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Can NBCUniversal Compete In The Mobile Games Space

May 25, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

As the mobile market continues to boom and the nascent virtual reality space becomes a larger sector within mobile thanks to devices like Samsung Gear and Google Daydream, NBCUniversal is aiming to leverage its bevy of popular IP such as Fast & Furious, Minions, Despicable Me, Jurassic World and more. According to GamesBeat, the company has hired former Disney mobile games leader Chris Heatherly to oversee a new mobile game and virtual reality publishing group.

The goal is to leverage properties from DreamWorks Animation, Illumination Entertainment, and Universal Pictures by directly getting involved in the creation, development, marketing and distribution of games as opposed to licensing out brands, which has been done previously. For example, Despicable Me had been licensed to Gameloft, and the publisher’s Minion Rush game went on to be downloaded more than 800 million times. While self-publishing is now a focus, the company said it will still complement its business by licensing some brands as well.

“Universal has decided to take a strategic position in games,” Heatherly said. “We are pushing heavily in the digital space. And they see there is no bigger digital space than games. It’s part of a larger plan to build evergreen franchises that support multiple products across multiple businesses.”

Heatherly will serve as executive vice president of games and digital platforms within Universal Brand Development, and he will be joined by James Molinets, senior vice president of production; Timothy FitzRandolph, vice president of creative; and Fabian Schonholz, senior vice president of technology and operations. The former two executives were key members of the Disney mobile team and also oversaw the kids-focused virtual world, Club Penguin.

While NBCUniversal said it’s going to be 80% focused on creating mobile games, interest in VR as an “emerging area” is building as well. “We are leveraging the best talent that is already out there… On the VR front, we are doing quite a few things. One of them we can announce soon,” he teased.

Google Buys Virtual Reality Firm Owlchemy Labs

May 22, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Known for its award-winning Job Simulator title, Austin, Texas-based Owlchemy Labs is one of the top VR studios in the business, and now it belongs to Google. In separate blog posts, both Google and Owlchemy Labs announced the deal without disclosing purchase price or other specifics of the acquisition.

Owlchemy Labs said, “We set out on a journey over six years ago to build the kinds of games we wanted to see exist. Over those years, we learned that Owlchemy, at its core, cares deeply about a few key things: building quality multi-platform games, solving tough problems with a small but absurdly talented team, sharing our learnings with the community, and Austin’s famous tacos. Now, as we look to the future with Google by our side, we couldn’t be happier. Our plan to build awesome things will continue forward stronger than ever.

“This means Owlchemy will continue building high quality VR content for platforms like the HTC Vive, Oculus Touch, and PlayStation VR. This means continuing to focus on hand interactions and high quality user experiences, like with Job Simulator. This means continuing our mission to build VR for everyone, and doing all of this as the same silly Owlchemy Labs you know and love. We are continuing to do all of this with even more support and focus on building awesome stuff. It’s incredibly exciting that Google and Owlchemy are so well aligned on our goals and vision for the future of VR…

“We’re insanely excited to join the Google family and we cannot freaking wait to show you what we’re concocting next at Owlchemy Labs. The future of VR is extremely bright, so we’re donning our lab goggles just in case.”

For its part, Google commented, “Today, we’re thrilled to welcome Owlchemy Labs to Google. They’ve created award-winning games like Job Simulator and Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality which have really thoughtful interactive experiences that are responsive, intuitive, and feel natural. They’ve helped set a high bar for what engagement can be like in virtual worlds, and do it all with a great sense of humor!

“Together, we’ll be working to create engaging, immersive games and developing new interaction models across many different platforms to continue bringing the best VR experiences to life. There is so much more to build and learn, so stay tuned!”

Google’s big push in VR thus far is with the Daydream mobile platform. There’s no doubt the company can benefit from the expertise of folks like Owlchemy Labs. Let’s hope that Owlchemy’s creative freedom isn’t dampened at all by being absorbed by a behemoth like Google. recently chatted with Owlchemy boss Alex Schwartz all about the VR/AR space and where it’s headed.

EU Slaps Big Fine On Facebook Over WhatsApp Purchase

May 19, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

European Union antitrust regulators levied a fine of 110 million euros ($122 million) against Facebook on Thursday for providing misleading information during a vetting of its deal to acquire messaging service WhatsApp in 2014.

Calling it a “proportionate and deterrent fine”, the European Commission, which acts as the EU’s competition watchdog, said Facebook had said it could not automatically match user accounts on its namesake platform and WhatsApp but two years later launched a service that did exactly that.

“The Commission has found that, contrary to Facebook’s statements in the 2014 merger review process, the technical possibility of automatically matching Facebook and WhatsApp users’ identities already existed in 2014, and that Facebook staff were aware of such a possibility,” the Commission said.

Facebook said in a statement the errors made in its 2014 filings were not intentional and that the Commission had confirmed they had not affected the outcome of the merger review.

“Today’s announcement brings this matter to a close,” Facebook said.

The fine would not reverse the Commission’s decision to clear the purchase of WhatsApp and was unrelated to separate investigations into data protection issues, it added.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that Facebook was set to be fined.

The Commission could have fined Facebook up to 1 percent of its turnover – which would have been $276 million based on 2016 results – but said that Facebook had cooperated with the proceedings and acknowledged its infringement.

The EU sanction comes after Facebook received a separate 150,000-euro fine on Tuesday by a French data watchdog for failing to prevent its users’ data being accessed by advertisers.

Last week the Italian antitrust authorities levied a 3 million-euro fine on WhatsApp for allegedly obliging users to agree to share their personal data with Facebook.

Will Facebook’s TV Venture Succeed

May 17, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

The world’s largest social networking company is set to unveil its own catalog of original TV shows and short films for debut in mid-June, according to a report from Business Insider.

Mark Zuckerberg’s 13-year old social networking startup – turned highly-profitable corporation – plans to premiere a slate of 24 originals in the middle of next month, with several more approved for production later this year. According to people familiar with the discussions, Facebook has been looking to separate the shows into two separate tiers – a “marquee tier” for longer, big-budget shows that would be suitable for TV viewing, and a “lower tier” for short, cheaper shows, averaging five to 10 minutes in length that will refresh every 24 hours.

A mix of low-tier and high-tier shows

In other words, the high-tier content will let Facebook compete with media streaming giants Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube, all of which produce their own highly popular original shows. In December, the company hired Ricky Van Veen, co-founder of College Humor, to build its experience in “kickstarting an ecosystem of partner content” purposefully built for the site’s new “Video” tab. This feature began cropping up at the bottom menu within Facebook’s mobile app in April 2016, allowing people to view popular live videos from around the globe and view content from their own friends.

The social network expects high-quality, scripted video to become an important feature in retaining users that have increasingly flocked to rival services including Snapchat and Twitter. More importantly, the ability to control and broadcast its own original content will allow it to maintain some content parity with shows from Netflix, YouTube’s growing list of originals, and Hulu’s recent originals.

Monetization will happen through “mid-roll” ads

The profit strategy for Facebook’s approach appears similar to YouTube’s hated method of throwing ads into the middle of its original shows, also known as “mid-roll ads”. Sources close to Facebook hint that it has been testing these ads for months in live and recorded videos, giving video publishers the chance to insert ads into clips after they have been watched for more than 20 seconds. The social network plans to sell the ads and share 55 percent of sales with publishers, or the same revenue split currently offered by YouTube. In addition, Zuckerberg has personally spoken against the use of “pre-roll” ads, which play before a clip starts. This will be another key differentiator between Facebook and most other providers in the ad business.

More info may arrive at Cannes Lions festival in June

According to one source, the social network may use the Cannes Lions advertising festival in June to officially introduce its video initiative. However, somebody else said this date could be pushed back later in the summer. There is not much information on what genres Facebook originally intends to release, though one of them is said to come from Conde Nast Entertainment involving people going on first dates in VR before meeting in person.  Here at Fudzilla, we fear the worst, confidently.


Social Media Companies May Face New Fines, Regulations In Britain

May 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to create new powers giving her authority to punish social media and communications companies that fail to look after users’ data, and to demand cash from firms to pay for policing the internet.

The election pledge comes after firms like Facebook and Twitter have been criticized the government for not doing enough to stop the spread of extremist content online or help victims of abuse.

May, who is expected to win a majority at the June 8 election, pledged to pass laws giving users new rights to access data held about them, and granting the government the power to enforce them with sanctions.

“The internet has brought a wealth of opportunity but also significant new risks which have evolved faster than society’s response to them,” May said in a statement.

“We want social media companies to do more to help redress the balance and will take action to make sure they do.”

Hospitals and doctors’ surgeries across England were forced to turn away patients and cancel appointments on Friday after a nationwide ‘ransomware’ cyber attack crippled some computer systems in the state-run health service.

The Conservative Party said it wanted to be able to tax the industry if it chooses to, citing similar plans already in force for the gambling industry.

“The Conservatives will also create a power in law for government to introduce an industry-wide levy from social media companies and communication service providers to support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet harms,” the party said in a statement.

Snapchat Reports Slowing User Growth

May 12, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Snap Inc shares took a deep dive after the owner of Snapchat reported slowing user growth and revenue in its first earnings report as a public company, missing some Wall Street estimates as it competes with copycat messaging apps.

Shares tumbled 23 percent in after-hours trading to wipe some $6 billion from Snap’s market value, a reversal for the company after a red-hot March initial public offering that was the biggest for a U.S. tech company since Facebook Inc’s 2012 debut.

The stock fell to $17.66, just above its IPO price of $17.

Some investors were hoping Snap would surprise them with big numbers in its first quarterly report, BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield said.

“The fact that they failed to live up to expectations, let alone exceed them, disappointed people,” he said.

The performance echoed slides in Facebook and Twitter after they posted debut scorecards following their IPOs. Twitter shares cratered 24 percent the next day, while Facebook’s tumbled 11 percent, still the biggest-ever one-day losses for both.

Snap Chief Executive Evan Spiegel sought to reassure investors during an earnings call, fielding a dozen questions that ranged from strategy to how it would deal with competitors.

He also did not shy away from one query that allowed him to take a feisty jab at Facebook.

“If you want to be a creative company, you’ve got to get comfortable with and enjoy the fact that people are going to copy your product if you make great stuff,” he said.

Making a comparison to the search industry, Spiegel added: “Just because Yahoo has a search box doesn’t mean they’re Google.”

Snap said its daily active users (DAUs) rose 36.1 percent to 166 million in the first quarter from a year earlier, marking a slowdown from the 47.7 percent rise for the fourth quarter and 62.8 percent jump for the third quarter that the company reported in its IPO filing.

The slowing rate of growth was in line with an estimate from JPMorgan, which accurately expected 166 million DAUs for the first quarter. Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co Inc had pegged them even higher at 173 million.

Snap’s March IPO priced above the company’s target range as investors put aside concerns about a lack of profits and voting rights to get a piece of the action. The IPO raised $3.4 billion and gave the company a market valuation of roughly $24 billion, and shares surged 44 percent in their first day of trading.

‘Hate Postings’ Must Be Removed By Facebook, Says Austrian Authorities

May 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Facebook must take down postings deemed as hate speech, an Austrian court has ruled, in a legal victory for activists who want to force social media companies to combat online “trolling”.

The case – brought by Austria’s Green party over insults to its leader – has international ramifications as the court ruled the postings must be deleted across the platform and not just in Austria, a point that had been left open in an initial ruling.

The case comes as legislators around Europe are considering ways of forcing Facebook, Google, Twitter and others to rapidly remove hate speech or incitement to violence.

Germany’s cabinet approved a plan last month to fine social networks up to 50 million euros ($55 million) if they fail to remove such postings quickly and the European Union is considering new EU-wide rules.

Facebook’s lawyers in Vienna declined to comment on the ruling, which was distributed by the Greens and confirmed by a court spokesman, and Facebook did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Strengthening the earlier ruling, the Viennese appeals court ruled on Friday that Facebook must remove the postings against Greens leader Eva Glawischnig as well as any verbatim repostings, and said merely blocking them in Austria without deleting them for users abroad was not sufficient.

The court added it was easy for Facebook to automate this process. It said, however, that Facebook could not be expected to trawl through content to find posts that are similar, rather than identical, to ones already identified as hate speech.

The Greens hope to get the ruling strengthened further at Austria’s highest court. They want the court to demand Facebook remove similar – not only identical – postings, and to make it identify holders of fake accounts.

The Greens also want Facebook to pay damages, which would make it easier for individuals in similar cases to take the financial risk of taking legal action.

“Facebook must put up with the accusation that it is the world’s biggest platform for hate and that it is doing nothing against this,” said Green parliamentarian Dieter Brosz.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has said hate speech has no place on the platform and the company has published a policy paper on how it wants to work against false news.

Does Facebook Having A Coding Bias?

May 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Computing

According to The Wall Street Journal, female engineers who work at Facebook may face gender bias that prevents their code from being accepted at the same rate as male counterparts.

Code written by women was less likely to make it through Facebook’s internal peer review system. It is unlikely that women write shittier code than blokes, so it means that the peer review is being harder on women than men.

It means that Facebook’s efforts at diversity efforts are just rubbish. The company’s workforce is just 33 percent female, with women holding just 17 percent of technical roles and 27 percent of leadership positions. So if those women have to work harder than men because their work is going to be more heavily scrutinised it is rather unfair.

To be fair, Facebook was alarmed by this data and commissioned a second study by Jay Parikh, its head of infrastructure, to investigate any potential issues.

Parikh’s findings suggested that the code rejections were due to engineering rank, not gender. So the issue is that because women do not rise to the top as fast as men statistically they are more likely to be stuck in a grade where there are picked on.

Either possibility could result in the 35 percent higher code rejection rate for female engineers.


Facebook Preps Users Spotting Fake News Ahead Of U.K. Election

May 9, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Facebook unveiled a UK newspaper campaign on Monday warning British citizens to be wary of fake news in the lead up to the General Election on June 8.

The social network took out ads in major papers including The Times, The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, which list ten things its users should look out for when deciding whether to trust information they read online. The tips include checking headlines, URLs, photos and dates.

The spread of fake news has been a problem online for years, but blew up during the US presidential election last year. Facebook resorting to physical media to warn people about fake news is an indication of how widespread the problem has become and the perceived potential for it to impact the outcome of elections.

“People want to see accurate information on Facebook and so do we,” Simon Milner, Facebook’s director of policy for the UK in a statement. “That is why we are doing everything we can to tackle the problem of false news.”

The social network put new measures in place in April for identifying and removing fake accounts responsible for spreading fake news, added Milner. The company claims to have removed tens of thousands of fake accounts as a result of this. It is also working with others including Google through partnerships like Full Fact and First Draft to tackle the problem.

‘We can’t solve this problem alone,” said Milner. “We are supporting third party fact checkers during the election in their work with news organisations, so they can independently assess facts and stories.”

A BBC Panorama investigation will be broadcast in the UK on Monday evening revealing the extent to which fake news played a role in both the 2016 US presidential election and the EU referendum that took place in the UK last June.

Are Virtual Reality Exclusives Good For The Industry?

May 9, 2017 by  
Filed under Gaming

If you’ve donned a VR headset in recent months, odds are you’ve at least tried Job Simulator from the folks at Owlchemy Labs. The quirky title is a perfect showcase for anyone new to the medium of virtual reality and it’s earned numerous accolades, including Best VR/AR title at the GDC Awards in March.

More recently, Owlchemy partnered with Adult Swim Games to make Rick & Morty: Virtual Rick-ality. caught up with Owlchemy CEO Alex Schwartz in advance of the game’s launch to talk about learning the “language of VR,” among other aspects of the nascent field.

“When we started on Job Simulator every single concept of a part of a game or an experience had to be redesigned and thought through,” Schwartz says. “We didn’t really understand how much rework and design from the ground-up was necessary to build an end-to-end experience.”

Even something as simple as exiting a game environment in VR could represent a new challenge: “We thought, ‘How do we get back to the hub world or menu or centralized place in VR?’ … Well we don’t want to do 2D menus, like other people were trying to do… and that’s when we went through the iteration process of like, ‘OK what verbs exist in this world that we could reappropriate for exiting a level?’ And that’s when we came up with the exit burrito, which is kind of a tongue-in-cheek joke that you could use physical interactions like eating that we already had in the game and apply it to a choice-based selection, like a restaurant’s menu. So it’s like ‘Let’s make the menu a selection of food that you could eat to pick various options.’

VR development truly does require fresh thinking and design approaches, and that’s something that Schwartz feels has been lacking from some developers. “It strikes me that in these early days of VR, there was so little to draw from and I think the people who said ‘Oh video games used to be…’ and threw in content… Let’s say they were building a game for PlayStation or Xbox and then said ‘Oh cool, this new VR thing we’ll just adapt it to that’ – that’s where you end up with bad VR.

“Good VR takes the platform and looks at its strengths and the types of verbs and player actions that are possible and takes advantage of what you could do with your hands and 6DOF (degrees of freedom) of hand position and a trigger and builds up from the ground from there.”

Schwartz sees these early days of VR as analogous to where developers were in the beginning with touchscreen controls (many threw virtual buttons onto the screen), but eventually new control paradigms and gestures evolved, like the drag and release in Angry Birds or pinch zooming in a strategy title map.

“You asked about the language of VR – we’re starting to see those types of design patterns emerge,” Schwartz notes. “The ‘reach over your shoulder to grab a backpack for inventory’ [mechanic], I think Cloudhead with The Gallery kind of pioneered that. These are natural interaction paradigms that equate to a real life type of maneuver and making it so that you don’t have to memorize an abstraction. I think that’s the key. Even on touchscreens, it’s an abstraction. There’s no existing map on a piece of paper you can zoom in on by taking two fingers and stretching them out wider. A stretchy map, that doesn’t exist in life, but it’s still a natural thing and even babies will reach out to an iPad and start moving their finger around and panning and tapping and maybe pinch zooming.

“What we’re doing in VR with 6DOF controllers is applying real-world paradigms without abstraction to an interface, which I think is really, really cool. And it just means that we’re opening the door to way more people with different backgrounds and different experience levels in computing to this new type of platform. I can give Job Simulator to my grandma and with zero video game experience. If I handed her an Xbox controller it would be game over right there, but if you hand her two plastic wands that melt in your mind into kind of like an extension of your own hands and say go, she’s cracking eggs on the counter and making soup in Job Simulator, so it’s pretty magical to see.”

Apart from focusing on the unique language of VR design, another aspect that’s been key to Owlchemy’s success has been a truly agnostic platform approach, or as Schwartz calls it: “absurdly multi-platform.” And that philosophy started way before the studio’s jump into VR, when it was still working on mobile titles like Snuggle Truck and Jack Lumber.

“Our desire to be multi-platform simply started with the fact that we would have gone out of business with only one revenue stream,” Schwartz states matter of factly. “So the thing that saved us and allowed us to make Jack Lumber, our next game, and then build Aaaaaa, and then Dyscourse, and then finally get to the point where we built Job Simulator, was the fact that we launched our first game on, I think there were 12 different platforms.

“What that ended up doing for us was it balanced out the risk of having all your eggs in one basket. If we did a sale here and we did a Humble Bundle here and then we did a discount on Blackberry platforms, our revenue graph ended up being much, much smoother because we combined all the peaks and valleys.”

Naturally, Owlchemy has taken that same approach to the VR marketplace, calling itself the “Switzerland of VR.” From a risk perspective for the average studio, it simply makes sense to make your game as widely available as possible, especially when installed bases are still somewhat small.

“Every time you open up a VR – like, when you go to the store to test a system – Owlchemy’s content should be there, right?” Schwartz says. “So if VR is an early market and people have to decide between getting headset A, B, or C, today but in the future it’ll be A, B, C, D, E, F, and then in two years it’ll be A-Z, why would you only want to be available on one if your goal is to be associated with the best quality VR?”

“So you want to get all sides of the market which means being multi-platform, which means if you’re exclusive then you can’t be everywhere, so it comes down to a half financial strategy and half marketing approach of Owlchemy. If Owlchemy wants to be associated with good VR, I can’t be only on one third of the market. That’s pretty much how we see it. But I’ve never had malice towards someone who took an exclusive deal.”

As we’ve seen from conversations with Oculus and HTC Vive, the two PC VR makers take very different stances towards platform exclusivity, but for developers, Schwartz sees it as a last resort option.

“[VR’s] a tough place to be… We’re in a smaller market. If you have two choices, either going out of business or taking a platform exclusive deal, I see why people do it. If you’re in a position, though, to not have to do it, and you can somehow make it work by not doing it, it seems like it’s only advantageous to the future of VR and to the future of your company to be platform agnostic like we are,” he says.

“I haven’t seen anything right now as far as strategies of various VR companies that I would label, like, they’re intentionally trying to destroy this industry or fuck it up somehow. I wouldn’t say that that is the case at all. I would say that Sony is funding things, HTC is funding things, Oculus is funding things, and I think that’s great for the market in general, and then it comes down to developers and how they want to kind of navigate the seas of what’s available and how they can make it through these early days as the headset numbers kind of grow over time.”

Owlchemy’s newest release, Rick & Morty, is a low-risk investment for the studio thanks to publishing being handled by Adult Swim. It’s also unique in being one of just a few licensed titles in the VR market to date. Don’t expect this to be a pattern for Owlchemy, however. The studio remains steadfastly committed to original IP creation.

“Rick & Morty was an interesting experiment in our favorite show combining with a hilarious freak opportunity to meet the creators and then kind of jamming together and thinking, ‘All right, we should do this because it is almost the perfect overlap between what Owlchemy does with the cartoon style and the humor style where everyone at the studio loves Rick & Morty,” Schwartz says. “And then, because we were between original IPs, we could build Rick & Morty while we’re starting to prototype other new things. So it was like a match made in heaven that we couldn’t pass up… I would say it’s the first fully-featured game of length that will be licensed, but there’s been a lot of things in the much maligned demo/marketing content, where someone makes something like John Wick.”

When Owlchemy isn’t busy working on unique VR content, it’s thinking up ways of how to best portray this nascent medium to people who haven’t yet jumped in. As the studio says on its website, “We believe that sharing the magic of VR to those not currently playing is one of the greatest challenges we face today,” which is why it’s been building up MR (mixed reality) technology.

“[It became a] necessity with Job Simulator because we wanted to show people what it felt like to be in a virtual, spatial world, like you’re actually standing in a cubicle,” Schwartz explains. “We’ve never had anything like this in the history of games and technology that’s felt like this with full presence. It’s very hard to communicate and you tell people, ‘No, it’s amazing…you’ve gotta try it,’ but until you put it on their head, everything’s lost until they finally see it. But mixed reality, we’ve found is the closest thing to the actual experience of putting it on your head… If you’re showing someone who’s never had access to a VR headset the composited footage of a human being standing inside of a virtual world and them reaching out and picking something up one-to-one, it all kind of clicks in your head.”

“It all helps Job Simulator grow, which is great for us. But it opens the door for every developer to show any piece of arbitrary content with a human being in it. And we think, actually, that it’s so important to get it out there to the world that it’ll actually push VR forward as a medium, because one of the big things is convincing the large populous of people in the world to actually go out and try it,” he continues. “Our thought is, it’s useful to us, and that means it’ll be useful to other people, and we’re working hard…we’re trying to get that out to people with the least amount of friction as humanly possible.”

Owlchemy hasn’t quite figured out the business side yet, whether the MR solution will be sold, licensed, offered as suscription, etc. “We want to make it so that it can go to the widest group of people possible. So charging a million dollars for a license for that would mean that there’s very few people who could access it. So we’re trying to figure out a good way to balance the fact that everyone in the world that’s building and showing content needs this,” he says.

Schwartz also brings up a very important point in this new world of online influencers like PewDiePie. As VR gains more traction, there will be streamers who want to show what certain VR games play like. “They want to show this content and they want a better way to do it than having a webcam set up in the corner of a room and then slapping that footage on top of a game footage,” Schwartz notes. “We’ll look back and laugh at how bad it was to show people Let’s Plays of VR content. We’re hoping that from a streamer ecosystem play, [our MR tech] will help make it much, much simpler.

“[So] from a developer standpoint, I’m just making a cool game, I don’t want to build some crazy mixed reality tech just to show it. It should somehow be available to them. And from a consumer standpoint, I think the end result is, ‘Ok, cool, I get to see more representative VR that really shows why it’s great rather than being some kind of confusing mess of visuals.'”

With Owlchemy dabbling in MR tech, and given that MR or AR headsets are on the horizon for Windows 10 and Project Scorpio, you might assume that Schwartz is eager to dive into the AR world next. Not so, he says. In fact, while Schwartz sees a nearly endless array of possibilities for the medium of VR, AR faces both a creative and technological challenge that won’t be solved in the near future, he believes.

“First off, I think quality AR that anyone will really want to use in a normal setting is much farther away in years than people are predicting. I think, basically, VR is giving us a ton of lessons learned about how people interact, about how people move within a world, and it’s so much easier because you can blank out the background,” Schwartz says.

“AR is with the black part of VR background removed and now you have to track every part of the real world around you in real-time with a fully self-contained headset that has to get spatial learning. We’re just not there yet [considering] the frame rate with all the heat and power problems trying to do AR. I don’t think we’re even close. So, at Owlchemy, we think that reasonable AR is over five years away.”

Schwartz also notes that Microsoft and others are confusing the lexicon. “Microsoft’s using ‘mixed reality’ as just a term that means upgraded AR because AR kind of had a bad run in the early days where people think using AR is using a cellphone and pointing it at a QR code to make some advertisement of an Audi car appear on your living room table,” he says.

Creatively, Schwartz doesn’t think people have many visions for AR aside from maps navigation or LinkedIn-style profiles appearing over people’s heads.

“When I show people good VR, there’s like 10, 20, 50 ideas of amazing things that could be built or industries that could be changed… AR just seems to be more of a blue ocean of possibility where people don’t really even know what will be the form factor, the types of apps you would need or want,” he continues. “It just is a lot more of, like, promises without great execution yet. We get pitched on a lot of hardware and we try a lot of controllers and input and headsets and new stuff. So we try to remain healthily skeptical until we’ve tried a great demo of something that really proves to us that, like, ‘Wow, this is really going to change something.’ HoloLens is the closest thing and the tracking was pretty good but it’s not something that would immerse you. It’s more of an informational overlay in a small FOV. And there’s a lot of challenges with tripling that FOV.”

On the VR side, what gets Schwartz excited is thinking about where headsets go next. Almost everyone would agree that untethered is the next major step, and while some would argue that mobile could evolve to provide proper VR with positional tracking, Schwartz sees self-contained standalone units as the future.

“We don’t think that the slot-in phone in your pocket, even though it’s an $800 phone probably, with a high-end GPU and a high-end CPU and a camera and an accelerometer and all that… We don’t think that’s going to be the path. There’s a whole bunch of people who are going into a third form factor: standalone,” he says.

“The problem is that if you’re going to do inside-out tracking with a camera on your phone, the camera was built to take photos of your family and your cat. It’s not tuned or built for the type of absurdly low latency direct-to-hardware type of tracking that’s needed. With the Gear, you saw that over time they’re using less and less of the hardware in the phone and putting more and more of the sensors into the headset, so if you imagine that continuing onwards, there’s no phone, all the components are built specifically for VR, and it’s a thing you go out and buy in one shot that has a battery and a processor it in and you just put it on your head and you go and you play or experience whatever it is you’re going to do.”

And it’s at that point, Schwartz believes, that we’ll finally see a true explosion in the VR market. “I think that’s when we’re going to start seeing numbers that are 10x or 100x the adoption as where we are today. That’s our prediction of how the form factor war will play out over the next couple of years.”

Facebook’s Oculus’ Story Studio Closing Down

May 8, 2017 by  
Filed under Consumer Electronics

Facebook Inc’s virtual reality content production unit, Oculus’ Story Studio, is shutting down and will pivot towards supporting external content makers, two years after the in-house studio launched.

Oculus, which makes virtual reality headsets Rift and Gear VR, will allocate $50 million to directly fund creators of non-gaming VR content, Jason Rubin, the company’s vice president of content, said in a blog post.

Rubin added that Oculus is “still absolutely committed to growing the VR film and creative content ecosystem.”

Facebook paid $3 billion to acquire Oculus and retain its employees in 2014. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said he believed the medium that offers a 360-degree panoramic view using headsets “will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”

Oculus tapped talent from both Oscar-winning animation company Pixar and the video gaming world to head up Story Studio, which it launched in January 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Facebook’s VR ambitions have been threatened somewhat by a lawsuit from video game publisher ZeniMax Media Inc accusing Facebook and Oculus of infringing ZeniMax’s copyrighted software code.

A jury found in ZeniMax’s favor in February, awarding it $500 million. Oculus has asked for a new trial.

Vive, a unit of HTC Corp, and Sony Corp are also racing to bring virtual reality products to a mass audience.

Oculus debuted its first short film called “Lost” at Sundance two years ago, a story of an animated mechanical creature in a forest.

Last year, Story Studio won an Emmy for original interactive program for its short VR film “Henry,” and at Sundance this year, it premiered “Dear Angelica,” an illustrated film of a mother and daughter.

But internally, Oculus has undergone some changes in its management in the past year.

Brendan Iribe stepped down as CEO in December, saying he was going to head up the PC division of the VR company. In March, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, who created the prototype Oculus headset, parted ways with Facebook.

WhatsApp Outage Causes Worldwide Headache

May 5, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

WhatsApp, a popular messaging service owned by Facebook Inc, experienced a worldwide outage on Wednesday that lasted for several hours before being resolved, the company said.

“Earlier today, WhatsApp users in all parts of the world were unable to access WhatsApp for a few hours. We have now fixed the issue and apologize for the inconvenience,” WhatsApp said in an email late Wednesday afternoon.

WhatsApp was down in parts of India, Canada, the United States and Brazil, according to Reuters journalists. It affected people who use the service on Apple Inc’s iOS operating system, Alphabet Inc’s Android and Microsoft Corp’s Windows mobile OS.

In Brazil, where the professional class relies heavily on the messaging service, WhatsApp was down for about two and a half hours. Many users switched to rival system Telegram, which has picked up millions of customers in Brazil after two previous WhatsApp outages resulting from court orders.

WhatsApp’s is used by more than 1.2 billion people around the world and is a key tool for communications and commerce in many countries. The service was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion.

China’s Tencent To Open Artificial Intelligence Lab In Seattle

May 3, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Chinese social media and gaming giant Tencent Holdings announced that it will open an artificial intelligence (AI) research facility in Seattle in the United States, to be headed up by former Microsoft scientist Yu Dong.

Yu, who has been appointed as deputy head of Tencent’s AI Lab division, will run the new lab as well as spearhead research in speech recognition and natural language understanding, the company said.

Tencent, which owns the popular WeChat messaging app, is Asia’s most valuable company with a market capitalization of nearly $300 billion.

Shenzhen-headquartered Tencent is one of a number of Chinese technology juggernauts that are stepping up efforts in AI research. Tencent’s WeChat has more than 889 million monthly active users.

Tencent has more than 50 researchers and more than 200 engineers at its AI Lab in Shenzhen, which was established in April 2016, according to the company.

China’s “Big Three” tech firms – Tencent, Baidu Inc and Alibaba – have been competing to attract top-notch talent.

Yu, a speech recognition and deep learning expert, was the principal researcher at Microsoft Research Institute’s Speech and Dialog Group before joining Tencent.

Baidu suffered a setback to its AI ambitions after its chief scientist Andrew Ng resigned in March, shortly before Tencent announced it has poached Baidu’s former big data director Zhang Tong to head up its AI Lab.

Yu is looking to build a team of around 20 for the Seattle lab, according to Tencent.

Twitter, Bloomberg To Team Up On Streaming TV News Service

May 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Twitter Inc is teaming up with Bloomberg Media for a round-the-clock streaming television news service on the social networking platform, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

The channel, which is yet to be named and is expected to begin operations this fall, would be announced Monday, WSJ said.

Twitter’s user growth has stalled in the past few quarters and the company has been trying to convince advertisers that it will strengthen its user base.

As part of its efforts, it has updated its product offerings including live video broadcasts from its app and launched new features to attract users.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in an internal memo last October one of the company’s missions was defined as being the “people’s news network”.

Twitter has made a push into news and sports on mobile devices last year and this foray could pique the interest of a media company as an acquirer, analysts have said.

Twitter Finally Reports User Growth In More Than A Year

April 27, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Twitter Inc has announced that it has had its strongest growth in monthly active users in more than a year and a much better-than-expected quarterly profit, despite heavy competition from Facebook and Snapchat.

The microblogging service said average monthly active users increased 6 percent to 328 million in the first quarter from a year earlier.

Analysts on average had expected 321.3 million monthly active users, according to market research firm FactSet StreetAccount.

Revenue fell 7.8 percent to $548.3 million, its first drop since its initial public offering.

Net loss narrowed to $61.6 million, or 9 cents per share, in the first quarter ended March 31, from $79.7 million, or 12 cents per share, a year earlier.

Twitter’s user growth has stalled in the past few quarters and the company has been trying to convince advertisers that it will strengthen its user base.

As part of its efforts, the company has updated its product offerings including live video broadcasts from its app and launched new features to attract users.

Twitter’s weak performance has raised questions about CEO Jack Dorsey’s leadership and whether the company would be bought by a bigger media firm. Financial markets speculated about a sale of Twitter last year, but no concrete bids were forthcoming.

Excluding items, the company earned 11 cents per share, beating the estimate of 1 cent per share.

Twitter’s advertising revenue fell 11 percent to $474 million in the quarter, above the average analyst estimate of $442.7 million, according to market research firm FactSet StreetAccount.

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