Silicon Beach: Bringing entertainment and technology together

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Austin Hackett is a great example of the type of person flocking to Los Angeles right now. He’s founder of CrowdHall, a site that helps people with large social-media audiences engage with their fans in a virtual town hall forum. Right now he’s based in Cincinnati, and his website is focused largely on the upcoming election, so Ohio, a key swing state, is a good place to be.

“But after November, politics is pretty boring, so the next market we want to go after is the high profile individuals, thought leaders, experts, celebrities, and obviously Los Angeles is a great place for that,” Hackett said.

Venice Beach, photo by asmythie via Flickr/CC (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Of course, there’s a lot more than just celebrities that make Los Angeles a place he wants to live. “Personally, it’s a lot more attractive than going up to the Bay Area. To be able to have the sunshine and the beach, and work a block away from that, it’s a good sell,” he said.

Hackett is working with a startup accelerator, Launchpad L.A., which is based in Santa Monica. Business incubators provide money and mentoring, and are popping up everywhere. And so are venture capitalists, or VCs. “I’ve seen a huge move down towards L.A., Santa Monica, these areas, from the VC firms and everywhere, because I’ve been very involved in the Valley, in technology,” said Erik Weaver of Digital Ribbon, a company promoting cloud computing for filmmakers. “The cloud” is basically where data is stored and programs run when they’re not on your computer. Weaver wants to use the cloud to change how films are made. “So, collaboration online in the beginning with scripts, to filming where the upload tapes go up overnight,where people can do content review, color, post and pre-production, and eventually be able to do distribution and other things,” Weaver said. “So the whole process, moving it to the cloud.”

While technology is changing how Hollywood makes the movies and shows we like, it’s also changing how we consume and interact with those products. You can see that with AMC, which created a Facebook game for its popular show The Walking Dead. Other networks are doing it too. Digital strategist Beverly Macy points to the FX hit Sons of Anarchy, which has an iPad shopping app that lets you buy jewelry or clothing worn by cast members in the show. “So there’s just this full 360-degrees interactivity for the consumer to choose how they want to interact with content that they love,” Macy said.

The Sons of Anarchy app was developed by L.A.-based tech firm Magic Ruby. It’s an example of how major networks partner with small tech companies to figure out a future in which we’re always on the go, but still plugged in, and jumping from one screen to another.

“The very fact that they are leading initiatives, such as the ultraviolet content, in the cloud storage locker, some of the web interactive second screen applications that people such as Fox Broadcasting are beginning to experiment, would suggest that there is a recognition that you do need to embrace this technology to be successful,” said Ken Williams, head of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, which recently sponsored a conference on Silicon Beach.

The company Music Prodigy won first place at the conference’s awards ceremony. Their software makes learning an instrument a lot like playing a video game, and it tracks your progress.“We like to compare ourselves to Rosetta Stone, and Nike Plus,” said  Harold Lee, the company’s co-founder.

Music Prodigy’s other founder, Tyson Butler, says being in Southern California has been critical to the company’s success. “What’s unique about Silicon Beach is obviously the connection to entertainment and media, which is clearly an area that is near and dear to our hearts,” Butler said. “It’s a very vibrant, creative community down here and especially for what we’re doing is really important.”

Music Prodigy wants to change music education – making it interactive, social, and smart. And that’s generally true of Silicon Beach. Everyone’s trying to figure out what comes next. The key to it is… who gets there first.