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IBM Will Use Apache Spark To Find E.T.

October 2, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Computing

IBM is using Apache Sparke to analyse radio signals for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Speaking at Apache: Big Data Europe, Anjul Bhambrhi, vice president of big data products at IBM, talked about how the firm has thrown its weight behind Spark.

“We think of [Spark] as the analytics operating system. Never before have so many capabilities come together on one platform,” Bhambrhi said.

Spark is a key project because of its speed and ease of use, and because it integrates seamlessly with other open-source components, Bhambrhi explained.

“Spark is speeding up even MapReduce jobs, even though they are batch oriented by two to six times. It’s making developers more productive, enabling them to build applications in less time and with fewer lines of code,” she claimed.

She revealed IBM is working with Nasa and Seti to analyse radio signals for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence, using Spark to process the 60Gbit of data generated per second by various receivers.

Other applications IBM is working on with Spark include genome sequencing for personalised medicine via the Adam project at UC Berkeley in California, and early detection of conditions such as diabetes by analysing patient medical data.

“At IBM, we are certainly sold on Spark. It forms part of our big data stack, but most importantly we are contributing to the community by enhancing it,” Bhambrhi said.

The Apache: Big Data Europe conference also saw Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth outline some of the key problems in starting a big data project, such as simply finding engineers with the skills needed just to build the infrastructure for operating tools such as Hadoop.

“Analytics and machine learning are the next big thing, but the problem is there are just not enough ‘unicorns’, the mythical technologists who know everything about everything,” he explained in his keynote address, adding that the blocker is often just getting the supporting infrastructure up and running.

Shuttleworth, pictured above, went on to demonstrate how the Juju service orchestration tool developed by Canonical could solve this problem. Juju enables users to describe the end configuration they want, and will automatically provision the servers and software and configure them as required.

This could be seen as a pitch for Juju, but Shuttleworth’s message was that the open-source community is delivering tools that can manage the underlying infrastructure so that users can focus on the application itself.

“The value creators are the guys around the outside who take the big data store and do something useful with it,” he said.

“Juju enables them to start thinking about the things they need for themselves and their customers in a tractable way, so they don’t need to go looking for those unicorns.”

The Apache community is working on a broad range of projects, many of which are focused on specific big data problems, such as Flume for handling large volumes of log data or Flink, another processing engine that, like Spark, is designed to replace MapReduce in Hadoop deployments.



Can eSports Become A Billion Dollar Industry?

October 1, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Over the last few years, competitive gaming has made huge strides, building a massive fanbase, supporting the rise of entire genres of games and attracting vast prize pots for the discipline’s very best. Almost across the board, the phenomenon has also seen its revenues gaining, as new sponsors come on board, including some major household names. Sustaining the rapidity of the growth of eSports is going to be key to its long term success, maintaining momentum and pushing it ever further into the public consciousness.

In order to do that, according to Newzoo, eSports need to learn some lessons from their more traditional athletic counterparts. Right now, the research firm puts a pin in eSports revenues of $2.40 per enthusiast per year, a number which is expected to bring the total revenue for the industry to $275 million for 2015 – a 43 per cent increase on last year. By 2018, the firm expects that per user number to almost double, reaching $4.63.

That’s a decent number, representing very rapid growth, but it pales in comparison to Newzoo’s estimates on the average earning per fan for a sport like Basketball, which represents a $14 per fan revenue – rising to $19 where only the major league NBA is a factor. To catch up to numbers like this is going to take some time, but Newzoo’s research has listed five factors it considers vital to achieving that aim.


Right now, MOBAs are undeniably the king of the eSports scene, and one of the biggest genres in gaming. The king of MOBAs, League of Legends, is the highest earning game in the world, whilst others like Valve’s DOTA 2 are also represent huge audiences and revenues, including the prestigious annual International tournament. Shooters are also still big business here, with Activision Blizzard recently announcing the formation of a new Call of Duty League.

Nonetheless, MOBAs are still the mainstay and if you don’t like them, you’re not going to get too deeply into competitive gaming as a fan. Although their popularity with the athletes is going to make them a difficult genre to shift, Newzoo says that broadening the slate is a key factor to growth.

Geographic reach

The major tournaments bring players, and audiences, from all over the world, but it’s often only the very top tier of players who can find themselves a foothold in regular competition. Major territories like the US, South Korea and Europe have some local structure, but again League of Legends stands almost alone in its provision of local infrastructure. By expanding a network of regular leagues and competitions to more countries, eSports stands a much better chance of building a grassroots movement and capturing more fans.


Already a problem very much on the radar of official bodies and players around the world, the introduction of regulation is always a tough transition for any industry. However, when you’re putting up millions of dollars in prize money, you can’t have any grey areas around doping, match fixing and player behaviour at events. These young players are frequently thrust into a very rapid acceleration of lifestyle, fame and responsibility – a heady mixture which can prove to be a damaging influence on many. Just like in other sports, stars need protecting and nurturing – and the competitions careful monitoring – in order for growth to occur without scandal and harm to its stars.

Media rights

Dishing out the rights to broadcast, promote and profit from eSports is a complex issue. Whilst games like football are worldwide concerns, with media rights a hotly contested and constantly shifting field, nobody owns the games themselves. With eSports, every single aspect of the games being played is a trademark in itself, with its owners understandably keen to protect them. However, with fan promotion such a key part of the sport’s growth, and services like Twitch a massive factor in organic promotion, governing the rights of distribution is only going to become a murkier and more complex business as time goes on. With major TV networks, well used to exclusivity, now starting to show an interest, expect this to become a hot topic.

Conflict between new and old media

That clash of worlds, between the fresh and agile formats of digital user-sourced broadcasting and the old network model is also going to be source of many of its own problems. One or the other, or even both, is going to have to adapt fast for there to be a convivial agreement which betters the industry as a whole. There’s currently considerable pushback from established media against the idea of eSports becoming accepted as a mainstream activity, fuelled in no small part by their audiences themselves, so a lo of attitudes need to change. Add to that the links between these media giants and many of the world’s richest advertisers and you can start to see the problem.


Has The Game Console Market Reached Capacity?

September 24, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The console business will hit a wall in terms of sales in this generation, and that’s okay. According to Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter, the subsequent shift away from the traditional console model will be a catalyst for even more growth.

Speaking at DICE Europe last week, Pachter discussed a provocative and divisive topic: the end of the console era.

“The console installed base is as big as it’s ever going to get,” he said. “[This] generation is not going to be bigger than the last generation. We’re going to be about the same.

“The Wii U is going to sell 20 million units compared to 100 million for the Wii. The PlayStation 4 is going to sell 120 million or 130 million – that’s great. The Xbox One will sell 100 million to 110 million – that’s great. Add it all together and it’s 260 million units, maybe, and the last cycle was 270 million.”

This take on the trajectory of the PS4 / Xbox One generation must be assessed in the context of a world that contains far more people who play games than at any time in history – thanks in part to the impact of the Wii, and in larger part to the rapid emergence of smartphones and the app economy. If Pachter’s analysis proves to be accurate, it would suggest that consoles are a limiting factor on the growth potential of the games industry, putting some of the medium’s best and most alluring products beyond the reach of the vast majority of people.

“This is the last real console cycle,” Pachter continued. “I don’t mean that Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo will go bankrupt and shut down – they will not. Each of them will make another console, some people will buy them, and the next console cycle will be to this console cycle what the 3DS is to the DS. The 3DS is selling about 15 million units a year, the DS had five consecutive years where it sold more than 26 million. So about half as big.

“So when I say that this console cycle is the last console cycle, the reason is that console games shouldn’t require a console. And I’m not talking about the cloud.”

What games require, Pachter said, is a CPU, a GPU, storage, a controller, and a display. In the coming years, the need to purchase a console to access the first four will be diminished as smartphone and set-top box hardware becomes more sophisticated. By the time this console generation nears its end, “you’re going to have a CPU/GPU in your house that is connected to your television,” whether that be the latest model of the iPhone or a Fire TV box from Amazon.


The switch, Pachter suggested, was simply a matter of the hardware reaching a certain degree of technical sophistication; to use one of his own examples, the point when an affordable set-top box from Amazon can run Call of Duty, a brand chosen by Pachter due to its popularity among online console players. For a publisher like Activision that switch would be easy to justify, opening up the possibility of controlling the multiplayer revenues that currently go to Microsoft and Sony in the form of Xbox Live and PSN subscription fees.

For the consumer, the benefit is the removal of the need to purchase a console, and the ability to exert more control over their gaming habits.

“What happens when you lower the entry so nobody has to buy a console?” Pachter asked. “If Activision sells 20 million copies of Call of Duty to people with a console, how many people would buy it who don’t have a console? I’m guessing 20 million more. To make it easier for the Europeans in the room, how many more people would play FIFA if a console wasn’t required? Another 20 million.

Pachter shared some detailed speculation on how this structure might work, from a publisher charging a dollar or two for monthly access to its biggest online game, to the major publishers forming a consortium that charges one fee and portions out revenue according to which games received the most play. The point, though, is that console publishers have a clear incentive to work out the details, and the consumer has every reason to embrace the change.

“There’s plenty of 30 or 40-somethings who would like to play FIFA or Call of Duty, but they can’t,” Pachter continued. “They’re not going to buy a console for one game, and I’d say that’s true of every single [console] game made. There’s a market of probably several million people who would never buy a console to play the game, but would absolutely buy the game.”

This could be a solution to the problem that flat console hardware sales in a world crammed with gamers highlights. As the number of players on mobile and other accessible platforms continues to grow, making the biggest brands in gaming available to people who see no value in a $400 box makes a great deal of sense.

“I think the traditional gamer market – which has high standards – does broaden. But the only way you actually see a step function change in that is to pull the console out of the equation, and make it open to people who can’t afford or won’t buy a console,” Pachter said.

“I think this shift to full-game digital downloads, where everybody has the opportunity to play a game without having to invest $399 is a huge opportunity. It’s an opportunity for everyone in the value chain, except the retailer and maybe the console manufacturer.”


Does The Xbox One Mini Exist?

September 1, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The rumor mill might have been a bit broken when it was announced that Microsoft was about to launch an Xbox-mini.

The rumor claimed that Microsoft would be holding a launch event in October where people could expect the company to launch the Surface Pro 4, Lumia flagships and an “Xbox One Mini.”

It was claimed that the X-box mini would be third the size of the current console and lack a Blu-Ray drive.

However Microsoft’s Phil Spencer has now debunked this theory, stating that the rumors are simply “not real”. Although he didn’t say the project didn’t exist just that the rumor that it was coming out in October was “not real.”

Given the nature of reality, and theories that the universe is a holographic game being played two-dimensional gods, we are not ready to dismiss out of hand yet.

While the Xbox One Mini definitely won’t be happening the Lumia flagships; Cityman and Talkman, new Surface tablets including the Surface Pro 4, the eagerly awaited Band 2 and perhaps even a slimmer Xbox One is still a possibility at the event.


Drones To Have Intel Inside

August 31, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Computing

Chipmaker Intel is taking its competitive game up a notch by investing in its own drones.

Intel has written a check for more than US$60 million to Yuneec International, a Chinese aviation company and drone maker.

This is not the first time that the Chipmaker has invested in drones. It has written smaller amounts for the drone makers Airware and PrecisionHawk. The Yuneec deal is its largest investment in a drone company yet.

Apparently Intel thinks that drones are potential computing platforms for its processors.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said he believed in a smart and connected world. And one of the best ways to bring that smart and connected world to everyone and everywhere has been drones.

Amazon and Google are developing drones as they seek new ways to deliver items to consumers, Intel just wants to make sure that its chips are delivering the payload. There is no indication that it is building a secret airforce which it will use to take down competition – that would be silly.

Yuneec makes a range of drones built for aerial photography and imaging. Its technology also powers manned electric aircraft.


IBM Thinks Businesses Should Block TOR

August 28, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Computing

IBM security research has found that people are using the so-called dark net to launch cyber attacks, force ransomware demands on punters and make distributed denial-of-service (DoS) attacks.

The dark net, accessed via Tor, is often tagged as a threat. The IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Quarterly 3Q 2015 report identifies a spike in bad traffic and leads with a warning.

The report introduces Tor as the network that takes people to the dark net. We might start calling it the ferryman and the passage across the river Styx, but things are complicated enough.

IBM said that Tor is used by “non-malicious government officials, journalists, law enforcement officials” and bad people alike. It is the latter that should concern us.

“This latest report reveals that more than 150,000 malicious events have originated from Tor in the US alone thus far in 2015,” the report said.

“Tor has also played a role in the growing ransomware attack trend. Attackers have evolved the use of encryption to hold data hostage and demand payment/ransom for the decryption code.”

We have been here before, and ransomware has been a feature of many a security alert this year already. We heard, courtesy of Bitdefender, that ransomware charges start at £320, and are a real pain to deal with. We also heard that it is Android mobile users in the UK who get the worst of the hackers’ grabbing-for-money treatment.

Back at the IBM report, and we find IBM X-Force on the issue. X-Force, which is nothing like X-Men, said that hackers push internet users who are easily fooled by flashy online advertisements into installing the new cyber nightmare. Ransomware, it warns, will separate you from your cash.

“A surprising number of users are fooled by fake/rogue antivirus [AV] messages that are nothing more than animated web ads that look like actual products. The fake AV scam tricks users into installing or updating an AV product they may never have had,” it explains, adding that in some cases people pay the money without thinking.

“Afterward, the fake AV keeps popping up fake malware detection notices until the user pays some amount of money, typically something in the range of what an AV product would cost.”

This establishes the subject as a mark, and the hackers will exploit the opportunity. “Do not assume that if you are infected with encryption-based ransomware you can simply pay the ransom and reliably get your data back,” said IBM.

“The best way to avoid loss is to back up your data. Regardless of whether your backup is local or cloud-based, you must ensure that you have at least one copy that is not directly mapped visibly as a drive on your computer.”

Tor nodes in the US spewed out the most bad traffic in the first half of this year, according to the report, adding up to about 180,000 attacks. The Netherlands is second with around 150,000, and Romania is third with about 80,000.

The bulk of this negative attention lands at technology and communications companies. You might have assumed the financial markets, but you were wrong. IBM said that ICT gets over 300,000 Tor thwacks every six months, manufacturing gets about 245,000, and finance gets about 170,000.

IBM said that the old enemy, SQL injection attacks, is the most common Tor-led threat to come at its customers. Vulnerability scanning attacks are also a problem, and IBM said that the use of the network as a means for distributed DoS attacks should “Come as no surprise”. It doesn’t.

“These attacks combine Tor-commanded botnets with a sheaf of Tor exit nodes. In particular, some of the US-based exit nodes provide huge bandwidth,” explained the report.

“Employing a handful of the exit nodes in a distributed DoS orchestrated by the botnet controller and originating at dozens or hundreds of bot hosts can impose a large burden on the targeted system with a small outlay of attacker resources, and generally effective anonymity.”

There is a lot more. The bottom line is that bad things happen on the dark net and that they come to people and businesses through Tor. IBM said that concerned outfits should just block it and move on, which is along the lines of something that Akamai said recently.

“Corporate networks really have little choice but to block communications to these stealthy networks. The networks contain significant amounts of illegal and malicious activity,” said Akamai.

“Allowing access between corporate networks and stealth networks can open the corporation to the risk of theft or compromise, and to legal liability in some cases and jurisdictions.”

That sounds fine to us, but won’t someone give a thought to those non-malicious government officials out there?


Is Metal Gear Solid V Going To Be A Hit?

August 26, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

If Hideo Kojima really is on the outs at Konami, he’s at least going out with a bang. The embargo for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain coverage hit last night, and the first batch of reviews are glowing.

IGN’s Vince Ingenito gave the game a 10 out of 10, lavishing praise on the way it adapted the series’ stealth-action formula to an open-world environment.

“Right from the moment you’re told to get on your horse and explore the Afghan countryside, Phantom Pain feels intimidating, almost overwhelming in terms of the freedom its open world affords and the number of concepts it expects you to grasp,” Ingenito said. “It’s almost too much, especially given the relative linearity of previous Metal Gears. But what initially appeared to be an overly dense tangle of features to fiddle with instead unraveled into a well-integrated set of meaningful gameplay systems that provided me with a wealth of interesting decisions to make.”

Vince Ingenito

Whether players choose to sneak their way to victory or go in guns blazing, The Phantom Pain affords them a number of avenues to do so. The game’s day/night cycle and changing weather systems can make certain strategies viable (or not) at any given time. At the same time, a private army management meta-game lets players raid battlefields for resources and new recruits, which can then be put to use researching new technologies or using their skills to open up a variety of other strategic alternatives.

However, a perfect score doesn’t mean a perfect game, and Ingenito does identify at least one weak point in the game.

It’s a somewhat surprising criticism of the game, given Metal Gear Solid 4′s penchant for frequent and extended cutscenes larding the action with exposition and plot twists. While The Phantom Pain shows flashes of that approach (Ingenito noted the “spectacular” opening sequence), it ultimately produces a narrative he found “rushed and unsatisfying.”

Obviously, that failing was not enough to tarnish an otherwise fantastic game in Ingenito’s eyes.

“There have certainly been sandbox action games that have given me a bigger world to roam, or more little icons to chase on my minimap, but none have pushed me to plan, adapt, and improvise the way this one does,” he said. “Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain doesn’t just respect my intelligence as a player, it expects it of me, putting it in a league that few others occupy.”

GameSpot’s Peter Brown likewise gave the game a 10 and praised its adaptable approach to missions, but enjoyed the story considerably more than his counterpart at IGN.

Peter Brown

“After dozens of hours sneaking in the dirt, choking out enemies in silence, and bantering with madmen who wish to cleanse the world, The Phantom Pain delivers an impactful finale befitting the journey that preceded it,” Brown said. “It punches you in the gut and tears open your heart. The high-caliber cutscenes, filled with breathtaking shots and rousing speeches, tease you along the way. Your fight in the vast, beautiful, and dangerous open world gives you a sense of purpose. The story is dished out in morsels, so you’ll have to work for the full meal, but it’s hard to call it ‘work’ when controlling Big Boss feels so good, with so many possibilities at your fingertips.”

Brown said prior knowledge of the series isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying The Phantom Pain, but added that “Fans of the series will find their diligence rewarded in ways that newcomers can’t begin to imagine.” They’ll also, in his estimation, be enjoying the pinnacle of the franchise.

“There has never been a game in the series with such depth to its gameplay, or so much volume in content,” Brown said. “The best elements from the past games are here, and the new open-world gameplay adds more to love on top. When it comes to storytelling, there has never been a Metal Gear game that’s so consistent in tone, daring in subject matter, and so captivating in presentation. The Phantom Pain may be a contender for one of the best action games ever made, but is undoubtedly the best Metal Gear game there is.”

Matt Wales

Eurogamer hasn’t published its full review yet, but Matt Wales weighed in with his impressions to date. Like Brown and Ingenito, Wales underscored the narrative approach as a major departure for the series.

“Beyond an outlandish, action-packed opening sequence… The Phantom Pain is a remarkably economical affair, telling its tale of ’80s cold war subterfuge through snatches of radio dialogue (courtesy of Ocelot), and the occasional return to Mother Base between missions,” Wales said. “It’s fascinating to see such restraint from Kojima, a man well known for his self-indulgence and excess, especially considering that The Phantom Pain is likely his Metal Gear swan song.”

On the gameplay side, Wales said The Phantom Pain “isn’t exactly a radical reinvention of the stealth genre,” but acknowledged the increased freedom players are given to accomplish the familiar assortment of objectives.

“Metal Gear Solid 5′s open world might not be vast, varied or stuffed full of things to do, but it’s a place of constant movement,” Wales said. “Night falls, day breaks, sandstorms sweep in, patrols come and go – and this organic sense of life means that missions are never predictable (no matter how often you play them) with tactical possibilities arising all the time. It’s a game of planning and reacting in a world that refuses to stand still, making every minute matter and every success feel earned.”

“The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima’s ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged.”

Joe Juba

He also applauded the way The Phantom Pain managed to adopt an open-world design without the genre’s standard glut of padding.

“[E]verything you do feels meaningful and consequential,” Wales said. “Guard posts and roaming patrols aren’t simply there for colour as you traverse the world: one careless move into hostile territory and every single enemy on the map will know you’re coming, with more search parties and increased security radically altering the way a mission unfolds. And while other games tout choice and consequence as a headline feature, the Phantom Pain just gets on with it. Even the smallest action can have unexpected consequences – some significant and others barely perceptible.”

Game Informer’s Joe Juba gave the game a 9.25, currently one of the lowest scores the game has received on Metacritic (where it has a 95 average based on 15 critic reviews). Like some of the above reviewers, Juba was a bit disappointed at The Phantom Pain’s approach to storytelling, but noted that having the narrative take a step in to the background puts the focus on the game’s strongest point, its open-ended gameplay.

“A series can’t survive this long without evolving, and The Phantom Pain is a testament to the importance of taking risks,” Juba said. “An open world, a customizable base, a variable mission structure – these are not traditional aspects of Metal Gear, but they are what makes The Phantom Pain such an exceptional game. The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima’s ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged.”

Sony Going After Drone Market With New Aerosense Device

August 25, 2015 by mphillips  
Filed under Around The Net

Sony is making a play for a piece of the growing drone market, unveiling newly developed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from its just-launched drone venture, Aerosense.

In addition to the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft hinted at last month, Aerosense on Monday exhibited a quadcopter that makes use of Sony’s lens-type camera, the QX30.

The camera, which resembles a lens for a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera and can link to smartphones, is attached to the belly of the quadcopter, where it can take high-resolution images.

Designed for use in urban areas such as construction zones, the AS-MC01-P quadcopter weighs about 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) and can fly for about 15 to 20 minutes on a battery charge.

It can operate autonomously, flying within a preset zone, and is equipped with GPS, Wi-Fi and an inertial navigation system. It also has a high-speed data transfer module that uses Sony’s TransferJet technology.

In a presentation in Tokyo, Aerosense showed how photography from the camera can be turned into 3D imagery, showing, for instance, the volumes of piles of gravel at a construction site.

The venture’s other craft, the AS-DT01-E winged VTOL drone, has a rotor system that allows it to fly like a helicopter or a plane. The advantage of the winged format is that it can fly at much higher speeds than most non-military drones — up to 170 kilometers per hour (106 miles/hour) compared to high-speed quadcopters that fly at 75 kph (47 mph).

Weighing 7kg (15 pounds), it can carry a 3kg payload (6.6 pounds) and operate for at least two hours on a battery charge.

Aerosense will target enterprise customers when it begins to offer drones for monitoring, surveying and inspection next year.






Is Microsoft Besting Sony In Video Game Software Space?

August 20, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The validity of framing the console market as a ‘race’ or a ‘war’ is open to question, but there’s no doubt that it’s a lot more fun when you do. The notion that there is a hard, immovable line between winning and losing simply doesn’t make much sense from a business perspective, but it makes for lively debate and – from an entirely selfish perspective – good copy.

For the first six months of this console generation that was certainly the case: the Xbox One tripping, stumbling and backtracking, with the PlayStation 4 marketing department lying in wait, pointed comments at the ready. Microsoft is dealing with the fallout from that disastrous period even now, its own reluctance to disclose hardware sales figures compounded by Sony’s eagerness to provide an update at every opportunity. At the last count, in July, the PlayStation 4 had sold more than 25 million units. The Xbox One, on the other hand, has sold…. well, we haven’t been given an official worldwide figure in 2015 so far.

In terms of sales, then, it’s very clear which console is ‘winning’ the generation, and it has been from the very first day. In terms of content, though, the debate is more nuanced, the outcome far less certain. Sony’s development resources have long been regarded as a unique strength when compared to Microsoft, effectively guaranteeing a superior crop of exclusive games regardless of how well the PlayStation hardware is selling. Whether that’s still true in terms of first-party studios is almost besides the point, because in terms of available, exclusive games there’s a strong argument that the Xbox has been a more attractive platform since the launch of Titanfall more than a year ago. By the end of this year, that point may well be beyond debate.

“I wouldn’t even say the gap has closed,” says Kudo Tsunoda, one of the leading executives in the Xbox games business. “We’ve got a lot more exclusive games than any other platform.”

Tsunoda and the various studios he oversees are celebrating the second Xbox showcase in less than two months. The first, at E3, is generally regarded as a key battleground within the console war, and a significant proportion of those who watched this year believed that Microsoft emerged victorious despite an impressive showing from Sony. The second, at Gamescom, was an Xbox victory by default, with Sony electing to steer clear of the event for the first time in years. Even so, Microsoft presided over 90 minutes of new games, not all of which were exclusive to the Xbox One, but none of which were on show at E3. Whether those exclusives came from first-party studios (Halo and Gears of War) or via chequebook-and-pen (Tomb Raider and Quantum Break) is largely irrelevant. For perhaps the first time in this console generation Xbox owners have an undeniable right to feel smug.

“There’s a reason we’re able to put on two shows of content together,” Tsunoda continues. “We’ve got seven exclusives coming this holiday, and then everything coming in 2016. Not just the blockbusters, but the ID@Xbox games, the indie games. We’re giving people a lot more.”

Microsoft’s early mistakes have been formative for the Xbox One, its underlying strategy switching from closed and controlled to open and inclusive. Sony recorded several huge PR victories by simply responding to those initial bad choices, but Microsoft has since proved more committed to the stance that Sony initially claimed as its own. An early indicator was Sony’s refusal to allow EA Access onto the PlayStation Network due to stated concerns that it didn’t offer “good value” to the consumer, but just as likely down to competition with its own planned streaming service, PlayStation Now. Microsoft allowed its customers to make that choice for themselves. Had you been asked to guess the stance each company would adopt even a few months before, it’s likely those roles would have been reversed.

Tsunoda repeats the idea that MIcrosoft is ‘listening to the fans’ throughout our interview, making it quite clear that it’s a message the company wants us to hear. However, while it would be naive to believe that any multinational corporation is motivated principally by altruism, the strategy for Xbox One is increasingly guided by consumer demand.

Two incoming services perfectly illustrate the degree to which Microsoft has pivoted since the days of mandatory online checks and a prohibition on used games. Xbox Preview is a more tightly controlled version of Steam Early Access, and just the sort of concept that walled gardens were formed to exclude. Backwards compatibility, meanwhile, demands little in the way of explanation. Equally, its importance cannot be overstated, to the consumers who spend so much on games every console generation, and to those who believe that companies like Microsoft should be treating their creative heritage with more respect.

“With backwards compatibility, it isn’t something that we just think gamers might want,” Tsunoda says. “We know. We’re looking for and soliciting that feedback. It was the number one most requested feature for Xbox One by far.”

Sony has no plans to match Microsoft in this respect, and the possibility of monetising those games through PlayStation Now makes it very unlikely that it ever will. For Microsoft, it’s part of a broader view of gaming with Windows 10 at its core, which should, in theory, unite the previously disparate tendrils of Microsoft’s sprawling organisation. PC and console, past and present, existing in harmony, each interacting with and complementing the other. Cross-Buy, Cross-Play, console to PC streaming; one might say that Microsoft should have been doing this for years already. According to Tsunoda, this is a first step.

“For a long time we’ve had PC gamers and console gamers who weren’t really able to play together,” Tsunoda says. “That’s why Cross-Play is still such a powerful idea. You should be able to play what you love, and play together, regardless of what device you’re playing on. It’s about connecting people.

“With backwards compatibility, it isn’t something that we just think gamers might want. We know”

“It’s a really unique value that only we can offer. You still need very gamer-focused values, but there are lots of things you can do with our technology. We’ve really got a lot more going on [than our competitors]. We’re doing things that can’t be done on any other console.

If Microsoft is pushing towards a more holistic approach to its games business, then a few reminders of its clumsier past still remain. One is perched just below the television directly to our left: Kinect, a device once positioned as an integral part of the future of Xbox, a future that Tsunoda was instrumental in selling to the press and public. These days, though, it feels additive, and that’s being kind. In more than 150 minutes of press conferences across E3 and Gamescom Kinect barely merited a single mention, while a new announcement, the Chatpad, offered a core-friendly alternative to the search and chat functions that represent a huge chunk of why anyone might still use it.

“I don’t think it’s an alternative [to Kinect]. It’s just about giving people a choice in how they can do things,” Tsunoda replies. “There’s still a lot of great voice capabilities that you can use with Kinect, but there’s also a lot of great possibilities for communication with the Chatpad. You can also customise a lot, with specific buttons for specific functions. With everything we do, we’re trying to give people the choice.”

In terms of games, though, Tsunoda offers only Just Dance 2016 as a specific example – which is developed and published by Ubisoft – accompanied by the vague promise that, “There’s still Kinect games coming as well.” This may be what ‘choice’ starts to look like when Microsoft loses faith in one of its possible futures. It should be noted that Kinect is now listed under the “More” section on the Xbox One Accessories page, beneath “Controllers,” beneath “Headsets and Communication,” grouped in the same vague category as the Xbox One Digital TV Tuner and the Xbox One Media Remote.

The fear of obsolescence created by the doldrum in which Kinect now resides also haunts the HoloLens, another promising device that Microsoft has just finished thrusting into the public eye. It stole the show at E3 with an immaculately orchestrated Minecraft demo, only for its limited field-of-view to be scrutinised by the press, and its early utility as gaming hardware to be questioned by none other than the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella.

For Tsunoda, who is also closely involved with the development of HoloLens, the difference between watching a demonstration and actually experiencing it first-hand is more pronounced than any product he’s ever worked on – including Kinect. However, there is more common ground between the two devices than one might think.

“You should think about it in the same way that you would a phone or your computer. It does a lot of things,” Tsunoda says. “Obviously, gaming is a big part of what you do on those machines as well. But that’s what it is: an untethered holographic computer. You can do a lot in the gaming and entertainment space, but it has a lot of other functionality as well.

“Microsoft is a leader in depth-sensing technology: with Kinect, but also the stuff we’re doing with HoloLens as well. A big part of what we’re doing there is an environmental understanding that comes from having pushed our knowledge in depth-sensing. That’s what you’ll see us do as a company. [Kinect] is still a part of the platform, and there’s still Kinect games coming of course, but then also we’re pushing that depth-sensing technology forward with what we’re doing with HoloLens.”

It’s all a part of Microsoft’s future of gaming, whatever that turns out to be. Right now, though, Xbox might finally have emerged from PlayStation’s shadow.

Did VW Sit On Megamos Crypto Security Issue?

August 20, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Computing

Volkswagen (VW) has watched as a security vulnerability in a key system on a range of vehicles has been released from the garage and put on the news road.

VW was first notified about the problem two years ago, but has worked to keep it under the bonnet. Well, not all of it, just a single line – not a yellow line – has been contentious. The line is still controversial, and has been redacted from the full, now released, report.

VW secured an injunction in the UK high court two years ago. The firm argued at the time that the information would make it easy to steal vehicles that come from its factories and forecourts. That might be true, but that is often the case with vulnerabilities.

The news that VW has suppressed the report for this amount of time is interesting, but it does remind us that not everyone in the industry appreciates third-party information about weaknesses.

VW has a lot of cars under its hood and, according to the report, a lot of different vehicles are affected. These run from Alfa Romeo through to Volvo, and take in midlife crisis mobility vehicles like the Maserati and Porsche.

The report is entitled Dismantling Megamos Crypto: Wirelessly Lockpicking a Vehicle Immobilizer (PDF), and is authored by Roel Verdult from Radbound university in the Netherlands and Flavio Garcia from the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Megamos Crypto sounds like a sci-fi bad guy, maybe a rogue Transformer, but it is actually designed to be a good thing. The security paper said that it is a widely deployed “electronic vehicle immobiliser” that prevents a car starting without the close association of its key and included RFID tag.

The researchers described how they were able to reverse engineer the system and carry out three attacks on systems wirelessly. They mention several weaknesses in the design of the cipher and in the key-update mechanisms. Attacks, they said, can take as little as 30 minutes to carry out, and recovering a 96-bit encryption key is a relatively simple process.

This could be considered bad news if you are a car driver. It may even be worse news for pedestrians. Concerned car owners should find their keys (try down the back of the sofa cushion) and assess whether they have keyless ignition. The researchers said that they told VW about the findings in 2012, and that they understand that measures have been taken to prevent attacks.

We have asked VW for an official statement on the news, but so far it isn’t coughing. Ready to talk, though, is the security industry, and it is giving the revelation the sort of disapproving look that people give cats when they forget what that sand tray is for.

Nicko Van Someren, CTO at Good Technology, suggested that this is another example of what happens when you go from first gear to fourth while going up a hill (this is our analogy). He described it in terms of the Internet of Things (IoT), and in respect of extending systems before they are ready to be extended.

“This is a great example of what happens when you take an interface that was designed for local access and connect it to the wider internet,” he said.

“Increasingly, in the rush to connect ‘things’ for the IoT, we find devices that were designed with the expectation of physical access control being connected to the internet, the cloud and beyond. If the security of that connection fails, the knock-on effects can be dire and potentially even fatal.”


Console Software Sales Strong And Growing

August 13, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

As the 7th console generation was coming to an end several years ago, there was much pessimism regarding the impending launch of the 8th generation. Just as 7th generation software sales were starting to lag, mobile gaming exploded, and PC gaming experienced a renaissance. It was easy to think that the console players were going to be going elsewhere to find their gaming entertainment by the time the new consoles hit the scene. However, the 8th generation consoles have had a successful launch. In fact, the Sony and Microsoft consoles are as successful as ever.

A comparison of the year over year console software sales suggests that the 8th generation is performing better than the 7th generation – provided you exclude the Nintendo consoles. The following graph shows physical and digital software sales for years 1 through 3 of each generation for the Xbox and PlayStation platforms.

The annual numbers take into account the staggered launch cycle, so year 1 comprises different sales years for Xbox 360 and PS3. The data shows that the Sony and Microsoft platforms have outperformed their 7th generation counterparts, especially in the first two years of the cycle. The 8th generation outperforms the 7th generation even in an analysis that excludes DLC, which now accounts for an additional 5-10 percent of software sales.

However, the picture is far different if we include the Nintendo platforms. The graph below shows the same data, but now includes the Wii and Wii U in their respective launch years.

The data shows how much the “Wii bubble” contributed to the explosive growth in software sales in 2008, the year the Wii really took off as a family and party device. This data corroborates a broader theme EEDAR has seen across our research – new, shortened gaming experiences that have added diversity to the market, especially mobile, have cannibalized the casual console market, not the core console market. People will find the best platform to play a specific experience, and for many types of experiences, that is still a sofa, controller, and 50 inch flat-screen TV.

The shift in consoles to core games is further exemplified by an analysis of sales by genre in the 7th vs. 8th generation. The graph below shows the percentage of sales by genre in 2007 versus 2014, ordered from more casual genres to more core genres. Casual genres like General Entertainment and Music over-indexed in 2007 while core genres like Action and Shooter over-indexed in 2014.

It has become trendy to call this console generation the last console generation. EEDAR believes one needs to be very specific when making these claims. While this might be the last generation with a disc delivery and a hard drive in your living room, EEDAR does not believe the living room, sit-down experience is going away any time soon.

Sony Finally On Solid Ground Thanks To The PS4

July 31, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The PlayStation business has had another phenomenal quarter in the first four months of 2015, selling three million PS4 units and turning in an operating income of $160 million from revenues of $2.365 billion. There are now 25.3 million PlayStation 4 units in the hands of players worldwide – a number achieved in less than two full years.

The console continues to be the company’s fastest seller – outpacing the PS2, which took two years and eight months to reach the 20 million mark. Furthermore, thanks to dropping production costs for PS4 hardware, a 12 per cent increase in sales from the same quarter last year translated to a massive 350 per cent rise in operating income.

A strengthening dollar again hurt Sony’s bottom line, having an estimated impact of 15.6 billion Yen on the revenue total of 288.6 billion Yen, but this was massively outweighed by the increase in sales and the efficiency gains of Sony’s operation. On the strength of the results, Sony has added another 20 billion Yen in operating income to the sector’s full year forecast.

The sales rate of PS4 shows a healthily steady growth in player base, returning to a gradual upswing after a huge blip in Q3, 2014. Sony has upgraded it full year forecast from 16 million units to 16.5 as a result – a figure which would show a substantial increase on 2014′s 14.8 million total. By Sony’s own reckoning, the end of Q1 2016 will see nigh on 40 million of the consoles in homes. Vita sales once again went unmentioned in the report, whilst the gradual decline of PS3 continued.

Hardware wasn’t the only success story. Network, (“Network includes network services relating to game, video, and music content provided by Sony Network Entertainment Inc.”) mad almost as much in revenues, netting around 105.8 billion Yen compared to Hardware’s 129.5 billion. The Other category (Other includes packaged software and peripheral devices) brought in 30.6 billion.

Overall, the corporation turned a healthy profit, banking $676 million in net from sales of nearly $15 billion. Whilst the PlayStation business is very healthy indeed, it’s far from Sony’s only, or even biggest, success story: Devices, Imaging, Financial Services and Music all continue to return a higher operating income.


Samsung To Sell Monitor That Can Wirelessly Charge Smartphones

July 28, 2015 by mphillips  
Filed under Consumer Electronics

Samsung Electronics wants to unclutter your home with a monitor that can wirelessly charge smartphones and other mobile devices.

The SE370 monitor will come in 23.6-inch and 27-inch formats and is the industry’s first to have an integrated wireless charging station, the South Korean manufacturer said Monday.

But your phone will have to support the Qi wireless charging standard, which was developed by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) and is supported by makers such as Samsung, Sony, LG, HTC and Huawei.

The charging area is on the stand for the monitor, and an LED lights up when it’s in use. The monitor has a 1920 x 1080 resolution and is optimized for video games, with richer black hues when it’s in game mode. The screen will not distort graphics with stutter and lag and has a response time of 4 milliseconds, Samsung said.

Compatible with Mac OS X and Windows 10, the SE370 also has an eye-saver mode that reduces blue light, which is believed to cause eye strain and sleep problems.

Samsung did not provide information about pricing or availability for the SE370 monitor and did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

The company’s Galaxy S6 and GS6 edge flagship smartphones support the Qi and rival Power Matters Alliance (PMA) standards for wireless charging. Earlier this year, Samsung released its own branded charging pad to juice them up.

The latest Qi specification, announced last month, will allow manufacturers to provide much faster wireless power charging options than earlier versions.

The platform has also caught on with makers such as Ikea, which launched a collection of furniture in April with built-in Qi-enabled wireless chargers.

Qi had been competing with PMA and the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP). Following a decision earlier this year, however, the two organizations announced their merger in June, with a new name yet to be decided.



Does Steam Have A Security Issue?

July 28, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

A security problem with the Steam gaming on-demand system means that players and their personal details are at risk.

It is possible that one day we will report on which companies made it through the night without being hacked or without exposing their users.

For now, though, the opposite is the norm and today we are reporting about a problem with gaming system Steam that, you guessed it, has dangled the personal details of punters within the reach of ne’er-do-wells.

The news is not coming out of Steam, or parent Valve, directly, but it is running rampant across social networks and the gaming community. The problem, according to reports and videos, was a bad one and made the overtaking of user accounts rather a simple job.

No badass end-of-level boss to beat here, just a stage in the authentication process. A video posted online demonstrates the efforts required, while some reports – with access to Steam’s PR hot air machine – say that the problem is fixed.

A statement released to gaming almanac Kotaku finds the firm in apologetic clean-up mode.

Steam told the paper that some users would have their passwords reset, those being the ones who might have seen their log-in changed under suspicious circumstances, and that in general users should already be protected from the risks at hand.

“To protect users, we are resetting passwords on accounts with suspicious password changes during that period or may have otherwise been affected,” the firm said.

“Relevant users will receive an email with a new password. Once that email is received, it is recommended that users log-in to their account via the Steam client and set a new password.

“Please note that, while an account password was potentially modified during this period, the password itself was not revealed. Also, if Steam Guard was enabled, the account was protected from unauthorized log-ins even if the password was modified.”

The firm added its apologies to the community.



Can Cansoles Ever Crack The Chinese Market?

July 14, 2015 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The launch of Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One consoles in China hasn’t attracted much fanfare, perhaps because both firms were aware from the outset of what an uphill struggle this would be, and how much potential for disappointment there was if expectations were set too high. Last week saw the first stab at estimating figures, from market intelligence firm Niko Partners, who reckon that the two platforms combined will sell a little over half a million units this year; not bad, but a tiny drop in the ocean that is China’s market for videogames.

These are not confirmed sales figures, it’s important to note; market intelligence firms essentially make educated guesses, and some of those guesses are a damn sight more educated than others, so treating anything they publish as hard data is ill-advisable. Nonetheless, the basic conclusion of Niko Partners’ report is straightforward and seems to have invited no argument; the newly launched game consoles are making little impact on the Chinese market.

There are lots of reasons why this is happening. For a start, far from being starved of a much desired product, the limited pre-existing market for game consoles in China is actually somewhat saturated; the country is host to a thriving grey import market for systems from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. This market hasn’t gone away with the official launch of the consoles, not least because the software made officially available in China is extremely limited. Anyone interested in console gaming will be importing games on the grey market anyway, which makes it more likely that they’ll acquire their console through the same means.

Moreover, there’s a big cultural difference to overcome. Game consoles are actually a pretty tough sell, especially to families, in countries where they’re not already well-established. Their continued strength in western markets is largely down to the present generation of parents being accustomed to game consoles in the home; cast your mind back to the 1980s and 1990s in those markets, though, and you may recall that rather a lot of parents were suspicious of game consoles not just because of tabloid fury over violent content, but because these machines were essentially computers shorn of all “educational” value. I didn’t own a console until I bought a PlayStation, because my parents – otherwise very keen for us to use and learn about computers, resulting in a parade of devices marching through the house, starting from the Amstrad CPC and ending up with a Gateway 2000 PC in which I surreptitiously installed a Voodoo 3D graphics board – wouldn’t countenance having a SNES in the house. That’s precisely the situation consoles in China now face with much of their target audience; a situation amplified even further by the extremely high-pressure nature of Chinese secondary education, which probably makes parents even more reluctant than mine when it comes to installing potentially time-sucking entertainment devices in their homes.

Besides; Chinese people, teens and adults alike, already play lots of games. PC games are enormously popular there; mobile games are absolutely huge. This isn’t virgin territory for videogames, it’s an extremely developed, high-value, complex market, and an expensive new piece of hardware needs to justify its existence in very compelling terms. Not least due to local content restrictions, neither PS4 nor Xbox One is doing that, nor are they particularly likely to do so in the future; the sheer amount of content and momentum that would be needed to make an impression upon such a mature landscape is likely to be beyond the scope of all but a truly herculean effort at local engagement and local development by either company – not just with games, but also with a unique local range of services and products beyond gaming – and neither is truly in a position to make that effort. It’s altogether more likely that both Sony and Microsoft will simply sell into China to satisfy pre-existing local demand as much as possible, without creating or fulfilling any expectations higher than that.

Is this important? Well, it’s important in so much as China is the largest marketplace in the world, with a fast-growing middle class whose appetite for luxury electronics is well-established. Apple makes increasingly large swathes of its revenue in China; companies with high-end gaming hardware would like to do something similar, were the barriers to success not raised so high. Without building a market in China, the global growth potential of the console business is fairly severely limited – the established rich nations in which consoles are presently successful have a pretty high rate of market penetration as it is, and growing sales there is only going to get tougher as birth-rates fall off (a major factor in Japan already, but most European and North American states are within spitting distance of the Japanese figures, which is worth bearing in mind next time someone shares some moronic clickbait about sexless Japan on your Facebook feed). So yes, the failure of consoles to engage strongly in China would be a big deal.

The deal looks even bigger, though, if you view China as something of a bellwether. It’s a unique country in many regards – regulations, media environment, culture, sheer scale – but in other regards, it’s on a developmental track that’s not so different from many other nations who are also seeing the rise of an increasingly monied urban middle class. If the primary difficulty in China is regulations and content restrictions, then perhaps Sony and Microsoft will find more luck in Brazil, in India, in Indonesia, in the Philippines and in the many other nations whose rapid development is creating larger and larger audiences with disposable income for entertainment. In that case, China may be the outlier, the one nation where special conditions deny consoles a chance at market success.

If the problem with China is more fundamental, though, it spells trouble on the road. If the issue is that developing nations are adopting other gaming platforms and systems long before consoles become viable for launch there, creating a huge degree of inertia which no console firm has the financial or cultural clout to overcome, then the chances are that consoles are never going to take root in any significant degree in the new middle class economies of the world. Games will be there, of course; mobile games, PC games, games on devices that haven’t even been invented yet (though honestly, Niko Partners’ tip of SmartTV games as a growth market is one that I simply can’t view from any angle that doesn’t demand instant incredulity; still, who knows?). Consoles, though, would then find themselves restricted geographically to the markets in which they already hold sway, which creates a really big limit on future growth.

That’s not the end of the world. The wealthy nations which consume consoles right now aren’t likely to go anywhere overnight, and the chances are that they’ll continue to sustain a console audience of many tens of millions – perhaps well over 100 million – for years if not decades to come. Moreover, the future of games is inevitably more fragmented than its present; different cultures, different contexts and different tastes will mean that it will be a truly rare game which is played and enjoyed to a large degree in all quadrants of the globe. There’ll still be a market for a game which “just” does great business in North America, Europe and so on; but it’ll be an increasingly small part of an ever-growing market, and its own potential for growth will be minimal. That, in the end, is a fairly hard cap on console development costs – you can’t spend vastly more money making something unless your audience either gets bigger, or more willing to pay, and there’s little evidence of either of those things in the console world right now.

The real figures from China, if and when they’re finally announced, will be interesting to see – but it’s unlikely that Niko Partners’ projections are terribly far from the truth. Whether any console company truly decides to put their weight behind a push in China, or in another developing country, over the coming years may be a deciding factor in the role consoles will play in the future of the industry as a whole.