New technologies, from drones to 3-D printing to virtual reality, are changing the ways that entertainment is created and distributed. Now, as we talk about “content” and “platforms” and “streaming” and “personalization,” the lines between technology and entertainment have grown so blurred, it’s hard to say where one stops and the other begins. As entertainment and technology rapidly evolve and merge, power in those fields accrues to the innovators. Here, ranging from the CEO of a massive entertainment company to the proprietor of a small store in a New York neighborhood, are 11 of the most innovative men and women in the rapidly shifting world of technology and entertainment.
VICE | COFOUNDER AND CEO
The first new-media tycoon to make the move from online to cable television, Shane Smith has access to something that everybody in entertainment wants: lots and lots of millennials.
A young Hunter Thompson wannabe, Shane Smith cofounded Vice in 1994 in Montreal as a drugs and alternative-culture rag. Vice moved to New York in 1999, where it made modest inroads into the media world. But starting in 2007, Smith began aggressively pioneering digital video journalism. Fueled by video, a take-no-prisoners attitude and a global network of gonzo correspondents—along with, Smith would say, a great deal of alcohol—Vice is now seen as a company that “gets” millennials, a demographic that TV news and American capitalism generally are struggling to capture. Now Vice , which employs hundreds of low-paid twentysomethings in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, warehouse, has expanded to a weekly newsmagazine on HBO and will soon be launching a cable channel. “It’s our time now,” Smith told the New York Times last spring.
Vice’s daredevil style and savvy use of social media have helped the company gain traction where others have failed, attracting young people who are abandoning network television and traditional news outlets. But Vice’s growth is also its challenge. “We get in shit a lot now if we’re not serious,” Smith recently told Interview magazine. “Which is weird because we were never serious before. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword.”
APPLE | BEATS CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER
The Nine Inch Nails frontman is working with Apple to change the economics of streaming music for artists and consumers alike.
When Apple released the first iPod, it revolutionized the music industry. Now, digital downloads have been supplanted by streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and Songza. Apple, which was late to the party, is laboring furiously to catch up. The company bought Beats, the trendy headphones and streaming music company, for $3 billion in 2014, and in June it unveiled Apple Music—an on-demand streaming service designed in large part by Nine Inch Nails singer-songwriter and Beats chief creative officer Trent Reznor. “I feel like I’m in a unique position where I could be of benefit to them,” Reznor told Billboard shortly after the Beats acquisition, and he would play a major role in developing Beats 1, the curated digital radio programs that are a signature part of Apple’s offering. “I want that feeling of walking into an independent record shop…and being delighted by the choices and the way music is presented to you with love and care,” Reznor recently told Rolling Stone.
Apple Music is no sure hit, but Reznor and partners Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine bring musical chops to the company’s tech wizardry. And at $9.99 a month, Apple Music may be a panacea to artists and labels who have felt the pinch of giving their music away through free services—an economic challenge Reznor is no doubt familiar with.
PERISCOPE | COFOUNDER AND CEO
With Periscope, Kayvon Beykpour is bringing live broadcasting to everyone who doesn’t own a network.
Periscope, a startup cofounded by Stanford computer science grad Kayvon Beykpour that Twitter bought for a reported $100 million in January, allows anyone with a Twitter account and a smartphone to live stream video. Viewers, in turn, can comment on the video and ask questions of the broadcaster.
The idea for the app came to Beykpour during the 2013 protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Twitter users could monitor updates, but couldn’t see what was happening. After Beykpour launched Periscope at the end of 2014, users documented live events like the explosion of a building in New York and voting in Africa. “We think of Periscope more in the context of a traditional consumer,” Beykpour said on the podcast This Week in Startups. “It might be a family friend Periscoping their daughter’s first footsteps to the extended family around the world, or it might be someone who happens to be in Ferguson or [Egypt’s] Tahrir Square or Taksim Square.” Or it might be illegal streaming: While cable companies struggled to serve the surge of pay-per-view orders for the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight in May, Periscope users could choose from dozens of unsanctioned, live feeds. “Piracy does not excite us,” Beykpour quickly tweeted.
NORMAL | FOUNDER
Nikki Kaufman’s 3-D printing company, Normal, is bringing hardware customization to the world of mass-produced tech.
Apple’s white earbuds are ubiquitous and instantly recognizable. They also suck, and keeping them in your ear, particularly while exercising, is a Sisyphean task. But Nikki Kaufman has a solution: custom, 3-D-printed earbuds that are personalized to your ear canal. Kaufman launched Normal in 2013, and the company has taken off; it now has 18 employees and a boutique store cum 3-D printing factory in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.
The process Kaufman uses to make her earbuds is extremely complex, but startlingly simple for users. For $199, customers use the Normal app to take a two-dimensional photo of each ear, and 48 hours later they get a new pair of 3-D-printed earbuds in the mail. Before Normal, custom earbuds required a visit to a doctor to make a silicone cast of the ear, a wait of up to a month, and $500 to $2,000, according to Kaufman. So Kaufman and her team had to devise a way to take a cellphone photo of the ear accurate enough to create a 3-D model from it. “We’re living in this very small, medium, large world, where everything is a size,” Kaufman said at the PSFK 2015 conference in New York. “A sort of Goldilocks world where it’s a little too big or too small, too hot or too cold, and maybe it’s close enough, hopefully, but is it ever just right? In my case, no, it’s never just right.”
NORTH KOREA STRATEGY CENTER | PRESIDENT
Kang Chol-Hwan is using black-market tech and Western TV to undermine the North Korean regime.
The reason North Korea is not changing,” Kang Chol-hwan explains, “is because it is the most isolated nation in the world. Any foreign media is severely punished.” Kang, who spent his childhood in the Yodok prison camp, defected from North Korea in 1992 after many years of clandestinely listening to radio broadcasts from South Korea. Now he uses technology to bring foreign media—sitcoms, movies, dramas, documentaries and Wikipedia—to North Koreans in the hope that information will set them free. “As North Koreans watch South Korean dramas and TV shows, they begin to realize that what the government is telling them is not true,” Kang says.
The North Korea Strategy Center, of which Kang is the president, smuggles foreign media into North Korea on USB thumb drives. The NKSC has also experimented with micro-drone smuggling and is now developing technology to allow files to be copied using smartphones, which are relatively common inside the Hermit Kingdom. “In the mid-’90s, people defected because they were hungry and they wanted to survive,” Kang says. But beginning in 2005, “people began to see the outside world and to leave because they saw it was better.” It’s no wonder that the North has put Kang on a list of its top 10 assassination targets.
BLACK MIRROR | CREATOR
Technology and how it changes us is at the center of Charlie Brooker’s disturbing TV show, Black Mirror .
The world of Black Mirror , the hit Netflix show from screenwriter Charlie Brooker, is almost like the one we live in today, but with technology “cranked up 5 percent,” Brooker has explained. Black Mirror —the name refers to the reflective quality of a turned-off screen—is the mobile generation’s Twilight Zone. In Brooker’s near future, technology is similar to whatever’s sitting on your nightstand or desk, but different in disturbingly plausible ways—like a computer that analyzes the social media feeds of a dead person and then imitates the deceased.
Black Mirror, originally produced for Channel 4 in the UK, forces the viewer to ask questions of technology that go beyond the what-could-possibly-go-wrong manifestos of Silicon Valley titans. As a New York Times writer put it, the show is “required viewing for our always-connected, device-augmented lives.”
Brooker, a longtime columnist for the Guardian in London, posits that tech will unquestionably change the world, just not in the ways that Silicon Valley imagines. Black Mirror is “all about the way we live now—and the way we might be living in 10 minutes time if we’re clumsy,” Brooker wrote in the Guardian. “And if there’s one thing we know about mankind it’s this: We’re usually clumsy.”
GIANT SPACEKAT | COFOUNDER AND CEO
Brianna Wu is targeting an underserved demographic in the video game industry—women—with a new programming element: emotion.
Brianna Wu’s business model for her video game company, Giant Spacekat, is simple: Make games that appeal to women in a more profound way than Candy Crush. Giant Spacekat’s next game, for instance, is about two players trying to save a crashing spaceship. But unlike in many traditional games, in which the players would compete against each other to see who could save the spaceship first, this game will require that the players actually work together in order to win.
Sounds cool—but since the release of her first game, Revolution 60, in 2013, Wu has been subjected to the bile of an unhinged, primarily male internet subculture called Gamergate, which decries feminist developers as bent on destroying video games. From September 2014 to May 2015, Wu received 104 death threats from Gamergate devotees. The threats come from “people who have recorded videos in skull masks, talking about my address, talking about deliberate plans to murder me,” she says. “This isn’t just me,” Wu emphasizes. “This is a climate where a lot of the women I know, all over the industry, are constantly terrified of being targeted.” Wu’s work—and the reaction to it—show what a serious business gaming can be.
DISNEY | CHAIRMAN AND CEO
Bob Iger has pioneered the use of technology to make Disney World your world.
Disney is an old-school media conglomerate that has managed to become one of this era’s technology leaders, and that’s largely due to 10-year-CEO Bob Iger. Both directly and through the corporate culture he fosters, Iger has pioneered Disney’s embrace of groundbreaking technology. Last year, for example, Disney World launched the MagicBand, a wristband for park visitors. Synched to wearers’ credit cards, Disney hotel rooms, FastPasses for rides and a myriad of other features, the wristband unlocks your room, gets you in and out of the parks, lets you buy Frozen dolls and Mickey ears without opening your wallet, and helps Disney staff understand how guest traffic flows through the park. “The goal of this was to make the guest experience better, enable the guest to experience more, to do so more efficiently, and essentially be able to customize,” Iger told the Disney at Work blog last year. But MagicBand also allows Disney to accumulate a massive amount of data about their consumers’ purchasing habits—and, because transactions are so easily conducted, Disney visitors almost certainly spend more money.
Iger is also behind Disney Accelerator, a technology incubator that now invests in companies working on, among other things, brain wave detection, 3-D-printed replacement hands and robot versions of humans.
MICROSOFT | CEO
Satya Nadella’s HoloLens may change the way people play video games, watch sports and interact with the world.
Microsoft changed the world with Windows, making desktop computing accessible and omnipresent. It’s been a long time, though, since anyone would say that Microsoft has changed the world. Now CEO Satya Nadella hopes to do it again with a new platform called HoloLens. He calls it “the new desktop.”
The HoloLens, if it succeeds, will be a new category. It is a visor, similar to virtual-reality visors such as Oculus, but instead of closing users off from the world around them, HoloLens projects 3-D holograms into the physical environment. The applications are probably infinite. In the world of entertainment, one of the first will likely involve the video game Minecraft , which Microsoft acquired for $2.5 billion six months after Nadella became CEO. HoloLens will allow Minecraft players to construct environments and play the game in 3-D, wherever they are. HoloLens also has other obvious applications in entertainment—the projection of football games into your living room, for instance.
AEROCINE | COFOUNDER AND CEO
AeroCine CEO Brian Streem is using drones to revolutionize newsgathering and Hollywood filmmaking.
About two and a half years ago, everything changed for a young filmmaker named Brian Streem. “I saw a little drone flying in the sky and I thought to myself, That’s absolutely amazing,” he recalls. Streem and cofounder Jeff Brink, both NYU film school grads, decided to get into the drone business. “We traveled the world looking for the best drone that could fly big cameras, the kind of camera systems Hollywood filmmakers are using.” But they couldn’t find anyone making drones with that capability.
Using carbon fiber and 3-D printing, AeroCine now produces drones capable of carrying the most complex camera systems Hollywood uses. Using drone footage, AeroCine has produced car ads, live TV for the Today show and Good Morning America, and is working on feature films and TV programs. The technological ability of AeroCine drones is impressive, and the price is right. While the cost of a helicopter is between $35,000 and $45,000 a day, an AeroCine drone with a similar camera rig costs around $10,000 a day. And drones are much smaller. “The requests we get for fictional television,” Streem explains, “are things like, ‘We want to fly from 300 feet up, and we want to go into a house, through the front door and out the back door, as one long shot.’”
SERIAL | HOST AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Podcasting came of age with the first season of Sarah Koenig’s paradigm-shifting series, Serial.
The term “podcast” has existed only since 2004, and despite the format’s resemblance to radio, it’s still a young medium. Last year Sarah Koenig produced what is perhaps the first truly mature podcast, Serial , a spinoff of the public radio show This American Life. By unfolding a single narrative, the story of a murder in Baltimore, over 12 weeks, Serial reminded listeners of the power of radio—in a format that they could access anytime. Koenig also used that format to tell her story in a new way, weaving together phone calls, interviews, archival audio and her own conflicted thoughts in deeply layered and complex episodes.
Serial was a podcast success without precedent. By word of mouth and social media, Koenig’s investigation into the conviction of teenager Adnan Syed garnered a mass following when it premiered in October 2014, and as of June 2015 its episodes had been downloaded 89.2 million times, according to Elise Bergerson, a spokesperson for This American Life. In April, Koenig won a Peabody Award, the first for a podcast. “I think something went wrong with this case, and I think that’s worth reporting,” Koenig, who declined to be interviewed, told NPR in December. As a result of her reporting, Syed’s conviction is now under review, and Koenig is working on the program’s second season.