responsible on their platforms,” Cohen added.

On Facebook’s decision to stick by its morally bankrupt position of allowing politicians to pay it to spread lying, hatefully propaganda, Cohen also had this to say: “Under this twisted logic if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem’.”

Ouch.

YouTube also came in for criticism during the speech, including for its engagement-driven algorithmic recommendation engine which Cohen pointed out had singlehandedly recommended videos by conspiracist Alex Jones “billions of times”.

Just six people decide what information “so much of the world sees”, he noted, name-checking the “silicon six” — as he called Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

“All billionaires, all Americans, who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism,” he went on. “Six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law.

“It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.”

Cohen ended the speech with an appeal for societies to “prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference, and experts over ignoramuses” and thereby save democracy from the greed of “high tech robber barons”.

 


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Facebook says government demands for user data are at a record high

20:15 | 13 November

Facebook’s latest transparency report is out.

The social media giant said the number of government demands for user data increased by 16% to 128,617 demands during the first-half of this year compared to the second-half of last year.

That’s the highest number of government demands its received in any reporting period since it published its first transparency report in 2013.

The U.S. government led the way with the most number of requests — 50,741 demands for user data resulting in some account or user data given to authorities in 88% of cases. Facebook said two-thirds of all of the U.S. government’s requests came with a gag order, preventing the company from telling the user about the request for their data.

But Facebook said it was able to release details of 11 so-called national security letters (NSLs) for the first time after their gag provisions were lifted during the period. National security letters can compel companies to turn over non-content data at the request of the FBI. These letters are not approved by a judge, and often come with a gag order preventing their disclosure. But since the Freedom Act passed in 2015, companies have been allowed to request the lifting of those gag orders.

The report also said the social media giant had detected 67 disruptions of its services in 15 countries, compared to 53 disruptions in nine countries during the second-half of last year.

And, the report said Facebook also pulled 11.6 million pieces of content, up from 5.8 million in the same period a year earlier, which Facebook said violated its policies on child nudity and sexual exploitation of children.

Read more:

 


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California accuses Facebook of ignoring subpoenas in state’s Cambridge Analytica investigation

21:54 | 6 November

California’s attorney general Xavier Becerra has accused Facebook of “continuing to drag its feet” by failing to provide documents to the state’s investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

The attorney general said in a court filing Wednesday that Facebook had provided a “patently deficient” response to two sets of subpoenas for the previously undisclosed investigation started more than a year ago. “Facebook has provided no answers for nineteen interrogatories and produced no documents in response to six document requests,” the filing said.

Among the documents sought are communications by executives, including chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, and documentation relating to the company’s privacy changes.

The filing said the social media giant was “failing to comply with lawfully issued subpoenas and interrogatories” for what the attorney general says involves “serious allegations of unlawful business practices by one of the richest companies in the world,” referring to Facebook.

Becerra is now asking a court to compel Facebook to produce the documents.

The now-defunct Cambridge Analytica scraped tens of millions of Facebook profiles as part of an effort to help the Trump presidential campaign decide which swing voters to target with election-related advertising. Facebook banned the analytics and voter data firm following the unauthorized scraping. Facebook was later fined $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for violating a privacy decree in 2012, which demanded that the company engaged in better privacy protections of its users’ data.

A Facebook spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Developing… more soon.

 


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Source: Nike has picked up Russell Wilson’s Tally/TraceMe in a rare acquisition

01:47 | 12 October

Nike has long been synonymous with premium sneakers and other sports gear, but now it seems that the company could be extending its brand into another area — digital media — thanks to the rumored acquisition of a Seattle-based startup.

TechCrunch has learned from a source that multi-billion dollar sports giant has acquired TraceMe, which originally built an app to let fans engage with sports stars and other celebrities before later pivoting into a service called Tally, a platform aimed at sports teams, broadcasters and venues to help fans engage around sporting events.

TraceMe was originally founded by Russell Wilson, the champion quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, who was the executive chairman of the startup. The company had raised at least $9 million from investors that included the Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group and Bezos Expeditions (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ fund), as well as YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley and others and it was last valued, in 2017, at $60 million.

Our source said the deal closed in recent weeks and that “it was a good outcome” for the company and investors. It involved both IP — the main interest, the source said, was in TraceMe’s tech rather than Tally’s — and the team.

Indeed, at least eight of them, including TraceMe’s CEO Jason LeeKeenan, an ex-Hulu executive, are now listing Nike as their place of employment. LeeKeenan describes his new role as the head of Nike Seattle. Others on the team now have taken roles that include software engineers, head of product and product designers.

No one at TraceMe and Nike that we have contacted has responded to our requests for comment but just a little while ago GeekWire (which likely had the same tip we did) published a post noting that it had a source that confirmed the deal.

The athletic footwear giant Nike is no stranger to the world of technology: it has been a longtime collaborator with the likes of Apple to develop apps for its devices and has been an early mover on the concept of bringing and integrating cutting-edge (yes, possibly gimmicky) tech into its footwear and other gear. And that’s before you consider Nike as an e-commerce force.

But while the dalliance between sports, tech, and fashion is well established, this deal opens up a different frontier for the company. It’s very rare for Nike to make an acquisition, but it makes sense that if it were going to do some M&A, that it would be in the area of digital media and picking up engineers to execute on a wider vision in that area.

The company is best known, of course, for its shoes and related sporty clothes, which it has for a long time created in co-branding with the biggest sports stars and has more recently started to extend to a wider circle of celebrities and hot brands in a spirit of sporty street style. These have included the likes of so-cool Supreme, Travis Scott, and seemingly tentative forays into music culture.

Nike overshadows all other sports shoe brands in size, with its current market cap at nearly $117 billion, more than twice that of its closest competitor, Adidas . But Adidas has been stealing a march when it comes to partnerships with a wide network of celebrities (even if Drake prefers checks over stripes).

While it isn’t clear yet how and if Nike will be using the startup’s existing services, you could see how a deal like this could help Nike start to think about how it might leverage the collaborations and endorsements it already has in place into experiences beyond shoes, advertising and athletic performance. In this age of Instagram and influencers playing a massive role in shifting consumer sentiment (and dollars), this could give Nike a shot at building its own media platform, independent of these, on its own terms.

This is a bigger trend that we’re seeing across a lot of digital media. Consider how companies like Spotify have extended beyond simple music streaming, investing in building tools to help artists on its platform with marketing and expanding their brands: selling shoes means selling a concept, and that concept needs to have a foothold in a digital experience. 

 

 


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Holoride makes its in-car VR available to the public for the first time

18:20 | 10 October

Audi spin-out Holoride is launching to the general public for the first time, though a collaboration with Ford and Universal Pictures . The young company is focused on a unique twist on virtual reality: In-car VR, to be experienced by a passenger while a vehicle is in motion.

VR in cars might sound like a bit of a conflicted or risky proposition, but it actually makes a lot of sense once you understand more about Holoride’s approach. TechCrunch took it for a spin at CES this year, and found that the technology’s ability to match a car’s movements to virtual immersive environment made for a surprisingly impressive experience.

The company has previously shown off underwater adventures, as well last a Marvel Avengers-themed story, but the one it’s launching for the public is a ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ ride which will be on offer for free between October 14 and November 9 at Universal CityWalk in Hollywood. Per the news release describing the adventure, there are virtual monsters and obstacles to overcome, and all of it is mapped to the ride you take inside a new 2020 model year Ford Explorer SUV.

HOLO0824

Entertainment technology startup, holoride teams up with Ford and Universal Pictures to create “Universal Monsters Presents Bride of Frankenstein holoride” – a highly immersive VR experience available complimentary to the public at Universal CityWalk Hollywood

The narrative is created by Universal Monsters, the sub-brand of Universal focused on its stable of cinematic ghouls, and Holoride takes in driving data, including speed of the vehicle and steering info to match the VR experience to the actual trip the rider is on.

The Ford partnership is one of the reasons Audi spun out this particularly venture, since it stated when it announced the move that it was hoping to get Holoride in the backseat of vehicles from all automakers.

This first public service offering should provide crucial insight for the Holoride team regarding its eventual commercialization and deployment plans for the technology. VR in cars still seems like a niche use case, but it’s possible it’s the niche that helps VR find some kind of footing among more general population users who aren’t likely to own their own headset at home.

 


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