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Media fragmentation is annoying consumers – TechCrunch



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Deloitte’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications division published its 13th-annual Digital Media Trends survey, focused on identifying changes in the ways US consumers engage with various types of media.

Led by an independent research firm, the survey had roughly 2,000 consumer respondents across demographics – with the report categorizing respondents based on age (Gen-Z: ages 14-21, Millenials: 22-35, Gen-X: 36-52, Boomers: 53-71, and Matures: 72+).

While already accompanied by a succinct 13-page executive summary, the report can largely be summarized in just a couple of sentences: more people are using streaming or alternative media services than ever before, largely due to more user freedom and customization, though the growing quantity and fragmentation of platforms are becoming more frustrating for users to manage.

The survey results directionally echo already well-discussed dynamics, which we’ve previously dug into such as here, here and here. Instead, the most poignant aspects of the report were not the answers or conclusions themselves, but the immense level of support many of them received.


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How Final Fantasy VII Remake legitimizes sexuality and gender identity



In Final Fantasy VII, spiky-haired protagonist Cloud Strife fights countless battles. But when he arrives in the red-light district called Wall Market, he faces what might be his greatest challenge: cross-dressing. To rescue his childhood friend and ally Tifa Lockhart from a seedy old slumlord, Cloud infiltrates an adults-only establishment called the Honey Bee Inn. The catch: to get to her, he must go undercover as a woman.

In the original 1997 version of FFVII, Cloud’s drag transformation is played for laughs. Undertones of queer panic and derision punctuate nearly every character interaction while he’s dressed in a frilly, lavender frock. The audience is supposed to guffaw at this warrior clad in women’s clothing, tamping down any inherent issues of sexual identity and expression that could be attached to the scene. Final Fantasy VII, while heartfelt, dramatic, and in many ways beautiful, was never what could be interpreted as “in tune” with its sexual side.

Nearly 25 years later, Final Fantasy VII Remake flipped the script. A narrative that was once eager to mock Cloud’s dalliances in drag, and which turned a blind eye to the sexual implications of the situation, has morphed. In Remake, this scene blossoms into a brilliant and daring piece of media that encourages the exploration and freedom of one’s sexual identity. It also legitimizes both the cisgender and queer desires that certain characters harbor.

That doesn’t mean Final Fantasy VII Remake has added explicit sex scenes in the vein of The Witcher 3 or that it needed more mature content in the first place. But now, instead of pointing and laughing at Cloud in a dress or pretending its heroines are too innocent to go after what they want, Final Fantasy VII Remake paves the way for more sexual awakenings. Though plenty of games that came after Final Fantasy VII were quick to add in this type of content, it’s refreshing to see a classic coming around in this fashion, even if it took an agonizingly long time.

A classy kind of brothel

The remake’s greatest change in this regard happens in the Honey Bee Inn itself. The locale has been retconned significantly, doing away with the outdated, seedy vision of what society believes a brothel should be. The Inn is now a sophisticated nightclub meant only for VIPs, operating under the watchful eye of Andrea Rhodea, a flamboyant, queer-coded man with a flair for the dramatic. The staff, clad in racy bee costumes, puts on elaborate dance numbers nightly, and Rhodea ends up challenging Cloud to a dance-off in return for a makeover that will enable Cloud to go after Tifa.

Rhodea is immediately flirtatious with Cloud as he leads the soldier onto a brand-new battlefield: the dance floor. Incredibly, Cloud engages in a raunchy dance-off with Rhodea to a bombastic EDM number. The two bob and weave inches away from each other, bodies pulsating and shimmying to the beat. They move effortlessly in sync, Cloud shaking his rump and running calloused hands along his body just as Rhodea does across from him.

It’s a sexually charged scene unlike anything we’ve seen from the Final Fantasy series to this point. Before you ever see him in a dress, it becomes clear that this version of Cloud is willing and unafraid to bust out of his comfort zone to explore the pleasures that the Honey Bee Inn has to offer.

They don’t see a man in a dress to point and laugh at. He’s just hot, and everyone knows it.

Following the jaw-dropping scene, we’re treated to a montage of enthusiastic staff working their magic on Cloud, applying a full face of makeup and what appear to be hair extensions, giving him a flaxen mullet with braids. “You were born for this,” an attendant tells Cloud, who is clad in a gorgeous dress, before revealing him to the audience in attendance. Companion Aerith Gainsborough, who is front and center for the show, claps her hands and stares at Cloud in awe. She’s practically breathless.

Rhodea twirls Cloud around in a series of waltz-like moves, remarking that, when it comes to true beauty, gender doesn’t apply. Cloud is left to play the traditionally “feminine” role here, held a hair’s breadth from Rhodea’s face. In this moment, Cloud isn’t a punchline to some elaborate setup. He’s a showstopper, decked out in the finest garments Wall Market has to offer and oozing effortless sexuality. He’s a bombshell. For once, Final Fantasy subtly indicates that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with exploring that, even if Cloud is still coming to terms with this newfound side of himself.

Upon exiting the Honey Bee Inn, the citizens of Midgar are surprisingly open-minded and appreciative of Cloud’s appearance. They don’t see a man in a dress to point and laugh at. He’s just hot, and everyone knows it.

In contrast to the original game, the message here is much more empowering: you can be yourself and express your sexuality and gender identity any way you like, and that doesn’t make you a joke. It’s a scene that feels impossible to walk away from without feeling empowered to go out and be the best version of yourself, regardless of your sexuality or gender identity.

Madam M and Ms. Rasberry

The remake’s changes come through clearly in other character interactions as well. Take Madam M, one of a trio of advisors to the slumlord Cloud is seeking while dressed as a woman. She runs a Wall Market massage parlor while moonlighting as a judge at the Corneo Colosseum fight club, where she helps enlist Cloud and Aerith to afford a makeover for the flower girl to the tune of 1,000,000 gil. Her main bread and butter, however, is hand massages—the kind that have you howling with pleasure (or pain, if you don’t pay the prices she commands for a good one.)

Madam M’s hand massages, while outwardly innocuous, are obviously meant as sexual innuendo. It’s a brash move from the developers, poking fun at the idea of this savvy and brash Madam being a sex worker. She’s portrayed as a whip-smart, shrewd businesswoman and nothing less than a reputable titan of her industry. She commands respect from the two men that round out the Don Corneo trio and strikes fear into the hearts of clients who don’t pay (while her paying clients always end up satisfied).

It’s an important message that society would do well to internalize today: sex work is real work. Madam M may or may not be performing additional services beyond simple massages, but what she does provide is obviously a joking analogue that gives the audience permission to laugh while taking in the larger point. She’s a boss with a highly specialized trade, nothing more. Most importantly, she knows what she’s worth.

This appreciation for sexuality and outspoken women extends to Jessie Rasberry. In her limited role in the PlayStation original, Jessie is permitted to flirt openly with Cloud, making it clear she harbors feelings for the new Avalanche recruit. In the remake, though, Jessie’s character has room to breathe as an effervescent young woman. She makes her intentions known at every possible turn: unashamed, unbothered, and unafraid of what others may think, in stark comparison to the narrative that women should be quiet and demure. So many JRPG protagonists are shy, skittish heroines who get flustered over holding hands. Jessie, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to show that she wants to get physical with Cloud.

Cloud jokingly refers to Jessie as “desperate” for repeatedly asking him over to her place. When they return to Jessie’s home in the slums and Cloud declines to stay the night, Jessie tries to get him to agree to come back the next night. It’s heavily implied that, in addition to “making a mean pizza,” she’s interested in getting closer to Cloud, noting that her roommates should all be out for “a while.”

Despite the object of her affections’ icy reception, Jessie remains undeterred. She repeatedly makes advances toward Cloud throughout the entirety of the game, never pausing to wonder what the other travelers think of her crush. She’s set her sights on the guy she wants, and she’s going after him. It’s refreshing to see a woman pursue a romantic interest with such “masculine” persistence, even when rebuffed several times over. Jessie’s a woman who’s afraid of being seen as a damsel in distress, even if she’s hurting. It’s a telling character trait, but it ends up being an empowering one as well.

Will they or won’t they?

Then there’s the complicated relationship between Cloud and Tifa. Within the love quadrilateral quietly brewing among Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, and Jessie throughout Final Fantasy VII Remake, none of the relationships feel as immediate as the one between Tifa and Cloud.

Tifa never misses the chance to remind Cloud that he promised as a child to come save her if she were ever in trouble. The remake version of Cloud happily obliges her when she brings this up, treating Tifa with a kind of tenderness that wasn’t seen in the original game (save for a few quiet scenes).

This implies strong feelings between the two that have never been made more explicit, and it helps make the pair’s relationship feel more mature than ever.

In the remake, there’s an undercurrent of burgeoning sexual tension between the pair that was barely allowed to shine through in the original game. Tifa’s body language reflects a young woman yearning for her lover’s physical touch, while Cloud remains reticent. A kiss (or something more) constantly feels like it’s only moments away.

In one scene, the pair shares a room together for a brief moment, Tifa speaking to Cloud from the door of a tiny apartment while he remains completely clothed on a creaky old bed. The desire can practically be felt through the screen. It’s as if Cloud knows he won’t be able to help himself, so he stays on the bed, never making a move toward Tifa.

Several similar moments are woven throughout the remade narrative, many of which Tifa instigates herself. Though she’s not as aggressive as Jessie in her advances, it’s clear Tifa has been given the agency this time around to make sure Cloud knows how she feels. As the remake’s narrative progresses in planned future releases, it seems clear Tifa could make the most of an opportunity to truly act on those feelings, whether that means a night of passion or the kiss fans have been waiting for since viewing the original game’s credits.

The passage of time

With these additions and more strewn throughout Final Fantasy VII Remake, it’s plain to see how the story has grown with its players over the years. There was always room to inject more believable human moments, emotions, and sexuality. Seeing the creators behind this larger-than-life remake project coming to terms with how they could express these changes has been an incredibly gratifying experience, and it’s chock-full of lessons the gaming industry as a whole could learn from.

There’s a constant struggle when it comes to giving video games the space and affirmation they need to explore more adult themes so they can break the “childish toys” image that still hampers the industry. Final Fantasy VII Remake offered more than enough ammunition for the cause. If this is the attitude we can expect from the next installment and going forward, this beloved RPG series looks like it has nowhere to go but up.

Listing image by Square Enix

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Valve’s Gabe Newell imagines “editing” personalities with future headsets



Enlarge / An artist’s interpretation of how future Dota 2 tournament trophies might look if Valve chief Gabe Newell pushes any further into brain-computer interface (BCI) research.

Getty Images / David Jackmanson / Sam Machkovech

For years, the open secret at Valve (makers of game series like Half-Life and Portal) has been its interest in a new threshold of game experiences. We’ve seen this most loudly with SteamVR as a virtual reality platform, but the game studio has also openly teased its work on “brain-computer interfaces”—meaning, ways to read brainwave activity to either control video games or modify those experiences.

Most of what we’ve seen from Valve’s skunkworks divisions thus far, particularly at a lengthy GDC 2019 presentation, has revolved around reading your brain’s state (i.e., capturing nervous-system energy in your wrists before it reaches your fingers, to reduce button-tap latency in twitchy shooters like Valve’s Counter-Strike). In a Monday interview with New Zealand’s 1 News, Valve co-founder Gabe Newell finally began teasing a more intriguing level of BCI interaction: one that changes the state of your brain.

“Our ability to create experiences in people’s brains, that aren’t mediated through their meat peripherals [e.g., fingers, eyes], will be better than is [currently] possible,” Newell asserts as part of his latest 12-minute video interview. Later, he claims that “the real world will seem flat, colorless, and blurry compared to the experiences that you’ll be able to create in people’s brains.”

“But that’s not where it gets weird,” Newell continues. “Where it gets weird is when: who you are becomes editable through a BCI.”

How many years until the tentacles?

As an example, Newell throws out a casual mood: “I’m feeling unmotivated today.” He envisions a world where such a state of being is no longer seen as “a fundamental personality characteristic that is relatively intractable to change” and shifts to “feed-forward and feedback loops of who you want to be.”

Or, more plainly, “Oh, I’ll turn up my focus right now. My mood should be this.”

Newell uses the phrase “science fiction” a few times in describing this possible BCI-driven future, along with overt references to The Matrix film series. But he also has a sales-pitch example of how mainstream acceptance could begin: with brain-control apps, whose interfaces resemble modern phone apps, for boosts like easier sleep.

This is how I want to sleep right now.

“Sleep will become an app you run, where you input, ‘I need this much sleep, this much REM,'” Newell says. “Instead of fluffing pillows or taking Zolpidem, I’ll just say, this is how I want to sleep right now.” From there, satisfied users will tell their friends about, say, sleeping through 12-hour flights “completely refreshed with my circadian rhythm,” he estimates.

Newell uses a personal story to illustrate why he believes brain-driven perspective is so malleable: He had corneal transplant surgery over a decade ago, which changed his perception of color between the two eyes. When his surgery corrected how his eyes saw color, it “perturbed that relationship” in his brain and created ghost-duplicated images until he got used to the change over a span of a few weeks.

Where do you go from there, if brains are so fungible? Newell mentions Valve’s work on synthetic hands as a collaboration with other researchers, then adds, “As soon as you do that, you say, ‘Oh, can you give people a tentacle?’ Then, you think, ‘Oh, brains were never designed to have tentacles,’ but it turns out, brains are really flexible.” Why Newell immediately jumped to tentacles as a fantasy appendage is beyond us, but, hey.

In the short term, brain output before brain input

During this surface-level interview, however, Newell is careful not to estimate when such brain-input manipulation might ever come to bear on the market. In fact, he makes clear that he’s not currently in a rush to do so: “The rate we’re learning stuff is so fast, we don’t want to prematurely say, ‘Let’s lock everything down and build a product,’ when six months from now, we have something to enable a bunch of other features.”

Instead, he uses the opportunity to confirm significant progress on “modified VR headstraps” that include “high-resolution read technologies.” In other words, Valve wants to more immediately capture users’ brainwave activity, either in terms of reducing button-tap latency or understanding how players’ moods shift during a game or app, and get such a device on the market. Newell admits this is more about creating a platform for game and software developers to “start thinking about these issues” ahead of second- and third-generation BCI products.

“If you’re a software developer in 2022 who doesn’t have one of these in your test lab, you’re making a silly mistake,” he adds.

We’re still waiting to hear more about Galea, a headset platform operated by the open-source collective OpenBCI with significant contributions from Valve, which may very well be the first “high-resolution read technology” headset in line with Newell’s proclamations about near-future BCI options in gaming.

In terms of nervous-system measurement, Galea may include EEG, EMG, EDA, PPG, and eye-tracking as options. It’s unclear whether, say, its EEG system would require a perfect connection to your scalp, or if any of its other measurement systems are particularly invasive. Still, we imagine Galea as a whole will be less invasive than Neuralink, the Elon Musk-driven neuroscience product that begins with a microchip connected directly to the human brain.

Trying not to “drive consumer acceptance off a cliff”

The juicier parts of the interview are the much more forward-looking ones, where Newell goes so far as to hint at playing God. If you think that’s an overstatement, look at this quote:

You’re used to experiencing the world through eyes, but eyes were created by this low-cost bidder who didn’t care about failure rates and RMAs. If [your eye] got broken, there was no way to repair anything effectively. It totally makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, but it’s not at all reflective of consumer preferences.

Newell is careful to temper such bold statements with the realities of trusting your sensitive data to massive tech firms. If modern-day handlers of your financial and personal data screw that up, Newell points out, “they’ll drive consumer acceptance off a cliff.” And he also doesn’t envision a world where everyone feels required to use BCIs, just like modern-day life doesn’t necessarily require smartphones.

The same scrutiny would apply to potentially invasive BCIs, Newell says. “‘Nobody wants to say, ‘Oh, you know, remember Bob? Remember when Bob got hacked by the Russian malware? Man, that sucked; is he still running naked through the forests?’… People are going to have to have a lot of confidence that these are secure systems that don’t have long-term health risks.”

Newell is also careful not to go into greater detail about how exactly a full read-write BCI would sync up with users, or whether they’d require Neuralink-scale surgery—which could very well account for his choice not to estimate any release window in the foreseeable future. For the full interview, head over to 1 News for its comprehensive report.

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Godzilla vs. Kong trailer is a rock ‘em, sock ’em monster mashup



Two powerful forces of nature collide in a battle for the ages in Godzilla vs. Kong, premiering simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on March 26, 2021.

It’s powerful Titan pitted against Titan in the first trailer for Godzilla vs. Kong, the fourth film released as part of Legendary Picture’s “MonsterVerse” franchise, co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros. Directed by Adam Wingard, the film is not meant to be a remake of the 1962 Japanese classic, King Kong vs. Godzilla; rather, per Wingard, it will directly tie into the events of its 2019 predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and feature a “more rugged” and aging Kong.

(Some spoilers for some prior films in the MonsterVerse franchise below.)

The MonsterVerse franchise started in 2014 with Godzilla, in which a soldier tries to return to his family while caught in the crossfire of the battle between Godzilla and a pair of parasitic monsters known as MUTOs. The studio followed up three years later with Kong: Skull Island, set in 1973, in which a team of scientists and soldiers travel to the titular Skull Island and encounter Kong, the last survivor of his species. And in 2019, the studio released Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a sequel to the 2014 film, in which Godzilla and Mothra team up to defeat a prehistoric alien named King Ghidorah, who has awakened other ancient creatures (Titans) to destroy the world.

Scenes shown during the end credits depicted “good” Titans helping to heal the planet, a possible second Mothra egg, a few Titans heading toward Skull Island, and ancient cave paintings of Godzilla battling Kong. Also, a post-credits scene showed someone acquiring Ghidorah’s severed head, hinting at the  alien’s possible return (despite its defeat). That seems to be where Godzilla vs. Kong picks up. Per the official premise:

Legends collide in Godzilla vs. Kong as these mythic adversaries meet in a spectacular battle for the ages, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Kong and his protectors undertake a perilous journey to find his true home, and with them is Jia, a young orphaned girl with whom he has formed a unique and powerful bond. But they unexpectedly find themselves in the path of an enraged Godzilla, cutting a swath of destruction across the globe. The epic clash between the two titans—instigated by unseen forces—is only the beginning of the mystery that lies deep within the core of the Earth.

We also know from past descriptions released by Warner Bros. and Legendary that Monarch—the organization devoted to studying the Titans—hopes to unearth clues about the origins of the gigantic creatures, and that there is a “human conspiracy” (isn’t there always?) to “wipe the creatures, both good and bad, from the face of the Earth forever.” The film stars Alexander Skarsgård as Nathan Lind, a geologist/reluctant hero on Team Kong, while Millie Bobby Brown reprises her role as Madison Russell from Godzilla: King of the Monsters (most likely Team Godzilla). The cast also includes Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Jessica Henwick, Julian Dennison, Kyle Chandler, and Demián Bichir.

As one might expect, the trailer is chock-full of big-budget battle scenes between Godzilla and Kong, with the humans frantically wondering why the former is suddenly hurting people. “There is something provoking him that we’re not seeing here,” Madison declares in defense of her buddy, but just how far will her loyalty stretch? And it looks like we will be returning to Skull Island, apparently the site of an ancient war, with Kong and Godzilla the last ones standing.   (We already know from Kong: Skull Island that ancient reptilian creatures called Skullcrawlers wiped out the King’s entire species.)

One of the most difficult challenges about making these movies is that the puny humans and their quaint terrestrial concerns are so easily dwarfed by the gigantic godlike creatures battling it out, with no consideration for all the massive property damage they cause. Godzilla: King of the Monsters in particular was criticized for its lack of emotional resonance and character development. No amount of eye-popping visual effects and stunning action sequences can make up for that, or salvage the hopelessly muddled storylines that marred both it and Kong: Skull Island. Judging by this trailer, we’re probably in for more of the same with Godzilla vs. Kong. That said, although Wingard has described his film as a “massive monster brawl movie,” he’s also said he wanted there to be an “emotional drive” to it as well.

The 1962 film didn’t have a clear winner in the epic fight: Kong technically prevailed, but there were hints Godzilla survived and returned to his murky depths to regroup. We’ll see if Wingard follows a similar strategy, although we are told in the trailer that “Kong bows to no one.” It’s a safe bet that if you liked the prior films, you’ll probably like this one, too. And in a relatively uncrowded theater landscape, it might just provide the mental escape audiences crave right now.

Godzilla vs. Kong is slated to be released on March 26, 2021, simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.

Listing image by YouTube/Warner Bros.

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