Why people – and Amazon – like Twitch

It’s not just the games…

Amazon’s announcement that it is buying Twitch provoked considerable debate in my house. My husband cannot for the life of him understand why anyone would choose to watch another person play a video game. Especially when they could watch star-level football, instead. “Are we not drawn to excellence?”, he asked. “Surely people would rather watch Messi?”

I am not a gamer, at all, I find video games stressful and at the same time a bit tedious, if that makes any sense. But, I confess, I do have Twitch on my iPad, and I have spent a bit of time mesmerized by trampling hordes of elephants in Age of Empires (the only PC game I ever, you know, played, back in the day…). It’s banal, pointless and perplexing for the non-gaming generation. And yet I get why Amazon forked out almost $1 billion in cash for its future revenues and market.

Age of Empires

Age of Empires on Twitch

First, the traffic:

Twitch dominates live video stream traffic (people watching live video on a PC, tablet or phone) with a 44% market share. It has almost 50 million users a month, who spend an average of 2 hours a day (!!!) on the site. For comparison, Amazon is at almost 80 million users (and I doubt they spend two hours a day there), and Netflix only 7 million. According to the Wall Street Journal, it has almost 2% of US peak Internet traffic, making it the web’s 4th biggest magnet, ahead of Facebook, Amazon, Pandora…

One of Twitch’s most popular games, League of Legends, has between 100,000 and 250,000 people watching at any given time, mainly from the very “valuable” young male demographic. To put those figures in perspective, this is more than the cable channel CNBC. Approximately 32 million people watched the League of Legends’ world championships on Twitch last year, more than watched the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony.

Second, the revenues:

Twitch’s business model is similar to YouTubes’: advertising revenue. And with over 310 million visits a month, that can reach dizzying levels. Twitch also follows YouTube’s lead in partnering with gamers, allowing them to cultivate a following on Twitch, in exchange for a percentage of the ad revenue from their videos. As with YouTube, the Twitch partners can pre-roll ads (users see an ad when they connect with a feed), but a big difference is that they can also launch ads at any time during the stream, so all viewers currently watching that game see that commercial.

So how much can a player make on Twitch? Again, figures are not disclosed, but more and more do well enough to make it a profitable full-time job, earning over $100,000 a year.

Making a living by playing video games is not that new. More than half of YouTubes’ top earners are gamers, and hundreds of thousands sit through ads to watch the game unfold. The difference is that Twitch elevates the playing to almost athlete status. The play is live, and therefore more “real” and exciting, and players can develop a loyal fan base that check in regularly. During the live play, they can chat with others watching at the same time. Excitement and community, with fantasy and a story line thrown in.

twitch League of Legends

Cowsep playing League of Legends on Twitch (yes, he’s wearing a cow costume)

Third, Twitch represents, for now, anyway, a fundamental shift in how we get our entertainment, and in how we connect with each other. Unlike football or other spectator sports, video games on Twitch are always on. There is always something to see, and such a wide range of games to choose from. The younger generation is accustomed to choosing when and where it watch its entertainment, which is why YouTube has overtaken TV as the medium of choice, in spite of the ubiquitous option of taping and replaying favourite shows at its convenience. Twitch is on your smartphone, your tablet, your PC, so you can log in anywhere, anytime for your vicarious shot of adrenalin.

And the social aspect is powerful. The camaraderie of watching football with your mates is substituted by a live chat stream, full of absolutely nothing at all, other than people connecting, acknowledging each other, letting others know they exist. Empty, perhaps, but bar-game chatter has never exactly been full of substance, has it? Twitch’s live chat stream is the same thing, just more open, global and anonymous. Much like the web itself.

The pull of sport and competition is as old as civilisation itself, and in recent times has become seriously big business. Video games, since the first one was developed, depend on the same instincts: the thrill of besting yourself and/or your opponent (another player, or the program), and the endorphin rush that focussed, intense activity produces. Gaming has been around but a blip in time compared to spectator sport, but is already gearing up to be an important player in the money stakes, generating over $100 billion in annual revenue.

twitch minecraft

DethridgeCraft playing Minecraft on Twitch

So it’s easy to see why companies like Amazon want a piece of the gaming business. Amazon already sells a huge amount of games a year, and recently bought a game developer. Rumours were floating around last year that Amazon was working on its own game console, to compete with Xbox and PS3. So, seen in that light, the purchase of Twitch makes sense.

But I don’t think that that was the main reason they wanted it. Twitch does not make money from games. It makes money from advertising, just as YouTube, Google, Facebook and just about any social network you can name does. Twitch is not a gaming company. It is an entertainment platform, in the same sense that YouTube is, with the added immediacy of being live, and the usability advantage of being focussed.

I am surprised that Amazon is the protagonist here, it makes more sense for Facebook or Google, with their heavy weight in our social world. Whether Amazon want it for an advertising platform or to open up a social world, remains to be seen. I expect the answer will end up being: both.

It comes with significant risk: online gamers tend to be very engaged. Amazon’s exalted status as the shining example of e-commerce, recently tarnished by a series of mis-steps and legal battles, could be seriously damaged by an all-out attack from an enraged gaming community.

Currently playing on Twitch is the League of Legends final, it is quite something to see. A fantasy-based video game, quite vicious and action-packed, with professional sports-style edge-of-your-seat commentary. I confess that I understood absolutely nothing. Nothing. I couldn’t even make out the players. But the action was intense, the commentary gripping, and I was entertained. (Not sure about their ad targeting, though. An admittedly attractive Hugh Lawrie was pitching me skin cream for men over 40.)

So, the purchase of Twitch makes sense, for its huge potential, not only economic. Just as Amazon changed the way we think about buying, Twitch will change the way we think about gaming. Twitch will transition video gaming from something you do on your own in your room, to a social activity. Not on the same level as actually going out and talking to your friends, but it’s a step towards incorporating a solitary activity that’s not going away into the new, connected society that’s developing under our very noses.

(Update 1/9/14: I’ve just come across this very interesting article in the NYT, about e-sports as a growing sector. It has a good “introduction to Twitch” video.)

Smaller beacons for anywhere

A few weeks ago I wrote about beacons, and their potential to change the way we shop. Estimote, one of the beacon manufacturers I mentioned, has just come out with what they call “nearables”, little adhesive beacons. I love the name, very catchy, and also clever, in that it adds beacon functionality to the “wearables” (ie., clothes or jewellery with technology incorporated) that we’ve been hearing so much about.

beacons in retail

To recap, beacons are small receivers and transmitters that you can stick practically anywhere. They connect with your smartphone, receiving information as to where you are, and transmitting location-specific messages: “Welcome to our restaurant”, “the shoes you’re standing in front of have matching handbags”, “at the end of this aisle we have a special offer on chocolate bars”… If you have previously logged into the system, they know who you are, possibly also your tastes and purchase history, and so can send you very specific marketing messages (“40% discount on your favourite apple juice, two aisles over”). Beacons can also help public places and retail establishments analyse human traffic patterns and, if necessary, change layouts.

The “sticking practically anywhere” just got even more so, with Estimote’s new adhesive beacons. They are smaller and lighter than the standard product, and therefore easier to hide. Although they look fun and edgy, so I’m not sure why you’d want to. Because they are smaller and therefore more mobile, the stickers include speed-detectors and temperature sensors. Stick the little shapes on your bicycle, a bottle of white wine and your cat’s collar, and your phone can log how fast you were going, when the bottle in the fridge is at the right temperature and where your cat is hiding. Stick one on your portable computer, and your phone will alert you if you leave it behind (ie. if it moves out of range). What to do if you leave your phone behind, that’s a different story.

small beacon stikers

Nearables are not so much a substitute for the larger beacons, which have a wider frequency range and longer battery life. They’re more of a complement. The larger version is designed to be static, while the stickers are for smaller, more portable or even mobile objects. The larger ones are location-specific, the smaller beacons are object-specific.

I’m currently writing about the impact of beacons in supermarkets, and how they are making grocery marketing more efficient and customer-sensitive. They are also making the shopping experience easier, which I think is very encouraging (I hate shopping). The launch of little mini beacon stickers (ready for shipping in October) is also exciting, and the repercussions will go much further than making retail business more profitable. Get your TV to talk to your ice-maker, invent interactive beacon-based games, make important things easier to find… I’m looking forward to seeing what the app developers come up with!

3d printing: hype, or big impact?

Entire books can be (and have been) written about 3d-printing, so I’m not going to go into too much detail or history or technicalities. You know how it works, right? A machine extrudes a liquid substance that solidifies on contact with air, layer by layer, to form a solid shape. Any shape you want. The materials most used are plastic and metal, but increasingly with other stuff (ceramics, wax, edibles…).

3d printed figures

(sugar bowl and Los Muertos lego figure available on Shapeways)

Technically, 3d printing is not a new technology. We have been tinkering with the possibilities since the late 1980s. What’s happening now, though, is interesting: it’s fast approaching critical mass. More and more people, both scientists and hobbyists, are tinkering with the technology. More and more businesses are producing the machines and the materials that feed them. More and more distribution networks are appearing and growing. It’s getting cheaper, more accessible and definitely more talked about.

The implications are huge. Huge. Entire sectors will change the way they operate, the logistics, the supply chains, even the nature of client demand…

For engineering: imagine being able to print working prototypes of machines in a question of hours rather than days, at a cost of hundreds of dollars, if that, rather than thousands… Invention will accelerate. Tinkering will be encouraged. Processes can be made more efficient, faster. Maintenance and service will become cheaper, we can print replacement parts on demand. Inventory needs and costs will come down, which will impact profitability and real estate values.

3d printing and casts

(image from Evill Design)

For medicine: I won’t go into the “printing” of body parts here, because that is a staggering concept that deserves serious consideration (yes, really, it is possible to print body parts!). In fact, the impact on the medical field in general has so much potential. Think prosthetics on demand, made to fit. Casts, 3d-printed to snugly fit your broken limb. Implants, produced faster and cheaper. Hearing aids made according to the exact shape of your ear.

Even for mundane retail: do you need a new cooking spoon? Print one. A new comb? Press the button. True, it will probably always be cheaper to buy everyday mass-produced items at the store, but for more out-of-the-ordinary items, or, say, a fancy comb with a beautiful shape, we could well end up using the 3d printer that’s sitting on the kitchen counter. And that’s without going into the joy that designing and producing gives (those of you who have tried it, you know what I mean).

3d-printing will revolutionise the fashion and jewellery industries. Imagine being able to print what you want to wear. You create the design, load it into the machine, and out pops your new bracelet or even T-shirt. You can print shoes designed for the exact shape of your foot, in any colour and with any add-on that you wish. No longer will you have to worry about someone else wearing the exact same fascinator, brooch or even hat to your cousin’s wedding.

3d-printed fashion

(hat by Gabriela Ligenza | dress and shoes by threeASFOUR via additivefashion.com | Daphne shoe by Continuum)

Food? Yes, serious advances are being made in 3d-printed food. I can’t say that it sounds very appealing, but the lack of food preparation waste has a certain appeal in, say, spaceships. And it’s getting creative: some chefs are experimenting with innovative presentations and textures of our favourite flavours. 3d printers can create the most intricate sugar shapes you can imagine. Chocolate decorations. And as for the hardware: imagine being able to create cookie cutters or cake moulds in absolutely any shape you want! I’m not sure why, but for some time now I’ve been hankering for a cookie cutter in the shape of the Empire State Building…

3d-printed food from Phillips

(images from Phillips Design)

But what has all this got to do with you? It’s important because you will probably one day 3d-print. True, right now the printers are beyond the typical household budget. A decent desktop-sized machine costs approximately $2000 (down from about $20,000 four years ago!). But, as with practically all machines these days, the price is coming down fast. You can now get a very basic desktop-sized printer for under $400, and I imagine they will continue to get cheaper still. The Peachy Printer, which has supposedly just started shipping, costs $100. The feedback is not out yet, I doubt that the output is of the quality you would want for your sister’s Christmas present, but it’s a start…

And the printers are becoming easier to get, you can now order them online (Amazon has a wide range, ranging from $500 to $3000, or £400 to £2,500). The RepRap project is working on a 3d printer that can print 3d printers… Not joking.

3d printers

(Makerbot Replicator | Cubify Cube)

Apart from cost, another barrier is skill. Most of us don’t have experience with 3d design software. But that barrier is at best temporary. Our familiarity with creating models on computers will continue to advance, and easy-to-use software will become more common. Sketchup, for instance, is free, relatively simple, and fun to use (my daughter and I have had fun designing a model city).

And who says you have to design your own stuff? If you would rather tinker with a design already configured, you can download one from Thingiverse (owned by printer manufacturer Makerbot), which provides a platform for designers to share their creations with anyone. Use it, change it, they’re copyright free for now, and a useful resource for newcomers and experienced designers. Or Cubify, or Fab@home.

3d-printed objects

(cellular lamp from Thingiverse | ring from Cubify)

Once you have your design figured out, how to you get it made? Well, you can buy yourself a printer (I am so tempted!), or you can upload it to any one of a number of 3d printing websites, and your product will be delivered to you in a few days. Shapeways, i.materialise.com, kraftwurx.com will all produce and ship your product, and some platforms are developing communities of designers, printers and customers.

For now these sites seem to be mainly catering for jewellery and accessories. But other fun categories include games, toys and miniatures. Little figures of you? Cute! Or creepy, maybe…Star Trek figurines with your face? Um, right… Your Minecraft avatar in physical form? My daughter would love that…

3d printed figures of you

(images from Shapify, Startrek.com and minetoys.com)

The fun part of 3d printing is important, but perhaps not quite so much as the impact this technology will have on, well, technology itself, specifically engineering. With 3d printing it is now possible to make things that we couldn’t before, such as seamless moving parts within seamless moving parts, multi-layered shapes, new types of components… Maybe we don’t yet know what these new forms can be used for, but we will.

3d printed engineering

(Gyro the cube via Shapeways | Arup component via Dezeen)

Yes, 3d printing is currently the media darling of the tech scene. Journalists and readers alike gawp at the amazing things these machines can do, even though we know that the applications are as yet not very practical. So is it all hype, are we going to get tired of the much-talked about possibilities? No, I don’t think so. Because I’m certain that the hype is a bit understated. I don’t have a 3d printer (yet), so I have not yet experienced the frustration of blocked nozzles, faulty designs and limited filament supply. But I am sure that these obstacles, along with the cost barrier, will be overcome. We’re relatively new at this, but advancing fast. Once the demand reaches a certain mass, the supply chains, production costs, and support will become more efficient. And then we can start to see how 3d printing changes retail, industry, entertainment and even education. And it will happen within the next few years. It’ll be fun to watch.
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For more on 3d printing, check out my Flipboard magazine “3d printing”:

flipboard 3dprinting

Crowdfunding potato salad, revisited

I’m back! Scotland has got to be one of THE most breathtaking places in the world. It is so worth investing in beautiful memories…

beautiful Scotland

And I’m back with a followup to the story of the crowdfunded potato salad. Zack Brown decided, as a joke (we’re assuming), to raise money on Kickstarter to make a potato salad. He ended up raising a total of $55,500, which can make a lot of potato salad. Which he will do, apparently, as part of a philanthropic music festival in Columbus, Ohio. It is called, wait for it, PotatoFest, and features bands from the area. And potato salad. Proceeds will establish a fund to help Columbus’ homeless.

potato salad kickstarter

image via TechCrunch

This is not just a story of seizing an opportunity to do good when it presents itself. It’s also a story of how enthusiasm and a sense of humour can move mountains (of potato salad). And of how simple is often better. In backing the potato salad venture, investors were showing that they’re a bit tired of being offered complex technology ideas and noble art projects. While many griped that it’s crazy that this gets funded while “worthwhile” projects don’t, it’s success shows that light and humourous appeals. Many accuse Kickstarter of destroying their brand by letting this project get off the ground in the first place, overlooking the fact that this story has given a boost to the whole crowdfunding concept, Kickstarter-style or otherwise. And is it Kickstarter’s fault that this got funding while others didn’t?

Personally I find it uplifting that a silly idea can have us reaching for our credit card if it is transmitted with enthusiasm and a noticeable absence of pretentiousness. It is, after all, our credit card. For the investors who backed a character, to see their whimsical contribution develop into a worthwhile cause that will have a significant impact on people’s lives, must be a validating experience. We’re all getting used to the idea of micro-funding, sponsoring, participating… And of being surprised by the outcome.


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If you want more on crowdfunding, check out my Flipboard:

flipboard crowdfunding

3d Printing in Sugar

While I’m working on a post about 3d printing (the implications are so much more than you think!), I want to show you the prettiest application of the technology I’ve come across so far: 3d-printed sugar shapes.

3d printed sugar shapes

The Chefjet 3d Sugar Printer, developed by 3d Systems, uses design software to create shapes which are then “printed” in moistened sugar, with or without flavouring.

3d printed skull

Imagine the uses for cake decorations:

3d printed wedding cake decorations

Special sugar cubes for wedding coffee:

3d printed sugar cubes for coffee

Fun accessories for a party table:

3d printed candies

Unfortunately the printers cost about $5,000-$10,000, so I won’t be buying one anytime soon, but if I were a professional baker, I would seriously consider the investment.

Elegant 3d printed sugar shapes

I think that this is amazing. Just one example of how worlds of creativity are opening up and changing things we take for granted. A very sweet example, at that.

(All images from 3D Systems – The Sugar Labs)

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For more on 3d printing, check out my Flipboard magazine “3d printing”:

flipboard 3dprinting