BBC is launching an interactive radio show for Echo


The future of entertainment is here. The BBC, in collaboration with Rosina Sound, is working on an interactive radio play for artificial intelligence-enabled home chatbots like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home.

The production will be the first of its kind — the first to use this kind of technology and to function in this way. It plans to release this futuristic, high-tech play by the end of the year.


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The play

The story, called the Inspection Chamber, will work similarly to choose-your-own-adventure books and games, in which users can influence the direction of the story by the choices they make.

The creators of the Inspection Chamber, though, are seeking to take that idea a bit further and make listeners really feel like they’re in the story.

The story’s narrator will ask you, the listener, questions throughout the story. Your answers to those questions will change the outcome of the narrative.

The questions are designed so the listener doesn’t have to step out of the story to consider their decision, but instead feels like they’re a character in the story. It’s meant to feel like you’re interacting with the other characters in the play.

The creators of the play said they took inspiration from games like The Stanley Parable and Papa Sangre, and authors such as Franz Kafka and Douglas Adams. The story became, in the creators’ own words, “a comedy science-fiction audio drama.”

The technology

The sci-fi elements fit well with the medium through which the story will be presented. The show’s creators say they’ve built a “story engine” that lets the story work on a variety of different voice devices.

First, the Inspection Chamber will come out on Amazon Echo and Google Home, but the BBC is looking into other devices, like Apple’s HomePod and Microsoft & Harman Kardon’s Invoke speaker, as well.

The project comes out of a wider BBC initiative called Talking With Machines that is exploring spoken interfaces. It’s looking at ways to share content through these technologies and improve interactive audio interfaces. It also aims to create a platform for these interfaces that works across devices, instead of relying on one particular device.

Merging art and technology

In some ways, the plot of the Inspection Chamber had to conform to the limitations of the technology used to share it. For example, Amazon’s Alexa requires users to speak every 90 seconds, and these devices only understand a limited number of phrases. The story’s writers had to come up with a way to incorporate these phrases and time requirements into the story, without making it feel forced.

The use of this technology to tell a story may be experimental now, but as the technology improves, this type of content will likely become easier to create with fewer limitations on creativity. This presents some interesting ideas about the future of creative fields and technology. Rather than shy away from tech in favor of the traditional, the BBC is going full force into it.

Physical books and theater productions may never go completely out of style due to their many virtues, but using new technologies creates new possibilities with a plot, user experience, and more.

Kayla Matthews is a technology writer interested in AI, chatbots, and tech news. She writes for VentureBeat, MakeUseOf, The Week, and TechnoBuffalo.

7 takeaways from Mary Meeker’s 2017 Internet Trends report


Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report has become an annual ritual for Silicon Valley. It’s as if the tech industry had an annual physical exam and received a health report in the form of a 355-page presentation.

As in years past, Meeker’s 2017 report contained a few notable trends in its firehose of data points, which are interesting in how they show the tech industry evolving. Here are some of the key takeaways.

Growth in Internet population is slowing, but growth in online ads is accelerating.

The number of global users on the Internet reached 3.4 billion in 2016, equal to 46 percent of the world’s population. That’s more than double the figure in 2009, but the growth rate has flatlined around 10 percent a year for the past five years.

Meanwhile, growth in online advertising is accelerating, at least in the U.S. Digital advertising rose 22 percent to $73 billion last year, up from 20 percent in 2015 and 15 percent in 2014. Unsurprisingly, the growth is coming from mobile ads, which is growing fast enough to more than offset a decline in desktop ads.

Meeker said that the amount of money spent on digital ads will surpass spending on TV ads sometime in the next six months.

Ecommerce growth is also accelerating.

That online-retail sales is growing year after year is a given. But the pace of growth has been accelerating for the past three years, rising steadily from 14 percent in 2013 to 15 percent last year.

Credit Amazon, of course, but Walmart is also seeing new online growth in the wake of its purchase of deep-discount site Jet.com. Meanwhile, physical retailers are expected to close nearly 1,700 shops in the U.S., the largest number in 20 years, the report says. Those closings have more to do with unwise overexpansion in recent years than Amazon or ecommerce in general.

Gaming continues to lead and shape the online experience.

Another unsurprising insight concerns the growth and popularity in gaming, but it’s interesting to see the figures Meeker has collected to show that growth.

Meeker estimates that there are 2.6 billion gamers around the world, up from 100 million in 1995. The gaming industry generated $100 billion in global revenue last year, with nearly half of that, $47 billion, coming from Asia. Games are central to defining the overall online experience. In her presentation, Meeker speculated that they may be preparing society for the rise of human-computer interaction.

Revenue in the music industry is rising again.

The Internet has not been kind to the music recording industry. For the past 16 years, revenue has declined by an average of 4 percent a year. The rate of decline had slowed in the past several years as downloaded and streaming music began to offset the vanishing sales of CDs.

Last year, overall music revenue grew by 11% to more than $12 billion, its highest figure since 2009. Subscription and streaming revenue made up more than half of the total figure for the first time.

Digital health care is approaching an inflection point.

Health care is at once a data-driven industry and one that is perhaps the worst at managing data. Meeker says health care “is at a digital inflection point,” one of those terms that act as red meat for investors because it signals strong growth ahead.

The rise of fitness trackers and health apps are collecting more user data than ever, while hospitals are sharing more health care information with patients. The average hospital holds 50 petabytes of health care data, and the total amount of that data is growing by 48 percent a year, Meeker says.

The bottleneck to analyzing that data is patient privacy. Health care data can be used to the benefit and the detriment of patients. A survey of consumers asking which tech companies they’d share their health data with shows 60 percent trust Google and 56 percent trust Microsoft. Less trusted are Amazon and Facebook — only 39 percent of consumers would share health data with them.

China is growing as a tech rival to the U.S.

The biggest market caps in tech belong to none other than the Big Four: Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook. Together, they are worth a collective $2.4 trillion. But seven of the next 16 on the list are Chinese companies like Tencent and Alibaba. Those seven are worth $929 billion in aggregate.

U.S. companies may still dominate the money invested in tech, but China’s rivals are quickly catching up.

Immigrants are core to the Valley’s DNA.

The story of Silicon Valley is in good part the story of immigrants who have played a part in building and shaping its technology. Meeker looked at the 25 most highly valued tech companies and found that 15 of them had founders who were first- or second-generation Americans.

The shift in the Trump Administration’s “America first” stance on work visas may put that in jeopardy. To underscore the importance of foreign workers and founders in tech, Meeker showed that half of the most highly valued private tech companies were founded by first-generation immigrants. Those companies — including Uber, SpaceX, and Slack — have created 48,000 jobs.

The full report can be found here


Attention livestreamers: TwitchCon tickets are now on sale


TwitchCon, the annual event for all things livestreaming, announced that its tickets have gone on sale this morning.

TwitchCon has become a place where the influencers on the Twitch social video livestreaming service gather. And this year, the event will take place will take place October 20 to October 22 at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center in Long Beach, Calif.

This year’s event is also going to expand beyond gaming, and that’s one of the big questions for livestreaming — will its audience care? That’s one of the reasons that Amazon paid $970 million for Twitch in 2014.

Twitch released ticket availability and pricing, a detailed FAQ, hotel booking, information, and how to submit for the TwitchCon Talent Show. Three-day passes with the party start at $160, while one-day passes start at $90.

This year, TwitchCon will be featuring a more open call for acts, removing categorical restrictions and opening the showcase to any creator who has regularly streamed to Creative on Twitch. In order to apply for consideration, performers must submit a video audition which will be reviewed by a selection panel. Selected performers will be featured live on the main stage at TwitchCon 2017, as well as receiving free convention admission with a travel stipend.

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Tech companies, if you create addicts, you need to help them


Two years ago, I published a book on how to make products more habit-forming. The book became a bestseller and I’m frequently asked to consult with companies—particularly tech companies—looking to make their goods and services stickier and harder to stop using.

Unfortunately, making things more engaging also makes them more potentially addictive. The techniques I describe in the book, intended to help product designers build healthy habits in their users (like using a wellness app, keeping better track of personal finances, or staying in touch with family and friends) are the same tactics used by some to keep people un-healthfully hooked.

The solution is not stripping out what makes these products engaging; rather, it’s helping the addicts. Luckily, the two-way nature of Internet-connected services means companies can identify, message, and assist people who want to moderate use.

For example, instead of auto-starting the next episode on Netflix or Amazon Video, the binge-inducing video streaming services could ask users if they’d like to limit the number of hours they watch in a given weekend. Online games could offer players who cancel their accounts the option of blacklisting their credit cards to prevent future relapses. Facebook could let users turn off their newsfeeds during certain times of the day. And rather than making it so fiendishly difficult to figure out how to turn off notifications from particularly addictive apps, Apple and Android could proactively ask certain users if they’d like to turn off or limit these triggers.

These services know the usage patterns of each and every user. They don’t need to bother everyone, just those people showing patterns of behavior indicative of a problem. For example, setting a trigger based on the number of hours spent using an online service could prompt the company to reach out to suggest ways to cut back or deprecate certain features.

Indeed, the benefit of all the data being collected about us these days is that companies could use this information to help people who may be harmed by their products’ overuse. Clearly, there are many things tech companies could do to help users break the cycle of addiction. Whether they actually do anything however, is another matter.

There are some industries and companies that can’t and won’t help addicts. It’s not just dealers of illegal drugs who benefit from harmful addictions. Legitimate industries depend on addicts as well. For example, those ubiquitous ads for online games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush are fishing for what the industry calls “whales”—the 0.15 percent of players who bring in 50 percent of revenue. In an industry where the cost of acquiring a player is just barely less than the revenue made per user, whales tip the scales to profitability. Without these extreme customers, their businesses aren’t viable. Similarly, the casino industry depends on a disproportionate share of revenue coming from a small group of likely addicted gamblers, some of whom are known to wear adult diapers to avoid having to stop playing.

Many industries earn an outsized proportion of their revenue from their most loyal customers. The fast food industry for example, amusingly calls the 20 percent of diners who account for 60 percent of their revenue, “heavy users,” according to the Wall Street Journal. While there’s nothing unethical about being a patron’s favorite brand, a line is crossed when a company knowingly exploits people with addiction problems the way the gaming and gambling industries do.

For example, though most American casinos are required by law to have “self-exclusion” programs for gamblers who wish to stop their addiction, casinos have been known to welcome problem gamblers back with open arms. A similar situation revealed itself during a discussion on ethics I recently led at a publicly-traded online gaming company. The product managers confessed that they also allow people to play even when the players have explicitly asked to be cut off.

Casinos escape liability through a legal loophole protecting them from prosecution. Nevertheless, it is unethical to accept patronage from someone a company knows wants to stop using your product but can’t. This moral standard should apply to all industries that collect personal usage data on individuals and therefore have the ability to identify, message, and help problem users.

The trouble is, gambling and gaming companies are as addicted to their addicts as their addicts are to the companies’ products. Doing the right thing is an existential threat since luring whales can mean the difference between the success and failure of a game or casino. Without outsized proceeds from the few addicted players, these industries would have a hard time making a profit.

Thankfully, not all companies are as dependent on addicted users as the casino and online gaming industries. Helping addicts wouldn’t much hurt Facebook or Reddit, for example.

In fact, some tech companies are already limiting overuse, albeit in rudimentary ways. Stack Overflow, a technical question and answer site used by 6 million coders, was designed with breakers built-in. “The current system is designed to reward continued participation, but not to the point that it creates obsession,” according to a post on the site by co-founder Jeff Atwood. “Programmers should be out there in the world creating things too,” Atwood noted, stressing that Stack Overflow should be a utility, not an addiction.

Unlike, say, cigarettes–potentially addictive products where the manufacturer does not know the user—online services intimately aware of their users’ online behaviors have an opportunity to intervene. Of course, tech companies won’t be able to “cure” addictions, nor should they attempt to do so. Nor should they act paternalistically, turning off access after arbitrarily determining that a user has had enough. Rather, tech companies owe it to their users simply to reach out and ask if they can be helpful, just as a concerned friend might do. If the user indicates they need assistance cutting back, the company should offer a helping hand. With the data these companies collect, identifying and reaching out to potential addicts is a relatively easy step. A harder one, it seems, is caring enough to do the right thing.

[This story is an excerpt of a post on the ethics of addictive products published on the author’s own blog, NirAndFar.com]

Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Design School. He has sold two technology companies since 2003 and now help teams design more engaging products. He is also an active angel investor. Some of his past investments include: Eventbrite, Product Hunt, Refresh.io (acquired by LinkedIn), Worklife (acquired by Cisco), Happy BitsPresence Learning7 Cups of Tea, Pana, and Symphony Commerce.

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