Peek into an empty Steve Jobs Theater before tomorrow’s big Apple event

What are you up to this afternoon? If your answer is anything “watching the livestream of an empty Steve Jobs Theater,” honestly, I’m not sure how you call yourself an Apple fan.

A day before the company’s event in Cupertino, Apple’s streaming video of what looks to be an empty theater, bathed in darkness, with some swirling psychedelic designs playing on the big screen. The whole thing is almost certainly a bid to drum up more interest a day out, as fan scramble to figure out if someone accidentally left the feed running after morning rehearsals.

Most likely, what we’re seeing is a composite, CG mockup or pre-recorded video of the space. There’s even the occasional odd pop up on the big screen. Apple’s been known to have fun at our expense just ahead of the big event. Call it a fun goof or good natured trolling, but the company’s certainly got out attention. Not that is needed it.

Apple is expected to launch a number of new products tomorrow, including a  Netflix competitor, news offering and gaming service. There’s even a credit card rumored to be in the works.

MoviePass parent’s CEO discusses the service’s rocky year

In the space of a few months, MoviePass went from being the hottest startup on the block to a cautionary tale about growing too big, too fast.

By the time the summer of MoviePass came to an end, the company that was going to permanently disrupt the box office was hemorrhaging money. It changed its subscription plans repeatedly, while a service outage found its parent company, Helios and Matheson Analytics, asking creditors for a $5 million loan.

The company’s past year is littered with tales of woe, including funding the film “Gotti,” which earned the fabled 0 percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. But this week, MoviePass announced a return of sorts, with the launch of Uncapped, which brings back its unlimited subscription plan (with caveats).

Shortly after that news dropped, we sat down with Helios and Matheson CEO Ted Farnsworth to discuss the company’s rocky year, and how he intends to right the ship long after most have discounted MoviePass outright. We’ve already written up some of his more newsworthy remarks; now here’s a fuller (but still edited and condensed) transcript of what he told us.

TC: What is the status of the plan to spin-off MoviePass at this point? We last heard from you back in January.

TF: We filed our S-1, which is public information out there. And we’re continuing going full speed ahead.

TC: So what will Helios and Matheson look like moving forward?

TF: Helios and Matheson will still be obviously the largest shareholder of MoviePass. And then MoviePass Entertainment will be with MoviePass Films, MoviePass Subscription and Moviefone.

TC: Why does it make sense to spin-off?

TF: It makes sense from the standpoint of multiple reasons. One is because it will be a fully integrated entertainment company there. So if we plan to go forward and do any other acquisitions or whatever else we’re doing, really we’ll just focus on the entertainment side.

TC: Do you still view MoviePass as a good investment?

TF: Absolutely 100 percent, without a doubt. Because you created a household name, you changed the industry forever, even with AMC doing subscription and Cinemark doing subscription … even though they all said they would never do it, now they’re all doing it because you definitely changed the model. I think we grew obviously way too fast, where that was our problem in the technology side, being able to figure out people who were gaming the system or doing fraud on the system, sharing their codes. So I think now that we’ve relaunched the $9.95 Uncapped Plan, that’s where you really took six months to figure out on the technology side ways to really stop that from happening going forward.

Moviepass

This August 23, 2018, file photo shows MoviePass debit cards and used movie tickets in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

TC: Gaming the system…was the primary source of the problem?

TF: Oh, yeah. They would share their code. You’d have one person going to 20 movies a month, 30 movies a month. Which you know and I know, as much as we like movies, most people aren’t going to 30 movies a month. And the way we figured that out into the system was when we started auditing people’s [accounts]. How many times did they change their device. When they take it and then they bring it back. 

TC: So the primary fix you see on your end is kind of isolating those people and getting them off the system? Or how much of it is actually changing the fine print on the plans themselves?

TF: Even back then with all that abuse, 80 percent were just regular movie-goers. Your average movie-goer that would go to four movies a year, and you’re trying to get them to double to go to eight movies a year, right? So when you’re sitting here looking at that, it was the 20 percent that were the abusers that were ruining it for everybody else, from the standpoint of gaming the system or whatever. But I could go on … stories of people gaming the system. People use MoviePass to go to the restroom in Times Square.

TC: One of the complaints from consumers is that they felt like they had the rug pulled out from under them. The plans were constantly shifting. Is that going to continue to be the case moving forward?

TF: No. This plan was always the plan in the background of what you would move towards. But testing different plans, whatever it was, along the way. For instance, another issue is where people would go to the theater, they’ll pick up the ticket, they’ll hand their ticket to the kid or their child or their friend or whatever it is, they’ll go and watch the movie, and the person that’s paying the subscription goes back home or whatever they do. So now, even with our technology, we’ll be able to ping them inside the movie.

TC: You are actually tracking where people are?

TF: No, not tracking. When they go to log in to get a ticket, you have to do a location because you’ve got to know what theater they’re at. So as they do that, you’re gonna go ahead when the movie starts 30 minutes later, you’re able to ping them inside the theater, just to make sure they still are at that theater.

TC: What sends up a red flag? Is it just the sheer number of movies somebody’s going to in a month?

TF: It could be different things. It could be multiple locations. It could be multiple cities. It could be all kinds of different things. So those are all the algorithms that we’ve been building along the way.

TC: The new plan is unlimited with a caveat. What are the parameters?

TF: You have full inventory like the old days of what you’re able to go to, whether it’s a Marvel movie or whatever it is. And that’s what the people want. They don’t want curated movies. I also believe that even though we did caps … people don’t really look at caps. 

TC: Looking back on what happened in the past year, do you feel that the company was transparent enough with consumers and shareholders while all this was going down?

TF: Absolutely. I think on the shareholder side, absolutely. I think our disclosures are way, way above and beyond, which is proven out over time, and I think on the consumer side you’re always transparent as fast as you could be on different things that were going on, but you’re right from the standpoint of, you’re growing so quick so fast.

TC: In order to actually be profitable if you are generating revenue with your own original content, what does the breakdown have to be? How many of your films do people with these passes have to go see in order for the whole thing to be profitable?

TF: Not as many as you’d think, because if you’re just profitable on the subscription side alone, you know, break-even and profitable on that, and then you have your movies on top of that as your ancillary revenues. For instance, some of the pre-sales and commitments that we already have on our movies, you’re already way ahead of the game, and then when you start tying it back to subscribers, how much does each subscriber drive as gross revenue? Right now, everybody looks at it as $9.95 or $14.95. Those numbers will jump dramatically for — I mean, coming up soon. Sooner than later.

TC: What kind of time are we talking about for the subscription side to actually become profitable?

TF: Oh, well, that’s interesting. It’s profitable right now. [A Helios and Matheson spokesperson later clarified that Farnsworth meant MoviePass’ subscription business is profitable on a revenue-per-subscriber basis.]

TC: When did it turn profitable?

TF: I will tell you this because this is out there, MoviePass has actually paid Helios back money over the last several months for loans that they have, so that gives you an idea of when we really started focusing on getting rid of the 20 percent of abuse.

TC: Are you able to disclose numbers for this new plan, as far as number of subscribers?

TF: Look, we’re extremely happy. We’re definitely well over 800 percent growth in the last few days. And that’s conservative.

TC: What are you doing beyond announcing this plan to actually win those people back?

TF: Well, a lot of them are coming back already that have canceled in the past, and we’ll be doing things you’ll see coming out even more and more, especially towards the ones that were loyal over time and really stuck it out over the last two years.

TC: What is the company’s relationship like with theaters at this point?

TF: We have good relationships with them, but the whole business model now is we don’t depend on them. We’re not looking at them from the revenue side, from the discount side, because you’re doing your own. You’ve got the subscription and your own original content, so that’s what we’re focused on.

TC: Does the relationship with the studios become problematic one you start producing your own films?

TF: No, because if you look at some of our past films, Lionsgate’s a distributor, Universal’s a distributor, so they’re making money on us now, so they’re even more open now to dealing with us because now all of a sudden they’re realizing that we’re one of their clients. So, if we use Lionsgate for distribution for one of our movies, we’ve got Universal trying to get the same deal, so it’s the opposite with the studio side. The studio side, we’ve got great relationships with them for sure.

TC: Last year things were looking rough and there was a point where the service went down and the company needed a pretty large investment. What were those conversations like with investors?

TF: I think if you look at our investors, the institutions, they’ve all done fine. I mean, they’re more than willing to invest in the next rounds of whatever they can do to invest, so I think the big snafu there was the credit card company, when one company sold to another company or whatever. We had done business with them for four years, so they decide that it’s too much credit for them and literally called the credit line on a Friday night and I do a personal guarantee on a Saturday. So, were the conversations interesting? Yeah, they were to say the least.

HMNY moviepass parent chart

TC: What is Moviefone driving? What is the value proposition for you with it?

TF: We just brought on Matt [Atchity], who was the creator of Rotten Tomatoes … We’ll start doing more. We just engaged a very well-known person for Moviefone that will start doing all our red-carpet events.

TC: “Gotti” must have been a learning experience.

TF: Not really. Let me tell you why. Because we never looked at “Gotti” as a money-maker. They knew it would break-even or whatever, but they only projected that it would do $1.3 million in the box office here … Then when we pushed it with MoviePass, we took that up to $5 million. [Technically, $4.3 million.] So, I mean, when you can take a movie — I gotta be careful here, but when you take a movie that might not be that great or perfect, and you can move that needle, was always our theory of subscription.

TC: It sounds like you’re still optimistic about the theatrical business.

TF: Last year was the first time that theatrical was up in what, 20 years? Attendance, right? And then as we started going through our little snafus, you see numbers have dropped now. So I also think what’s interesting is, the industry was nervous to embrace you, and then all of a sudden when they thought maybe it was gonna go away, then all of a sudden they’re trying to embrace you. It’s like, wait a minute, maybe we do want them as part of the model. So I think, if you look at it overall, the whole ecosystem of theatrical, I don’t think that’s going anywhere at all. Because it’s like there’s certain people, and I think millennials for sure, they were never experiencing the theater side. Because they’re not gonna pay $15 a ticket, guy takes his girlfriend there or a young kid, and all of a sudden they’re spending 100 bucks on a night out going to the movies. Even though, it’s still the cheapest entertainment out there.

So with a subscription model, where it makes it more user-friendly, then they feel — it’s funny if you look at AMC’s quotes out there, from what’s going on with their subscription, consumption at the concession stands has doubled. We’ve been saying that all along. Because people feel if they’re there and they’re not putting money out of their pocket, they’re more free to spend money at the concession stand.

TC: Once the movie theaters realize that you might be going away, they’ve embraced you.

TF: They all know, the studios know the amount of tickets we’ve bought for certain movies. So if you’re buying 30, 40 percent of a movie nationwide, of a major studio … I think if you look back over the year of different points, different turning points, it was when they did the research report, it was Hollywood Reporter, and it was at CinemaCon. They did this research where we didn’t know about it, and they were putting it out at CinemaCon. Well, it came out, and it was raving reviews. It was: We were better than Netflix, we were better than Amazon, all these things. And talking about how people would listen to us 52 percent of the time [about] what theater to go to, all these different things.

So when that came out, when we saw it, of course we’re all happy to see how great the report is. And literally 15 minutes later, I’m like, boy has the gates of Hell just opened in Hollywood. These guys aren’t even a year old, and they have this kind of control over our box office. I mean, think about that from a technology standpoint. Think about that like from an Uber with a taxi service. Airbnb and the hotel industry. We’ve all lived through that. We all use it.

TC: You think MoviePass is disruptive in the same way that those businesses are?

TF: Oh my gosh, absolutely. We’ve proven it. We’ve changed the whole model forever. Where now, the No. 1 player in the world, AMC, is doing subscription. Even though they’ve said the whole time, ‘It won’t work, you can’t do subscription, it doesn’t work,’ blah blah blah, whatever …  So in hindsight, would you do it differently, where MoviePass would have been private and then grow it and then go to an IPO? But we didn’t know … we thought it would do well.

TC: Would you have [kept it private]?

TF: In hindsight?

TC: Yeah.

TF: You’d probably sit there and build it up for a couple of years, without being under the microscope of everybody looking at every move you make. Because even when you look at Uber or whatever, they’ve had, over the years, their systems hacked or this, that and everything else … and it’s not that big of news, because you’re not under the microscope. We didn’t know that it was gonna grow as fast as it did.

TC: Were there any moments of doubt in the past year?

TF: No … There was no moments with me where I thought it would go down. Where it would just disappear. In my mind, it was too big to fail. Where you created a household name in less than a year.

Drone analytics startup Aria Insights suddenly shutters

Earlier this year, Helen Greiner-founded drone startup Cyphy Works announced a major change. The company was rebooting and renaming itself Aria Insights, a move that arrived with a new-founded, AI/data-driven focus. Now, just over two months later, the company is no more.

Reports that Aria had shuttered began surfacing earlier this week. Moments ago, the company confirmed the move in a tersely-worded statement offered to TechCrunch.

Aria Insights has ceased operations effective March 21, 2019.” That’s the sum total of the insight provided by Lance VandenBrook, the former CyPhy CEO who resumed that role as the company transitioned back in January. The move appears to be an abrupt one, with little to no information offered to external parties. It brings to mind last year’s sudden closure of Rethink Robotics, another company launched by a former iRobot cofounder.

Full disclosure, we announced last month that the company’s CTO would be appearing on-stage at our Robotics event next month. That, like everything else apart from Aria’s drones, appears to be up in the air at the moment.

More information as we get it.

What to expect from Apple’s ‘Show Time’ event

The biggest surprise about next week’s Apple event may be the fact that the company has anything left to announce. This week, several core pieces of Apple hardware received upgrades, including the iPad Air and mini, iMac and AirPods. Given the company’s rush to get all of that out the door, we don’t expect to see much in the way of new devices at Monday’s event.

Apple sent invites announcing that March 25 will be “Show Time.” The wording was a subtle nod to the “It’s Showtime” invites the company sent for its 2006 Special Event, which saw the announcement of, among other things iTV — an early peek at the product that would launch as Apple TV the following year.

This time out, however, the company is all about the services. Taking center stage will be its long-awaited original content play. Apple couldn’t keep the news fully under wraps as it pumped around $1 billion into content, so we’ve been hearing dribs and drabs over the past year or so (more on that below), including hiring everyone from Oprah to Spielberg.

The service is set to compete with the biggest names in streaming, including Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, along with long-rumored newcomers like Disney. Among the more compelling reports we’ve seen surface so far involve the company helping to sell you other streaming services.

In a sense, it wouldn’t be entirely unlike the current Apple TV model. Reports have the company building a new content store focused on offering bundles with cable services like HBO, Showtime and Starz. Put more simply, Apple may be looking to disrupt cable TV by essentially becoming a cable TV provider. Its tremendous hardware outreach will play a major role in helping it gain a toehold — like Apple Music before it.

As for the original content, it’s not clear whether Apple plans to monetize these shows at all. Instead, reports suggest that it could make them available for free to viewers with an Apple device.

Here are all of the projects that have been revealed so far. Keep in mind that they’re in various stages of development, and, as such, may change dramatically or never see the light of day.

  • “Amazing Stories” — a reboot of the science fiction anthology series executive produced (in both its old and new versions) by Steven Spielberg.
  • “Are You Sleeping?” — a crime show about true crime podcasts, executive produced by Reese Witherspoon and starring Octavia Spencer.
  • “Calls” — an adaptation of a French short-form series emphasizing audio storytelling.
  • “Central Park” — an animated musical comedy from Loren Bouchard (creator of “Bob’s Burger”), as well as Josh Gad and Nora Smith.
  • “Defending Jacob” — a thriller adapted from William Landay’s novel, starring Chris Evans.
  • “Dickinson” — a coming-of-age series about the poet Emily Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld.
  • “For All Mankind” — a space race-themed science fiction series from Ronald D. Moore, who created the acclaimed reboot of “Battlestar Galactica.”
  • “Foundation” — an adaptation of the classic science fiction series by Isaac Asimov, with David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman as showrunners.
  • “Home” — a documentary series about extraordinary homes.
  • “Little America” — an immigrant-themed anthology series showrun by Lee Eisenberg (“The Office”) and Alan Yang (“Master of None”).
  • “Little Voice” — a romantic dramedy executive produced by J.J. Abrams and the creative team behind the “Waitress” musical, Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson.
  • “Losing Earth” — a series based on Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times magazine story and book about the history of climate activism.
  • “Magic Hour” — a mystery series inspired by the real-life story of Hilde Lysiak, executive produced and directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”).
  • “My Glory Was I Had Such Friends” — a series that reunites J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Garner (Garner will star, and both will executive produce), based on the Amy Silverstein memoir of the same name.
  • “Pachinko” — a series based on the Min Jin Lee novel, a multi-generational saga about a Korean family.
  • “See” — a science fiction drama written by Steven Knight (“Peaky Blinders”) and directed by Francis Lawrence (multiple “Hunger Games” sequels).
  • “Shantaram” — A series based on the novel by Gregory David Robert, about a man who escapes from an Australian prison and ends up in Bombay.
  • “Swagger” — a scripted series inspired by basketball star Kevin Durant’s life.
  • “The Morning Show” — a drama about the world of morning TV, starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.
  • “Time Bandits” — a reboot of the cult classic Terry Gilliam film, co-written and directed by Taika Waititi.
  • Untitled Brie Larson series — a show featuring the “Captain Marvel” star, based on the real-life experiences of undercover CIA operative Amaryllis Fox.
  • Untitled Colleen McGuinness series — a comedy series inspired by Curtis Sittenfeld’s short story collection “You Think It, I’ll Say It.”
  • Untitled Damien Chazelle series — not much is known about the content of the series, but the “La La Land” director is expected to write and direct every episode of the first season.
  • Untitled M. Night Shyamalan series — a thriller written by Tony Basgallop, with Shyamalan directing the first episode and executive producing.
  • Untitled Oprah projects — Oprah Winfrey has signed a multi-year partnership to produce original content for Apple, though what kinds of content remains to be seen.
  • Untitled Snoopy series — a short-form series starring Snoopy and focused on STEM, which is part of a larger “Peanuts” deal between Apple and Canadian broadcaster DHX Media.
  • Untitled Richard Gere series — a drama based on the Israeli show “Nevelot.”
  • Untitled Rob McElhenny/Charlie Day series — a comedy from the team behind “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” with McElhenny playing an employee at a video game studio.
  • Untitled Simon Kinberg/David Weil series — a science fiction series co-written by Kinberg, a longtime writer and producer of “X-Men” movies.

That will no doubt monopolize the majority of the event, but Apple could well have some surprises up its sleeve. The leading contender for a second announcement is the company’s long-rumored subscription news service. As with its movie/TV plans, Apple’s reportedly been talking to a number of different publishers to launch what some are referring to as a “Netflix for News,” which would expand on its acquisition of digital magazine app Texture.

Reports have noted, however, that many outlets are less than thrilled about revenue share that would come with the service’s paid tier. Still, some big publishers, including The Wall Street Journal, are said to already be on-board for launch.

A third major rumor finds the company launching a consumer credit card through a partnership with Goldman Sachs. The investment giant’s CEO is reportedly planning to attend the event in order to launch a co-branded card.

Everything kicks off at 10am Pacific on Monday, March 25. TechCrunch will be on-hand to bring you the news as it breaks.

Could Walmart be the next big company to launch a game streaming service?

Google stole this spotlight at this year’s GDC with the launch of Stadia. What the game streaming service lacked in specifics, it more than made up for in buzz. The software giant certainly isn’t the only one eying the space, however. A new report from US Gamer puts Walmart in the running, as well.

The retailer has spent the last several years making a push into the high tech sphere. It’s made some high profile acquisitions, including Jet.com, in a bid to compete with the likes of Amazon. The company has even been testing out inventory checking robots in around 50 or so of its stores. And with the recent exit of CTO Jeremy King, it could well be looking for the next big thing. 

According to the reports, Walmart has been meeting with developers and publishers at GDC. It’s tough to say how advanced these talks are, and those involved with the leaks have understandably wished to remain anonymous. The company certainly has the back end infrastructure to attempt a service. It also has a loyal base of customers in the U.S. to whom it sells a lot of video games.

But given how it abandoned plans for a video streaming service as of January, the talks could be little more than just talk.

Nintendo’s Labo: VR Kit is not Virtual Boy 2.0

Even the most successful tech company is going to have a stumble from time to time. Nintendo’s 45 years in the video game industry is spotted with a few doozies, but none are more infamous than the Virtual Boy. The 1994 portable console was marketed as an early home entry into virtual reality, but in actual reality ended up being little more than a blood-red headache.

Nintendo knew the comparisons to the doomed console would come fast and furiously when it launched its next VR venture, so the company took the time to get it just right. In a sense, Labo VR is a cautious push into the virtual realm. It’s nowhere near the all-in approach of Oculus, Vive or even PlayStation VR, for that matter — but it’s uniquely Nintendo.

Like the first Labo kits, it’s a friendly reminder that Nintendo’s chief job is to surprise and delight, and it happily delivers on both fronts. But just as the Labo piano shouldn’t be mistaken for a real musical instrument, Labo VR ought not be viewed as a real virtual reality.

It’s not just the pop-out cardboard form factor, either. Google made that a perfectly acceptable beginner’s approach to VR. It’s more that Nintendo has taken a very casual approach to all of this. The kit’s virtual reality experience is an extension of Labo itself. It’s no more important than the process of building the headset and various accessories step by step on the app. Or, for that matter, sharing all of the above experiences with others.

During a demo of the new kits in New York this week, Nintendo was quick to point out that the headsets are built without a strap. It claims this was a conscious decision so that the experience can be passed around and shared. I’m sure there are some practical reasons behind this decision as well, but it’s certainly a nice thought.

Virtual reality is, by nature of its form factor, a solitary experience. Labo VR doesn’t have any sort of video-out feature to share the experience on a big screen (for now, at least), so the idea of offering it up in a more social play-and-pass scenario is appealing. This goes double for the fact that, like the original Labo kits, all of the games included fall under the casual banner. The experiences share a common lineage with Nintendo analog titles like Mario Party or Mario Paint.

Your mileage with each title will vary. Certainly some (Bird and Blaster spring to mind) will stay with you longer than others and demand more repeat play. On the whole, each buildable peripheral launches with one (maybe two) compatible games. The good news, however, is that, like Labo, the company packs a lot of controllers (and therefore experiences) into a single kit.

The standard Labo: VR Kit ships with six Toy-Con projects (VR Goggles, Toy-Con Blaster, Toy-Con Camera, Toy-Con Bird, Toy-Con Wind Pedal and Toy-Con Elephant), while the cheaper Starter Set comes with two (Goggles and Blaster). If you go for the latter to dip your toes in the water or just to save on cash, there are a pair of “expansion sets” to get the full experience.

Unlike the last time Nintendo came to town with a Labo press tour, we didn’t actually get any time to build. That said, if previous kits are any indication, that’s half of the fun and value proposition here. Also, the amount of time you’ll spend building varies greatly from project to project — take it from me, someone who spent most of a work morning building that damn piano.

Once built, the VR experience is about on-par with what you’d expect from a Google VR. Again, it’s a set of lenses attached to a hunk of cardboard. This is no Rift or Vive and the immersiveness of your own experience will vary. The graphics are cartoony and oftentimes just large polygons. But a well-crafted casual gaming experience can be enough to pull you out of your own head for a bit. Bird is the best example of this.

The controller clips on the headset, with a Toy-Con popping out the other end like a beak. As a player, you hook your hands on either side of the display and flap along as you play a bird, flying around trees and completing different missions to feed an army of hatchlings. It’s a relaxing reprieve from some of the faster-paced games, as you glide around the skies. Add in the foot-controlled Wind Pedal, and the system delivers a puff of air to your face as you boost your bird, adding to the effect.

Blaster, a big, fun novelty gun, is the most engaging of the bunch. When I ended my demos with some extra time to spare, the Nintendo rep asked me if I wanted to give any of the games another go. The answer was simple. A simple first-person shooter, Blaster pits you against an army of alien blobs. You load the gun by cocking it like a shot-gun, and pull the trigger to an explosive effect.

Honorable mention goes to Doodle, which uses the bizarre elephant-shaped controller. The experience is unique from the rest in that it’s not actually a game, but rather a 3D drawing tool. It’s one of the more clever additions to the pack, though actually drawing on a 3D plane with a cardboard controller shaped like an elephant’s trunk is easier said than done. The implementation is a bit lacking, but it offers interesting insight into where Labo VR might go in the future.

Honestly, I just scratched the surface during my briefing. But there’s little question that Labo VR is a fun and singular experience. There’s also a special screen holder, so users who have rough time with VR can experience a 2D version of the games and accessories. Also, as with the standard Labo kit, Nintendo has bundled in Toy-Con Garage, so users can start building their own games when they tire of the pre-packaged experiences.

If there’s one disappointment in all of this, it’s that it will likely be a while before we see a full standalone VR experience from Nintendo. The idea of playing as Mario, Link and the like in virtual reality is no doubt something of a lifelong dream for plenty of gamers who grew up on the characters. But while Virtual Boy is a quarter-century in the past, the memory still lingers.

Until then, Labo VR is a fully engaging take on VR, and a uniquely Nintendo one, to boot.

MoviePass parent’s CEO says its rebooted subscription service is already profitable

Two days after MoviePass announced the return of the company’s unlimited ticket plan, Ted Farnsworth, CEO of its parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics, sat down with TechCrunch to offer insight into the state of the beleaguered service.

According to the executive, MoviePass Uncapped is already seeing positive results. While he didn’t share concrete numbers, he says that subscribers have increased “well over 800 percent in the last few days. And that’s conservative.”

Asked what it would take to make the company’s subscription business profitable, Farnsworth says, “Well, it’s profitable right now.” As for when it turned the corner, he added, “I will tell you this, because it’s out there: MoviePass has actually paid Helios back money over the past several months, towards the loans that they have. So, that gives you an idea of when we really started focusing on getting rid of the 20 percent of the abusers.”

The plan marks a return to the initial unlimited model that helped turn MoviePass into a household name in the past year. But that success arrived with a massive price, as the service began hemorrhaging money. MoviePass withdrew the unlimited plan and began reworking its plans on what seemed to be a weekly basis.

In July, at the height of what was supposed to be the Summer of MoviePass, the service experienced an outage as it struggled to pay bills. Helios secured a $5 million loan from creditors Hudson Bay Capital Management in order to turn the lights back on.

Ted Farnsworth

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – FEBRUARY 24: Ted Farnsworth attends the 27th annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party sponsored by IMDb and Neuro Drinks celebrating EJAF and the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for EJAF)

“I think the big SNAFU there was the credit card company,” the executive explains. “When one company sold to the other, we had been doing business with them for four years. They decided it was too much credit for them and literally call the credit line on a Friday night and I do a personal guarantee on a Saturday.”

However things might have gone down on the back end, the optics of such a situation were clearly less than ideal. MoviePass’ struggles were very public from the beginning, as part of a publicly traded company. A literal shut down for the service appeared to be just the latest sign that the too good to be true service was exactly that.

And while Farnsworth admits that the company would have benefited from a bit more privacy, he claims that he never had any doubts about MoviePass’ future, even as he negotiated with creditors for a fresh cash injection.

“There were no moments in my mind where I thought it would go down. In my mind, I thought it was too big to fail,” he says. “You created a household name in less than a year. I think any time you have something like that, where you’re going to run into issues from sheer growth. Our investors did well investing along the way. The investors believed in us and they still do. We knew we had to slow it down to get in front of the fraud side because there were so many moving parts. It was moving so fast.”

It’s that “fraud” that was at the center of MoviePass’ woes, says Farnsworth. MoviePass’ initial downfall, he believes, was the product of too many users “gaming the system.” He believes the total number of users that fall into that category to have been around 20 percent of the overall subscriber base.

It was a minority, certainly, but still a sizable figure, given that, by June of last year, that total figure had exceeded three million. By that point, the service also comprised around five percent of U.S. box office receipts. Much of the past year has been spent attempting to plug holes in the subscription service as the MoviePass boat began rapidly taking on water.

To be clear, “gaming the system” doesn’t just mean watching a lot of movies — Farnsworth says he’s happy to have “hardcore” users, even if they’re buying way more than $9.95 or $14.95 worth of tickets. Instead, his concern is users who are doing things like sharing their subscription or just using a MoviePass ticket to use the theater’s restroom — something surprisingly common in places like Times Square, where public bathrooms are hard to come by.

One of the primary fixes, Farnsworth says, is utilizing mobile tracking to ensure that subscribers are, in fact, using the service as intended, and looking for “red flags” like constantly changing the device using the app. Users are already required to enable location-based tracking in order to enable ticket purchase. This will utilize that to ping the ticket purchaser’s location, in order to make sure that they’re actually attending the movies for which they’ve purchased tickets.

HMNY moviepass parent chart

“For instance, another issue is where people would go to the theater, they’ll pick up the ticket, they’ll hand their ticket to the kid or their child or their friend or whatever it is … and the person that’s paying the subscription goes back home or whatever they do,” he says. The new strategy: “When the movie starts, 30 minutes later [we’re] able to ping them inside the theater, just to make sure they still are at that theater.”

Looking ahead, Farnsworth says that the days of constantly changing pricing and restrictions are over, and that the company is committed to the unlimited plan. In fact, in his telling, the goal was always to get back to the unlimited plan — it was just that MoviePass had to figure out how to cut down on fraud to make the plan work.

At the same time, he says MoviePass’ film studio will also be an important part of the business. It has been overshadowed by the headlines about the company’s subscription struggles, but MoviePass Films has titles starring Bruce Willis, Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone scheduled for this year.

MoviePass also invested in “Gotti,” and although the film was reviled by critics and only grossed $4.3 million at the box office, Farnsworth doesn’t see it as a failure.

“We never looked at Gotti as a money-maker” he says. “They only projected that it would do a $1.3 million in the box office here. Because then, when we pushed it with MoviePass, we took that up to five million. So, I mean, when you can take a movie — I gotta be careful here, but when you take a movie that might not be that great or perfect, and you can move that needle, [that] was always our theory of subscription.”

Check back later for our full interview with Farnsworth. 

Xbox One S is reportedly getting a disc-free version in May

The writing has been on the wall for physical media for a while now. In May, Microsoft is reportedly set to hammer another nail into that coffin with the launch of the Xbox One S All-Digital. As advertised, the latest version of the console will drop the Blu-Ray drive, in favor of an all downloadable experience.

Rumors about the XOSAD have been floating around since last year — when the console still went by the decidedly Top Gunny name of “Maverick.” A new report from Window Central offers more insight into the system, along with a potential May 7 release date — that puts it roughly in line with those initial reports.

The system is said to offer up 1TB of storage, which should serve players well in the transition away from discs. It will also apparently be bundled with a handful of download codes to get started, including Minecraft, Forza Horizon 3 and Sea of Thieves.

Being the obvious lack of disc drive, the system looks more or less identical to the standard One S. As for pricing, we expect it to more affordable than its predecessor. The move is part of a broader push from Microsoft to wean games off of physical media. It’s a play that also includes digital-first services like the Xbox Game Pass.

Dyson launches a vacuum with better battery, a desk lamp and a personal air purifier

Dyson’s got a very specific way of doing things. The British company makes super-high-quality products for a world where price isn’t an option. Using their devices is a bit like driving a sports car for the first time. You’ve got no idea why someone would pay that much money for something until you actually try them out.

Fittingly, it offered a few handfuls of reporters a chance to try out a trio of new products at a closed-door event this week. As the company noted, it doesn’t do much traditional advertising, so it relies on word of mouth and reviews to get the word out. As such, it was really intent on walking us through the thinking and development process behind each.

The new releases include two new product lines and an update to one of the company’s better-known products. The Cyclone V11 is an upgrade to last year’s V10 cordless vacuum. I tried the V10 out for a bit and was suitably impressed with its power (hence the sports car analogies) — impressed enough to want to keep using, mind, but not enough to recommend paying $400/$500.

Last year’s model does a good job cleaning up on various surfaces — even pet hair, which can be a real pain in the ass. It cleans quickly, and even has a satisfying kickback to it when you pull the trigger. The battery, on the other hand, is downright abysmal, which is something the V11 claims to fix.

The new model features a trio of different modes, including a battery-saving Econo and an auto feature that adjusts power as you switch surfaces. The battery itself is also larger and more robust, so you should be able to get ~40 minutes of use on a charge if you play your cards right. There’s also a new built-in display on the tank that tells you how much life is left and helps fix common problems with the stick vac.

The Cool Me personal air purifier basically adapts the company’s purification system into a smaller form factor (one that looks a bit humanoid). It looks to be a solid option for small rooms or places where you just want the thing pointed straight at you, like a desk or bed side. It’s quiet, but makes enough of a white noise whirr to lull you to sleep.

The direction of the airflow is adjusted manually — which seems like an odd choice. You’ll probably want to make sure you wash your hands before fiddling with a thing designed to blow directly into your face.

The Lightcycle, meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from a Dyson desk lamp. It’s big. Like, too big to sit on my home desktop. But it’s fancy as hell, with a fully adjustable arm and white balance that adjusts based on time of day and other settings. Here’s more from Dyson:

Local daylight tracking offers several benefits, but if a light loses its brightness or color temperature over time, its ability to track daylight would be diminished. Dyson engineers addressed LED overheating Heat Pipe technology. A vacuum-sealed copper tube draws heat away. Inside, a drop of water evaporates, dissipating heat along the pipe as it condenses, before returning to the LEDs by capillary action. It provides a non-stop, energy-free cooling cycle. This means that brightness and light quality is maintained for 60 years. 

As for the pricing on all of this? It’s pretty steep, as you’d expect. The vacuum starts at $600, the air purifier runs $350 and the light goes for between $600 and $900.

Peloton hit with $150 million music licensing suit

Streaming video is the key to Peloton’s success. But like any good spin class, it’s the soundtrack that really does the heavy lifting. A new suit filed by The National Music Publishers’ Association alleges that that the wild successful exercise startup used north of 1,000 songs in its classes without the proper licensing.

The suit features a laundry list of publishers: Downtown Music Publishing, Big Deal Music, Reservoir, Round Hill, Royalty Network, Pulse Music Publishing and TRO Essex Music Group. While the list of musicians is a who’s who of Top 40 musicians:  Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran, Wiz Khalifa, Thomas Rhett, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Florida Georgia Line, Drake and Gwen Stefani, for starters.

The plaintiffs are seeking more than $150 million in damages over the improper use of songs.

“Unfortunately, instead of recognizing the integral role of songwriters to its company, Peloton has built its business by using their work without their permission or fair compensation for years,” President & CEO David Israelite said in a statement. “It is frankly unimaginable that a company of this size and sophistication would think it could exploit music in this way without the proper licenses for this long, and we look forward to getting music creators what they deserve.”

The association is quick to note that Peloton managed to pull in a $4 billion valuation last year, not a great look if the publishing claims turn out to be accurate.

We’ve reached out to Peloton for comment on the suit.