HBO added a new video chat feature to its HBO Now and HBO GO apps, allowing subscribers to watch shows and movies “together” via a Google Chrome extension.
The “virtual movie theater” technology is powered by Scener, a two-year-old Seattle startup that was incubated inside RealNetworks.
The idea is to let people watch live streams together amid the shelter-in-place mandates that have shut down movie theaters and prevented get-togethers. Viewers can host watch parties with up to 20 people; all must be subscribers. It’s similar in functionality to Netflix Party or Twitch’s Watch Parties.
Scener originally launched software that added picture-in-picture commentary to streaming shows and movies. The company pivoted to a co-watching model — a change that has paid off as people look for ways to connect socially without leaving their homes. Scener has seen a 15X surge in traffic over the past few months, said co-founder Joe Braidwood.
“It’s accelerated our thesis and made it more real,” Braidwood said.
An executive at HBO’s Seattle engineering center approached Scener about enabling the co-watching feature as the social distancing orders were put in place. The companies worked together over the past two months on the integration.
The Chrome extension works on Windows, Mac, or Chromebook. There are video, audio, and text chat features. Scener also works with Netflix.
Even in a post-pandemic world, Braidwood is confident that Scener will continue attracting users. He noted permanent behavior changes from the pandemic — avoiding the movie theater, for example — and the increasing habit of connecting over streaming media on platforms such as Twitch.
The pandemic has spawned other interactive technology. Houseparty, the video chat app that has skyrocketed in popularity, enabled co-watching of live events this week.
Scener plans to keep its software free for users and explore potential revenue models with industry partners. The company has five employees and is looking to raise investment later this year. It has officially spun out of RealNetworks; Rob Glaser, RealNetworks CEO, remains chairman of the startup.