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Netflix Without the Mailings

Netflix Netflix just announced plans to begin dispatching movies straight to televisions through an LG-Electronics-made, Internet-connected set-top box. Netflix distributes most of its content—movies, TV shows and more—the old-fashioned way: through the mail. More than 7 million subscribers take part in one of its many rental plans, sending and receiving DVDs in small square envelopes. Now, thanks to high-speed Internet connections, the company is hoping to quicken the process, and allow customers to rent movies via the Web.

Netflix has already dipped its toes into this arena, but its "Watch Instantly" program hasn't fully caught on, in part because most users had to watch the content on their computers. The LG box will change that, allowing users to watch up to 40 hours of movies and shows per month. The selection isn't as great, but it's still significant. The company's DVD library is 90,000 titles strong, and the online selection currently has more than 6,000 options.

The LG partnership is also just a first step. Netflix plans to sign deals with numerous electronics companies, and transform itself into more of a movie channel than an Internet-age Blockbuster. Will it be the leader in online video rentals? Apple might have something to say about that.—Gregory Mone

Apple and Fox Poised for Movie Deal

Fantastic_four Twentieth Century Fox and Apple are set to announce a new online movie distribution deal, according to the Financial Times. While Apple has reportedly been trying to land such a deal for a while now, most studios have resisted the plan to offer their films as digital rentals.

At this point, Apple does sell movies through its iTunes Store, but reports suggest that sales haven't been growing as briskly as expected. This new deal with Fox could give customers another, less expensive option for watching flicks. Fox has also agreed to use Apple's digital rights management technology in future DVDs, which would let buyers copy the movies to their Apple devices.—Gregory Mone

Is Santa a Physicist?

Image_about_santa Ever wonder how Santa and his reindeer get around the globe so quickly? Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory aren't sure but they say "ion shielding, personal magnetic fields and multi-dimensional travel concepts show promise." The lab's satellite tracking group plans to keep tabs on the jolly old fellow on Christmas Eve using ground-based antennas along with sensors aboard the FORTE and Cibola Flight Experiment satellites (including optical and infrared sensors that detect Rudolph's glowing nose). You can follow Santa's progress on the group's website.

And why doesn't Santa appear to age despite being more than 15 centuries old? That's "our biggest clue that he does not work within time, as we know it," according to sources at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) who have been tracking Santa since 1955. "His Christmas Eve trip may seem to take around 24 hours, but to Santa it could be that it lasts days, weeks or months in standard time. NORAD's Santa tracker uses a ground-based radar warning system, satellites that normally watch for missile launches, jet-fighter escorts, and digital Santa Cams positioned at strategic locations around the world.

What if NORAD and Los Alamos spot Santa in two different places at the same time? I'm sure physics has a good explanation for that too.—Dawn Stover

Image: NORAD Tracks Santa

Debuting Feature Films on the Web

Jackass2 What a strange way to start a revolution. Paramount and MTV announced that they plan to release the third Jackass movie on the Internet. They're asking only that viewers sit through a few advertisements, and then they'll be free to watch the brave Jackass crew risk their lives and health in new and outlandish ways.

Moviemakers have been toying around with new distribution models for a few years now. Edward Burns debuted the movie Purple Violets on iTunes last month, and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh tried a simultaneous DVD/theater release in 2005. But even though Jackass 2.5 is a movie about a bunch of idiots hurting themselves for laughs, it's a bolder experiment, since these flicks have been pretty successful at the box office. And if it doesn't work? A week after the Internet debut, the movie will be available on DVD.—Gregory Mone

Via ArsTechnica

Beowulf and the New 3D

Beowulf This weekend marks what must be the seventeen-millionth 3D revolution in the last 50 years, with the premier of the movie Beowulf in IMAX 3D. There's no doubt that the technology keeps getting better, and the IMAX experience is unparalleled. But Beowulf could be a key test for this new iteration of 3D, an indicator of whether it's really going to catch on.

The movie is a CGI-animated re-telling of the classic man-vs.-monsters tale. It's the original Jaws. Some critics have protested the transformation of the titular monster's even-more-fierceful mom into a temptress played by a digitized Angelina Jolie, but that seems off-the-mark. In real life she's a maneater, so why can't she play one onscreen?

Back to the technology, though. The early reviews of the 3D experience have been mixed—there are still reports of the shadow-image effect called "ghosting" that the engineers behind the new technology swore they had eliminated—but if you're in the mood for a monster flick, find the nearest IMAX and decide for yourself.—Gregory Mone

Life at Antarctica's McMurdo Research Station

Mcmurdo Filmmaker Werner Herzog, director of Grizzly Man and the recent Rescue Dawn, chronicles his time at Antarctica's famous McMurdo Station for his latest movie, Encounters at the End of the World. The movie is both about the place and the animals that inhabit it—the natural life and the scientists that study it. Reviews of the film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this weekend, suggest that Herzog didn't throw all of his considerable skill at the project, but that the finished product and, in particular, the director's take on just what we're doing there at McMurdo in the first place, is impressive.—Gregory Mone

Spiral Frog Music Service Leaps Into Launch

Gwenstefani_9_04_400 Free music? As in, honestly, no record companies coming after you free? Yes, that's the story with the newly launched, ad-supported Web site, Spiralfrog.com.

The music service, which has had its share of business woes recently, cut a deal with Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group to build its catalog. Universal opened up its collection, which includes top artists like Gwen Stefani (left), in return for a cut of advertising and sponsorship revenue. Selling those little discs must not be working out so well anymore.

Users sign up for free, but must visit the site at least once a month to retain access to their tunes. You won't be able to burn discs, but you can transfer the music to portable players. Just not the iPod. And that's the catch.—Gregory Mone

Do You Remember Life Before the Segway?

The Segway Personal Transporter is nearing its sixth birthday this year, and the Onion News Network convened a panel of, ummmm, experts to discuss its impact. Though it’s not really fair to give up yet on the Segway, billed as a planet-saving revolution in transportation but viewed by many as an overpriced toy, it obviously hasn’t fulfilled all that initial hype. The Onion’s absurdly satirical take is so wonderfully overdone that I'm not sure the main brain behind the Segway, Dean Kamen, would even be offended. One commentator recalls how he was fashioning a set of wheels to a pogo stick when he looked up, saw a Segway, and said, That’s what I want!—Gregory Mone

Transformers Expand to IMAX Screens

Transformers20 Optimus Prime is about to stand even taller. Comingsoon.net is reporting that this summer's massive blockbuster, Transformers, will be re-released in IMAX theaters on September 21st. This version won't just be bigger. It will also feature extended footage. There's been no word on what these extra clips will include, but I certainly hope the scenes won't be too heavy on the speechification or robot slapstick comedy. On the other hand, I would like to know which Decepticon beat up the Beagle lander on Mars, and why it disabled that helpless science instrument, but I doubt that's going to happen. A few extra or extended battle scenes are a safer bet, and would certainly be worth watching, and listening to, in a massive IMAX arena.—Gregory Mone

Scientists to Study Virtual Epidemics

Wow They're already starting to turn to simulated universes to study economics and human behavior, and now scientists hope to use online worlds to predict the impact of plagues, too. Epidemiologists first identified the scientific value of these virtual worlds after an imaginary virus began to spread unchecked in the popular online game World of Warcraft.

In 2005, programmers released a contagious disease called "Corrupted Blood" into a new zone in the game. At first, the disease effected some players, while others shrugged it off. But then it began to spread, both through avatars - virtual versions of real world people - and their pets. The game's overlords, Blizzard Entertainment, actually had to shut down World of Warcraft and re-boot the system to get things running normally again.

Scientists who study these problems in the real world typically deal in mathematical simulations, but the World of Warcraft case presented an opportunity to study the behavioral side of plagues, too. If epidemiologists can get a better idea of how people might react in such situations, they may be able to build stronger models, which will in turn help them predict what would happen in the real world. A group of scientists is in talks with Blizzard to see how they can work together in the future.—Gregory Mone


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