The iconic Fox Plaza building will be forever remembered in pop culture for its role in the 1988 action movie Die Hard, known for its over-the-top special effects.Thirty years later, something just as explosive is happening in a quiet suite of rooms on the 20th floor of the Century City high-rise, adjacent to the 20th Century Fox movie studio.
A pair of double doors with a small “Fox Innovation Lab” placard, along with the suite number (2000), leads into a network of 11 rooms where the future of home entertainment is being discussed, dissected, debated and, ultimately, developed by a full-time staff of five — joined, on occasion, by interns and various other Fox employees.
The high-tech think tank and lab was launched in 2014 — under the auspices of Mike Dunn, now 20th Century Fox’s product strategy and consumer business development president; Danny Kaye, 20th Century Fox’s research and tech strategy EVP; and the studio’s chief technology officer, Hanno Basse — as a way to meld the often disparate worlds of technology and entertainment, of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
“The notion of the Fox Innovation Lab is simply to work with technology companies to figure out what the next generation of the consumer entertainment experience could be and would be, so we are constantly innovating on new platforms and new technologies that drive the next-gen experience,” says Kaye, a former UCLA psychology professor who serves as the Lab’s managing director. The Lab played a key role in advancing 4K Ultra HD with high dynamic range (HDR), which offers a more life-like picture. Most recently the Lab has led the charge to HDR10+, an open, royalty-free HDR technology featuring “dynamic metadata,” which more precisely adjusts content to the capabilities of different TVs.The Lab is also experimenting, and innovating, with virtual, augmented and mixed reality. The Lab’s VR work led to Fox’s first commercial VR product, The Martian VR Experience, a 20-minute interactive experience that lets viewers “become” Matt Damon in the 2015 Ridley Scott-helmed sci-fi film The Martian.
As an outgrowth of the Lab’s VR work, Fox last year launched a new business unit, FoxNext, which not only works on VR and AR, but also on location-based entertainment and gaming.
Fox Innovation Lab is now looking at ways to harness artificial intelligence and machine learning to advance the consumer entertainment experience even more.
And this is why Fox Innovation Lab is one of two honorees in the inaugural Media Play News Fast Forward Awards, honoring people, technologies, organizations, products or services that move the home entertainment industry forward.
The awards are an outgrowth of the Home Entertainment Visionary Awards, which were launched in 2002 by the now-defunct Home Media Magazine. Comcast’s Brian Roberts was the 2017 honoree. Warren Lieberfarb, the father of DVD, was the first, back in 2002. Other
honorees have included Sony Pictures’ Ben Feingold, Samsung’s Tim Baxter and Walmart’s Louis Greth and Chris Nagelson.
With a nod to Dunn and Basse, Kaye says the Lab was initially a studio-only endeavor — but based on its early successes its scope has since expanded to work across the entire 21st Century Fox company, from Fox Sports to FX Networks, from the Fox Networks Group to National Geographic.
“We’re cutting across all film and TV areas as they currently exist,” Kaye says. “And perhaps the most important part of the lab is that we work with technology companies. Samsung was an initial partner in many projects — both of us were the first to introduce HDR TVs and content, physical and digital. Then Ericsson came on board, focused more on mobile entertainment, as the younger demographic depends more on the mobile entertainment experience. And then we’re working with other companies on artificial intelligence and machine learning — the Intels and the Microsofts of the world — and with Technicolor on VR.
“There’s really no limit to the kinds of things we cover, as long as they are relevant to where the consumer experience is being taken.”
Takashi Nakano, director of business development for Samsung Electronics America, says, “Samsung and Fox began working together to create a bridge between technology and media. Many products and initiatives like the UHD Alliance and HDR10+ were the direct result of our partnership with the Fox Innovation Lab. The Fox Innovation Lab creates an open forum for both companies to discuss and debate the intersection between media and technology with the hopes to create an immersive consumer experience and new business opportunities. Our joint initiatives through the UHD Alliance have opened up new markets and provided viewers the ability to
experience content and move closer to experiencing true creative intent. Key technology advancements have led to new and unique opportunities and challenges like 4K and HDR initiatives through OTT and new direct-to-consumer initiatives that open new monetization vehicles. As technology and media continue to converge, our partnership with the Fox Innovation Lab will become increasingly important. Whether it is at the movies or in your home, the partnership advances the screen experience in new and exciting ways.”
Mark Russell, CTO and head of strategy at Ericsson Media Solutions, agrees. “The Lab is a great sandbox,” he says. “We can take these amazing Fox assets and experiment with Ericsson’s global operator base on next-gen viewing experiences. We can test new consumer engagements and find out if they are reliable, high quality and secure.
“We are bringing the content creator closer to the consumer than ever before. This partnership allows us to test and build the networks, video processing and delivery specifically for home entertainment in a way we know the studio intended because we are literally sitting at the table with them.”
Russell said Ericsson’s partnership with the Fox Innovation Lab is an ongoing venture. “We were approached by Hanno Basse at Fox in 2016 about participating in the Lab,” Russell says. “His goal then, as it is now, was to explore innovative consumer engagements and find a way to implement them in the real world.
“From an Ericsson perspective, we were clearly interested as our operator customers look to us to help them implement UHD HDR, VR/AR and machine learning into their networks. Having the Fox Innovation Lab as our partner in this was incredibly welcome.
“We signed up as an official partner in 2017 and are still actively engaged today.”
Kaye says the Fox Innovation Lab is carrying on a tradition of innovation that has been a characteristic of Fox for years.
“If you go back to the early 2000s, that’s when we as a company began to be very actively involved with technology companies,” he says. “We were the first studio in the Blu-ray Disc
Association; we worked closely with all the technology companies that were working on Blu-ray, from the big consumer electronics companies in Japan, Korea, and Europe, to the various tools companies.
“Even before that, we worked with JVC on things like Digital VHS, which was really the first high-definition format. And subsequently, when we developed 3D along with the BDA, we again worked closely with JVC on high-quality 3D conversions.
“So I think we developed an attitude and a habit, really, of not waiting for technology to be given to us in the marketplace and then react with content that matched, but, rather, to co-develop content with technology companies — so that when those technologies are ready to be commercialized they are already sensitive to issues we’re familiar with, in regard to the consumer experience and consumer behavior.
“It’s not a matter of ‘build it and they will come,’ but, rather, build an experience through co-development.”
Those early years of innovation and partnerships with technology companies laid the groundwork for what would become Fox Innovation Lab.
“In the early part of this decade,” Kaye recalls, “I became involved in the Innovation Outreach Program that Microsoft was putting together. They brought very large companies from around the globe, in different industries and sectors, together, and all of us were working on innovation of some sort, from autos to pharma to entertainment to chip manufacturers, across the board. The idea was to share innovation developments, experiences and visions across industry sectors. And that gave us the idea that, as an entertainment company, we could actually do something similar.
“So we established our own Innovation Lab in 2014, with the notion of getting influential partners onboard to attack problems we felt would be germane over the years. Our first project, with Samsung, on 4K and HDR proved to be very successful. We essentially initiated what is now a pretty successful part of the business, with tens of millions of 4K TVs and Blu-ray disc players being sold, and of course the content business, the ultra-high-definition disc, which is certainly larger than anybody had predicted at the time.
“That may have happened on its own, but I think through innovation we accelerated that quite a bit.”
Kaye says his focus “is on the living room experience, the mobile experience, of filmed entertainment” — and in using new technologies such as VR and AR to improve and enhance that experience.
“One of the things we try to work on, for example, is how do you use a mobile device in AR to increase the value of the experience. Let’s say, for example, that you’re watching a NASCAR race on TV, and you’re not just seeing what you’re looking at on the TV, what the cameras are showing, but if you have a tablet or phone you can have a whole different experience — a different perspective on the race. You could have the perspective of being in the pit, with an overlay of all kinds of interesting data about the driver, about the car, and just by pointing the device at different objects on the screen that data will pop up.
“And we have to think of similar things in filmed entertainment, and that’s where things like mixed reality come in — where you have the potential to have an experience similar to virtual reality, but instead of being completely in a virtual world, isolated from your surroundings, you’re also seeing your own environment and overlaying other environments through the lens of a headset.
“You could be in this particular room and I could be playing a game in this room and the game would map out in the room and take advantage of the walls and furniture as they exist, so I could see objects through the lens in an environment I know, because I know the room.”
At this point, one of Kaye’s lieutenants, director Clayton Biele, demonstrated Microsoft’s futuristic HoloLens, a pair of mixed-reality smart glasses. The headset goes on, and when you look at blood spatters that have been painted onto a wall in one of the lab’s demonstration rooms a holographic “memory” comes up that shows how the blood spatter got there — specifically, through a brutal murder.
Kaye is undisputedly one of the best-educated studio executives. A native of the Bronx, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cornell University and went on to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Syracuse University, with specialized experience in statistics and methodology, human perception and cognition.
He continued post-doctoral studies at Yale University and taught there, as well, before moving out west in 1981 to join UCLA as a psychology professor, focused on visual cognition and visual perception in both children and adults.
“When I decided to move into the business world, I at first worked at Mattel Toys, which was heavily represented by psychology Ph.D.s, doing research on kids and parents.”
After five years at Mattel, Kaye in 1994 joined Applause Inc. as VP of strategic planning and research. In May 1996 he began a three-year run as VP of research and strategic planning at Universal Studios Consumer Products. He landed at 20th Century Fox in 1999, rising to EVP of research and technology strategy, and in 2014 played a key role in establishing the Fox Innovation Lab.
“One of the reasons the lab works the way it does is because in our Fox tradition we have also had a seamless relationship internally between the business folks and the engineering and technology teams,” Kaye says. “Most of the projects are driven by the engineers, with Fox engineers working with engineers at the other companies. But even beyond that, through my business and research and Hanno’s technology teams driving development, we’re also involved with the creative community internally. That is certainly demonstrated with VR and AR, where we brought the whole film community in to develop those technologies.”
It’s the same thing with HDR, Kaye says. “The project started as an engineering project to create this new high dynamic range technology, but rather than let Samsung develop the technology in a vacuum, making sure the bees and flowers look good on the screen, we brought in our creative teams, as well as our directors and colorists, to make sure we were utilizing that technology to reflect the creative intent of the filmmakers.
“Back with Blu-ray Disc, we worked with people like Ridley Scott — Blu-ray was the only format for the home that reminded him of what he intended to film on the set, he told us. And now with HDR10+, we again have something that brings the best experience into the home — and not just on high-end TVs, but also on mid-range TVs that most people buy.
“It’s because of this intersection of business, technology and creative that we are able to see where this business is going. And as long as we continue to combine those three segments, we’ll be ahead of the curve. We don’t predetermine projects; we keep track of trends and prioritize trends that we think we will be able to make an impact on in a relatively short period of time.
“At the same time, we also keep an eye on technologies beyond that, and that is why we have an interest in 5G, and why we dabble in artificial intelligence and machine learning.”Through it all, in both the short term and the long term, Kaye says his ultimate goal is to enhance the entertainment experience and, in the words of Paul Simon, keep the customer satisfied.
“We still believe that people will consume our entertainment, in part, because of the quality of the experience, visual and audio,” he says. “And, again, if you track back, starting with DVD, there was a great increase in quality of the viewing experience, and then we did it again with Blu-ray Disc and then we went to 4K with HDR, and all along, at the same time, TV manufacturers were making better and better products.
“So we have to keep pace or move even further forward with the quality of the content we are giving the consumer. We’ve done it with physical formats, and now we’re doing the same thing with digital formats.
“If you compare digital files today with digital files 10 years ago, they’re night and day in terms of quality. And at the same time we’re working on improving the speed of delivery, on how to get high-quality content more rapidly into the home or on whatever device the consumer is using. This is where the new 5G networks come. And devices are getting better, so you’re going to keep having better experiences on almost any device.
“Continuous improvement — that’s really what we’re all about.”