Aug 19, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Join Axios’ Mike Allen on Thursday at 12:30pm ET for a live, virtual event on the future of broadband access, featuring Sen. Amy Klobuchar, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and Microsoft president Brad Smith

And speaking of tech and the conventions, that's exactly what we focused on for today's Login, which by the way, is 1,361 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: How tech is sidelined at the conventions it is powering

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the not-so-distant past, major tech firms made a splashy presence at the national political conventions. This year, they're taking a much quieter role, Axios' Ashley Gold and I report.

The big picture: Silicon Valley and Washington continue to keep each other at arm's length — even though the conventions are only possible in the pandemic era with a vital assist from tech products and platforms.

What's happening: Many tech companies are working to bring content to their users from both this week's Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee and next week's Republican National Convention in Charlotte. Some are still quietly donating tech services, as they have in years past.

Yes, but: The firms are pulling back from making themselves a part of the action.

  • That's a break from as recently as 2016, when attendees of both conventions took breaks from schmoozing at workspaces with snacks and swag sponsored by Google or Facebook; Big Tech firms threw after-parties; and people crowded into tiny imitation Oval Offices that Instagram built for photo ops.

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, makes that sort of convention experience impossible. But tech companies aren't coming up with virtual alternatives or otherwise working to directly ingratiate themselves with digital conventioneers of either party.

"Technology companies have chosen to distance themselves from the national political conventions this year due to factors well beyond COVID," Jenna Golden, former head of political ad sales at Twitter who ran point on Twitter's live convention spaces in 2016, told Axios.

  • "Between Russian interference in the 2016 election and the tech CEOs having to testify on Capitol Hill, the relationship between politics and Big Tech has become incredibly strained, making these performative gestures like financial contributions and fancy setups at live events less relevant and potentially risky," she said.

Here's what major tech companies are doing: People can watch the conventions on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon's Twitch and Prime Video as well as Microsoft's Bing.

  • Facebook is providing "virtual technical support" to both conventions and their digital teams, spokesperson Katie Derkits told Axios.
  • Google's YouTube said in a blog post it's a "destination with a front seat for major election events," and it's a major destination for both parties' streaming efforts.
  • Twitter, which last fall banned political ads and said it won't make financial contributions to either convention, will prominently feature convention livestreams and related tweets and point people to accurate information about voting, spokesperson Nick Pacilio told Axios.
  • Spotify is getting involved for the first time, partnering with C-SPAN to put key speeches from both conventions on its platform as podcasts, spokesperson Taylor Griffin told Axios.
  • Cisco worked with the Milwaukee and Charlotte host committees to adapt their convention plans, and Cisco networking tech is being use for speakers, delegates, meetings and operations, a Cisco spokesperson told Axios. Cisco Webex will also be used for many of the live video meetings.
  • Apple hasn't announced any plans involving the conventions, nor have there been any reports that it might get involved by, for instance, donating equipment as it reportedly did for some past conventions (though not in 2016.)
  • Microsoft is making technology available for use such as its Skype TX platform for getting broadcast-quality feeds from video calls, a spokesperson said.
  • Amazon confirmed that it's donating tech support and services to both conventions.
2. The tech that made virtual conventions a reality

Shifting the conventions largely online has accelerated an effort already underway to ensure the proceedings extend far beyond any convention site to an increasingly digital audience.

Why it matters: The format and technology may have changed dramatically this year, but the underlying goals remain the same: energize the base, build momentum and woo voters on the fence.

Where it stands: Conversations with Republican and Democratic tech officials and convention organizers reveal a steady progression of technology since the last conventions four years ago, shaken up by a last-minute scramble to ensure both the flash and the business of the events would continue amid the pandemic.

What's new:

  • The Democrats' convention boasts hundreds of remote video feeds being used as part of the main presentation, up from just five in 2016. One of the key challenges has been not only managing those feeds, but ensuring minimal delay so physically distant speakers can interact with one another, said Democratic convention COO Andrew Binns.
  • Democratic delegates are using chat software to not only communicate during councils and caucuses but also share polls, presentations and even make donations.
  • Republicans have migrated all tech supporting convention work to the cloud after having used a mix of cloud services and on-premise servers in 2016.
  • "Literally our team can pick up and move anywhere we need to go," Max Everett, the chief information officer for the Republican convention, told Axios. That's helped as the event moved from Charlotte to Jacksonville and (in downscaled form) back to Charlotte in recent months.

Go deeper: The MVPs of This Year's Conventions? The Digital and IT Teams (NYT)

3. Microsoft aims for the skies

Screenshot: Microsoft

Microsoft is reviving one of its oldest game franchises — Microsoft Flight Simulator — with a new version that uses ultra-realistic map data to fuel its sky-high ambitions, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

The big picture: The new airplane simulator is both a nod to Microsoft's past and an advertisement for the company's present, relying on Bing Maps and Azure to build a game intended exclusively for Windows and Xbox users. It's also a technological marvel, recreating the entire planet in virtual space and setting players loose to fly every inch of it.

Details: The planes in the game and the overall flying experience are getting high marks for their fidelity to the real thing. But it's the game world that's drawing the most attention.

  • The game, built by French developer Asobo, uses Azure cloud-computing technology to render real-world buildings and entire cities, synthesizing realistic models from different angles and data in Bing Maps’ vast database of satellite and aerial imagery.

It's not perfect. There are varying levels of photorealism, with the game putting greater focus on closely simulating 341 world cities than other locales. (Not all airports are created equal, either. Some major airports were painstakingly built in-game by hand, while most are generated algorithmically.)

  • And Azure makes mistakes. For instance, it assumed Buckingham Palace — a large, blocky building in a prime London location — was an office complex and rendered it from certain angles accordingly.
  • But it is still a far more expansive, detailed and photoreal version of the world than its closest forebears, the built-in flight simulator in Google Earth and GeoFS, a flight simulator built around open-source maps.

Between the lines: Microsoft is looking to draw people into its ecosystem.

  • Microsoft Flight Simulator only available for Windows to start — including on Xbox Game Pass for PC, Microsoft's subscription PC gaming service. It's slated to come out later for Xbox One and the next-generation Xbox Series X console.
4. Otter.ai adds live event transcription

Audio transcription service Otter.ai is expanding into events — both live and virtual — turning conversations into text in real time.

Why it matters: Otter.ai is pitching it as a way for digital events to stand out amid growing competition.

Details: Otter for Events transcribes online events, including Zoom webinars.

  • Real-time transcripts allow for video captioning on the fly and make events more accessible.
  • The service can handle multiple simultaneous break-out sessions, as well as both public and private groups.
  • The company's paid Otter for Teams business customers can access the basic service at no additional cost. A premium service for very large events, either in-person or strictly online, is also available and was recently used at the New York-New Belfast Conference 2020

Flashback: Otter.ai previously demoed its ability to transcribe an event at TechCrunch Disrupt back in 2018.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • The American Economic Liberties Project has added Brandi Collins-Dexter to its steering committee. Collins-Dexter is a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and a senior fellow at Color Of Change.
  • Former U.S. homeland security adviser Tom Bossert has been named president of threat prevention provider Trinity Cyber.

ICYMI

  • Google is in a dispute with various travel sites over unpaid ad bills from this summer, as the global travel industry ground to a halt due to the pandemic. (CNBC)
  • Game publisher Take-Two Interactive is buying Playdots, the developer behind Two Dots, for $192 million in cash and stock. (TechCrunch)
  • Oculus will begin requiring people to use a Facebook account to log into their VR headsets. (Oculus)
  • Google Maps is adding more detail to both natural features and select street maps. (The Verge)
  • Instagram rolled out QR codes globally to let people pull up any profile using their phone’s camera app, Snapchat-style. (The Verge)
6. After you Login

If you haven't been on public transit in a while, here's a look at just how much the pandemic has transformed subway advertising.

Ina Fried