The future of entertainment, USC style

Usc_entertainment_technology_center The entertainment industry has been pressuring colleges directly and indirectly to teach students the do's and don'ts of copyrights, hoping such lessons will help abate online piracy. But at USC's Entertainment Technology Center, students often are the ones giving lessons to Hollywood and the high-tech world about the right way to deliver movies and TV shows to consumers who are increasingly mobile and digital.

Etc_screen_grab_3 The ETC, a 15-year-old branch of the university's School of Cinematic Arts, was established as a forum for tech companies and studios to collaborate -- a good example being the center's work on digital cinema. A more recent project is the Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab, a place for ETC staff to put a variety of cutting edge (or even bleeding edge) entertainment equipment and services together to see how they work. Or don't, as the case may be.

David Wertheimer, the ETC's executive director and a former digital guru at Paramount, said that while studios focus on their product, the lab concentrates on the user. The hope, he said, is that its work will show studios and tech companies how to "meet in the middle and provide new kinds of products" that appeal to the next generation of consumers. In addition to interviewing USC students on campus every week about their media consumption habits and attitudes, the ETC brings about 20 students into the lab to talk to its board and try out some of the gear it has assembled. It's not a scientific sampling, but the ETC does try to draw specimens participants from a range of backgrounds and fields of study.

The lab takes up a portion of the ETC's office, which is planted in an industrial strip between the USC campus and the 110. The current configuration includes a home theater, a conference area and a room for testing and experimentation (i.e., a place to answer questions like "Can I make it do this?"). The centerpiece, though, is an 18' x 20' demo room with eight flat-panel screens hung on the walls at eye level. Below the screens sit black metal boxes of various shapes and sizes -- amplifiers, disc players, computers, hard drives, iPods, cell phones, networking gear and the like. It's a bit like an electronics retailer's showroom, designed to make it easy for the staff to add, subtract and connect things. "It could end up looking like NORAD and be totally stressful to people," Wertheimer cracked. The intended vibe, though, is more like the living room you wish you had at home. If you were me, that is.

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Apple users: tossers?

The_unofficial_apple_weblog_tuaw_lo The Unofficial Apple Weblog unearthed (or rather, un-pixeled) some pungent commentary about Apple and its fans within Grand Theft Auto IV. Check it out here. Who says the GTA games have no redeeming social value? Guess Take Two won't be coming out with a Mac version of GTA IV anytime soon. But then, that's what Boot Camp is for. (Thanks to Sheigh for the tip!)


Apple, Hollywood and windows

Apple_itunes_store_movies_2008Apple closed two gaps today with its announcement about downloadable movies for sale through the iTunes Store. The one it emphasized was the agreement by six major studios to pony up their films the day they were available on DVD. This was a no-brainer for Hollywood. In fact, according to a publicist for Vudu, the studios have long been providing downloads for sale through other online vendors "day and date" with DVD releases. The more interesting element here is that Apple has finally persuaded Hollywood's largest studios to sell movies through iTunes.

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Apple iPods come with music?

Apple_ipods_2007 It's poor form to criticize a competitor's scoop, but I won't let that stop me. The Financial Times ran an attention-grabbing piece today about a "radical new business model" Apple was floating with the record labels: letting buyers of premium-priced iPods and iPhones download an unlimited amount of music from the iTunes store. Radical for Apple, perhaps, but not for the music industry, which (as the story points out) is already talking to Nokia about the very same approach.

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Apple subtracts one advantage

Tuaw_logo Reader James Lubin of Los Angeles pointed out something I'd overlooked in my post Tuesday about Apple's new movie rental service. One of the differentiators between Apple and other downloadable movie sites is that rented films can be transferred to pocket-sized portable players in addition to laptops. Previously, that was something only DivX-enabled services such as Film Fresh could do with rentals, and until this month, no major studio had approved the use of DivX's DRM on its movies. But Lubin pointed me to a post on The Unofficial Apple Weblog reporting that movies rented from iTunes can be transferred only the latest iPods, i.e., the Touch, the Classic, the iPhone and the redesigned Nano.

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Apple's version of Movielink

Apple_tv_movie_rentals Apple CEO Steve Jobs confirmed this morning its long-rumored entry into the online movie rental business, saying it had deals with all the major Hollywood studios to offer downloadable films for $2.99 (older titles in standard definition) to $4.99 (new releases in high definition). The company's approach is plagued by many of the same studio-imposed problems that have burdened pioneering download sites Movielink and CinemaNow, but it also has a couple of advantages unique to Apple.

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CES: Paramount endorses hard drives

Videogiants_logo_2 Here's an unusual first. Paramount Pictures announced a deal Wednesday to let MusicGiants, an online music store that caters to audiophiles, sell collections of movies loaded onto hard drives. Buyers will be able to transfer the contents of those drives onto personal  computers or, more likely, home media servers. The deal marks the first time Paramount -- and probably any major Hollywood studio -- has let its films be a) delivered on hard drives and b) loaded in bulk onto home servers. MusicGiants will also be able to sell downloadable titles one by one through its new online video store, dubbed VideoGiants, although it doesn't plan to do so until later this year.

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CES: The Third Screen

The problem: a houseful of gadgets and devices that all stake claim to your music, movies, pictures and video, like toddlers who amass toys and don't like to share. OpenPeak thinks it has the answer: a universal remote control on steroids that acts like a Swiss governess that can make all those unruly gadgets behave and play nice.


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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