Sure, Facebook jacked up the 2016 election, your apps are stalking you and there is now a medically-recognized condition called “text-neck.” But technology is not all bad. For every ominous development, there’s another that will make our lives easier, fuller and way more fun. In the spirit of embracing all the future has to bring, we investigated the trends, products and innovations that are changing the world of entertainment right now. Some are cool, some are freaky and all are bearing down on us in the next few years — whether we like it or not. Strap on your space goggles and get ready for liftoff.
Everyone dies — but thanks to CGI, a select few can come back to life. While the technology is not new (it was used as far back as 1993, after Brandon Lee died while filming The Crow), it has been dramatically refined in recent years. For the 2016 Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, reprised his 1977 role of Grand Moff Tarkin. Visual effects (VFX) artists studied motion-capture video of a stand-in reading Tarkin’s lines to inform their painstaking re-creation of Cushing’s likeness in CGI. “There are so many elements that make a face look real, from how light bounces off skin and hair to micro eye-darts and blood-flow coloration under the skin,” says Darren Hendler head of digital humans at Digital Domain, a VFX studio that turned Josh Brolin into Thanos for Avengers: Infinity War and worked on the Tupac hologram that took the Coachella stage in 2012. The latest benefactor: Amy Winehouse, who’ll be touring in hologram form in 2019. The company behind the effort, BASE Hologram, will take a similar approach to its re-creation of Winehouse, but rather than reflecting the hologram onto a stage mirror, executive producer and CEO Marty Tudor says the company will rely on powerful Epson projectors with “military-grade lasers.” The effect is a hologram that appears less translucent — and therefore more alive — than any you’ve seen in the past. What’s next? While digital artists are pushing toward ever greater attention to detail (for example, using high-fidelity 3D scans to render pores more accurately), the future of CGI may lie with artificial intelligence. Computers can be trained to replicate how a human face moves by referencing countless hours of footage. Prepare for the rise of the machines. — Ian Failes
There’s long been a collective yawn toward virtual reality. But the minds behind the Void have the answer. The four-year-old company, which has eight locations around the world and plans to build five more, is betting on “hyper-reality,” 360-degree VR and real-life interactions that combine to create an immersive experience set in the world of movies from Ghostbusters to Star Wars and more (including a collaboration with Marvel Studios next year). Before stepping into the faux world (a room of about 20×20 feet), visitors don a VR headset, noise-canceling headphones and a wireless haptic feedback vest, which can mimic anything from a jolt upon being shot in the chest to the sensation of an elevator rising. While the digital scenarios are rendered in high-definition, what really sells the illusion are additions that tap the senses. A battle set near a lava pit includes gusts of hot air and the pungent scent of sulfur; if a player wants to touch the droid providing a mission briefing, they’ll find an appropriately shaped object to pat. Beyond the mechanics, Void chief creative officer Curtis Hickman sees broader uses for the technology: “Imagine how a virtual world could impact [training for] jobs that are dangerous. In the Void, you can re-create those environments, and they look and feel real.” — Paul Katz
Taylor Swift fans mesmerized by rehearsal clips on a kiosk at her May 18th Rose Bowl show were unaware of one crucial detail: A facial-recognition camera inside the display was taking their photos. The images were being transferred to a Nashville “command post,” where they were cross-referenced with a database of hundreds of the pop star’s known stalkers, according to Mike Downing, chief security officer of Oak View Group, an advisory board for concert venues including Madison Square Garden and the Forum in L.A. “Everybody who went by would stop and stare at it, and the software would start working,” says Downing, who attended the concert to witness a demo of the system as a guest of the company that manufactures the kiosks. (Swift’s reps did not respond to requests for comment.) Despite the obvious privacy concerns — for starters, who owns those pictures of concertgoers and how long can they be kept on file? — the use of facial-recognition technology is on the rise at stadiums and arenas, and security is not the only goal. Earlier this year, Ticketmaster invested in Blink Identity, a startup that claims its sensors can identify people walking past at full speed in about half a second. The ticketing giant hopes the technology will help fans move through turnstiles more efficiently, a privilege that may be offered to high rollers and VIP guests before it reaches the masses. “It holds a lot of promise,” says Justin Burleigh, Ticketmaster’s chief product officer, adding that the company plans to beta-test the tech at venues early next year. “We’re just being very careful about where and how we implement it.” — Steve Knopper
If you were a billionaire CEO who wanted to create the world’s most audaciously advanced concert venue, what would you do? If the answer is “Stick 157,000 ultra-directional speakers, a three-and-a-half-acre spherical ultra-high-res video screen and vibrating floors into a enormous dome built from scratch,” you’re thinking like actual billionaire James Dolan, whose Madison Square Garden Company broke ground on the MSG Sphere in Las Vegas in September. Read all about the insane concert venue of the future here. — Brian Hiatt
>A car’s sound system can be a point of pride, but one company is on a quest to make the whole notion obsolete. The goal: to turn the body of the vehicle itself into a speaker. Continental Automotive’s Ac2ated Sound technology uses surface vibration to deliver sound. Tiny actuators — like the cores of traditional speakers — are attached to different materials in the car and then tuned. Each area has a different frequency response: Stiff materials like rear window glass can produce a deep output (so no space-hogging subwoofer needed), and narrow pillars can deliver the high-end range. “You get immersive sound because the spaces we’re using are large, like whole inner door panels,” explains Jens Friedrich, technical-project lead for Ac2ated Sound. “The sound radiates from the whole surface, so you feel deep inside it.” The technology saves weight (Continental says up to 30 pounds) and runs on less energy than traditional speakers — key features for the next wave of battery-powered vehicles. The system should roll out in 2021. — Jesse Will
Arlington, Texas, 20 miles outside Dallas, may be best known for AT&T Stadium, or “Jerry World,” a standing paean to football (and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones). But with the November opening of Esports Stadium Arlington, officials are hoping the city becomes the epicenter of esports, the rapidly-growing industry expected to generate $1.7 billion in revenue by 2021. The largest such venue in North America, at 100,000 square feet, it features an 80-foot-wide stage where some of the best gamers in the world go head-to-head, an 85-foot LED wall that displays their moves, theatrical lighting, and seating for 2,000. It is the latest in a wave of dedicated esports temples, including Esports Arena Las Vegas at the Luxor and Esports Arena in Oakland, both of which opened last spring. The facilities are designed not just to host championship events, such as the $750,000 contest for the first-person-shooter game Counter-Strike Global Offensive that opened Arlington, but also to be training centers where gamers can get together and hone their skills. Esports has so much traction with young fans that traditional sports team executives from Jones to Michael Jordan, New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft and New York Mets owner Jeff Wilpon have invested millions in nascent gaming franchises. Says Arlington city manager Trey Yelverton, “These guys are working in esports because it’s the future of engagement with the millennial crowd.” — Jesse Will
Anyone still thinking of Will.i.am as just a hitmaking producer-rapper is decidedly 2000-and-late, at least as far as Silicon Valley is concerned. Though his Puls smartwatch wasn’t a success back in 2015, he is taken seriously by venture capitalists, who have reportedly provided more than $100 million in funding to his company, I.am+, which is working on a personalized artificial-intelligence assistant. In this interview, he shares his vision for the future of entertainment and more. — Brian Hiatt
From year to year, AV nerds flip over the newest TVs and speaker systems on the market. But often, to the average person, whatever improvements they offer in picture and sound are so subtle as to seem almost undetectable. Now, two new products are arriving to change all that.
The cineplex might not beat your living-room sofa for comfort, but it likely does for sound. Not anymore, thanks to speakers that use the same 3D sound format, called Dolby Atmos, that many theaters do. Unlike previous surround sound, Atmos employs a height element: Its speakers fire up toward the ceiling, enabling “object-based” sound — meaning a plane moving onscreen will sound like it’s flying right over your head. While Atmos-enabled home equipment has been around since 2014, uptake has been slow due to cost and a limited catalog of movies and shows tracked with the tech. But the market has finally caught up. Atmos-enabled home-theater-in-a-box speaker units priced at less than $500 just hit the market; Apple’s 4K TV supports Atmos; and Amazon Prime Video has begun streaming content in a 3D sound format, joining rivals such as Netflix.
While many of us are just upgrading to 4K LCD TVs, Samsung is already developing a set that far surpasses anything currently available in stores — and may even shift what we think a TV should look like. “The Wall,” a behemoth television that’s 12 feet across and just a few inches thick, is powered by micro-LED panels, which put out a picture both brighter and blacker than competing technologies. And since it’s essentially made from small panels stitched together, a micro-LED display like the Wall could one day be built modularly to nearly any size or shape a buyer wants. Commercial units are available for preorder now; a consumer version six feet wide and just over an inch deep is rumored to arrive in 2019. — Jesse Will
Cutting a record hasn’t changed much Thomas Edison did it. It’s been about 40 years since you could point to even an incremental innovation — a ‘70s-era production technique called direct metal mastering, now relegated to boutique status — so, naturally, some entrepreneurs think the format is ripe for an overhaul. Enter high-definition vinyl. Currently in a prototype stage, it could lengthen play time of records by up to almost a third while dramatically improving sound quality. The breakthrough: stamping records via laser-cut ceramic rather than electroplated metal. “The laser precisely removes material from the stamper without mechanical or thermal stressing,” explains Gunter Loibl, founder of Austria-based HD Vinyl, creating a “perfect groove.” The result? “It won’t matter whether you’ve got the first copy of a record or the 10,000th,” Loibl says, “they’ll sound exactly the same.” While test pressings are pending, industry experts predict the technology will initially be best suited to classic catalogs of artists such as the Beatles. The first albums are planned for late 2019. — Jesse Will
Craving even more options when you watch TV? Get ready for choose-your-own-adventure shows. In 2017, Netflix tested the waters with two kids’ programs, Puss in Book and Buddy Thunderstruck. But when word leaked in October that the streaming giant would produce an interactive episode of Black Mirror — the acclaimed sci-fi series, expected to return in December, about the dark side of technology — as well as at least one other unnamed live-action show, the experiment became a new reality. The lure: of course, Gen Z. “A generation has grown up actively engaging with their content,” says Andrew Hawn, head of cultural strategy at trend forecaster Sparks & Honey. “From liking on social media to multiplayer video games, having a say in what they watch is built into their DNA.” — Paul Katz
As more consumers cut cable — and with the rights packages for the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB all set to expire by 2025 — it seems just a matter of time until sports are streaming-only entertainment. But how much will tech giants be willing to pay for them? Despite deals like the one boxer Canelo Alvarez notched in October with the platform DAZN, an 11-fight contract worth $365 million, some industry experts are skeptical that the major streaming players will pony up enough dough to unlock network TV’s hold on sports broadcasting. (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, for one, has stated the company has no interest in pursuing live sporting events.) Still, the transition took a step forward when MLB gave Facebook Watch exclusive rights to Wednesday-afternoon games in 2018. It was the first time a major sports league had produced broadcasts specifically for a streaming platform. An MLB source said the league was “pleased” with what they learned, particularly via viewer feedback, which included suggestions as simple as shrinking the score box on the screen because it proved distracting. The experiment also drew under-40 viewers to a game that’s struggled to connect with young fans. — Michael Weinreb
Attention, Ed Sheeran: Artificial intelligence is coming for you. While the idea of a computer-crafted chart-topper seems far off, AI songwriting is gaining traction. Startups such as Amper, Popgun, Jukedeck and Amadeus Code have raised millions of venture-capital dollars on the bet that machines will become valuable creative assistants to artists in the near future. Several artists utilizing a songwriting algorithm called Flow Machines already have appeared on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlists.
How does it work? An algorithm ingests thousands of songs in a specific genre and rapidly cranks out chord progressions and melodies optimized for that style — even indistinguishable (according to another algorithm, that is) from music written by people. While these programs might not be consciously driving or tapping into musical trends the way human artists do, they churn out content much more efficiently than, say, an exhausted musician who’s been touring for months. This productivity could have obvious appeal to record labels and streaming services: Generate tons of new music without ever having to pay a human writer? Yes, please. Spotify, in fact, drew criticism in 2017 for featuring on several mood playlists artists who did not appear to exist. The assumption: The company was using AI-crafted songs and crediting them to made-up people. But few on the AI development side believe that their creations will replace artists altogether. Instead, they see their algorithms as a supplement to human efforts, offering new arrangements of notes and tunes that can help songwriters clarify their own ideas — enhancing, not neutering, their creative power. Citing electric guitars and drum machines, Amadeus Code founder Taishi Fukuyama says, “History teaches us that emerging technology in music leads to an explosion of art. For AI songwriting, I believe just it’s a matter of time before the right creators congregate around it to make the next cultural explosion.” — Cherie Hu