AT&T CEO muses about 20-minute mobile versions of Game of Thrones

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TV series are shaped by the format of TV network programming — half-hour or one-hour blocks, with or without space for commercial breaks, depending on the network. But more and more people are watching them on mobile phones and tablets, while TV companies are becoming more and more closely intertwined with mobile carriers. So what does the marriage of TV and smartphone look like? AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson offered some hints in a speech this week.

At JPMorgan’s Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference, Stephenson spoke of curating “premium content … uniquely for a mobile environment” as a new way to make money, now that AT&T is close to merging with massive media company Time Warner. “It will cause [Richard] Plepler at HBO to panic when I say this, but can you begin to think about things like Game of Thrones as an example, where in a mobile environment a 60-minute episode may not be the best experience, should you think about 20-minute episodes?”

Stephenson later made clear that while Time Warner-owned HBO will be tied to AT&T after the merger, “You can’t think about taking Game of Thrones and [only making] it available to AT&T customers, that’s crazy.” Instead, if you “do things uniquely with Game of Thrones for your mobile environment, where you have the ability to innovate faster … and if the fast innovation creates a unique experience in your environment, you’re probably going to want to make that available later to other providers as well.”

It’s possible to look at these statements as AT&T mulling something between traditional TV streaming and a service like Verizon’s Go90, which produced custom content tailored for mobile video. (Granted, Go90 was a bit of a disaster.) That said, Stephenson is only making vague suggestions. For Game of Thrones, we could be talking about cut-down “highlight reels,” episodes that have simply been split into more parts, or something else. But now that media companies are so close to mobile distribution channels, it’s worth at least thinking about what the future of TV on your phone might hold.

Netflix is bringing Ellen DeGeneres back to standup

Netflix is becoming a comedy juggernaut, showing just how much the network has grown compared to its competition. Variety reports that the company is working with Ellen DeGeneres for a standup special. The effort would be DeGeneres’ first special in 15 years, and adds fuel to the argument that Netflix is now the new go-to for top-tier comics.

“It has been 15 years since I did a stand-up special. 15 years,” DeGeneres said in an official statement. “And I’m writing it now, I can’t wait. I’ll keep you posted when and where I’m gonna shoot my Netflix special. I’m excited to do it; I’m excited for you to see it.”

Today’s announcement was teased by two cryptic tweets sent earlier this afternoon:

Looks like it’s been 15 years since you did a stand-up special, @TheEllenShow. How about one for Netflix?

— Netflix US (@netflix) May 24, 2017

Let me think about it. Ok I’m in. https://t.co/kUAdHyXAjS

— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) May 24, 2017

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Deadline assumes that deal for the special is in the $40 million range, roughly the same amount paid out to major stars Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Jerry Seinfeld.

That DeGeneres is returning to standup comedy at all is significant. Her last special was HBO’s Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now, which aired in 2003 and earned multiple Emmy nominations. Since then, the comedian has worked on her award-winning daytime talk show and done voice-acting for Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.

However, Netflix is clearly bullish on working with top comedy talent, announcing special after special at a stunning pace. In addition to the likes of Rock and Seinfeld, the company recently released specials for Louis C.K. and The Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj. And at a time when it’s betting big on bigger and riskier projects, like Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, working with Ellen DeGeneres shows Netflix looking to grow bigger and faster than its competition.

The Splash Drone 3 is the Aquaman of drones

There are lots of drones out there that can do all sorts of things like fly around, take pictures and video, or even lift a human. But how many can swim?

Meet the Splash Drone 3, the latest drone from SwellPro. It’s fully waterproof, and while it can’t quite swim, it can float, which is pretty neat. It’s actually an updated edition of the original Splash Drone, which the company released two years ago, but this model adds a redesigned gimbal with a new 4K camera, stronger motors, and an improved flight controller. SwellPro launched a Kickstarter campaign for the device launched this week, and it’s already raked in quite a few orders.


The Splash Drone 3 comes in two models — the Auto, which can be controlled by a mobile app, offers a “follow me” feature, and the aforementioned gimbal system with a 4K camera; and the Fisherman, which has a fixed camera, but offers the ability to carry an item up to 2.5 pounds and release it remotely. (In a fishing setting, SwellPro imagines using it to drop bait or fly a life vest to someone.)

While the bright orange color scheme may give the Splash Drone 3 a toy-like appearance, it’s meant to be serious hardware with an equally serious price tag: early-bird pricing starts at at $1,149 for the Fisherman (estimated to ship in August) and $1,399 for the Auto (estimated to ship in July). Despite the crowdfunded nature of the project, SwellPro is an existing company with a history of actually selling drones, which should help assuage Kickstarter doubts. That said, always use your best judgement when backing.

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You Spider-Can be Spider-Man with your very own Spider-Drone

Science fiction never had a problem with plopping magical floating orb robots into a scene. But now that real drones exist, it’s become fashionable to put real-ish drones into sci-fi movies, books, and video games whenever the writers are straining for a modicum of plausibility.

The latest example is the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, where Spider-Man has a cute little Spider-Drone built into his suit, which he can presumably deploy to solve Spider-Man-type problems.

And of course you can buy a working replica. Sky Viper Drones is launching the Official Movie Edition Spider-Drone, which has eight legs, four rotors, and includes a controller. Oh, and the controller speaks your favorite lines from the movie you haven’t seen yet. There are two versions, one that just flies around for $89.99, and one that includes a camera for recording video or streaming it back to your phone — which will retail for $149.99. The normal version will be available on June 4th, while the streaming version will hit Toys R Us shelves on July 1st.

The drones include auto launch and landing, adjustable control sensitivity, and an automatic flight mode that can keep the drone at a steady altitude. It’s still a toy, essentially, but that’s not a bad list of features. Although if you don’t need to pretend like you’re Spider-Man, Sky Viper offers similar drones for a much better price.

Injury rates at Tesla’s auto factory were 31 percent higher than the industry average, report finds

Worker safety at Tesla’s flagship auto plant have been called into question again — this time in a report that analyzes three years of federal records — as the US automaker tries to fend off attempts at unionization and undergoes a rapid expansion to produce the Model 3, an electric vehicle for the masses.

Worksafe, a worker safety advocacy group found injury rates at the plant were well above the industry average in 2014 and 2015, according to its independent review of work-related injuries and illnesses at Tesla’s Fremont, California plant. Worksafe, which analyzed reports filed with the US Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, found similarly high injury rates in 2016 at the plant, but is unable to offer an accurate comparison because official industry-wide statistics are not yet available for that year.

The Worksafe report not only outlines an array of worrisome data of Tesla’s past, it also questions whether the company’s recent claims of improved safety are accurate or believable.

Among the highlights at the Fremont factory that employs 10,000 workers:

  • Injury rates were 31 percent higher than the US industry average in 2015, with a total recordable incidence rate of 8.8 per 100 workers compared with 6.7 per 100.
  • Tesla’s total injury rate for 2016 was 8.1 injuries per 100 workers. (Industry stats for 2016 are not yet available, but if they remain at about 6.7 it would still put Tesla well beyond the average.)
  • The DART rate at Tesla in 2015 — a metric that means days away, restricted duty, or transfer rate — was double the industry rate in 2015. The DART rate identifies the number of days a worker is absent and is considered an indicator of the most serious nonfatal injuries.

Meanwhile, Tesla is trying to direct attention to its progress.

“We may have had some challenges in the past as we were learning how to become a car company, but what matters is the future and with the changes we’ve made, we now have the lowest injury rate in the industry by far,” a Tesla spokesman said in an emailed statement. “Our goal is to have as close to zero injuries as humanly possible and to become the safest factory in the auto industry.”

The data analyzed and reported by Worksafe suggests Tesla has a long way to go before it will achieve that goal. The report also questions the company’s recent claims of lowering injury rates at the factory.

Tesla published a blog in May highlighting improvements to its safety record and warning that the latest phase of UAW’s campaign to organize workers “involves a concerted and professional media push intended to raise questions about safety at Tesla.” The blog boasted that the factory’s injury rates were 4.6 injuries per 100 workers through the first quarter of 2017 — 32 percent better than the industry average of 6.7.

Worksafe argues that one quarter isn’t a sufficient length of time to accurately determine whether this is a trend or a temporary dip that might have been helped by a one-week closure of the factory for maintenance. Worksafe also contends that company’s claims are based on preliminary data that can’t be considered accurate “given Tesla’s erratic reporting patterns.”

Tesla has vigorously defended its safety record in recent months, pushing back against claims that ambitious production goals have created an unsafe work environment.

Despite Tesla’s efforts, reports of worker safety issues have energized efforts to unionize the factory.

Time to say ‘I told you so’: cannabis can treat seizures

Ancient Chinese and Persian medical texts — and modern anecdotes — suggest that cannabis is useful for treating seizures. Research has been scant, but a new study of cannabidiol, a molecule in cannabis, has given some credence to these claims. Kids with a severe form of epilepsy had 39 percent fewer seizures per month after taking the substance, also called CBD. Three people stopped having seizures altogether.

In a study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers gave children a liquid form of CBD called Epidiolex. Epidiolex, manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals, is taken orally but has not yet been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. (It’s important to note that the study was funded by GW Pharmaceuticals.)

CBD, like the more well-known tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is a molecule that’s very abundant in cannabis. Both CBD and THC come from the same plant, but CBD comes from a strain called hemp. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t contain psychoactive properties that make the user high. This makes it very attractive as a potential drug, especially given the boom of cannabis research, including a recent study looking at the effect on THC on learning and memory.

The 120 participants in today’s study, aged two to 18, all have a serious form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, which starts during childhood and usually can’t be treated, says study co-author Daniel Friedman, a professor of neurology at the NYU Langone Medical Center. They were randomized into two groups: one group took 20 mg/kg of CBD per day for 14 weeks and one took a placebo. (This type of randomized controlled trial is considered the gold standard for a clinical study. When you randomly assign people, you make sure that whatever is being tested actually causes the results, and that the outcome isn’t just because the two groups are different to begin with.)

The researchers found that the group that took CBD had about six seizures a month instead of 12. In the placebo group, they had about 14 seizures a month, instead of 15. And three people taking CBD stopped having seizures altogether.

There is one big downside though: about 93 percent of people taking CBD had side effects — mostly nausea, diarrhea, but also sleepiness and liver abnormality. And eight people in the CBD group dropped out because of the side effects. (In comparison, only 74 percent in the placebo group had side effects and one withdrew.) These problems may be due to the CBD interacting with other medications the patient was already taking, Friedman says. “It’s hard to tell what are the specific side effects if somebody were to get CBD without anything else,” he says.

Today’s study also lasted only 14 weeks, so we don’t know how long the benefits last, or whether there are any long-term effects. Participants also all took the same dosage, so we don’t know whether a higher dose would be more effective or, on the other hand, whether a lower dose would be equally effective but cause fewer side effects.

All these questions will be addressed in future studies, Friedman says. Future research will also be needed to confirm these results, as well as determine whether CBD can have similar effects in other forms of epilepsy. In the meantime, congratulations to everyone who can say “I told you so.”

Facebook reportedly orders original video shows from BuzzFeed and Vox

Facebook’s plan to seed the service with television-like shows now has some names behind it. BuzzFeed and Vox are among the media companies that have signed deals with the company to create short-form series, according to Reuters. The shows, which were originally expected to debut next month, are now expected to arrive closer to the end of summer.

Reuters reports there will be two types of shows: 20- to 30-minute shows that Facebook will own outright, and 5- to 10-minute shows that will be owned by the media companies, with Facebook taking a 45 percent cut of the ad revenue. Reuters says Facebook is paying up to $250,000 for the longer shows and up to $35,000 for shorter ones — a relatively small investment in a world where a single episode of Game of Thrones costs more than $10 million.

Vox Media, which owns The Verge, will be a part of the effort, I have confirmed. A Vox spokeswoman declined to comment. Other media companies that have reached deals with Facebook besides BuzzFeed include ATTN and Group Nine Media, which publishes NowThis, Thrillist, and the Dodo, according to Reuters.

Facebook’s push into original video represents an effort to siphon advertising dollars away from the fading institution of television. The company has said it is running out of room to show new ads in the News Feed, putting pressure on Facebook to find profitable new real estate. YouTube recently announced a similar effort with stars including Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, and Ellen Degeneres.

Sony is discontinuing its midrange Xperia lines to focus on its flagship smartphones

Changes are on the way to Sony’s smartphone lineup. The company is discontinuing its Xperia X and Xperia X Compact lines of devices, which it considers “premium standard” (midrange), Sony announced at its investor conference, according to XperiaBlog.

Sony has decided to shift its focus to its flagship devices, and says it will launch at least two new devices that fit into that category before the end of the year under the Xperia name. Given the trend of smartphones and Sony’s design prowess, those devices should be something interesting to say the least. But as usual with Sony smartphones, the software will remain the big question.

Sony usually unveils its flagship device at IFA in September, so it shouldn’t be too long before we see new devices from the fabled company.

Air New Zealand imagines flight attendants using HoloLens to read your emotions

American air travel is miserable in almost every possible way, from increasingly onerous security procedures to the threat of literally having your teeth knocked out. But based on the video above, I’m going to cling to the notion that things are better in New Zealand, because airlines there are apparently busy figuring out how to let flight attendants read your emotions with augmented reality.

The project is a collaboration between Air New Zealand and Dimension Data, using the Microsoft HoloLens headset. As VRScout notes, it’s supposedly in beta testing, and it’s not clear how much of what we see in the video exists. In the system Air New Zealand describes, HoloLens-equipped flight attendants could identify passengers through (as far as I can tell) facial recognition, calling up details about their destination, allergies, and even the time since they got their last beverage.

In addition to this, the program would detect a passenger’s mood through “visual and audio cues” — in the video, an attendant sees them go from “calm” to “anxious” and back again. Of course, it’s not clear whether HoloLens could pick this up better than an actual human, and the whole facial recognition process seems far more complicated than Air New Zealand’s previous biometric bag drop system, which matched faces to scanned passports. There’s also the matter of this generation of HoloLens being ridiculous-looking and uncomfortable, and interactions being a little difficult — later in the video, you can see someone getting trained to perform the signature “air tap” gesture.

But in the long run, augmented reality displays actually are a good idea for people who need to see information while walking around and using their hands. Also, facial recognition systems would only have to scan against the relatively small number of people with boarding passes, not an entire database of potential customers. In coach class, though, it may not be used for much more than saving my preference for peanuts, pretzels, or cookies.

Google Photos now makes it easy to hide your nudes

A new update to Google Photos will now let you archive photos from the main feed and hide them away, helping you declutter and privatize some personal photos. First spotted by 9to5Google, all you have to do is hold the photo(s) and hit the “…” menu on the right side to bring up the archive option. Later, when you want to revisit those photos, you can find them on the left side menu under a separate folder.

While it might not seem as buzzworthy as, say, Instagram’s implementation of it on a user profile, it is great if you share a library with a significant other or family members and don’t want certain images just floating about in the main feed. You can also archive away repetitive photos, screenshots, or whatever you might not want to see while scrolling through the gallery. And let’s not forget what it’s truly useful for: relocating, ahem, private images you don’t want others to see when you hand them your phone to show them a picture. (We all have those friends who keep swiping a little too far back.)


Image by Natt Garun / The Verge

The update is out now for version 2.15 of Google Photos on Android — the feature should be coming soon to the web and iOS.