Scener now lets you co-watch HBO or Netflix in a ‘virtual theater’ with up to 20 people

Scener, a browser extension that allows users to co-watch Netflix — similar to the newly popular Netflix Party Chrome add-on — is expanding to support HBO NOW and HBO GO. The additions come alongside a full relaunch of Scener, which is reinventing its product for the coronavirus era as a virtual movie theater experience where up to 20 viewers can watch together over video, audio or text chat in a dedicated sidebar.

In the near future, the company says it will also roll out a “1-to-many” version of its virtual theater experience that will allow people to host even more synchronous viewers, similar to an Instagram Live, but synced to the underlying subscription video content service.

Some co-watching experiences are illegal — Twitch, for example, has been sued for allowing its creators to stream live sports games to their viewers. Video chat services like Skype and FaceTime have for years been utilized as workarounds to the problem of not being able to watch U.S. content from overseas. But Scener works with content partners to ensure it has the appropriate deals in place to offer its product legally.

HBO confirmed to TechCrunch that WarnerMedia approached Scener in order to allow HBO NOW and HBO GO subscribers to watch content through its web extension in a way that preserves its IP. HBO would not comment on deal specifics, beyond that.

Scener also couldn’t confirm if its permission to stream HBO content would extend to WarnerMedia’s new HBO MAX service, due to launch on May 27, 2020.

However, Scener’s technology should be able to support any streaming service, as long as the service offered a way to stream the video content through the Chrome browser. To use Scener as a private virtual theater, the browser extension simply asks the user to grant it permission to the sites in question.

Setting up the virtual theater experience itself is easy. There isn’t complicated software to install, beyond the extension. Friends can then join either via a theater code or by clicking an invite link you send.

Originally a part of RealNetworks, Scener in 2018 first developed a Chrome extension that allowed users to record commentary video tracks that could be played asynchronously alongside content on Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. This resulted in something akin to a “Mystery Science Theater 3000”-like experience, if you’re familiar with that show.

After spinning out from RealNetworks, Scener in 2019 created a product that instead synchronized co-watching of Netflix content with video chat. It had also been working to develop mobile prototypes with other content providers. But the COVID-19 pandemic refocused Scener’s efforts on its Chrome extension as usage of the product on the desktop surged 15x as the U.S. went under quarantine.

The new version, arriving today, is a complete rebuild of that product, says Scener co-founder and COO Joe Braidwood. And it’s also just the beginning of what Scener has in store, he promises.

“It’s core to our vision as a business to support more [subscription video-on-demand] services in the near future, and we’re also in talks with some [ad-supported video-on-demand] providers,” he told TechCrunch.

The company didn’t announce what other deals may be in the works, but its extension is asking permission to read and change data on and, in addition to HBO websites. Scener could not comment on this, saying only that it’s currently focused on making the best co-watching experience for HBO NOW and HBO GO programming. Without further confirmation, it’s hard to say if the Disney/Hulu deal (Disney is the majority owner of Hulu) is wishing thinking on Scener’s part or a work-in-progress. Time will tell.

Scener has raised $1.6 million in funding since spinning out from RealNetworks. It generates revenue by way of its partnerships with streaming services to create engaging social experiences around its content, as is the case with today’s HBO deal. WarnerMedia confirmed it does not have a financial stake in Scener.