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Predictive analytics startup Pecan.ai raises $35M to boost AI adoption

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Predictive analytics startup Pecan.ai today announced it has raised $35 million in a series B round led by GGV Capital. Cofounder and CEO Zohar Bronfman says that the funds will allow Pecan to expand its operations globally and help organizations adopt AI and big data.

Data analytics is the science of analyzing raw data to extract meaningful insights. Market Research Future predicts that the global data analytics market will be valued at over $132 billion by 2026. A range of organizations can use data to boost their marketing strategies, increase their bottom line, personalize their content, and better understand their customers. Businesses that use big data grow their profits by an average of 8%, according to a survey conducted by BARC research.

Pecan, which has offices in New York and Tel Aviv, offers a no-code platform that automates data, encoding, restructuring, cleansing, and engineering to create AI-based predictive algorithms from a number of deep neural networks. After a set of recursive competitions between multiple networks, the platform leaves only one fully trained neural network — evolved and refined for accuracy.

“After fine-tuning the product and our flagship use cases, Pecan came out of stealth in February of last year,” a spokesperson told VentureBeat via email. “The pandemic affected us in a positive way. The need to predict erratic patterns of behavior, as well as the increase in digital consumption, boosted the demand for Pecan’s brand of fast and easy-to-use AI.”

It’s an approach known as evolutionary computation, a family of algorithms for global optimization inspired by biological evolution. Instead of following explicit mathematical gradients, these models generate variants, test them, and retain the top performers.

Pecan supports data in a range of formats and offers dashboards designed to give visibility of factors that might affect outcomes. The platform, which can output its predictions to third-party software, continuously monitors and optimizes models while enriching them with external data.

The idea is to let analysts and business stakeholders obtain actionable insights and see outputs in a matter of days after adding their raw data. Pecan supports use cases that include demand forecasting, conversion, lifetime value, next best offer, VIP customers, upsell and cross-sell, churn and retention, and sales analytics.

“In order to appeal to data analysts, Pecan is both end to end and use case-focused, which greatly reduces the complexity and statistical knowledge required from its users,” the spokesperson said. “Unlike some of its competitors, Pecan handles everything from data prep to monitoring data in production with a drag-and-drop UI. The data prep and feature selection/engineering components are critical. Getting data into proper form for AI models can take weeks or months of efforts on the part of data scientists and engineers, but with some help from the Pecan team, can be automated with minimal effort.”

Real-world applications

Pecan says during the pandemic Johnson & Johnson used its platform to help predict changing consumer behavior and buying patterns across different consumer product groups, as well as supply chain forecasting.

“We improved forecast accuracy in our seasonal business, and we have a deeper understanding of the variables that may influence a consumer demand signal,” Johnson & Johnson VP Bertrand Klehr said in a press release. “[By] partnering together with Pecan, we are continuing our focus on what consumers want to purchase at the right time and place.”

Bronfman added: “Pecan was designed to drive business value from AI. In one intuitive platform, analysts and business stakeholders can obtain actionable insights and see outputs in a matter of days after adding their raw data — helping companies evolve from BI to AI. We have seen tremendous uptake from organizations of all sizes and are looking forward to expanding globally and bringing real business value to our customers.”

Vintage and existing investors Dell Technologies Capital, S-Capital, and Mindset also participated in Pecan’s latest funding round. It brings the five-year-old company’s total raised to more than $50 million, following an $11 million series A in January 2020.

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Nvidia’s Isaac robot simulations debut on Omniverse

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Nvidia's Isaac robot simulations debut on Omniverse

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Nvidia has launched a new version of its Isaac robot simulation engine on its Omniverse, which is the company’s metaverse simulation for engineers.

The Omniverse is a virtual tool that allows engineers to collaborate. It was inspired by the science fiction concept of the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. The project started years ago as a proprietary Nvidia project called Holodeck, named after the virtual reality simulation in Star Trek.

But it morphed into a more ambitious industry-wide effort based on the plumbing made possible by the Universal Scene Description (USD) technology Pixar developed for making its movies. Nvidia has spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars on the project, and now it’s updating its robot simulations for it.

An open beta

Above: These are simulations of Isaac robots in action.

Image Credit: Nvidia

The new Isaac simulation engine is now in open beta so companies and designers can test how their robots function in a simulated environment before they make the commitment of manufacturing the robots, said Gerard Andrews, senior product marketing manager at Nvidia, in an interview with VentureBeat.

Andrews showed me some images and videos of robots working in a digital factory being created by BMW as a “digital twin.” Once the factory design is done, the digital design will be replicated in the real world as a physical copy. And now the Isaac-based robots will operate more realistically, based on newly available sensors for the robots and more robust simulations.

The simulation not only creates better photorealistic environments but also streamlines synthetic data generation and domain randomization to build ground-truth datasets to train robots in applications from logistics and warehouses to factories of the future.

“Isaac Sim is going into open beta. We’ve had an early adopter program, which has reached thousands of developers in hundreds of individual companies,” Andrews said. “They tried it out and kicked the tires and gave us some good feedback. And we’re proud to take this to the market based on that feedback and a lot of enthusiasm we are seeing from these customers.”

He said Isaac Sim is a realistic simulation, derived from core technologies such as accurate physics, real-time ray tracing, path tracing, and materials that behave like they’re supposed to.

“One of the big problems you have is the sim-to-real gap, where the gap between the virtual world and the real world — if it exceeds a certain amount — then the engineers or developers just won’t use simulation,” Andrews said. “They’ll just abandon it and say is not working.”

Andrews said the Isaac Sim running on Omniverse will be a game-changer in the utility of simulators. And he said the simulation has to be good enough that it’s worth the time it takes to learn how to use the tools for the simulation.

“A lot of the use cases we have around manipulation robots, navigating robots, generating synthetic data to train the AI in those robots — we have those use cases built into Isaacs already,” Andrews said. “And then finally, the big benefit that we get from being a part of the Omniverse platform is seamless connectivity and interoperability with all these other tools that people may be using in their 3D workloads. We can bring those assets into our simulation environment where we’re developing the robot, training the robot, or testing the robot.”

The Omniverse and Isaac

nvidia isaac 3 Dofbot manipulation robot in Isaac Sim

Above: Dofbot manipulation robot in Isaac Sim.

Image Credit: Nvidia

The Omniverse is the underlying foundation for Nvidia’s simulators, including the Isaac platform — which now includes several new features.

Built on the Nvidia Omniverse platform, Isaac Sim is a robotics simulation application and synthetic data generation tool. It allows roboticists to train and test their robots more efficiently by providing a realistic simulation of the robot interacting with compelling environments that can expand coverage beyond what is possible in the real world.

This release of Isaac Sim also adds improved multi-camera support and sensor capabilities, and a PTC OnShape CAD importer to make it easier to bring in 3D assets. These new features will expand the breadth of robots and environments that can be successfully modeled and deployed in every aspect: from design and development of the physical robot, then training the robot, to deploying in a “digital twin” in which the robot is simulated and tested in an accurate and photorealistic virtual environment.

Developers have long seen the benefits of having a powerful simulation environment for testing and training robots. But all too often, the simulators have had shortcomings that limited their adoption. Isaac Sim addresses these drawbacks, Andrews said.

Realistic simulation

nvidia isaac 4

Above: A scene in a BMW digital twin factory.

Image Credit: Nvidia

I was looking at the images of Isaac robots in the press material, and I thought they were photos. But those are 3D-animated images of robots in the Omniverse.

In order to deliver realistic robotics simulations, Isaac Sim leverages the Omniverse platform’s powerful technologies including advanced graphics processing unit (GPU)-enabled physics simulation with PhysX 5, photorealism with real-time ray, and path tracing, and Material Definition Language (MDL) support for physically-based rendering.

Isaac Sim is built to address many of the most common robotics use cases including manipulation, autonomous navigation, and synthetic data generation for training data. Its modular design allows users to easily customize and extend the toolset to accommodate many applications and environments.

“This image is a digital twin of BMWs new factory that their factory planners worked on. They brought it into the Omniverse world. And the cool thing about being in Omniverse is that I can put my simulated robot right in this world, and collect the training data that I’m going to use for my AI models, do my testing, do all sorts of different scenarios. And that’s kind of one of the beauties of being a part of the Omniverse platform,” Anders said. “I’ve been challenged to come up with a catchy phrase, and I ever really come up with a catchy phrase, but it’s something around the realistic robot models and the complex scenes that they’re going to operate in.”

To me, it’s kind of like designing products inside one of Pixar’s film worlds, only one that is far more realistic.

With Omniverse, Isaac Sim benefits from Omniverse Nucleus and Omniverse Connectors, enabling the collaborative building, sharing, and importing of environments and robot models in Pixar’s Universal Scene Description (USD) standard. Engineers can easily connect the robot’s brain to a virtual world through Isaac SDK and ROS/ROS2 interface, fully-featured Python scripting, plugins for importing robot and environment models.

Synthetic Data Generation is an important tool that is increasingly used to train the perception models found in today’s robots. Getting real-world, properly labeled data is a time-consuming and costly endeavor. But in the case of robotics, some of the required training data could be too difficult or dangerous to collect in the real world. This is especially true of robots that must operate in close proximity to humans.

Issac Sim has built-in support for a variety of sensor types that are important in training perception models. These sensors include RGB, depth, bounding boxes, and segmentation, Andrews said.

How realistic should it be?

“You just want to, within reason, close that sim-to-real gap,” Andrews said. “If you have a small error, that can accumulate in your simulation. It can pick up over time, like an error in physics modeling where you don’t do something right with how the wheels [function], then the first time you simulate it, your robot may be fine. But that error builds up and the robot may find itself completely off course in the real world.”

He added, “The closer you can get into the reality, there’s just a better experience you’re going to have when the engineers try to use it. In the world of simulation, you always face this idea of now that I have the real hardware, what’s the value of still using the simulator.”

Getting better data

nvidia isaac 5

Above: Isaac Sim gets into the engineering details for materials.

Image Credit: Nvidia

In the open beta, Nvidia has the ability to output synthetic data in the KITTI format. This data can then be used directly with the Nvidia Transfer Learning Toolkit to enhance model performance with use case-specific data, Andrews said.

Domain Randomization varies the parameters that define a simulated scene, such as the lighting, color and texture of materials in the scene. One of the main objectives of domain randomization is to enhance the training of machine learning (ML) models by exposing the neural network to a wide variety of domain parameters in simulation. This will help the model to generalize well when it encounters real world scenarios. In effect, this technique helps teach models what to ignore.

Isaac Sim supports the randomization of many different attributes that help define a given scene. With these capabilities, the ML engineers can ensure that the synthetic dataset contains sufficient diversity to drive robust model performance.

Simulations can save time and other things

BMW Group is using Omniverse to build a digital factory that will mirror a real-world place.

Above: BMW Group is using Nvidia’s Omniverse to build a digital factory that will mirror a real-world place.

Image Credit: Nvidia

In real life, 50 engineers may be working on a project, but they might have only one hardware prototype. With something like Isaac, all 50 software engineers could work on it at the same time, Andrews said. No longer do all of the engineers have to be in the same place, as they can work on parts of it remotely. And they don’t all have to be in the same physical space.

“I was designing processor cores and people always wanted to simulate it before they had the real hardware, but when their chip came back, the simulator was put on the side,” Andrews said. “In the robotics use case, I still feel like there’s value for the simulator, even when you have hardware because the robots themselves are expensive.”

On top of that, it could be dangerous to test a robot in the real world if its controls aren’t right. It might run into a human. But if you test it in the Omniverse, the simulation won’t hurt anybody.

Over time, Nvidia has added things like multi-camera support, a fisheye camera lens, and other sensors that improve the functions of the robot and its ability to sense the environment. The more components are improved in the real world, the more the Isaac simulation can be updated in the Omniverse, Andrews said.

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Intel launches more silicon and software for 5G wireless networks

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Intel launches more silicon and software for 5G wireless networks

Elevate your enterprise data technology and strategy at Transform 2021.


Intel made the case today that its silicon chips and software are accelerating 5G wireless networks at the edge, and the big chipmaker is launching new chips to further improve its position in such 5G technologies as virtual radio access networks (vRAN).

Intel VP Dan Rodriguez made the announcements in a keynote speech for the virtual Mobile World Congress event. By 2023, experts expect 75% of data will be created outside of the datacenter — at the edge in factories, hospitals, retail stores, and across cities. Developers want to converge various capabilities at the edge, such as AI, analytics, media, and networking, and Intel wants to be there with the right technology.

In a recent survey of 511 information technology decision-makers, over 78% said they believe 5G technology is crucial to keeping pace with innovation, and nearly 80% said 5G technologies will affect their businesses, Intel reported.

With this in mind, Rodriguez said Reliance Jio, Deutsche Telekom, and Dish Wireless are transforming their networks on Intel architecture. The vRAN promises cloud-like agility and automation capabilities that can help optimize the RAN performance and ultimately improve the experience for users.

Intel is also expanding its family of Agilex FPGA (field programmable gate array), or highly programmable chips. The company is adding a new FPGA with integrated cryptography acceleration that can support MACSec in 5G applications. This adds another layer of security to vRAN at the fronthaul, midhaul, and backhaul levels.

Above: Intel is unveiling new 5G wireless network tech at MWC 2021.

Image Credit: Intel

Intel also said the Intel Ethernet 800 Series family is expanding with the company’s first SyncE capable Ethernet Adapter designed for space-constrained systems on the edge and well-suited for both high-bandwidth 4G and 5G RAN, as well as time- and latency-sensitive applications in industrial, financial, energy, and other sectors.

Intel summed up the tech as its Intel Network Platform, a technology foundation that aims to reduce development complexity, accelerate time to market, and help customers and partners take advantage of features in Intel hardware — from core to access to edge. Intel says its Intel Network Platform includes system-level reference architectures, drivers, and software building blocks that enable rapid development and delivery of Intel-powered network solutions and an easier, faster path to developing and optimizing network software.

Rodriguez said nearly all commercial vRAN deployments are running on Intel technology. In the years ahead, Intel sees global vRAN base station deployments scaling from hundreds to “hundreds of thousands,” and eventually millions.

Why it matters

intel 2018 mwc 2 12

Above: Intel’s Mobile World Congress in 2018.

Intel said operators of 5G networks want a more agile, flexible infrastructure to unleash the full possibilities of 5G and edge as they address increased network demands from more connected devices. At the same time, global digitalization is creating new opportunities to use the potential of 5G, edge, artificial intelligence (AI), and cloud to reshape industries ranging from manufacturing to retail, health care, education, and more.

Decision-makers also revealed that they view edge as one of the top three use cases for 5G in the next two years. With Intel’s portfolio delivering silicon and optimized software solutions, the company can tap into an estimated $65 billion edge silicon opportunity by 2025. Intel technology is already deployed in over 35,000 end customer edge implementations.

Network deployments

Operators like Deutsche Telekom, Dish Wireless, and Reliance Jio are relying on Intel technology. Reliance Jio announced it will participate in co-innovations with Intel in 5G radio and wireless core and collaborate in areas that include AI, cloud, and edge computing, which will help with 5G deployment.

Deutsche Telekom is using Intel FlexRAN technology with accelerators in O-RAN Town, in the O-RAN network it is deploying in  Neubrandenburg, Germany — a city of 65,000 people spread out over 33 square miles. The company is relying on Intel as a technology partner to deliver high-performance RAN at scale.

Dish Wireless is relying on Intel’s contributions to the 5G ecosystem as it builds out the first cloud-native 5G network in the U.S. Its inaugural launch in Las Vegas, as well as its nationwide network, will be deployed on infrastructure powered by Intel technology in the network core, access, and edge.

Cohere is pioneering a new approach to improving spectrum utilization by leveraging capabilities in FlexRAN. It is integrating and optimizing spectrum multiplier software in the RAN intelligent controller. Cohere’s testing shows its Delay Doppler spatial multiplexing technology is improving channel estimation and delivering up to a 2 times improvement in spectrum utilization for operators. That’s what Vodafone has seen in 700Mhz testing in its labs.

And Cellnex Telecom — with support from Intel, Lenovo, and Nearby Computing — is delivering edge capabilities based on Intel Smart Edge Open. This will allow Cellnex to act faster on data, provide service-level management, improve quality of service, and deliver a more consistent experience to its end users. Deployed in Barcelona, this solution will extend to more markets using the blueprint developed with Intel and Nearby Computing.

Intel said its network business grew 20% between 2019 and 2020, from $5 billion to $6 billion. The company’s strong position is the result of early investments in hardware and software.

Intel predicted a bright future for the industry. As 5G blooms to meet its full potential alongside edge computing, experts expect artificial intelligence, the cloud, and smart cities will become the norm. Factory automation is also expected to flourish with Industry 4.0 and retail locations will redesign the shopping experience. And for consumers, cloud gaming and virtual and augmented reality over mobile networks will become an everyday experience, Rodriguez said.

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Disney interview: Big games coming with Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean

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Disney interview: Big games coming with Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean

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Disney had a big week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) with the announcement of Ubisoft’s new open-world game, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. The title has cinematic graphics that replicate the imagery of the movie and the environments of the beautiful moon of Pandora.

Microsoft’s Rare studio also announced that characters from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, like Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones, will be integrated into Sea of Thieves. Both are examples of Disney’s return to triple-A games after changes to its strategy for games over the years.

Disney had triple-A games in the past when it had its own game studios. But it closed down or sold off the studios, and more recently it has been licensing its properties to outside companies, mostly mobile game publishers such as Glu and Jam City. And now it’s clear that Disney has been licensing its properties out for triple-A games as well.

I talked with Sean Shoptaw, senior vice president of Walt Disney Games, and Luigi Priore, vice president of Disney and Pixar Games, about Disney’s presence at E3 and the latest on its strategy for games.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Pandora looks beautiful as an open world.

Image Credit: Disney

GamesBeat: What’s new for Disney Games?

Sean Shoptaw: I guess that’s a pretty loaded question. There’s a lot going on. It’s been a great week at E3 with some of the announcements you’ve seen. The business is doing well. We’re super excited about the products we’ve announced, and a lot of the products we have in the market already as well. We’re very excited about the status of games at Disney.

GamesBeat: What was announced altogether this week?

Shoptaw: The Avatar title and the Sea of Thieves integration were the two big ones so far.

GamesBeat: How long has Avatar been in the making now?

Priore: That predates us, obviously, because Disney didn’t acquire the 20th Century Fox properties until a couple of years ago. That started well before the acquisition. The great thing moving forward is we’ve been lucky enough to be able to work with Ubisoft and the team at Massive with Lightstorm, James Cameron’s production company, and Jon Landau, who worked on Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. They announced Massive was working on it a while ago, but this is the name announcement and the first glimpse of what that game is going to be. We’ve gotten very good responses.

GamesBeat: The animation almost feels like it is the movie.

Shoptaw: Yeah, after the trailer, people are finding out that it’s very cinematic. The quality is extremely high. We’re super excited about that title.

GamesBeat: How does that relate to the movie releases, the next Avatar movies? Are they slated for particular dates yet?

Priore: Yeah, the next one is holiday 2022. Sean can get into our general strategy, but on licensing games like this these days — there was a time 15 or 20 years ago where playing the movie was something. You bought the game and played the movie. Things like the classic Aladdin game on Sega Genesis. You played the film. That was popular at the time, but gamers expect more now. They want to interact with their favorite characters and worlds, but they want to play new stories and do new things with those characters and worlds.

On Avatar it’s the same thing. What James Cameron and Jon Landau created is an amazing science fiction world. Pandora is awesome. They have great heroes. It’s a great playground to play in. This is a brand new story with new characters. It’s going to become part of the canon. The whole idea is to have it be part of the storyline of that giant franchise on Pandora, but it’s not a “play the movie” game. It’s an all new open world, new characters. That’s why it’s called Frontiers of Pandora. It takes place on another frontier, another area of the moon of Pandora.

avatar 2

Above: The environs of Pandora.

Image Credit: Disney

GamesBeat: How much will we recognize it? Is it a replication of the movie world, or is it more Ubisoft’s imagining of a new part of the world?

Priore: No, we’re working directly with the filmmakers. Jon Landau is involved almost every day on this. This is the same world. It’s just that you’re going to meet new characters, new clans of Na’vi, and your role is going to be different. I don’t want to go too much into it because we didn’t announce everything yet. But it’s a whole new story with new characters on the same planet, in the same canon. Jedi: Fallen Order was a new story about a new Jedi in the Star Wars canon. It’s the same idea here.

GamesBeat: On your level, how are you involved, compared to Ubisoft’s responsibility?

Priore: Massive is the developer. They’re one of the best in class at open world games. Division, Division II, amazing games. They’re working with the FoxNext team and Lightstorm, working directly with the filmmakers. Where we come in is we’ve brought our expertise in working on IP, working on games. We’ve talked about this a bit. We have a collection of producers, game designers, artists, writers that work together with our partners to get the best out of what they want to do.

Although we just joined this game production recently, since we acquired the 20th Century properties, we’re working directly with Massive and Lightstorm to help them make the best game possible. It’s our job to make sure that Massive has everything they need and that the brand is as authentic as possible working with Lightstorm.

GamesBeat: It still feels like there are so many opportunities for Disney in games. How do you approach which ones to take on, how many of them to do on what platforms?

Shoptaw: There’s no shortage of inbound interest to work with all of our franchises, thankfully. That’s something we’re grateful for. We try to take the approach that — we need to align our partnerships around people’s passions for IP. When we sit down and meet with a developer or publisher about an idea, a lot of that is driven by their passion to go make a specific game with a specific IP. Ideally we’re matching that up with a best-in-class partner. To the point about Massive, about EA, about the partnerships you see now and will see in future, it’s about matching that passion with best-in-class partners to go make what we hope are the best games we’ve made for whatever genre or IP it might be.

That, to us, is the recipe. It’s about working with high-quality partners that have passion for Disney IP, whatever it may be. It gets to be a much easier conversation once you’re in that world, where you see that passion. They have a track record of developing high-quality products. Then it’s about figuring out exactly what the execution is going to be, working closely with Luigi and our other teams internally to map to what ultimately is the final product. But that really is, at the top, our focus, to match people’s passions and the highest quality of partner we can find to go make a certain game.

GamesBeat: There’s a lot more coming than what we’ve seen here at E3, I’m sure.

Shoptaw: As I said yesterday, our slate has never been better. We’ve never been more excited about the slate we have. Some of that’s been announced and some hasn’t. But we feel like we’ve been fortunate to do some exciting partnerships with partners that have a high bar on quality and thankfully have a passion for our IP. We look at our pipeline of product and it’s never been healthier. The quality bar has never been higher.

GamesBeat: Star Wars: Hunters is another one of those coming.

Priore: Very excited about Hunters. Both mobile and Switch, which is very exciting for us. We’ve wanted to get more content on the Switch. We’re excited about what that game represents within the Star Wars universe. We think it’s a unique take, both creatively and from a genre perspective. It’s a very differentiated experience, one we haven’t seen so far in Star Wars.

avatar 3 1

Above: Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is coming in 2022.

Image Credit: Disney

GamesBeat: Zynga is an interesting choice there. They haven’t done a console game before. When I was talking to them about their Harry Potter game, though, I was pretty stunned by how much work went into that. Several years, the biggest team they ever had. How much they put into all the animation and everything else that keeps players immersed in that universe was very interesting. It wasn’t as much of a surprise to see them do a Star Wars game.

Priore: They came to us with a good idea, with a team that we had a lot of respect for. They have a lot of passion for Star Wars. It made a lot of sense to us as we sat down and mapped out what a game could look like here. You’ll see that passion and quality in the final product. As I said, I think it’s a unique take on Star Wars, and knock on wood, our fans will agree. We’re pretty bullish on that game, excited for the world to see it.

GamesBeat: Is there anything else announced in Star Wars?

Shoptaw: We announced the Massive title as well not too long ago. We’ll do an open world Star Wars game with Massive. Similar to Zynga, we feel like it fits a need within the Star Wars universe that hasn’t been fulfilled, and we felt Massive was a perfect partner to execute on it. We’re huge fans of David [Polfeldt] and the team. We aligned quickly on a vision and an experience for Star Wars that, again, fans and gamers will flock to, hopefully. We feel good about the team making it, and we think the idea behind it is great.

GamesBeat: I take it that it’s just not the time to show a glimpse of that?

Shoptaw: We’re still a little ways off, but at the right time I think people will see why we’re so excited about it. We had Avatar to show this time. We didn’t want to show too much at once. With Star Wars, we’ve seen such a great response to Star Wars recently. Jedi: Fallen Order continues to perform. We just hit the 20 million user milestone recently. That title was another great example of telling a truly original story within that universe, something that hadn’t been told before. Allowing people to go be a Jedi and play a fun game like that has proven to work well and continues to resonate.

We’re not looking to flood the market and put one game on top of another. We want to be disciplined and focused on the best experiences. It’s not about making as many games as we can possibly make. It’s about making the right games with the right partners. When we do that, we see that we’re able to have a good amount of success. We feel fortunate about that. We’ll continue to do things that we think fans and gamers will be excited about with the right partners in the right genres on the right platforms. If we can keep that discipline I think we’ll continue to raise the bar on quality and continue to deliver products that will meet the moment, meet the level of quality that we want.

GamesBeat: What’s the strategy around platforms, especially mobile?

avatar 4 1

Above: The Avatar game has been years in the making.

Image Credit: Disney

Shoptaw: Mobile is a huge market globally. We’re always going to have more mobile products than we have console products, just by the nature of the platform. It’s pretty simple. We want to be where it makes sense for our IP to be, across genres, across markets. That might mean local products like Twisted Wonderland in Japan, which is a very unique, specific take on Disney in a market that is hugely passionate about Disney specifically. That execution is a great example of being very locally focused, an execution we know is going to resonate with a certain market. We certainly have regional looks as well, products that make sense in certain parts of the world. Asia is a good example. And then we have a fair amount of products that are global.

We look at it through a local, regional, and global lens. We want to make sure we match franchises and IP with markets in genres that resonate most powerfully. Twisted Wonderland is an incredible example of a local execution. A lot of our titles, obviously, are global, and they’ve been massive successes across markets. We’ll continue to look at big global opportunities like Galaxy of Heroes with EA. Obviously the Marvel portfolio has had a lot of incredible success across mobile.

We’re not one size fits all. We’ll focus on the right execution in the right market with the right partner and the right genre. We don’t want to flood the market, again, with a bunch of duplicative titles, or just put our brand on any title that we get some interest in. We’re going to be disciplined, and we’re going to make sure we apply that sort of strategic thought to every game we do, regardless of market. That approach over the last few years for us has shown that it works well, and we’ll continue to have that view of the world. It needs to make sense. It needs to be really high quality.

Even if we think we’re missing something, if there’s an opportunity for a genre or a certain IP is underserved, we’re not going to rush and just do a game because we think we need to. We will wait and make the right game with the right partner. That’s as important as getting any games out there. That’s something we’re focused on as much as we are getting products to market and satisfying the demand that we fortunately have for our IP. We’ll continue to be disciplined.

GamesBeat: Did the pandemic change your thinking in any ways?

Shoptaw: No. Fortunately the game industry overall, and certainly our business within Disney, had been doing very well prior to COVID. People’s perception was that video games benefited a lot from people staying home, working from home. There’s certainly some truth to that. But video games have been growing rapidly as an industry prior to COVID. It would have continued to grow rapidly if we never had COVID. So it hasn’t changed any strategic thinking for us. Fortunately our products and releases, nothing was impacted too dramatically by COVID. Again, strategically it hasn’t changed our view of the world.

avatar 5 1

Above: The humans are the enemy in Avatar.

Image Credit: Disney

GamesBeat: It seems like the video game opportunity is a lot more clear than it used to be in the wake of the pandemic. I’ve been writing all these stories about how much more money is coming into the game industry. I think it’s $49 billion in the first five months of this year in terms of investments and acquisitions and public offerings. That compares to $33 billion for all of last year. At the same time I know the movie industry is contracting. Does it make some sense to argue the case for games as a bigger slice of the pie going forward, a bigger opportunity? Is it time to double down on video games?

Shoptaw: We look at games as that pillar, regardless of what the model is. For us we feel like playing in the space where we’re playing gives us the highest quality products that we can scale across the world. When you look at internal development, obviously that comes with a considerable amount of investment and volume to go hit the aspirations that we have in this space. Again, that’s to work and deliver the best products across the world — console, mobile, PC.

Generally there’s no shortage of investment still happening on the linear side. To your point around film, streaming has taken a considerable bite out of that traditional film apple. But the investment in linear content is still extremely material. I don’t think that’s been diminished in any way. From a games perspective, again, our focus has been, and will continue to be, on quality, on being able to scale this business and meet the demand that exists in video games.

We feel like right now, that strategy is to go license and work with the best partners in the world to deliver on that demand. We’ll continue to do that as long as we can meet that bar of quality, of volume, and making sure that our reach is where we need it to be. Again, we’re fortunate to have the IP that we do. We owe it to consumers, fans, and gamers to make sure we’re delivering at that level. That will continue to be our focus.

We’re excited about where this business is and where it’s going. We think it is a pillar, regardless of model. As long as we’re delivering products like we are, games will continue to be a foundational part of the overall entertainment medium. Certainly from a Disney perspective we do that very thoughtfully. We’ve given a lot of attention and focus to it internally. You’re seeing those results in products today, and you’ll continue to see them in the future.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me a little about the Sea of Thieves integration?

Priore: We’re excited. The team at Rare — this goes back to what we were saying about best-in-class partners. They’ve made the best pirate game ever with Sea of Thieves. We’re excited to have A Pirate’s Life, something authentic to Pirates of the Caribbean that’s also authentic to Sea of Thieves. It lines up with what Sean was saying about doing it the right way, making it authentic to what we do at Disney. Just as we said about Avatar or Star Wars, we want to do that all the time, and we feel like we’re having success with that.

I’ve been here a long time. I’ve been at Disney in games for 25 years. I’ve been on the roller coaster, and I’ve never been more excited about the opportunities we have lined up. You’re seeing some of them, whether it’s Massive and Ubisoft with Avatar or Rare and Microsoft with Sea of Thieves and Pirates of the Caribbean. We’re excited about what’s coming next.

GamesBeat: Call of Duty has an interesting funnel these days, where they start with Call of Duty Mobile. They have 500 million people that way. They have Warzone, a free-to-play console and PC game, 100 million players. That feeds into Cold War, a $60 packaged game that sold 40% better than the previous game in the series. It seems like no accident. You widen that funnel and eventually you widen the market for the franchise’s premium games. It seems like only the biggest companies can do that. I don’t know if Disney has looked at that strategy as well, where there’s a purpose to each game in that funnel.

Shoptaw: People’s strategic view of a game and that game’s purpose are going to differ greatly. If you’re developing a game like Call of Duty, that’s a significant franchise and an incredibly successful one. There’s a lot of ways you can continue to funnel users and grow that pie across platforms.

From a Disney perspective it’s obviously different. We’re working with partners to create experiences. Our strategy is, again, to bring as high a quality of product as we can to market. It’s not about platform-building. We’re not doing this vertically, building out platforms and doing things that might be the strategy of a big game developer.

For us, we’re certainly open to playing in a space that creates these multiplatform experiences that drive audiences in meaningful ways across products. It’s something we’d be happy to engage on if that kind of execution made sense for a franchise of ours. But again, our focus is generally tied to working with partners that can go elevate the IP, that can bring it to consumers in new, unique, innovative ways. If that outcome happens, to your initial question, that’s great. But it’s not core to our strategy because we’re not a developer. We don’t think about it through that lens. If they can leverage our IP in a similar way to Call of Duty, sure, we’re happy to engage on that conversation.

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