Canadians Abroad: Charles Migos of Rheo is designing television 2.0

Welcome to Canadians Abroad, a series where we profile a Montrealer currently living and working in tech somewhere outside of Canada.

Charles Migos was born and raised in Ottawa before moving to Montreal in the ’90s, but left for San Francisco in 2000 after accepting a job at a video news company that would allow him to move more into the consumer space. Over the years, he’s continued to bump into other Montrealers in the Valley, and heard tell about the growing tech scene back home.

“I would say, because I’m connected to the tech scene in Montreal and have a lot of friends within it, I’m very aware of Montreal’s ascension. That it has become a kind of role player in tech spaces outside of what has been its bread and butter, like 3D animation. And I’ve also encountered a few people from Montreal that have worked in the same space that I am currently working in that have made real headway here. So there are many success stories of people having come from Montreal, and from organizations like FounderFuel.”

Migos started out working in the kind of tech Montreal has long been known for: special effects software used for film and television production.

“The company I was working at at the time, Softimage, was owned by Microsoft. I had a great experience there. At that time in that area of Montreal there weren’t very many tech opportunities. The tech opportunities that existed were pretty much exclusively in that space. You had Discreet Logic, you had Kaydara, you had Zero-Knowledge, which was probably the first big consumer-oriented tech company that emerged in Montreal and had that Silicon Valley feel about it. But I really wanted to get into the consumer space, and so I took a job with a startup in San Francisco by the name of Zatso that was doing personalized streaming video news way before the likes of YouTube ever came around. Joined that company as a creative director, worked on a bunch of different products for television, for mobile phone, for the web.”

While the company folded not long after, a casualty of the first dot com bubble burst, Migos found another job, renewed his TN visa, and has been in California ever since.

“I went back to the familiar territory of 3D. I joined a startup by the name of Pulse for a period of time, watched them go through some pretty violent upheavals as well. Two rounds of downsizing, they were at nearly 90 folks and scaled back to a core of 15 of which I was one. I ended up getting a call from Sony while I was at Pulse, and they were offering me a gig doing user experience design for their very high end special-effects product. I worked at Sony for about a year, where I managed all the design efforts and some of the engineering aspects. Sony at that time had offices in London, Los Angeles, and also in Tokyo, so I was coordinating efforts between those three groups, working with advisors who were special effects artists to design those systems. Sony at a certain point decided that it was going to bring things closer to home and wind that project down. They offered an opportunity to move to Tokyo and join in those efforts over there, which I thought better of. And right at that time I started talking to some folks that I knew who were working at Apple that were friends of mine when I was working in the Montreal community.”

The company that Migos’ friends worked for had been acquired by Apple. Before long, Apple approached him with an offer to join their Pro Apps group.

“In that first stint working for four years on professional application products, I was working on version one and two of Motion, which was their animation project, working on Shake, which was their high-end compositing product, working on designing Final Cut Studio, and leading those design efforts there. And then at the tail end I got involved in some early explorations around touch interfaces because I was doing a lot of work with gesture-based interfaces, and got called into a project working with the people responsible for the first iPad efforts. And after the iPad came the iPhone, so that was back in 2003.”

Around that time Migos got a call from his mentor from Softimage, then the VP of the television and entertainment products division at Microsoft, who asked if he wanted to work on consumer products there.

“As the projects I was working on at Apple weren’t going to see the light of day until six years later, I decided to take that opportunity. So I went to Microsoft to join my mentor. He basically had me designing the television platform they were working on that ended up being the basis of what AT&T U-verse is here in the US. I worked on a number of different consumer hardware projects and software experience projects, working within their advanced technologies group with a special team they created around user interfaces that were all specialized in touch, gesture, voice, combinations thereof. But it was a tough time at Microsoft because all these explorative projects were being wound down. I got called again by Apple with the intimation that they were about to re-embark on the efforts I had worked on many years before, and now would be the time to rejoin. So I did that. I went back to Apple and stayed there for about seven additional years, working on a number of projects.”

Back at Apple, he returned to working on touch interface and the design of all the iWorks suite of apps on the iPad, animations for the iPad, and a brand new project around iBooks.

“It was one of Steve’s passion projects, to basically reinvent textbooks using the iPad as the platform. So I led the project for not only the consumer experience, but the tools around that experience. Went from that to managing iBooks outright, managing Apple’s Notes app outright and leading the redesign efforts for that, which are still manifesting today. And also led Apple News efforts from day one. Not only leading the consumer efforts there but also leading the format requirements, the supporting toolsets, working with publishers to figure out how to best meet their needs as they were moving to this digital platform I did all three of those projects until I decided to leave and do my own thing with a very close friend of mine. We founded a company by the name of Rheo, where I sit and work today. And I’ve been here about a year.”

Rheo is a personalized video stream that aggregates content from multiple publishers along different thematic lines.

“Instead of organizing things by channels or by genres or by publishers, we’ve built a system that organizes content by moods or feelings. So we have laugh, we have learn, we have inform, move, or chill, which is our music channel. By putting things like that, we find it’s easy for people to make a decision to just sit back and be entertained via comedy, via music, via action sports content for extended periods of time. What we’re trying to do is build a learning system that adapts to your tastes. We’re smart enough to do that at a general level. So we’ve learned that you like science-oriented content, and you like headline news, and you’re a big fan of neo soul music. That’s the experience you’re going to get within our app generally, but we’re also smart enough to adapt in a given moment. So if you come in from the cold on a Wednesday, and you’ve had a terrible day, and you start gravitating towards that makes you laugh, we’ll give you more of that in the moment. It’s a fluid experience that takes the best aspects of what television used to provide us, serendipity, exposure to new and interesting types of content from publishers you might not be familiar with, and put it in front of you as an experience that’s very fluid and organic.”

Users have the option to sit back and watch, indicating that they actually like that specific content. Or they can skip over by swiping, which automatically starts playing the next piece of content, creating a seamless user experience.

“It’s all short form. I think that particular medium and format lends itself to our personalization and goals. My co-founder Al and I came to the same conclusion from different avenues. Coming from Facebook, he worked on the integration of autoplay video in the Facebook newsfeed, he built that whole thing from the ground up and assembled the whole team that was responsible for it. For my part I had worked on Apple News.”

When I was working on Apple News, I discovered two data points which really resonated with me. One was that 85% of the adult population at that time was identifying Facebook as their primary source of news, which was frightening and exciting. Especially given the recent fake news movement. The other thing was that millennials were increasingly consuming all information in video form.

Rheo launched as an AppleTV app in May of last year, which served as the test vehicle for the content pieces and what they built their analytics infrastructure against. The iOS app and accompanying web app both launched in June of this year.

“The thing that we observe is that people are still buying large-form televisions and putting them in their homes, but they have nothing to use them for outside of Game of Thrones or Stranger Things or House of Cards or whatever you’re into. And TV used to be a constant companion in our lives. YouTube is now that constant companion for a lot of people, they’re able to search on topic, or put together a music playlist and let it play alongside them as they’re multitasking and working on other stuff. But our belief is that the TV is the better vehicle for that content, and it should be smarter and adaptable, such that when you’re busy getting ready for work and you want to put on the general news, but also news that’s specific to your work or location or interest, you should be able to do that. And we can provide that steady reliable stream of information for you in a non-directed kind of way, meaning that you don’t have to search. So that’s the thing that we’re trying to get back to. A very smart ambient television experience.”

They’ve adapted Rheo to reflect the different consumption patterns of television versus mobile phone. For example, on the phone the content is a little bit shorter because users are probably snacking on content rather than watching for extended sessions.

“We’re working with a number of different content partners right now. We’ve signed some notable ones like Vimeo, Refinery29, Hearst Television, and we’re working on a number more. Our goal in all of this is to basically broker a relationship between an end user, who just wants great content, and the people that actually create it, that I think are lost in the sea of opportunity cost and the paradox of choice that exists out there in the world today. We want to be a vehicle for these content partners. And we’re signing a number of them that we’re very excited about right now, I can’t really talk about all of them. But suffice it to say we’re thinking about this in terms of being television 2.0, and a great content experience that’s extendable not only for ourselves but for our partners.”

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