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Apr 24, 2020

We can still watch TV together — virtually, that is

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Company's coming via apps and extensions.

It’s the weekend, so … what are you watching? Reruns of “The Office”? All the “Godfather” movies? The “Avengers” series in order? “Tiger King”? Heaven help us. Whatever it is, chances are it’ll be alone on the couch, or maybe with the same two people you’ve been with for the last four weeks.  

Where is the technology for watching with friends? The best option for Netflix is actually a Google Chrome extension called Netflix Party, which lets you watch something with friends while chatting in a little window while you’re watching. But this extension isn’t even made by Netflix, so I thought: in our new and likely long-lasting reality of mostly entertaining ourselves at home, what are the options for simultaneous, remote entertainment? 

I spoke with Dean Takahashi, a reporter for VentureBeat. He says there are a few more choices out there. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Dean Takahashi (Photo courtesy of Takahashi)

Dean Takahashi: There’s Netflix Party — you can do this in virtual reality if you want to. There’s another party-viewing app called Hero Live. There’s also a watch party on Facebook and Oculus Venues. We know, at least on the game side, that some of these things have exploded, like Discord, being used by gamers everywhere, and then something new called Bunch for mobile games. Some of these things are starting to take off because of everybody being in isolation.

Molly Wood: I wonder, when this ends, people are going to want to spend time together … but this could be a long road. Do you think that some of this tech that might end up getting fast-tracked now will start to lead us in a new direction of entertainment?

Takahashi: Yeah, I think that there’s plenty of opportunity now for the people who’ve been trying to build these things for the niche groups. I think Facebook is trying this with the next generation of their technology called Facebook Horizons. There’s opportunity for some of these entrepreneurs to take advantage of the way the world is now. I think there’s chances for a lot of innovation here. 

Wood: On the other hand, do you think that there’s a chance that there will be a lot of investment in this direction, and then the market will collapse once everybody’s allowed to go outside?

“Gaming is the new social network.”

Dean Takahashi

Takahashi: I definitely think that the startups can assume that the world is shifting more digital. You’re probably going to be better off if you live some of your life more digitally than you did before. That’s an opportunity to make gains. Netflix, at some point, is going to run out of movies to show because they can’t get a cast of more than 10 people together at the same time to shoot something. Whereas the game companies or the animators all have their chance now to just run full steam ahead in production of what they’re working on. If they make this more appealing to wider groups of people, then one of these things they’re saying can come true, which is — gaming is the new social network.

(Video courtesy of Netflix Party)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

In the Netflix earnings call, the company said that although the second quarter would have its planned slate of movies and shows that have already been filmed, it’s anyone’s guess after that, and it will have to rely on licensed TV and films. It said it will actually raise $1 billion through a debt offering to acquire new stuff to watch. You know what would be cool? If Netflix actually got good movies again.

“Infinite Jest” (Photo courtesy of Dave Eggers)

Here’s a little something different heading into the weekend. If you are like me, you are getting very tired of seeing your own face in video chat. A recent Axios piece called it “Zoom fatigue.” A couple weeks ago I told a friend I was having a crisis of confidence over my huge forehead and flabby chin because of all these video meetings, and it reminded me of this amazing little part of the classic David Foster Wallace novel “Infinite Jest.” By classic, I mean personal challenge/ doorstop, but whatever, I loved it. 

It was published in 1996, and there’s a little diversionary story about how in the book’s timeline there had been a surge in popularity in “video-phoning” — aka videophony — and that this consumer love affair lasted about 16 months before everyone went back to good, old-fashioned telephone calls. Why did they do that in the book? Because, the author wrote, it was emotionally stressful to have to be on all the time and paying perfect attention during calls. Then, vanity caused people to be horrified about how their own faces appeared. He uses words like “shiny,” “pallid,” “essentially blurred” and “moist-looking.” He describes how people started using facial filters and ultrarealistic face masks, which led to a cottage industry of realistic mask makers. All that caused people to freak out about what would happen when people saw them without their beauty-enhancing masks.

Pretty soon, he wrote, there were incredibly realistic background scenes, complete re-creations of gorgeous rooms and people in full-body digital masks. These were sold as expensive add-on products called Tableaux. Finally, making an old-fashioned audio call started to become the ultimate expression of your “chic integrity.” He wrote that most Americans still don’t want to leave home and hang out in person. Everyone was relieved to just get back to phone calls. The end.

All this has happened before and will happen again, and I will happily be represented by a chic minimalist phone number in my next staff meeting.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer