For anyone sheltering in place during the pandemic, Scener has built a virtual movie theater where you can interact with friends remotely over video chat while watching your favorite programs. Today, the company is announcing it has partnered with HBO to enable co-watching features for HBO Now and HBO Go viewers. Using Google Chrome, you can turn on the Scener Virtual Movie Theater app and watch your favorite shows while your friends appear in video chat windows.

Scener cofounder Joe Braidwood said in an interview with VentureBeat that this lets people enjoy their favorite pastime of watching TV together from a safe distance. “I don’t know of an example [in] the history of the entertainment industry where a company like HBO partnered with a startup like ours to enable a new way of viewing,” Braidwood said. “I think it’s a big moment in history, and we are very excited.”

HBO Now and HBO Go subscribers can create their own private theaters on Windows, Mac, or Chromebook devices in seconds by downloading Scener’s free extension from the Chrome Web Store. “Your host friend can select a show, press play, and then all the friends can be in the same part of the movie together,” Braidwood said. “It was great in the past year, when we supported Scener on Netflix, for people in long-distance relationships. But since the pandemic, this has become more mainstream.”

On the Netflix side, viewership for Scener is up 15 times since the pandemic began.

Viewers can host watch parties with friends, enabling up to 20 people to enjoy synchronized entertainment over video chat. In the coming days, Scener will begin rolling out support for bigger co-watching parties, which will allow viewers to watch synchronously with a live host, or a live group, over video chat. A webcam is required for video chat, and headphones are recommended. You can also engage in video, audio, and text chat.

Above: Scener cofounder Joe Braidwood.

Image Credit: Scener

All viewers need valid HBO Go or HBO Now accounts. HBO Go lets viewers watch HBO on the run on mobile devices if they have a subscription via Amazon Prime or cable TV. HBO Now is an à la carte streaming option. “We do this with full respect for the rights of IP holders,” Braidwood said.

Based in Seattle, Scener launched in 2018 and was incubated by media streaming pioneer RealNetworks. The company spun out last year and has five employees. RealNetworks’ founder Rob Glaser is on Scener’s board.

Rivals include Netflix Party and Hearo.Live. Another company, Rabbit, had the same kind of technology, but it shut down and sold off its remnants. Twitch has also started experimenting with showing livestreams of Amazon Prime Video content. And a lot of people just arrange Zoom calls with friends and have one person share their screen while watching a movie. But that can be a blurry experience, and it also amounts to piracy.

Scener puts an emphasis on high-quality, legal video, and the streaming is handled over the top via the content delivery networks of HBO or Netflix, so the quality level is native to the platform.

“We’re very happy about this partnership, as our mission is to bring people together,” Braidwood said.