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LinkedIn Loses Battle To Block Access To User’s Profile Data

August 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

A U.S. federal judge has ruled that Microsoft Corp’s LinkedIn unit will not be allowed to prevent a startup from accessing public profile data, in a test of how much control a social media site can wield over information its users have deemed to be public.

U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in San Francisco granted a preliminary injunction request brought by hiQ Labs, and ordered LinkedIn to remove within 24 hours any technology preventing hiQ from accessing public profiles.

The case is considered to have implications beyond LinkedIn and hiQ Labs and could dictate just how much control companies have over publicly available data that is hosted on their services.

“To the extent LinkedIn has already put in place technology to prevent hiQ from accessing these public profiles, it is ordered to remove any such barriers,” Chen’s order reads.

HiQ Labs uses the LinkedIn data to build algorithms capable of predicting employee behaviors, such as when they might quit.

LinkedIn plans to challenge the decision, company spokeswoman Nicole Leverich said.

“We’re disappointed in the court’s ruling,” Leverich said. “This case is not over. We will continue to fight to protect our members’ ability to control the information they make available on LinkedIn.”

HiQ Labs called the decision an important victory for companies that rely on publicly available data for their businesses.

“HiQ believes that public data must remain public, and innovation on the internet should not be stifled by legal bullying or the anti-competitive hoarding of public data by a small group of powerful companies,” the company said in a statement Monday evening.

That sentiment was echoed by Falon Fatemi, chief executive of Node, a San Francisco startup that uses publicly available data and artificial intelligence to help companies identify potential customers.

The dispute between the two tech companies has been going on since May when LinkedIn issued a letter to hiQ Labs instructing the startup to stop scraping data from its service.

HiQ Labs responded by filing a lawsuit against LinkedIn in June, alleging that the Microsoft-owned social network was in violation of antitrust laws.

Verizon, Others Push For Greater Cell Phone Records Privacy

August 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Mobile

More than a dozen high technology giants and the biggest wireless carrier in the United States, Verizon Communications Inc, have called on the U.S. Supreme Court to make it harder for government officials to access individuals’ sensitive cell phone data.

The companies filed a 44-page brief with the court on Monday night in a high-profile dispute over whether police should have to get a warrant before obtaining data that could reveal a cell phone user’s whereabouts.

Signed by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, including Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Snap and Alphabet’s Google, the brief said that as individuals’ data is increasingly collected through digital devices, greater privacy protections are needed under the law.

“That users rely on technology companies to process their data for limited purposes does not mean that they expect their intimate data to be monitored by the government without a warrant,” the brief said.

The justices agreed last June to hear the appeal by Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in 2013 in a series of armed robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Ohio and Michigan.

Federal prosecutors helped place him near several of the robberies using “cell site location information” obtained from his wireless carrier.

Carpenter claims that without a warrant from a court, such data amounts to an unreasonable search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. But last year a federal appeals court upheld his convictions, finding that no warrant was required.

Carpenter’s case will be argued before the court some time after its new term begins in October.

The case comes amid growing scrutiny of the surveillance practices of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies and concern among lawmakers across the political spectrum about civil liberties and police evading warrant requirements.

Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing Carpenter, said the companies’ brief represented a “robust defense of their customers’ privacy rights in the digital age.”

The companies said in their brief the Supreme Court should clarify that when it comes to digital data that can reveal personal information, people should not lose protections against government intrusion “simply by choosing to use those technologies.”

Researchers Create Battery-Free Mobile Phone

August 16, 2017 by  
Filed under Mobile

Researchers have emerged from their smoke-filled labs with a prototype of a battery-free mobile phone.

The phone is the work of a group of researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle and works by harvesting tiny amounts of power from radio signals, known as radio frequency or ‘RF’ waves.

Team member Vamsi Talla told Reuters that ambient RF waves are all around us so, as an example, your FM station broadcasts radio waves,TV stations, mobile phone towers. They all are transmitting RF waves.

The phone is a first prototype and its operation is basic – at first glance it looks little more than a circuit board with a few parts attached and the caller must wear headphones and press a button to switch between talking and listening.

But the boffins say there are plans to develop further prototypes, featuring a low-power screen for texting and even a basic camera. They also plan a version of the battery-free phone that uses a tiny solar cell to provide power.

The researchers plan to release a product in eight to nine months’ time, thought they would not give further details. One team member however, was prepared to give a glimpse of how their work will impact the future of cellphone technology.

“In the future every smartphone will come with a battery-free mode where you can at least make a voice call when your battery’s dead.”

Meanwhile Researchers at the Universities of Bristol and Surrey in Britain, are developing supercapacitors, which they believe will eventually allow devices to charge in a period of a few minutes.

Courtesy-Fud

Bitcoin Keeps Soaring, Surpasses $4000 Threshold

August 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Bitcoin has passed another major milestone, easily reaching beyond the $4,000 threshold on Sunday. The cryptocurrency, which has only been in existence for seven years, reached a high of $4,224 (equivalent to £3,244 or AU$5,343) shortly after 9 a.m. UTC on Sunday.

It’s been a swift rise for bitcoin, which only passed the $3,000 marker for the first time at the start of the month. The rise also comes fresh off the heels of the so-called “hard fork” in bitcoin which saw a new virtual currency called Bitcoin Cash split off from bitcoin proper on August 1.

The split was designed to deal with the growing popularity of bitcoin, which was struggling to support an increasing number of transactions using existing blockchain technology, though the move left many wondering whether market values would fall.

But bitcoin seems to have defied expectations, pushing through the $4,000 barrier with ease, though there’s no certainty on where values are headed — particularly as we push closer toward the day when every bitcoin is mined.

Still, this is for sure: Purchasing 1 bitcoin for 8 cents back in 2010 would have netted you a 52,800-fold return today.

Amazon Issues Recall For Solar Eclipse Glasses

August 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Amazon has issued a recall to consumers who purchased eclipse glasses that may not have come from a recommended manufacturer.

The internet retailer began notifying buyers of the unverified glasses on Saturday, warning them not to use the product for viewing the much-anticipated total solar eclipse later this month. Customers who didn’t receive a recall email are safe to use the ones they purchased.

“We recommend that you DO NOT use this product to view the sun or the eclipse,” the email said.

Sales of eclipse glasses have been hot ahead of the Aug. 21 event, when the moon will pass in front of the sun, completely blotting it out for those along a 70-mile-wide corridor stretching across the contiguous United States.

Amazon said it issued the recall over concerns with the quality of the glasses.

“Safety is among our highest priorities. Out of an abundance of caution, we have proactively reached out to customers and provided refunds for eclipse glasses that may not comply with industry standards,” Amazon said in a statement. ” We want customers to buy with confidence anytime they make a purchase on Amazon.com and eclipse glasses sold on Amazon.com are required to comply with the relevant ISO standard.”

The American Astronomical Society has information on how to make sure you are purchasing effective glasses for viewing the solar eclipse.

IBM Improves Deep Learning

August 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Computing

Big Blue Boffins claim to have developed technology that dramatically cuts the time it takes to crunch massive amounts of data and then come up with useful insights.

If it is all true then it could mean that deep learning, the technique used by IBM, is a subset of artificial intelligence (AI) that mimics how the human brain works could be set to take off.

IBM wanted to reduce the time it takes for deep learning systems to digest data from days to hours.

The improvements could help radiologists get faster, more accurate reads of anomalies and masses on medical images,.

Hillery Hunter, an IBM Fellow and director of systems acceleration and memory at IBM Research, said that, until now, deep learning has largely run on single server because of the complexity of moving huge amounts of data between different computers.

The problem is in keeping data synchronized between lots of different servers and processors

In its announcement IBM says it has come up with software that can divide those tasks among 64 servers running up to 256 processors total, and still reap huge benefits in speed. The company is making that technology available to customers using IBM Power System servers and to other techies who want to test it.

IBM used 64 of its own Power 8 servers—each of which links IBM Power microprocessors with Nvidia graphical processors with a fast NVLink interconnection to facilitate fast data flow between the two types of chips..

It developed clustering technology that manages the multiple processors in a given server as well as to the processors in the other 63 servers. If that traffic management is done incorrectly, some processors sit idle, waiting for something to do.

Each processor has its own data set that it knows, also needs data from the other processors to get the bigger picture. If the processors get out of sync they can’t learn anything, explained Hunter.

Courtesy-Fud

Can Rocket League Grow eSports

August 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

The stories about esports going to the Olympics, or airing on mainstream TV, are exciting.

In itself, these moments are not that important to the future of competitive gaming. This is a modern sport, there’s no need for BBC broadcasts when millions are watching on Twitch. And as cool as it may be to see gamers at official sporting championships, these competitions are not suited to the complex nature of esports with all those different games.

Yet what these stories highlight is esports’ potential within the mainstream. The dream of seeing esports on the back pages of newspapers, taking prime time slots on Sky Sports and drawing in families around the world rooting for their favorite teams. Millions more watch football than play it – wouldn’t it be great if that was also true of Call of Duty?

Unfortunately, esports is not mainstream. The games are complicated, or violent, or both. Some are hard to follow, while the ones that are easier to grasp are often based on existing sports (such as FIFA or NBA 2K), and the nagging question there is why watch the virtual versions when you can see the real thing?

Last year I attended an event about esports targeted at mainstream media and Government. The organizers wanted to demonstrate esports on stage, but were unsure over which game to use – violent shooters or densely packed MOBAs were just not suitable.

When UK retailer GAME launched its Belong range of stores (effectively local esports areas within a shop) it was faced with a similar challenge. Most of the popular esports games are simply not appropriate to show in the middle of the day in a retail setting.

Both eventually hit upon the same answer: Rocket League.

The car football game is the perfect title for mainstream sports. It’s easy to follow as it is just soccer with cars, but also crazy enough that it can only be done in a video game.

“Rocket League launched in July 2015 and immediately community groups latched onto the game and started to create tournaments,” says Josh Watson, head of esports at developer Psyonix.

“So Rocket League esports was very much born from the community. It is that grass roots support that has made for a passionate community of tournament organizers and fans. Today we have several dozen community groups who are doing hundreds of online tournaments and events annually, so it has really ballooned up from the grassroots.”

VP of publishing Jeremy Dunham adds: “The conversations we’ve had directly with players… they want more opportunities for Rocket League to become a bigger esport. That is something we are focusing on a lot.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make in esports is that they only focus on the smallest possible audience, the 50 to 100 people who are good enough to make a living out of it. We want esports to feel more like little league or football, where people are playing at all levels, from childhood to the pros. That way there is always an opportunity to play Rocket League and be a part of something. That requires a massive plan and a lot of infrastructure, but we’re spending a good amount of time putting that in place.”

That plan is accelerating rapidly. Last year, Psyonix ran competitions in three regions (Europe, North America and Oceania), with $600,000 in prize money. It did well, with 6,000 teams taking part, 1m unique viewers and 10m channel views on Twitch.

Now Psyonix is trying to grow that rapidly, with a $2.5m investment in developing Rocket League as an esport.

The company has since added new in-game functionality, like an esports live button (so people can watch in-game). They’ve added new tournaments, expanded to new regions, offered in-game items to viewers, appeared at more major festivals and has signed deals with NBC, ESL, Gfinity, Dreamhack and a whole lot more.

It has developed the RLCS (Rocket League Championship Series) Overtime show, which airs every week. And its last esports finals became the most watched esport of that week, with 2.8m hours of viewership – 1m more than League of Legends.

“Some of the numbers we saw included 2.29m unique viewers, 208,000 concurrent viewers across seven broadcasted languages… so some pretty big numbers,” says Watson. “To put that in perspective, between Season 2 and 3 we had a 640% increase in video watched, 340% in peak concurrent viewers, 251% increase in social media impressions, and 208% increase in unique viewers. It is incredibly promising for the RLCS moving forward.”

The firm is even attracting non-gaming sponsors, with Old Spice, 7Eleven, Transformers: The Last Knight and Mobil1 all signing up to support their tournaments.

It all sounds good, but then esports figures always do. Millions of concurrent viewer numbers and outlandish prize pools have almost become white noise. It’s all good marketing for Rocket League, but is this actually a profit-generating endeavor?

“One of our focuses is on giving our community a place to play competitively,” Watson acknowledges. “It’s really about servicing this community. They’re hungry for this high level competition.”

Yet big flashy tournaments don’t really service the community. It gives fans something to watch, but ultimately it’s still prohibitive for anyone outside of the most elite gamers. Dunham and Watson keep using the term ‘grass roots’, so how are they looking to support that?

“There is this notion in esports about the path to pro,” acknowledges Watson. “We want to create this ecosystem where you are taking good players who might want to play competitively, but they’re really not sure how, to attending tournaments. We are trying to build out this path to pro, where it is clearly defined how you get to that top tier.”

 

“For RLCS season 4, we are shifting our focus to creating a sustainable environment for players and organizations,” Watson explains. “Teams will be incentivized to plan for the long-term, and the goal is to create an environment where players can hone their skills, which will improve the quality of the gameplay and it should also offer players, owners and sponsors the necessary security to invest in Rocket League for the long-term with confidence.

“We are moving to a promotion and relegation system. The RLCS is basically a big open tournament at the moment, and then it funnels down to the top eight teams, and if you make it to the top eight you can play in a group stage, which happens over a long period of time. What that doesn’t allow for is if you don’t perform well on the day of the qualifiers, then you’re out of luck. That is something we are trying to solve with the promotion/relegation system. Each region will now be comprised of 16 teams, with the top eight making it into the RLCS as we know it now… the top division. And the nine through 16 teams will have access to a challenger, second division. We are hoping to provide players the opportunity to compete at the highest level, whilst being able to cultivate talent for tomorrow’s stars. That means we will have 40 teams across three regions competing in the RLCS.”

“It’s in partnership with Tespa, which is a group that runs some notable collegiate experiences like Heroes of the Dorm,” Watson explains. “We launched with the collegiate Rocket League series in early July, and this is our soft launch into collegiate esports. It is where we are allowing players who are enrolled in colleges all over North America, to make teams of three and play in these competitive environments while earning prizes.”

Watson says he is open to expanding that beyond the US, assuming there’s the demand for it.

It’s certainly commendable, and Rocket League does have a certain simplicity about it that could see it go far. It’s now a case of Psyonix keeping that momentum going.

“One of our visions that we try to hold to is to create a premium sports product in the esports world,” Watson concludes. “That is something that drives us. We do think our game is one of the best suited games for esports in general.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Will The U.S. ITC Really Investigate Apple

August 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

The International Trade Commission has announced that it will launch an investigation into Apple following allegations from Qualcomm that its devices violate six of its patents.

The move, arguably procedural, means that the ITC will formally investigate Qualcomm’s complaint, rather than dismiss it outright.

“The US International Trade Commission has voted to institute an investigation of certain mobile electronic devices and radio frequency and processing components thereof,” the ITC said.

“The products at issue in the investigation are mobile electronic devices – such as the iPhone 7, and specific components for such

Qualcomm’s complaint alleges that iPhones, which are made in China, should not be allowed to be brought into the United States if they infringe on its patents, and if the chipmaker has its way, the ITC would ban imports and sales of Apple’s handsets.

At the heart of the matter is Apple’s use of cellular baseband processors made by Intel, with Qualcomm arguing that iPhones Intel’s 4G wireless chips are effectively using six Qualcomm patents “unfairly” and “unlawfully”.

Unsurprisingly, Qualcomm said it is “pleased” with the ITC’s decision to investigate Apple.

“Qualcomm is pleased with the ITC’s decision to investigate Apple’s unfair trade practices and the unauthorized importation of products using Qualcomm’s patents,” said Don Rosenberg, executive vice president and general counsel of Qualcomm.

“We look forward to the ITC’s expeditious investigation of Apple’s ongoing infringement of our intellectual property and the accelerated relief that the Commission can provide.'”

Apple, when asked for comment, pointed to this prior statement from June: “Qualcomm’s illegal business practices are harming Apple and the entire industry.

“They supply us with a single connectivity component, but for years have been demanding a percentage of the total cost of our products – effectively taxing Apple’s innovation.”

Last month, Intel filed its own statement with the ITC, claiming that Qualcomm’s request for the regulatory agency to intervene was “a transparent effort to stave off lawful competition from Qualcomm’s only remaining rival.”

Courtesy-TheInq

SoundCloud Receives Funding, Lives To See Another Day

August 14, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

SoundCloud, the world’s most popular streaming music app, but one that has been plagued by money-losing strategies, said it received new funding on Friday, insulating it from potentially running out of cash this year.

The company, which laid off 40 percent of its staff in July, said in a blog post that the financing was raised from media-focused investment bank Raine Group of New York and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek.

It did not disclose the amount or its terms. Raine and Temasek were not immediately available for comment.

One source familiar with the investment said it amounted to around $170 million (144 million euros), as reported on Thursday by online news site Axios, which had obtained the deal’s term sheet.

The company said that as part of the new investment, digital media veterans Kerry Trainor and Michael Weissman, respectively the former chief executive and chief operating officer of online video service Vimeo, would take the same roles at SoundCloud.

The arrival of the former leaders of Vimeo – one of the biggest online video rivals to Google’s YouTube and Facebook- raises the prospect SoundCloud may evolve beyond audio streaming in a more music video-oriented direction.

SoundCloud founder and former CEO Alexander Ljung has agreed to step aside to become chairman of the board, it said. Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Eric Wahlross will remain at the company as chief product officer.

In July, SoundCloud fired 173 employees and closed its London and San Francisco offices to focus on Berlin and New York. A spokeswoman for SoundCloud said last month it remained fully funded into the fourth quarter while declining to comment on what lay beyond.

“The investment will ensure a strong, independent future for SoundCloud, funding deeper development and marketing of its core tools used by millions of audio creators – musicians, DJs, producers, labels, managers and podcasters,” SoundCloud said.

Slack Enables Enteprise Mobility Management, Strengthens Security Features

August 14, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Slack has enabled integration with the most prevalent enterprise mobility management (EMM) platforms in order to offer security and policy management features to its four-year old, cloud-based messaging application.

The messaging platform provider worked with AppConfig, an open standards group, which allowed Slack to integrate through a set of APIs with 21 EMM vendors.

Slack said it also worked more closely with three EMM providers – VMware Airwatch, MobileIron, and Blackberry Good – “to ensure a smooth experience for our joint customers.

“EMM is a critical addition to Slack’s enterprise-grade security feature set, which also includes data encryption in transit and at rest,” Slack said.

Prior to the announcement, Slack already came with its own encryption capability. It can now offer the same crypto security based on the EMM providers’ technology.

EMM is a comprehensive, hardware-agnostic method of remotely managing mobile devices, including their configuration and the enterprise content generated on them, through mobile device management and mobile application management. EMM is all-encompassing; it can control access to corporate apps, internal websites and even the data silos associated with them.

EMM integration affords Slack SCIM provisioning (an open API for managing user identities), SAML-based single sign-on capabilities, two-factor authentication and remote device wiping capabilities.

A new feature, “Profiles in Slack,” enables admins to put faces to names and provide background information about the people on each corporate team using the messaging platform.

The feature allows first and last names, as well as where an employee is located, their job description and their business group.

If a company already uses an identity provider or internal directory, it can now sync that information with Profiles in Slack using the SCIM API, which helps admins consolidate identity management while building out a directory that’s easily accessible by a business team in Slack.

Slack claims to have 6.8 million weekly active users, and more than 1.5 million paid users.

Facebook Introduces New Watch Tab

August 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Original video content has found a new home at Facebook.

The social network giant has introduced Watch, a new video platform for programming produced exclusively for Facebook users. The new feature, which will be available on mobile, desktop and Facebook’s TV apps, is a continuation of the video push Facebook launched last year.

“On Facebook, videos are discovered through friends and bring communities together,” Daniel Danker, Facebook director of product, wrote in a blog post. “As more and more people enjoy this experience, we’ve learned that people like the serendipity of discovering videos in News Feed, but they also want a dedicated place they can go to watch videos.”

Video has been crucial for Facebook as the social network tries to get people to spend more time on its site. In 2016, the company added a video tab to the Facebook app, where people can find new video content.

The company has also made a big push in Facebook Live, a feature that lets people broadcast themselves live over the internet and directly onto the social network. CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees the format as the future of his company and has said we’re entering a “golden age for live video.”

The Watch feature will be personalized, suggesting new shows — both live and recorded — based on what your friends and communities are watching. Categories will include “Most Talked About,” “What’s Making People Laugh” and “What Friends Are Watching.” A Watchlist will help users keep track of programs.

Some of the programming Facebook plans to present includes Nas Daily, in which the rapper makes videos with his fans; Gabby Bernstein, a motivational speaker answering fans questions in real time; and a cooking show called Tastemade’s Kitchen Little that follows kids’ efforts to instruct chefs in the art of cooking. One Major League Baseball game will also be broadcast live on the platform each week.

The feature will initially be available to a limited number of users in the US, with a broader expansion promised “soon.”

China Claims ‘Unbreakable’ Code With Quantum Satellite Transmission

August 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

China has transmitted an “unbreakable” code from a satellite to the Earth, heralding the first time space-to-ground quantum key distribution technology has been realized, state media said on Thursday.

China launched the world’s first quantum satellite last August, to help establish “hack proof” communications, a development the Pentagon has called a “notable advance”.

The official Xinhua news agency said the latest experiment was published in the journal Nature on Thursday, where reviewers called it a “milestone”.

The satellite sent quantum keys to ground stations in China between 645 km (400 miles) and 1,200 km (745 miles) away at a transmission rate up to 20 orders of magnitude more efficient than an optical fiber, Xinhua cited Pan Jianwei, lead scientist on the experiment from the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences, as saying.

“That, for instance, can meet the demand of making an absolute safe phone call or transmitting a large amount of bank data,” Pan said.

Any attempt to eavesdrop on the quantum channel would introduce detectable disturbances to the system, Pan said.

“Once intercepted or measured, the quantum state of the key will change, and the information being intercepted will self-destruct,” Xinhua said.

The news agency said there were “enormous prospects” for applying this new generation of communications in defense and finance.

China still lags behind the United States and Russia in space technology, although President Xi Jinping has prioritized advancing its space program, citing national security and defense.

China insists its space program is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. Defense Department has highlighted its increasing space capabilities, saying it was pursuing activities aimed at preventing adversaries from using space-based assets in a crisis.

Microsoft’s Surface Tablets Not So Reliable, Says Consumer Reports

August 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Computing

The breakage rate for Microsoft Corp’s Surface devices significantly outpaces that of other manufacturers’ laptops and tablets, Consumer Reports said, adding that it was removing its “recommended” designation for Surface products.

The non-profit publication surveyed 90,000 tablet and laptop owners and found that an estimated 25 percent of those with Microsoft Surface devices would be presented with “problems by the end of the second year of ownership,” according to a study published on Thursday.

“If you are very concerned about how long your products are going to last, it might be better for you to go with a brand that has a higher predicted reliability,” Jerry Beilinson, electronics editor at the consumer goods testing publication, said in an interview.

Microsoft disputed the study, saying the company’s return and support rates differ significantly from the Consumer Reports study.

“We don’t believe these findings accurately reflect Surface owners’ true experiences or capture the performance and reliability improvements made with every Surface generation,” the company said in a statement.

According to the Consumer Reports survey responses, the Microsoft devices were found to freeze, unexpectedly shut down or have issues with their touchscreens, Beilinson said.

Altogether, the reliability issues made Microsoft a statistical outlier compared with other brands. Apple Inc had the most reliable devices, Beilinson said.

Microsoft entered the hardware market with its first Surface tablet in 2012. Since then, the company has released a series of new Surface tablets and laptops, including the well-reviewed Surface Pro, which launched in May.

The Surface devices serve as a face for the company and exemplify how Microsoft’s manufacturing partners can build hardware around the Windows 10 operating system. However, Surface is a small part of Microsoft’s overall revenue, and Surface revenue has declined year-over-year for the past two quarters.

Are Publishers Milking Gamers Being With Video Game Remasters

August 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

Have you noticed how many remastered video games have been released lately?

Remastering music and film for newer formats has been standard practice in those industries for some time, and the games industry now has enough history behind it to mine older titles and bring them to either nostalgic audiences or players who are experiencing a classic IP afresh.

Given a market in which so many publishers are highly risk averse and costs are typically astronomical, it’s easy to see why the relatively low costs of remastering are so appealing. With consumers hungry for classic content, especially during this nostalgia wave we’re witnessing, it makes perfect sense for publishers to capitalize.

Looking at the UK charts, remasters of Mario Kart, Wipeout, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy XII have all topped the charts in the last two months. And in the US, NPD told us that remastered/ported games have accounted for 11% of total dollar spending life-to-date for physical game sales on PS4 and Xbox One. Nearly 80 remastered/ported games have been released for PS4 or Xbox One (or both) since November 2013, representing about 15% of all titles released at retail for those consoles.

Recently, during Activision Blizzard’s earnings call, Activision Publishing boss Eric Hirshberg gushed over the success of Crash Bandicoot.

“We knew that there was a passionate audience out there for Crash…. but we had no idea – it’s hard to tell whether that’s a vocal minority or whether that’s a real mass audience until you put something out there. And Crash has surpassed all of our expectations by a pretty wide margin,” he said.

“And a couple of stats that underscore that point where it was the number one selling console game in June based on units, even though it was only available for two days during that month. And Sony reported this morning… that Crash is the most downloaded game on the PlayStation Store in July.”

Activision has enjoyed the fruits of remastering before with Modern Warfare Remastered, but you can bet it will look at more easy wins in this category moving forward. In fact, Activision’s counterpart, Blizzard, is planning on releasing a remastered StarCraft in the third fiscal quarter.

“This is a strategy that clearly has our attention… I think you can be confident that there will be more activity like this in the future with more great IP,” Hirshberg added.

As NPD analyst Mat Piscatella noted, publishers are able to offset some of the inherent risk in AAA development by pursuing the remastering trend.

“On average, remasters/ports sell less than games that are new to the platform, unsurprisingly,” he said. “However, given the dramatically lower development costs when compared to new game development, the ability to outsource porting to speciality houses which frees up internal development resources to create new games, and the ability to mitigate risk since a clear demand pattern exists to determine which games should be remastered, the benefits of the practice are readily apparent to publishers.”

Publishers we queried wouldn’t state exact costs, but it’s clearly something that can vary on a case-by-case basis. A much older title would likely need new artwork, whereas something closer to the current generation may only need a touch up with textures or polygons.

THQ Nordic, which has remastered properties like Darksiders, De Blob, Baja: Edge of Control and others, weighed in. “Age plays an important role here and if all the data is complete and accessible,” said director of production, Reinhard Pollice. “Also some projects are already set up in a way that they are perfectly fit for more advanced platforms than they were originally targeting. In general remastering pays off if you do it the right way.”

Sega, too, has had its share of remastering, especially for the PC with titles like Bayonetta and Vanquish. Rowan Tafler, head of brand for Sega Searchlight, the internal team at Sega Europe that oversees PC conversions, commented, “It’s not always a simple process, especially bringing classic titles to PC. With console development, you have reasonably fixed hardware standards – on PC, we need to ensure that the game runs well on a wide range of specifications and that can be a difficult process. Hardware moves on, so a lot depends on how the original assets are archived and whether they can be brought up to date.

“Of course, we need to make sure that development is profitable – that gives us the opportunity to keep doing what we’re doing – but the satisfaction really comes from doing right by our community and our catalogue.”

Satisfying the community is certainly a key goal in remastering, and listening to players’ desires is a helpful way to identify which games should get a modern makeover.

“I think that remastering comes from perpetual and existing interest in a property or brand,” said Tafler. “We’re not going to be able to reignite interest in something if the quality isn’t there in the first place. That wouldn’t be a good business decision.

“Does it increase interest and give players who potentially haven’t experienced the titles before an opportunity to play a title in its optimum form? Yes, absolutely. But we don’t perform a best practice conversion with the intent of piling all the profit into making a new game in the series or using the IP. That sort of decision would be made completely separately.”

THQ Nordic doesn’t always look at popularity, however. “Sometimes we believe also in titles that weren’t that popular in the first place, but we feel they deserve a chance,” Pollice noted.

He added that oftentimes there’s a belief that an old property that didn’t make a big splash can have a new lease of life as a remaster, or that a classic can gain legions of new fans who were just too young to have experienced it years ago. In a sense, by remastering a game, you’ve got built-in marketing for that franchise, which may one day lead to new entries for a series.

“That’s actually our very original thought about remastering a title,” Pollice continued. “We want to make first-hand experiences with the audience and a game’s fan base and understand their wishes and demands. We are fans ourselves of our own franchises but it’s always good to stay in touch with the community and listen.”

Remastering might seem like a cakewalk, but with 4K gaming starting to take hold on consoles, and with PC gamers already accustomed to extra high fidelity visuals, there are more challenges involved in revamping a particular title than you might guess.

“Sometimes it’s a technical challenge to make it look and feel like a recent game,” Pollice acknowledged. “Within these two fields there are tons of tiny challenges. For example, on Darksiders Warmastered Edition the biggest challenge was to remaster the cutscene. In Darksiders 1 the cutscenes were pre-rendered – even the original developers thought we are crazy to go into that.

“First of all, the data to render the cutscenes weren’t complete. So we had to re-create some pieces and puzzle them together as good as possible (actually there are a few tiny differences that are not really a big deal but they are there). Then the cutscenes used a very specific rendering set-up, sometimes custom-made for a given scene or even shot so that it looks cool. In the end it was a huge time-sink but we got those re-mastered – even in 4k on some platforms.”

Sega has gone through similar experiences with its projects. Tafler commented, “Our recent challenges have revolved around porting popular console games from the last 10 years – Valkyria Chronicles, Vanquish and Bayonetta for example – to PC. The format change and the expectation from PC gamers for these titles to be properly optimised for PCs presents our biggest challenge. Can we make run it with unlocked framerates? Can we implement fully optimised PC controls? Can we make it run at 4K? Can we deliver the best experience on a wide range of hardware?

“If the answer to all these questions is yes, then the project has potential. Ultimately, we want the communities playing these games to be able to have the best possible experience playing them.”

The benefits clearly outweigh any difficulties encountered for most companies. Remastering is here to stay. “As technology continues to evolve, I believe remasters and ports will only become more prevalent for the short to mid-term,” said NPD’s Piscatella. “First, we have creators making stories and characters that will continue to resonate. Allowing these characters to come to life through technological improvements is something that will continue to find an audience.

“Second, development of new game content is only going to get more expensive due to the higher fidelity technologies like 4K. Mitigating risk of new game development via releasing remasters/ports at low cost will continue to be attractive to publishers.

“Finally, franchises are more important than ever. Remasters/ports allow publishers to reintroduce characters and storylines before the release of a new game in a series, or allow new people to experience the full backstory without being forced to go to old console tech.”

He added, “In the long-term, the only risk to this remaster-friendly future is the advent of the Games as a Service model. I’m not sure what a remastered version of a live service game would look like, or if it would even be the least bit palatable to consumers.

“I believe we’ll get more of these games, that more dev houses will focus on this type of work as a speciality, and that consumers will continue to show a willingness to support quality remasters/ports.”

Courtesy-GI.biz

Are VPNs The Absolute Privacy Measure

August 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

So between the newly-announced Data Protection Bill and the expected destruction of net neutrality, you’re probably feeling a bit vulnerable right now.

You’ve got nothing to hide as such, you’re just someone who appreciates the boundaries of what ‘the man’ knows about you. You accept it’ll break Cortana, but you know… that’s just a bonus.

All the conventional wisdom seems to be to get a hosted VPN. The idea is that it will divert all your traffic to somewhere anonymous… somewhere far away… and encrypt it.

But, just as we are now realising that the “wife anniversary present mode” in browsers is really not that effective, perhaps we need to start taking a closer look at VPNs too. And there are two reasons.

Firstly, when we agree to a VPN we’re putting our trust in the hands of that VPN provider. And there are a lot. Some, for example, offer fantastic deals on “lifetime access”.

But are they really doing what they say? The short answer is, in a lot of cases, no. RestorePrivacy took a look and found that quite often data that was supposed to be carried anonymously simply wasn’t, and in many cases, where you pick a country that you’d like your IP to show in, quite often you’ll find, under the hood, you’re connected to a completely different one.

HideMyAss, one of the more popular services, openly admits that some of its country specific servers have been “virtualised”. Others, like ExpressVPN, were claiming to connect to countries all across Asia, which were in fact, actually all in Singapore.

PureVPN meanwhile, actually hosts its Azerbaijan server in Edinburgh, says the study.

It’s not just about honesty. It’s about the safety of your data. If you are running your data through one country’s servers because of its stance, and in fact, you’re using another, you could be completely violating the wrong set of laws.

Take the PureVPN example – the consequences of using the Pirate Bay in the UK rather than Azerbaijan are more serious, if you were found out, of course.

All of which makes choosing a VPN something of a risky business. Firstly, let’s make it clear – no free ones. They’re bound to be shonky. You get what you pay for. We’re not in the business of recommending anyone in this article, but we’d say that often if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

But wait. There’s a second issue. We talk about how VPNs stop you leaving footprints. Well, they don’t. They just make it a damn sight harder.

Take, for example, you want to look at some nudey-pics on your phone. You turn on Incognito Mode. You switch your VPN to a country that will keep it nice and anonymous. But there’s a Telltale Heart and it could give you away.

Your phone’s apps are churning out (mostly M2M) background data all the time from your IP address to servers all over the world.

When you turn that VPN on, that heartbeat disappears, and pops up somewhere else in the world and continues. And then when you’ve erm… finished… you might turn off the VPN and suddenly that trail follows you back.

A determined adversary could easily join the dots from that “heartbeat” of background data that you aren’t even aware you are sending. It might be encrypted – but then it might be in the country you thought it was. And it might… not.

Yes, there’s a lot of “what ifs” to the scenario. There’s a lot of “they’d have to really, really want to”. But yeah. They could. If they could get you before VPNs, they can get you now, especially this new breed of too-good-to-be-true ones. 

We’re not saying VPNs are bad. But remember, they’re not foolproof. The data may be anonymized, but your unique heartbeat simply moves. You’re never completely off-grid.

It’s not about to affect our privacy tomorrow, but there’s a danger that VPNs are seen as a holy grail. They’re not. They’re not even close. So let’s not get complacent.

Courtesy-TheInq

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