All posts by Jarom McDonald

Full Roku App is Back! (BETA)

To our loyal VidAngel customers,

 

I am coming to the end of my 7th year working on the engineering side of VidAngel, and to say it’s been a difficult road would be putting it mildly. But I don’t need to tell that to  any of you. I know from the hundreds of films and television episodes I’ve watched with my family that the technical experience of finding and viewing content on VidAngel always seems to trend somewhere between glitchy and impossible.

We are on the 6th iteration of trying to make families and the studios happy! We want to focus less on litigation and more on our customers.

Even with the herculean efforts of our technical teams, we realize that over the past few months things have changed for the worse, and it’s because we’ve failed on a couple fundamental tasks:

 

1)    We lost our focus on the transparency you need in order to trust us, and

2)    We have given your feedback about the direction our products are going far less weight than  we should have. 

 

So, as we try to right the ship as an engineering company, I thought it would be helpful to first give a bit of background. We often get questions asking how our technology works, and while every detail is publicly available, it isn’t an easy follow. So let’s change that.

 

For example, in order to watch a Netflix or Amazon title on VidAngel, we have to verify you have the rights, through one of those services, to view it. And in order to verify those rights, our systems need to “talk” with the systems from Amazon or Netflix. This works just like a web browser … in fact, it is a web browser. When you hit the “play” button in VidAngel, we create a web browser in the cloud that uses your specific Netflix or Amazon account to navigate to that title. From there we verify that your subscription is still active,  you’ve paid your rental/purchase fee, you’re in the right geographic location, or any other requirement that might be in place for you to legally be able to watch Amazon and Netflix content (and thus filter it).

 

Neither Amazon or Netflix is in the filtering business, and they have a vested interest in building their apps in ways that work for their goals, needs, and customers, without regard for what effects changes might have on a system like I described above. Changes to their websites may have adverse effects on how VidAngel’s systems communicate with those of Netflix or Amazon.

 

This would not be an issue if we did not always ask Amazon and Netflix if you have access to watch the content. We have taken enormous and continual care to prevent people from watching any title with VidAngel filters when these verifications aren’t rock solid. We know that, if we want the media industry to believe we are fighting for the individual and family right to watch however works best for them, we need to respect the decisions they make about their products and content as well. And this is one of the major reasons why the VidAngel playback experience is often so up-and-down. 

 

This brings us to the middle of March, just several months ago when we were at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. At some point early in that month, Amazon Prime Video deployed a change to their systems that fundamentally altered our ability to verify our customers’ rights to legally watch and filter a title from Amazon’s services. This in no way means that we had been doing anything improper or untoward, or even that we’d been using our cloud browsers to navigate their site incorrectly.It was just a change they needed to make, and we were faced with a choice. We could turn off our Amazon filtering services until we had adjusted them to work with their changes (given that choosing to operate and serve Amazon content without verifying every single user ownership was never an option we would consider), or we could accelerate the rollout of a new product we’d been working on, one that communicated with Amazon and Netflix’s apps through your mobile phone rather than through a browser in the cloud.

 

Out of expediency, we chose the latter option. We had been working on the prototypes for several months already, and we wanted to get it into the hands of our customers as quickly as possible. Our new app is different in many ways, but one of the most crucial differences is that, by using your phone and your home wifi network, we can communicate even more clearly with Netflix and Amazon as to who is requesting to watch and filter a given title. It also opens the door for a wide range of your most requested  features to be developed, like community-based filters, closed caption and multilingual filtering, profile-based “allow/block” lists, and offline, “DVR-like” viewing/filtering. 

 

And this is how we found ourselves, VidAngelists, in a situation where we were offering a beta mobile app, a web app that only worked with Netflix, and some broken television apps that my 6-year-old daughter whined about whenever she discovered, every morning, that she could no longer watch Shrek on her “Rokuangel” (as I force her to call it).

 

We are committed to keeping you as informed as we can about our company’s direction. We also need your feedback to help guide that direction, which leads me to address a second question in my final few paragraphs: how can we at VidAngel take our fingers out of our ears and better listen to our customers?

 

Our television casting feature, a core feature of our new mobile apps, is something I’m very passionate about. Casting was what brought me to VidAngel, and after 6 and a half years, when we rolled out our new casting technology that can  talk to any family’s devices, I remember saying to myself, “This is incredible. Why would anyone ever want to install an app on their Roku or Apple TV again? You can do it all from your phone!” Yet now, with hindsight that’s 20/20, I realize I wasn’t really seeing the forest for the trees. Many of you don’t want to use the phone as your remote. Whether it’s because you’re like me and have younger kids who want to start their own shows, or you have teenagers who you can’t trust to set their filters properly, or you just want to relax on the couch, distraction free while your phone is in the other room, we hear your complaints. Thank you for your feedback over the past few months and telling us how important your specific VidAngel viewing experience is.

 

With that said, we’ve made a monumental push over the past few weeks and are now able to release two significant new(ish) products:

 

1)    An updated, still-a-work-in-progress-but-getting-there, version of the VidAngel Roku app that can work with your mobile device. This way you can, after a one-time sync between the two devices, browse, search, and watch on Roku the way you’ve always done in the past, with full access sans your mobile phone, you can find out more details at https://www.vidangel.com/roku and 

2)  A new chrome extension that will restore full access to enable your computer to connect to streaming services (no mobile syncing required!) and watch right in a browser.

 

Additionally, we are already hard at work to bring the same new features to the AppleTVs, FireTVs, and Android TVs out there.

 

Your patience is much appreciated, but even more so we appreciate your trust. We want to continue to make entertainment good for your home, and we can only do that once we’ve proven we deserve a place in  your home in the first place. 

 

Jarom McDonald

VP of Research and Innovation

VidAngel

VidAngel Browser Player and Chromecast Player Updated

HDTVsWe have spent the last year teaching all our customers to use the Chrome browser and the VidAngel extension to filter their movies. We also incessantly taught people, wanting to watch VidAngel filtered movies on their HD televisions, to use the Chromecast “tab cast” feature instead of using the YouTube cast button. But with the launch of Angel HD, we opened up more options for getting filtered movies on the big screen — Roku, Apple TV, and a desktop player that was “Cast-Ready,” utilizing Chromecast’s native playback functionality instead of simply mirroring a Chrome tab.

Since this launch, there have been certain bugs that our beta invitees have continually reported: A) the browser player for Angel HD often stalls and never recovers, and B) Chromecast playback has sometimes been really choppy. We’ve discovered that problem B is actually an extension of problem A, as our users, trained to click on the tab cast button, were inadvertently bypassing our dedicated Chromecast player and ended up mirroring an already stalling desktop player to their Chromecast devices.

This hasn’t been a great experience, especially for a device designed to be drop-dead simple like the Chromecast. We’ve finally solved both these problems, leading to a much simpler and much more reliable experience for you on both your browser and your Chromecast. No more incessant stalls on your desktop, as we’ve rolled out a new player to ensure that when you choose to watch your movies on your PC or Mac you’ll get close to the same smooth, consistent playback you see on Roku, AppleTV, iPads, iPhones, and Android. What’s more, you can connect your browser playback to your Chromecast through both the Cast icon on the player as well as through directly clicking the extension icon — in other words, you won’t accidentally start a tab casting session, but will be able to launch the Chromecast direct player no matter where you click.

While we’ve lost lots of lost sleep solving these problems, we’re eager to get the new players out to you so both are available starting now. We hope that, whether you’re watching on your computer screen or leaning back on the couch, you enjoy the better playback experience.