Notes from Silicon Beach: A Think-Tank with Clout in Immersive and Digital Media

Posted: Oct 7, 2019

In today’s social-media-saturated world, we hear perhaps too much about “influencers” and not enough about those who earn real clout by impacting real-world outcomes. When it comes to media and entertainment technology, it’s hard to find any organization with more long-term influence than the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC).

ETC was founded in 1993 within the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California (USC). With the help of George Lucas, it was created initially as a place for the chief technology officers of the then seven major film studios to get together and discuss the future of entertainment under the antitrust protection of academia. ETC quickly attracted support from big tech companies like Cisco and Technicolor, and later Google and Microsoft, among many others.

ETC has undertaken a range of industry-shaping initiatives over the years – including digital cinema, anytime/anywhere mobile content, and consumer 3D. Today, the group operates significant initiatives in immersive media, led by Phil Lelyveld; artificial intelligence, led by Yves Bergquist (who was included in my blog about Hollywood and AI last year); and so-called adaptive production, led by Seth Levenson. Industry veteran Kenneth Williams is Executive Director and CEO of the company.

These ETC programs exert significant influence among key industry players who participate and engage in research and small-group collaborations. Such face-to-face engagements, especially between a diverse set of players, moves policy forward by identifying best practices and forging consensus.

The ETC also conducts public-facing events of their own, as well as extensive participation in industry conferences, trade shows, product demos and symposia.

A screenshot of a website, ETCentric

ETCentric, a collaborative online destination providing a single online resource for the most current technology news, trends, special reports, surveys and opinions related to media, entertainment and technology.

Another point of influence is the ETC e-newsletter called ETCentric that reaches 6000 subscribers every day, including most of Hollywood’s media/tech movers and shakers. (Subscribe here). ETCentric curates news from a wide range of sources, covering both business and technical issues impacting its constituents and its program mandates.

Working to Avoid Format Wars

“We’re now pretty much a think tank-that works to help the industry adopt new technologies and avoid format wars,” said Phil Lelyveld, director of the ETC Immersive Media Initiative, which started four years ago during the second coming of virtual reality (VR) and evolved to incorporate augmented reality (AR), mixed reality, and location-based entertainment. “We are comfortable using the blanket term of immersive media,” says Lelyveld, “basically, we’re always looking for the next new thing.”

The ETC approach is deeply rooted in dialogue among and between technologists and creatives at events created and curated within its own programs, as well as at dozens of industry events, where the results of its initiatives are shared and feedback is gathered.

ETC’s industry focus still leaves room for work by and for USC students and alumni, most recently a competition called “Immersive Media Challenge,” which looks for somewhat futuristic immersive media experiences in the near-range future of three to five years. Projects focus on city play, social good, fun, and health. Here are examples of some of the completed projects from an earlier round.

Countering the “VR Hype Curve”

Perhaps coincidentally, three to five years seems to be the new prediction for the eventual arrival of a viable consumer VR market, which has resulted in the departure of many early investors and the collapse of many pioneering companies in the space. Lelyveld dismisses VR’s “hype curve” among those who “have moved on to the next shiny object.” They were “looking for a moonshot investment,” he says, “even though the reality is this is a market that is growing rapidly in little niches all over the place.”

ETC’s Immersive Media Initiative is quite busy “in the space of virtual beings and artificial intelligence as well as multi-sensory experiences,” where Lelyveld believes innovative work is being done. Also, he points to extended reality (XR) apps for “practical uses” in business, enterprise, retail and other niches.

“Immersive media cannot be isolated from other digital media trends,” notes Lelyveld. “It’s tied to the rollout of 5G and artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) because they are all going to feed off each other to create new types of experiences. The future of story is something we talk about here all the time. That future is very much up in the air right now. Everything is fragmenting, it’s being personalized, and it’s getting multisensory, meaning incorporation of haptics.”

“This will require a new vocabulary, the world-building environments where we blend physical and virtual and interactive and passive.” Lelyveld suggests that the evolution of this entirely new story form will take time, not quick market spikes. “A product like Pokémon didn’t establish a market,” notes Lelyveld, “it just helped a company.”

A woman holds up her hands and interacts with a "virtual being"

A character named Lucy, an example of a virtual being, created by Fable Studio. Photo credit: Fable Studio

The Emergence of Virtual Beings

Lelyveld cites two immersive media companies – Fable Studio and Artie – that are “trying to figure out how create avatars or virtual beings that are indistinguishable from people, and then to enable technology to respond to users in a human-like manner, which is where 5G comes in because you need near zero latency.”

A recent ETC event called “The Grand Convergence,” offers two dozen talks available on YouTube that offer perhaps the best snapshot of current curatorial concerns of the various interconnected ETC programs. Talks cover new developments in storage, metadata, editorial workflow, open source solutions within entertainment, mixed reality, AI/ML marketplaces, supply chain issues, security, monetization, AI in production, emerging cloud strategies, virtual humans, robots, AI characters, and self-sovereign identities for virtual beings. Talks run for about 20 minutes, much like TED Talks, and offer varied crash courses about near-future developments in entertainment technology.

Execs from the studios Lelyveld name-checked gave talks at the event (On YouTube, Fable Studio is here and Artie is here). Worth noting, the Television Academy recently awarded a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Innovation in Interactive Media to Fable Studio’s Wolves in the Wall, which had been incubated at Oculus Story Studio before it was shuttered.

Next-Gen Storytellers

ETC also serves as a bridge between the startup community and established media companies, as well as between academia and the private sector. Lelyveld meets and evaluates dozens of startups over the course of a year. He may write them up for the newsletter or invite them to speak at ETC events and panels, and even connect them to his ETC constituent companies if he thinks there will be value to both parties. He is always on the hunt for new ways to tell stories.

Lelyveld has been an active participant in the SoCal media tech ecosystem for more than a decade at ETC and before that, at Disney and other gigs. He’s observing a generational change in LA, with the opening of downtown LA as a major tech hub in addition to Silicon Beach. “I’m really impressed with both the technology and business understanding of the people that are coming into LA in the current wave,” he said. “The velocity of startups coming and getting funding and growing is really impressive. And the skill sets that a number of these people have is both amazing and disorienting.”

What sets the LA ecosystem and ETC’s role in it apart from Silicon Valley and other tech zones is the DNA from the legacy creative industries, especially cinema. “We want the creative community to drive the vision, not be constrained by the tools that are delivered by the tech world.”

“We can say that Hulu, Netflix, Microsoft, Google and others have all recognized that consumers don’t buy technology – they buy experiences and pay for the technology that enables it. And so they’ve all opened studios here in Los Angeles to get access to the storytellers. And it’s the universities that are producing the next generation of storytellers.”

Nick DeMartino is a media and technology consultant based in Los Angeles. He is chair of the IDEABOOST Investment Advisor Group.

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