3D-printed heads let hackers – and cops – unlock your phone

Posted by | 3d printing, biometrics, face id, facial recognition, facial recognition software, Hack, Identification, iOS, iPhone, learning, Mobile, model, Prevention, privacy, Security, surveillance | No Comments

There’s a lot you can make with a 3D printer: from prosthetics, corneas, and firearms — even an Olympic-standard luge.

You can even 3D print a life-size replica of a human head — and not just for Hollywood. Forbes reporter Thomas Brewster commissioned a 3D printed model of his own head to test the face unlocking systems on a range of phones — four Android models and an iPhone X.

Bad news if you’re an Android user: only the iPhone X defended against the attack.

Gone, it seems, are the days of the trusty passcode, which many still find cumbersome, fiddly, and inconvenient — especially when you unlock your phone dozens of times a day. Phone makers are taking to the more convenient unlock methods. Even if Google’s latest Pixel 3 shunned facial recognition, many Android models — including popular Samsung devices — are relying more on your facial biometrics. In its latest models, Apple effectively killed its fingerprint-reading Touch ID in favor of its newer Face ID.

But that poses a problem for your data if a mere 3D-printed model can trick your phone into giving up your secrets. That makes life much easier for hackers, who have no rulebook to go from. But what about the police or the feds, who do?

It’s no secret that biometrics — your fingerprints and your face — aren’t protected under the Fifth Amendment. That means police can’t compel you to give up your passcode, but they can forcibly depress your fingerprint to unlock your phone, or hold it to your face while you’re looking at it. And the police know it — it happens more often than you might realize.

But there’s also little in the way of stopping police from 3D printing or replicating a set of biometrics to break into a phone.

“Legally, it’s no different from using fingerprints to unlock a device,” said Orin Kerr, professor at USC Gould School of Law, in an email. “The government needs to get the biometric unlocking information somehow,” by either the finger pattern shape or the head shape, he said.

Although a warrant “wouldn’t necessarily be a requirement” to get the biometric data, one would be needed to use the data to unlock a device, he said.

Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project On Government Oversight, said it was doable but isn’t the most practical or cost-effective way for cops to get access to phone data.

“A situation where you couldn’t get the actual person but could use a 3D print model may exist,” he said. “I think the big threat is that a system where anyone — cops or criminals — can get into your phone by holding your face up to it is a system with serious security limits.”

The FBI alone has thousands of devices in its custody — even after admitting the number of encrypted devices is far lower than first reported. With the ubiquitous nature of surveillance, now even more powerful with high-resolution cameras and facial recognition software, it’s easier than ever for police to obtain our biometric data as we go about our everyday lives.

Those cheering on the “death of the password” might want to think again. They’re still the only thing that’s keeping your data safe from the law.

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Epic sheathes Infinity Blade after Fortnite fan backlash

Posted by | epic games, fortnite, fortnite battle royale, gameplay, Gaming, Infinity Blade | No Comments

Epic, the maker of the insanely popular, cross-platform third-person shooter online game Fortnite, has ‘fessed up to a gameplay misstep when it dropped a super powerful new weapon into the battle royale arena earlier this month — triggering a major fan backlash.

Complaints boiled down to it being unfair for the overpowered weapon to exist in standard game modes, given the massive advantage bestowed on whoever happened to be lucky enough to find it.

Earlier this month Epic had trailed the forthcoming Infinity Blade as “a weapon fit for a king”.

Coming soon… a weapon fit for a King 🗡👑pic.twitter.com/n3kMDCS5IH

— Fortnite (@FortniteGame) December 10, 2018

It went on to unleash the super-powered weapon, on December 11, shortly after releasing a Season 7 update — so presumably it had been intending to increase Fortnite fans’ gaming itch.

Instead it managed to drastically upset the balance of play. Without adequate counter weapons/strategies to prevail against the weapon Fortnite fans were rightly mad as hell.

But on Friday, three days after launching the blade, Epic pulled the “overpowered” weapon from the game — admitting it had failed to provide “good counters”, and was “re-evaluating our approach to Mythic items”.

Heya folks,

We messed up and rolled out the Infinity Blade overpowered / without good counters, especially in the end game.

The Infinity Blade has been Vaulted and we are re-evaluating our approach to Mythic items.

Thanks for calling us out on this!

— Fortnite (@FortniteGame) December 14, 2018

Turns out even billions in funding and tens of millions of obsessively engaged fans can’t shield a games maker against making some piss-poor gameplay decisions.

A few days earlier Epic had posted a discussion thread on Reddit saying it wanted to provide “more context on item philosophy”, and trailing “upcoming changes to the Blade” — such as removing the ability of gamers to build and harvest when wielding the Blade so as to add some risk to holding it — so it was still hoping to win fans over at that point. And indeed appeared to be doubling down on its mythic items push.

Then it also wrote that its intention with adding a mythic tier of items to Fortnite is to provide “new and flavorful ways to interact with the map and generally shake up normal play across default modes”.

Which is of course another way of saying it doesn’t want its highly engaged fanbase to get bored and stop pouring cash into its coffers.

However Epic clearly failed to build in the necessary balance into the Infinity Blade from the start. So pulling the blade was the right move, and Fortnite fans should be happy it’s realized it needs to rethink and factor in their concerns.

It’s not clear whether Epic’s re-evaluation will result in mythic items being ditched entirely.

Although, with the right balancing characteristics — such as being time-limited and/or locked to certain game modes — there could still be a place for a little epic chaos in Fortnite to further up the fun. Just don’t go doing anything too crazy, alright?

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Tony Hawk goes mobile

Posted by | Apps, Gaming, tony hawk | No Comments

For three years, Tony Hawk has been conspicuously absent from the video store shelves. For most game developers, that’s little more than a blip between titles. When your name and face are attached to 16 titles in 15 years, however, everyone starts to notice when you’re gone.

“It’s usually the first topic of discussion with me,” Hawk laughs. The first, that is, once the world’s most famous skateboarder’s identity has been firmly established.

That question was finally answered this week with the arrival of Skate Jam, the first of Hawk’s titles created exclusively for a mobile platform. The game also marks the skater’s first collaboration with mobile app acquisition group Maple Media — marking a split with longtime publisher Activision.

It was a partnership that ended with a whimper, with the arrival of 2015’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5. The final installation of the beloved series was heavily criticized for being uninspired and rushed, and Hawk ultimately opted to move on from a relationship that helped turn his name into a $250 million a year brand at its peak.

The unceremonious end of the Activision deal left the future of the franchise in jeopardy, with Hawk exploring his options. “My contract with Activision ended, and I was exploring a few options, including some VR stuff,” he tells TechCrunch. While he says he’s still open to a future Tony Hawk virtual reality title, the medium ultimately proved too tricky for the first skater to land a 900. “It’s a pretty daunting task to figure out how to make skateboarding work in VR without people getting sick.”

Advances in mobile platforms, on the other hand, have made a smartphone version far more appealing than it would have been at the height of the franchise’s success. “Maple Media came and said they would like to expand on their skate games,” says Hawk. “When I played their most recent engine, I felt there was something there, akin to what I felt when I first played the THPS engine. I felt that, with my input and expertise, we could make something that would be truly authentic for gamers and skaters alike, for a new generation.”

As far as whether Skate Jam’s release portends the rebirth of the franchise, Hawk is ultimately a bit more cagey. He explains that the team is more focused on building out the current title than committing to Pro Skater’s annual release schedule.

“We’re going to see a lot more development in terms of growing this title,” Hawk says. “It’s much more streamlined and we can do it on a regular basis. We’re not planning to develop a new title, per se, but are planning to grow and develop this one.”

Skate Jam is now available for Android and iOS.

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Discord announces 90/10 revenue split for self-published titles on upcoming games store

Posted by | discord, epic games, Gaming, Valve | No Comments

After gaming chat app startup Discord announced in August that they were building out a games store, today, they’ve detailed that they’ll be pursuing a very competitive 90/10 revenue split for self-published titles in 2019. In addition, the company revealed that they now have 200 million active users on their chat app, up from 130 million users in May.

The announcement follows a storefront launch from Epic Games last week with an 88/12 revenue split. Valve’s Steam store had typically offered a constant 70/30 revenue split for all developers regardless of the revenues they were pulling in. The company recently announced that Steam would give a more favorable split to devs pulling in more revenue.

Discord called up some of their thinking in a company blog post:

Why does it cost 30% to distribute games? Is this the only reason developers are building their own stores and launchers to distribute games? Turns out, it does not cost 30% to distribute games in 2018.

Steam’s efforts are largely focused on holding onto big developers, but indie devs now have to balance what advantages they’re earning by establishing their central home on a platform filled with tons of titles that’s also taking a more substantial cut.

This leaves some room for Discord to attract the self-publishing indies, though it’s still an uphill battle for the company that’s up against some big competitors.

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Propel raises $12.8M for its free app to manage government benefits

Posted by | Apps, funding, Mobile, nyca partners, propel, Startups | No Comments

Propel, maker of the Fresh EBT app for managing food stamps and other benefits, announced today that it has raised $12.8 million in Series A funding.

Fresh EBT (the EBT stands for the Electronics Transfer Benefit card, which is how food stamp participants receive their benefits) allows users to check their food stamp/SNAP balance and find stores that accept food stamps. Users can also track their spending. The app is free for consumers and government agencies — the company makes money through digital coupons and a job board.

Propel says Fresh EBT is now used by more than 1.5 million Americans each month, and that more than 30,000 people have applied for jobs this year that they discovered through the app. For example, the announcement quotes one user, Tracy B. from Fairland, Virginia — she described Fresh EBT as her “personal financial adviser,” and also said she used it to find discount zoo tickets, and even her current job.

When Propel raised its $4 million seed round last year, founder and CEO Jimmy Chen described his mission as building “a more user-friendly safety net.” He argued that there’s no conflict between Propel’s social mission and its structure as a for-profit business, a position he reiterated in today’s announcement.

“Our investors are world-class experts in their respective fields,” he said. “They share an understanding of the challenges of low-income Americans and a belief that Propel can build a massive business by fighting poverty.”

Those investors include Nyca Partners, which led the round. Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Omidyar Network, Alexa von Tobel and Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures also participated.

“It’s not hard to see the huge opportunity in building better financial services for low-income people,” said Nyca Managing Partner Hans Morris in a statement. “We just haven’t seen many companies in this space that have an opportunity to have such a large impact at massive scale. That’s why we’re so excited to invest in Propel.”

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Amazon Echo speakers now play friendly with Apple Music

Posted by | Amazon Echo, apple music, Gadgets, Media, TC | No Comments

Amazon recently said Apple Music would find its way onto Amazon Echo devices sometime soon — and sure enough, it appears to be rolling out now.

To make Alexa work with Apple’s streaming service, you should just have to jump into the newly updated iOS/Android Alexa app and link up your account. You can find the option under Settings > Music.

Once done, commands like “Alexa, play music by Halsey on Apple Music” should work. Or, if you don’t want to have to say the “… on Apple Music” bit every time, you can just set Apple Music as the default service. If you don’t have a specific artist in mind, you an also request playlists or genres.

One catch: as 9to5mac points out, it appears this currently only works with Amazon Echo speakers, and not yet with third-party speakers (like the Sonos ONE or Polk’s Audio Command sounder) that happen to have Alexa-support built in.

Not a fan of Apple’s offering? Alexa also works with Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, Deezer and Amazon’s own Music service.

Using Google devices, rather than Amazon’s? Alas, still no word on if/when proper Apple Music support might come to Google Home.

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Disney’s invested in educational gaming app Kahoot, now at a $376M valuation

Posted by | Apps, Education, Gaming, TC | No Comments

When Kahoot, the startup that operates a popular platform for user-generated educational gaming, raised $15 million in October of this year, we mentioned that Disney had a stake in the company by way of the Disney Accelerator, and it had an option to become a larger shareholder if it exercised its warrants.

Now with some 60 million games on its platform, today Kahoot announced that this has come to pass: Disney is taking that option, working out to a four percent stake in the startup at a $376 million valuation, based on the current share price of 28 Norwegian kroner (shares of Kahoot are traded on the Norway OTC as an unlisted stock). It makes Disney’s stake in the app worth about $15 million, although the actual value of the warrants Disney is exercising is smaller than this.

Kahoot declined to comment for this story beyond the investment announcement posted on the exchange, but for some context, this is a nice bump up in Kahoot’s valuation from October, when it was at $300 million. Other sizeable and notable investors in the company include Microsoft and Nordic investor Northzone (which has backed Spotify and other significant startups out of the region).

On the part of Disney, it’s not clear yet whether its Kahoot stake will lead to more Disney content on the platform, or if this is more of an arm’s length financial backing. The two have already put Lucasfilm content on Kahoot and there may be more to come. The entertainment giant has made nearly 50 investments by way of its accelerator program. In some cases, it increases those to more significant holdings, as it has in the case of HQ Trivia, SpheroEpic Games (the company behind Fortnite, a very different take on gaming compared to Kahoot), Samba TV and more.

Disney has been dabbling in both gaming and education as vehicles to market its many brands, and also as salient businesses of their own — no surprise, given that one primary focus for it has been on younger consumers and their needs and interests.

In some cases, it seems it may use strategic investments to do this, for example with Disney-themed nights on HQ Trivia. Interestingly, although it doesn’t appear that Disney invests in the Indian educational app Byju’s — which itself just raised $300 million — the educational app, which has been described as “Disneyesque,” teamed up with Disney in October to develop co-branded educational content, another sign of Disney’s interest in the field.

Kahoot has been around in one form or another since 2006 — originally as a gamified education concept called Lecture Quiz before launching as Kahoot in 2013 — but has seen a sharp rise in users in the last few years on the back of strong growth in the U.S. — benefiting from a wider trend of educators creating content on mediums and platforms that they know students already use and love.

Kahoot’s last reported user numbers come from January, when it said it had 70 million registrations, but its CEO and co-founder Åsmund Furuseth told TechCrunch in October that it was on track to pass 100 million by this month. Kahoot didn’t release updated figures today, but my guess is that Kahoot has hit its target (maybe even passed it), and that is one reason Disney decided to exercise its investment option.

Kahoot is not your average gaming company: some games are created in-house, but the majority of them are user-generated — “Kahoots” in the company’s parlance — created by the people setting the learning tasks or those trying to create a more entertaining way of remembering or learning something. These, in turn, become games that potentially anyone can use to learn something (hence the name).

There have been about 60 million of these games created to date, a pretty massive amount considering this is educational content at the end of the day.

Kahoot has developed its business along two avenues, with games for K-12 students and games for business users, building training and other professional development in a wrapper of gamification to engage workers more in the content. 

In practice, about half the games in Kahoot’s catalogue are available to the public and half are private, with the split roughly following the company’s business model: games made for corporate purposes tend to be kept private, while the educational ones tend to be made publicly available. The business model also follows that split, with Kahoot’s business users accounting for the majority of its revenue, too.

Updated with more clarification on the investment.

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This drone shrinks to fit

Posted by | drones, EPFL, Gadgets, TC | No Comments

Researchers at the University of Zurich and EPFL have created a robot that shrinks to fit through gaps, a feature that could make it perfect for search and rescue missions. The researchers initially created a drone that could assess man-made gaps and squeeze through in seconds using only one camera. This extra feature — a scissor-like system to shrink the drone in flight — makes it even more versatile and allows these drones to react to larger or smaller gaps in nature.

“The idea came up after we worked on quadrotor flight through narrow gaps,” said PhD candidate Davide Falanga. “The goal of our lab is to develop drones which can be in the future used in the aftermath of a disaster, as for example an earthquake, in order to enter building through small cracks or apertures in a collapsed building to look for survivors. Our previous approach required a very aggressive maneuver, therefore we looked into alternative solutions to accomplish a task as passing through a very narrow gap without having to fly at high speed. The solution we came up with is the foldable drone, a quadrotor which can change its shape to adapt to the task.”

The system measures the gap and changes its shape without outside processing, a feat that is quite exciting. All of the processing is done on board and it could be turned into an autonomous system if necessary. The team built the drone with off the shelf and 3D-printed parts.

“The main difference between conventional drones and our foldable drone is in the way the arms are connected to the body: each arm is connected through a servo motor, which can change the relative position between the main body and the arm. This allows the robot to literally fold the arms around the body, which means that potentially any morphology can be obtained. An adaptive controller is aware of the drone’s morphology and adapts to it in order to guarantee stable flight at all times, independently of the configuration,” said Falanga.

The team published a report on their findings in Robotics and Automation Letters. As IEEE notes, this is no flying drone dragon, but it is a far simpler, cooler and more effective product.

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Facebook Portal adds games and web browser amidst mediocre Amazon reviews

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, facebook messenger, Facebook Portal, Gadgets, hardware, Media, privacy, smart displays, Social, TC, Video | No Comments

After receiving a flogging from privacy critics, Facebook is scrambling to make its smart display video chat screen Portal more attractive to buyers. Today Facebook is announcing the addition of a web browser, plus some of Messenger’s Instant Games like Battleship, Draw Something, Sudoku and Words With Friends. ABC News and CNN are adding content to Portal, which now also has a manual zoom mode for its auto-zooming smart camera so you can zero in on a particular thing in view. Facebook has also added new augmented reality Story Time tales, seasonal AR masks, in-call music sharing through iHeartRadio beyond Spotify and Pandora that already offer it and nickname calling so you can say “Hey Portal, call Mom.”

But the question remains who’s buying? Facebook is already discounting the 10-inch-screen Portal and 15-inch Portal+. Formerly $100 off if you buy two, Facebook is still offering $50 off just one until Christmas Eve as part of a suspiciously long Black Friday Sale. That doesn’t signal this thing is flying off the shelves. We don’t have sales figures, but Portal has a 3.4 rating on Amazon, while Portal+ has a 3.6 — both trailing the 4.2 rating of Amazon’s own Echo Show’s 2. Users are griping about the lack of Amazon Video support for Ring doorbells, not receiving calls and, of course, the privacy implications.

Personally, I’ve found Portal+ to be competent in the five weeks since launch. The big screen is great as a smart photo frame and video calls look great. But Alexa and Facebook’s own voice assistant have a tough time dividing up functionality, and sometimes I can’t get either to play a specific song on Spotify, pause or change volume or other activities my Google Home has no trouble with. Facebook said it was hoping to add Google Assistant to Portal, but there’s no progress on that front yet.

The browser will be a welcome addition, and allow Facebook to sidestep some of the issues around its thin app platform. While it recently added a Smart TV version of YouTube, now users can access lots of services without those developers having to commit to building something for Portal given its uncertain future.

The hope seems to be that mainstream users who aren’t glued to the tech press where Facebook is constantly skewered might be drawn in by these device’s flashy screens and the admittedly impressive auto-zooming camera. But to overcome the brand tax levied by all of Facebook’s privacy scandals, Portal must be near perfect. Without the native apps for popular video providers like Netflix and Hulu, consistent voice recognition and more unique features missing from competing smart displays, the fear of Facebook’s surveillance may be outweighing people’s love for shiny new gadgets.

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UK video games workers unionize over ‘wide-scale exploitation’ and diversity issues

Posted by | Diversity, Europe, Gaming, IWGB, unions, United Kingdom | No Comments

Working in video games might sound like a dream job to a 12-year-old Fortnight-loving kid, but the day-to-day reality of grinding in the industry can be as unrelenting as fighting an end of level baddie.

Games devs are routinely corralled to “crunch” to hit sequential release target deadlines to ensure a project gets delivered on time and budget. Unpaid overtime is a norm. Long hours are certainly expected. And taking any holiday across vast swathes of the year can be heavily frowned upon, if not barred entirely.

From the outside looking in it’s hard not to conclude people’s passion for gaming is being exploited in the big business interest of shipping lucrative titles to millions of gamers.

In the U.K. that view is now more than just a perception, with the decision of a group of video games workers to unionize.

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) said today it’s setting up a union branch for games workers, the first such in the country — and one of what’s claimed as just a handful in the world — with the aim of tackling what it dubs the “wide-scale exploitation” of video games workers.

In recent years the union has gained attention for supporting workers in the so-called “gig economy,” backing protests by delivery riders and drivers for companies including Uber and Deliveroo. But this is its first foray into representing games workers.

As well as seeking to tackle issues of excessive and often unpaid overtime (aka “crunch”) — with the union claiming some workers have reported clocking up as much as 100 hours a week — it says it will focus on the use of zero-hour contracts in the industry, especially among Quality Assurance testers (aka game testers). 

Zero-hour contracts refer to employment contracts with no minimum guaranteed hours of work. 

The IWGB says the branch also intends to shine a light on the industry’s lack of diversity and inclusion — and what it couches as a failure to tackle a “pervasive culture of homophobia and sexism.” So, um, it’s about ethics in the games industry itself this time

Commenting in a statement, game worker and founding member of the IWGB‘s Games Workers Unite branch, Dec Peach, said: For as long as I can remember it has been considered normal for games workers to endure zero-hours contracts, excessive unpaid overtime and even sexism and homophobia as the necessary price to pay for the privilege of working in the industry. Now, as part of the IWGB, we will have the tools to fix this broken sector and create an ethical industry where it’s not only big game companies that thrive, but workers as well.”

In another supporting statement, IWGB general secretary Dr Jason Moyer-Lee added: The game workers’ decision to unionise with the IWGB should be a wake up call for the U.K.’s gaming industry. The IWGB is proud to support these workers and looks forward to shining a massive spotlight on the industry.”

The U.K. games industry employs some 47,000 workers, according to UKIE — making it one of the largest such sectors in Europe.

The IWGB‘s Games Workers Unite branch will hold its first meeting on December 16, which the union says will be open to all past, current and “soon to be” workers in the industry — including contract, agency and casual workers, plus direct employees (with the exception of those with hiring and firing power).

It says it’s expecting “hundreds” of games workers to join in the first few months.

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