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The Sims gets its own in-game Alexa-style assistant, Lin-Z

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, ea, Gaming, The Sims | No Comments

There’s nothing like The Sims to log off from reality for a bit. Getting away from the increasingly ubiquitous world of smart assistants, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. EA announced this week that the perennial favorite life simulation series is getting its very own smart assistant.

Lin-Z is a lot like an in-game version of Alexa — or, for that matter, Google Assistant or Siri or Bixby or Cortana, et al. Accessed via a smart speaker with a familiar glowing green diamond, the assistant can play music, do trivia, tell jokes, turns lights on and off (smart home!) and order different services, like food, gardening and repair.

That feature is available this week in The Sims 4 for PC and Mac. Fittingly, the real Alexa is also getting a bunch of Sims-related skills, including trivia and the ability to play songs from the game’s soundtrack. That one’s available for users in Australia, Canada, India, the U.S. and the U.K., for those looking to further blur the lines of reality.

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Amazon upgrades its Fire TV Stick with the new Alexa Voice Remote

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, cord cutting, Fire TV, Gadgets, streaming, streaming media player, TC, voice, voice assistant | No Comments

Amazon is giving its Fire TV Stick an upgrade. The company announced today it will now ship the Fire TV Stick with the new version of the Alexa Voice Remote launched last fall. The remote allows users to control other devices besides their Fire TV, thanks to its support for both Bluetooth and multi-directional infrared. However, the upgraded remote won’t impact the Fire TV Stick’s price, which remains $39.99.

The new Alexa remote arrived alongside the $49.99 Fire TV Stick 4K in October. It’s capable of controlling the TV, soundbar and other AV equipment, and can do things like switch inputs or tune to a channel on your cable box. As a standalone purchase for older Amazon Fire TV devices, the remote was retailing yesterday for $29.99. But today, Amazon is slashing the price by 50 percent, it says.

The voice remote also includes the ability to speak to Alexa with the press of a button, which can help you find shows and movies, control smart home devices, get the news and weather, stream music and more.

Amazon notes the inclusion of the next-gen remote makes the Fire TV Stick the only streaming media player under $40 that includes a remote capable of controlling other AV equipment besides the TV. This could be a selling point for Fire TV Stick versus Roku, whose high-end voice remotes are focused on controlling power and volume on TVs, or its own Roku wireless speakers.

At CES this year, Amazon said its Fire TV platform as a whole had now topped 30 million active users, which seemed to put it just ahead of Roku’s 27 million. By swapping in a better remote with the flagship Fire TV Stick device, Amazon is looking to solidify its lead gained by steep discounts on its devices over Black Friday and the larger 2018 holiday shopping season.

The updated Fire TV Stick will also be the first to ship with Amazon’s just-launched, free streaming service IMDb Freedive included. Announced at CES, the service offers a range of free, ad-supported movies and TV shows — a challenge to its rival’s service, The Roku Channel. It will come to other Fire TV devices by way of a software update.

The Fire TV Stick with the new Alexa Voice Remote goes on pre-order today for $39.99 (or £39.99 in the U.K.), and will be available in a bundle with the Echo Dot for $69.98.

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Amazon Dash buttons judged to breach consumer rules in Germany

Posted by | Amazon, amazon dash, consumer protection, consumer rights, eCommerce, Europe, Gadgets, Germany, lawsuit, munich | No Comments

Amazon’s Dash buttons have been found to breach consumer e-commerce rules in Germany.

The push-to-order gizmos were debuted by Amazon in 2015 in an attempt by the e-commerce giant to shave friction off of the online shopping process by encouraging consumers to fill their homes with stick-on, account-linked buttons that trigger product-specific staple purchases when pressed — from washing powder to toilet roll to cat food.

Germany was among the first international markets where Amazon launched Dash, in 2016, along with the U.K. and Austria. But yesterday a higher state court in Munich ruled the system does not provide consumers with sufficient information about a purchase.

The judgement follows a legal challenge by a regional consumer watchdog, Verbraucherzentrale NRW, which objects to the terms Amazon operates with Dash.

It complains that Amazon’s terms allow the company to substitute a product of a higher price or even a different product in place of what the consumer originally selected for a Dash push purchase.

It argues consumers are also not provided with enough information on the purchase triggered when the button is pressed — which might be months after an original selection was made.

Dash buttons should carry a label stating that a paid purchase is triggered by a press, it believes.

The Munich court has now sided with the group’s view that Amazon does not provide sufficient information to Dash consumers, per Reuters.

In a press release following the ruling, Verbraucherzentrale NRW said the judges agreed Amazon should inform consumers about price and product before taking the order, rather than after the purchase as is currently the case.

It also expressed confidence the judgement leaves no room for Amazon to appeal — though the company has said it intends to do so.

Commenting on the ruling in a statement, Verbraucherzentrale NRW consumer bureau chief, Wolfgang Schuldzinski, said: “We are always open to innovation. But if innovation is to put consumers at a disadvantage and to make price comparisons more difficult, then we use all means against them, as in this case.”

Amazon did not reply to questions about how it intends to respond to the court ruling in the short term, such as whether it will withdraw the devices or change how Dash works in Germany.

Instead it emailed us the following statement, attributed to a spokesperson: “The decision is not only against innovation, it also prevents customers from making an informed choice for themselves about whether a service like Dash Button is a convenient way for them to shop. We are convinced the Dash Button and the corresponding app are in line with German legislation. Therefore, we’re going to appeal.”

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Report: Amazon to double down on gaming with a new streaming service

Posted by | Amazon, Gaming, streaming service, TC | No Comments

Earlier this week, when Razer announced that it would integrate Amazon’s Alexa into its gaming platform, I wondered if this was a strong signal of how Amazon may be starting to lay the groundwork for its own strategy to do more in gaming. By coincidence, today The Information reports just that: Amazon is now developing its own streamed gaming service, according to its sources. It’s already talking with publishers to stream their titles on the platform, and it aims to launch it next year.

A streamed gaming service from Amazon not only would complement what Amazon is already offering in streamed media — which today includes video, music, photo storage and more — but it will put Amazon squarely in competition with those that are working on, or have already launched, their own streamed gaming efforts. Players include Sony’s PlayStation Now, Microsoft, Google, Nvidia and Electronic Arts.

To be clear, Amazon already offers streamed gaming in a limited format. Prime subscribers get access to “Twitch Prime,” which provides users with free games every month, along with select free in-game perks. This is separate to Twitch’s mainstay product, a video streaming service that works alongside other games creating a social network of sorts, where users watch each other playing and commenting on playing games.

When Amazon acquired Twitch in 2014, many wondered if that would lead to it launching a bigger gaming service. That possibility was bolstered when Amazon acquired U.K. cloud gaming backend specialist GameSparks (in 2017 as we first reported, although only confirmed by Amazon in 2018). GameSparks’ technology has already been deployed in Amazon’s AWS service — which has a dedicated business targeting games publishers, providing everything they need, from gaming technologies to server space, analytics, backend services and more.

That is also a strong sign of how Amazon has quickly integrated the tech into its infrastructure already, and already has all the tools it needs to build a consumer service of its own.

So it has definitely taken a while, but perhaps Amazon’s own, bigger, direct-to-consumer gaming effort is what’s finally taking shape.

The idea is that Amazon’s gaming service would go head-to-head not only with console-based gaming platforms, but also a number of other big players that are tapping into the boom we’ve seen in streamed media services. Consumers now have faster, more reliable and cheaper broadband connections and are using them to replace legacy hardware and services in areas like music, television and more.

For those who are selling services in those other areas — and Amazon is one of them, by way of its Prime-fueled Amazon Music, Amazon Prime Video and its Fire TV service — providing a gaming platform not only could make the overall service more “sticky” but could attract new consumer Prime subscribers who might come specifically for the games.

But those are not the only weapons Amazon has in its arsenal. As we noted this week, we’ve seen very little application of Amazon’s AI muscle — all the voice services that have completely excited consumers, and its work in augmented reality — in media services beyond the Echo devices.

In gaming, we are starting to see small moves there — such as Razer’s integration of Alexa voice commands to control its game console — but there are ways that you could imagine that technology being incorporated into actual gameplay, which could help set Amazon apart from the very big field of competition.

There are some juicy tidbits in The Information story around the bigger news that Amazon is eyeing up a streamed gaming service that point to some of the challenges it might be facing.

It notes that Jason Kilar, the executive who used to lead Hulu, at one point was being tapped to join Amazon — where he had worked in the past — to lead the new gaming effort. That never came to pass, however — perhaps one reason why a gaming platform has been such a long time in coming.

Another issue is getting games publishers on board to a service. For many, their bread and butter comes from the sale of games that are played on consoles — usually games that are specific to one particular proprietary console — so a service that is constructed Netflix- or Amazon Prime-style, where a consumer pays a single monthly fee to access whatever content they want, when she or he wants it, could eat into those margins.

That lament is very familiar: it’s the same one from the film and music industries, whose physical sales have been massively impacted by streamed services. In those cases, we’ve seen studios and labels gradually come around by way of licensing deals and simple market forces, so it will be interesting to see if that plays out the same here.

(Also worth considering is Amazon’s existing structure for Prime Video: some films are free, including the growing selection of Amazon-produced content, but there are many shows and films that you can only watch if you pay a separate fee.)

We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment for this story and will update as we learn more.

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Hackers hijack thousands of Chromecasts to warn of latest security bug

Posted by | Amazon, chromecast, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Hack, hardware, iPad, media streamer, Security, smart devices, smart home devices, spokesperson, technology, wi-fi | No Comments

Hackers have hijacked thousands of exposed Chromecast streaming devices to warn users of the latest security flaw to affect the device. But other security researchers say that the bug — if left unfixed — could be used for more disruptive attacks.

The culprits, known as Hacker Giraffe and J3ws3r, have become the latest person to figure out how to trick Google’s media streamer into playing any YouTube video they want — including videos that are custom-made. This time around, the hackers hijacked forced the affected Chromecasts to display a pop-up notice that’s viewable on the connected TV, warning the user that their misconfigured router is exposing their Chromecast and smart TV to hackers like themselves.

Not one to waste an opportunity, the hackers also asks that you subscribe to PewDiePie, an awful internet person with a popular YouTube following. (He’s the same hacker who tricked thousands of exposed printers into printing support for PewDiePie.)

The bug, dubbed CastHack, exploits a weakness in both Chromecast and the router it connects to. Some home routers have enabled Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), a networking standard that can be exploited in many ways. UPnP forwards ports from the internal network to the internet, making Chromecasts and other devices viewable and accessible from anywhere on the internet.

As the two say, disabling UPnP should fix the problem.

“We have received reports from users who have had an unauthorized video played on their TVs via a Chromecast device,” a Google spokesperson told TechCrunch. “This is not an issue with Chromecast specifically, but is rather the result of router settings that make smart devices, including Chromecast, publicly reachable,” the spokesperson said.

That’s true on one hand, but it doesn’t address the underlying issue — that the Chromecast can be tricked into allowing an unauthenticated attacker the ability to hijack a media stream and display whatever they want.

Hacker Giraffe sent this YouTube video to thousands of exposed Chromecast devices, warning that their streams could be easily hijacked. (Screenshot: TechCrunch)

Bishop Fox, a security consultancy firm, first found a hijack bug in 2014, not long after the Chromecast debuted. The researchers found that they could conduct a “deauth” attack that disconnects the Chromecast from the Wi-Fi network it was connected to, causing it to revert back to its out-of-the-box state, waiting for a device to tell it where to connect and what to stream. That’s when it can be hijacked and forced to stream whatever the hijacker wants. All of this can be done in an instant — as they did — with a touch of a button on a custom-built handheld remote.

Two years later, U.K. cybersecurity firm Pen Test Partners discovered that the Chromecast was still vulnerable to “deauth” attacks, making it easy to play content on a neighbor’s Chromecasts in just a few minutes.

Ken Munro, who founded Pen Test Partners, says there’s “no surprise that somebody else stumbled on to it,” given both Bishop Fix found it in 2014 and his company tested it in 2016.

“In fairness, we never thought that the service would be exposed on the public internet, so that is a very valid finding of his, full credit to him for that,” Munro told TechCrunch. (Google said in a follow-up email that it’s working to fix the deauth bug.)

He said the way the attack is conducted is different, but the method of exploitation is the same. CastHack can be exploited over the internet, while Bishop Fox and his “deauth” attacks can be carried out within range of the Wi-Fi network — yet, both attacks let the hacker control what’s displayed on the TV from the Chromecast, he said.

Munro said Google should have fixed its bug in 2014 when it first had the chance.

“Allowing control over a local network without authentication is a really silly idea on [Google’s] part,” he said. “Because users do silly things, like expose their TVs on the internet, and hackers find bugs in services that can be exploited.”

But Munro said that these kinds of attacks — although obnoxious and intrusive on the face of it — could be exploited to have far more malicious consequences.

In a blog post Wednesday, Munro said it was easy to exploit other smart home devices — like an Amazon Echo — by hijacking a Chromecast and forcing it to play commands that are loud enough to be picked up by its microphone. That’s happened before, when smart assistants get confused when they overhear words on the television or radio, and suddenly and without warning purchase items from Amazon. (You can and should turn on a PIN for ordering through Amazon.)

To name a few, Munro said it’s possible to force a Chromecast into loading a YouTube video created by an attacker to trick an Echo to: “Alexa, order an iPad,” or, “Alexa, turn off the house alarm,” or, “Alexa, set an alarm every day at 3am.”

Amazon Echos and other smart devices are widely considered to be secure, even if they’re prone to overhearing things they shouldn’t. Often, the weakest link are humans. Second to that, it’s the other devices around smart home assistants that pose the biggest risk, said Munro in his blog post. That was demonstrated recently when Canadian security researcher Render Man showed how using a sound transducer against a window can trick a nearby Amazon Echo into unlocking a network-connected smart lock on the front door of a house.

“Google needs to properly fix the Chromecast deauth bug that allows casting of YouTube traffic,” said Munro.

Updated at 9pm ET: with a new, clearer headline to better reflect the flaws over the years, and added additional comment from Google.

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Alexa crashed on Christmas Day

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, echo, Europe, Gadgets, outage | No Comments

Amazon this morning said its Alexa devices were among the holiday season’s best-sellers, particularly the Echo and Echo Dot. But the influx of new users setting up their devices for the first time on Christmas Day appeared to be more than Alexa could handle. The service crashed briefly on Christmas, as thousands of new Alexa device owners tried to connect their Echo to Amazon’s servers around the same time.

The Guardian first reported the Alexa outage, which began around 10 AM GMT and led existing Echo owners to complain they were unable to use their devices for regular tasks like playing music or smart home controls, for example.

Others said they were unable to set up their device, despite not having any other internet or home Wi-Fi issues, which seemed to point to a server-side outage.

Amazon’s Twitter account noted the issues were isolated to Europe, saying at 8:43 AM EST (1:43 PM GMT): “Over the past two hours some Echo devices in Europe have had intermittent connections.” The outage was resolved by the time the account had responded, meaning it had only lasted a couple of hours.

An Amazon spokesperson also confirmed the outage to TechCrunch.

“For a short period yesterday morning we had an issue that intermittently impacted some Alexa customers’ ability to interact with the service,” the spokesperson said. “The Alexa service is now operating normally.”

Hey there. Over the past two hours some Echo devices in Europe have had intermittent connections. These issues have now been resolved and the Alexa Service is working normally. ^RY

— Amazon Help (@AmazonHelp) December 25, 2018

I’m sorry for the trouble! Some Echo devices in Europe had intermittent connections. These issues have now been resolved and the Alexa Service is working normally. Please let us know if it’s still giving you trouble. ^BH

— Amazon Help (@AmazonHelp) December 25, 2018

Amazon declined to offer details on what caused the outage, or explain how it was resolved. Likely, it was related to the increased number of requests. The Alexa app shot to the top of the App Store and Google Play on Christmas — another signal that points to a large number of first-time Echo owners setting up new devices on the holiday.

The website Down Detector also spotted troubles with Alexa that impacted Europe, with a peak of 2,183 reports coming in at the height of the outage. The reports then tapered off a couple of hours later.

This isn’t Alexa’s first outage by any means, nor even its first this year. The service can become unresponsive at times, either due to server issues or overloads. In March, for example, the voice service went down even while the Alexa mobile app still worked.

And in September, Alexa went down across Europe, apparently related to an AWS outage in Ireland. That was followed by a U.S. outage the following month, which led the assistant to respond to requests with “sorry, something went wrong.”

Europe is a growing market for Alexa, with Amazon having introduced its smart speaker to Italy and Spain this June. Alexa’s other international markets include the U.K., Australia, India, New Zealand, Germany, Japan and Ireland.

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The best and worst gadgets of 2018

Posted by | 2018 Year in Review, Amazon, Facebook, fujitsu, Gadgets, Google, google home, Mavic, osmo, smartphones, TC, technology, Virtual reality | No Comments

There were countless gadgets released in 2018. It’s the end of the year, so Brian and I rounded up the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

Some where great! Like the Oculus Go. Or the Google Home Hub. But some were junk, like the revived Palm or PlayStation Classic.

CES 2019 is a few weeks away, where manufacturers will roll out most of their wares for the upcoming year. But most products will not be available for purchase for months. What follows is a list of the best and worst gadgets available going into 2019.

The Best

Google Home Hub

Google took its sweet time bringing an Echo Show competitor to market. When the Home Hub did finally arrive, however, the company lapped the competition. The smart screen splits the size difference between the Echo Spot and Show, with a form factor that fits in much more comfortably in most home decor.

Assistant still sports a much deeper knowledge base than Alexa, and the Hub offers one not so secret weapon: YouTube. Google’s video service is light years ahead of anything Amazon (or anyone, really) currently offers, and the competition shows no sign of catching up.

DJI Osmo Pocket

I wanted to dislike the Osmo Pocket. I mean, $349 for a gimbal with a built-in screen is pretty steep by any measure — especially given the fact that the drone maker has much cheaper and more professional options. After an afternoon with the Pocket, however, I was hooked.

The software takes a little getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it, you’re off to the races, using many of the same tricks you’ll find on the Mavic line. Time-lapse, FaceTrack and the 10 Story Mode templates are all impressive and can help novices capture compelling video from even the most mundane subject matter.

Oculus Go

The most recent wave of VR headsets has been split between two distinct categories. There are the high-end Rift and Vives on one side and the super-low-cost Daydreams and Gear VRs on the other. That leaves consumers in the unenviable position of choosing between emptying the bank account or opting for a sub-par experience.

Oculus’ Go headset arrived this year to split the difference. In a time when virtual reality seems at the tail end of its hype cycle, the $199 device offers the most compelling case for mainstreaming yet.

It’s a solid and financially accessible take on VR that shows that the category may still have a little life left in it yet.

Timbuk2 Never Check Expandable Backpack

Granted, it’s not a gadget per se, but the Never Check is the best backpack I’ve ever owned. I initially picked it up as part of a Gift Guide feature I was writing, and I’ve since totally fallen for the thing.

As someone who spends nearly half of his time on the road these days, the bag’s big volume and surprisingly slim profile have been a life saver. It’s followed me to a Hong Kong hostel and a Nigerian hotel, jammed full of all the tech I need to do my job.

It’s also unassuming enough to be your day to day bag. Just zip up one of those waterproof zippers to compress its footprint.

Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2

Like most nerds, I have more keyboards than friends. In 2018 I gave mechanical keyboards a chance. Now, at the end of the year, I’m typing on a Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2. It’s lovely.

This keyboard features Topre capacitive 45G switches. What does that mean? When typing, these switches provide a nice balance of smooth action and tactile feel. There are a handful of mechanical switches available, and after trying most of them, this switch feels the best to me. The Topre capacitive switch is available in a handful of keyboards, but I like the Happy Hacking Keyboard the best.

The HHK has been around in various forms since 1996, and this latest version retains a lot of the charm, including dip switches. Everyone loves dip switches. This version works well with Macs, has two USB ports and is compact enough someone could throw it into a bag. Starting just last month, the keyboard is available in the U.S. through Fujitsu, so buyers don’t have to deal with potentially shady importers.

The Worst

Palm

The Palm is the kind of device you really want to like. And I tried. Hell, I took the thing to Africa with me in hopes that I’d be able to give it some second life as an MP3 player. But it fell short even on that front.

This secondary smartphone is a device in search of a problem, appealing to an impossibly thin slice of consumer demographics. It’s definitely adorable, but the ideal consumer has to have the need and money for a second display, no smartwatch and an existing Verizon contract. Even then, the product has some glaring flaws, from more complex user issues to simple stupid things, like a lack of volume buttons.

It’s easy to forgive a lot with a fairly well-designed first-generation product, but it’s hard to see where the newly reborn company goes from here. Palm, meet face.

Red Hydrogen One

Where to start? How about the price? Red’s first foray into the smartphone space starts at $1,293 (or $1,595 if you want to upgrade your aluminum to titanium). That price will get you a middling phone with an admittedly fascinating gimmick.

After what seemed like years of teasers, the Hydrogen One finally appeared in October, sporting a big, metal design and Rambo-style serrated edges. The display’s the thing here, sporting a “nano-photonic” design that looks a bit like a moving version of those holographic baseball cards we had as kids.

I showed it to a number of folks during my testing period, and all found it initially interesting, then invariably asked “why?” I’m still having trouble coming up with the answer on that one. Oh, and a few told me they became a touch nauseous looking at it. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.

Facebook Portal

“Why?” is really the overarching question in all of these worst devices. It’s not as if the Portal was a bad product. The design of the thing is actually pretty solid — certainly it looks a lot nicer than the Echo Show. And while it was initially lacking in features, Facebook has made up for that a bit with a recent software update.

The heart of the question is more about what Portal brings to the table that the Echo Show or Google Home Hub don’t. It would have to be something pretty massive to justify bringing a Facebook-branded piece of hardware into one’s living room, especially in light of all of the privacy concerns the social media site has dealt with this year. There’s never been a great time for Facebook to launch a product like this, but somehow, now feels like the worst.

Portal delivers some neat tricks, including impressive camera tracking and AR stories, but it mostly feels like a tone-deaf PR nightmare.

PlayStation Classic

1: Half the games are PAL ports and do not run well on U.S. TVs
2: Missing classics like Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider
3: Doesn’t include a power adapter
4: Only one suspend point
5: This product makes me angry

 

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eMarketer: Amazon took 2/3 of smart speaker sales in 2018, but Echo will feel the squeeze in 2019

Posted by | Amazon, artificial intelligence, echo, eCommerce, Gadgets, hardware, smart speakers, TC, voice assistants, voice commerce | No Comments

Smart speakers that let you control services and other connected devices in your home will continue to be a popular gift choice during the holiday season and into next year, when usage is set to rise by 15 percent, to 74.2 million people in the U.S., working out to 26.8 percent of the U.S. population, according to estimates from eMarketer.

But while Amazon’s Echo helped to define and still dominates the market, consumers’ love affair with Alexa may be cooling, just a little, as the Echo is finally starting to feel the heat from competitors like Home from Google, Apple’s HomePod and the Sonos One.

A new report estimates that the Echo will have accounted for nearly 67 percent of all smart speaker sales in the U.S. in 2018, with Google taking 29.5 percent and others at 8.3 percent. But by next year, Amazon will drop to 63 percent, Google will bump up to 31 percent and a plethora of smaller OEMs will collectively take 12 percent. Three percent decline doesn’t sound like a lot, but it will be the first time ever that Amazon will have dropped below two-thirds of sales. (And for the record, eMarketer research from the U.K. found similar numbers and declines.)

eMarketer believes this could be the beginning of a gradual decline for the e-commerce giant that will continue through 2020 as the next wave of adopters increasingly explore other brands.

“Consumers in the market for a smart speaker have more options than ever, and Amazon will lose some of its majority share as a result,” said eMarketer forecasting analyst Jaimie Chung, in a statement. “Google has the Home Mini and Home Hub to compete with Amazon’s Echo Dot and Echo Show, and both the Apple HomePod and Facebook Portal will experience their first holiday season this year. Amazon has remained relevant by plugging Alexa into premium speakers like the Sonos, but even Sonos plans to bring Google Assistant to its devices next year, keeping the two companies neck and neck in the voice assistant race.”

There is a valid question to be asked about what people use their speakers for once they do have them. The main takeaway it seems is that while some device makers may turn speakers into a tidy business, it might be some time before the apps and software built around them monetises as lucratively.

For now, the main purpose seems to be listening to audio, where smart speakers provide a handy way to call up music and hear it — which 79.8 percent of speaker owners say they have done — one reason perhaps that the Sonos and Apple’s HomePod are making some inroads since both companies have put music at the core of their experience.

Second most common usage? Inquiries at 73 percent, which is an area where search giant Google is particularly strong.

Amazon has also made Alexa, in her own way, also a fairly amusing, and sometimes helpful, assistant on various topics, helped significantly by all the skills integrations that have been built. However, one key Alexa/Echo use case for the company has always been voice commerce, providing a new interface for people to be able to shop, to fit scenarios where a screen and keyboard are not as convenient.

For now, however, eMarketer says that this a less popular usage for these devices, and that overall voice commerce will remain a very niche slice of the e-commerce market, accounting for just 0.4 percent of sales, or $2 billion. Some 27 percent of speaker owners will experiment with buying something via voice commerce next year — a number that eMarketer revised down from an earlier estimate of 31 percent, while 37.1 percent will “shop” using their smart speakers — that is, ask questions about products, if not actually buy them.

Bad news for all the companies thinking that smart speakers will usher in a new era of smart home device usage: smart home integrations are used by just 34.5 percent of smart speaker users.

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JioSaavn becomes India’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Android, apple music, Asia, China, computing, Dhingana, digital audio, digital media, executive, funding, Fundings & Exits, india, Internet, JioSaavn, Media, New York, Pandora, pandora radio, rdio, reliance jio, saavn, Software, Spotify, Tencent, tencent music, tiger global, Times Internet, Walmart | No Comments

India finally has its answer to Spotify after Reliance Jio merged its music service with Saavn, the startup it acquired earlier this year.

The deal itself isn’t new — it was announced back in March — but it has reached its logical conclusion after two apps were merged to create a single entity, JioSaavn, which is valued at $1 billion. For the first time, India has a credible rival to global names like Spotify and Apple Music through the combination of a venture capital-funded business, Saavn, and good old-fashioned telecom, JioMusic from Reliance’s disruptive Jio operator brand.

This merger deal comes days after reports suggested that Spotify is preparing to (finally) enter the Indian market, a move that has been in the planning for more than a year as we have reported.

That would set up an interesting battle between global names Spotify and Apple and local players JioSaavn and Gaana, a project from media firm Times Internet, which is also backed by China’s Tencent.

It isn’t uncommon to see international firms compete in Asia — Walmart and Amazon are the two major e-commerce players, while Chinese firms Alibaba and Tencent have busily snapped up stakes in promising internet companies for the past couple of years — but that competition has finally come to the streaming space.

There have certainly been misses over the years.

Early India-based pioneer Dhingana was scooped by Rdio back in 2014, having initial shut down its service due to financial issues. Ultimately, though, Rdio itself went bankrupt and was sold to Pandora, leaving both Rdio and Dhingana in the startup graveyard.

Saavn, the early competitor to Dhingana, seemed destined to a similar fate, at least from the outside. But it hit the big time in 2015 when it raised $100 million from Tiger Global, the New York hedge fund that made ambitious bets on a number of India’s most promising internet firms. That gave it the fuel to reach this merger deal with JioMusic.

Unlike Dhingana’s fire sale, Saavn’s executive team continues on under the JioSaavn banner.

The coming-together is certainly a far more solid outcome than the Rdio deal. JioSaavn has some 45 million songs — including a slate of originals started by Saavn — and access to the Jio network, which claims more than 250 million subscribers.

JioSaavn is available across iOS, Android, web and Reliance Jio’s own app store

The JioMusic service will be freemium, but Jio subscribers will get a 90-day trial of the ad-free “Pro” service. The company maintains five offices — including outposts in Mountain View and New York — with more than 200 employees, while Reliance has committed to pumping $100 million into the business for “growth and expansion of the platform.”

While it is linked to Reliance and Jio, JioMusic is a private business that counts Reliance as a stakeholder. You’d imagine that remaining private is a major carrot that has kept Saavn founders — Rishi Malhotra, Paramdeep Singh and Vinodh Bhat — part of the business post-merger.

The window certainly seems open for streaming IPOs — Spotify went public this past April through an unconventional listing that valued its business around $30 billion, while China’s Tencent Music is in the process of a listing that could raise $1.2 billion and value it around that $30 billion mark, too. JioSaavn might be the next streamer to test the public markets.

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Amazon debuts a scale model autonomous car to teach developers machine learning

Posted by | Amazon, AWS, AWS re:Invent 2018, deep learning, Education, Gadgets, machine learning, race car, TC | No Comments

Amazon today announced AWS DeepRacer, a fully autonomous 1/18th-scale race car that aims to help developers learn machine learning. Priced at $399 but currently offered for $249, the race car lets developers get hands-on — literally — with a machine learning technique called reinforcement learning (RL).

RL takes a different approach to training models than other machine learning techniques, Amazon explained.

It’s a type of machine learning that works when an “agent” is allowed to act on a trial-and-error basis within an interactive environment. It does so using feedback from those actions to learn over time in order to reach a predetermined goal or to maximize some type of score or reward.

This makes it different from other machine learning techniques — like Supervised Learning, for example — as it doesn’t require any labeled training data to get started, and it can make short-term decisions while optimizing for a long-term goal.

The new race car lets developers experiment with RL by learning through autonomous driving.

We are pleased and excited to announce AWS DeepRacer and the AWS DeepRacer League. New reinforcement learning powered AWS service and racing league ML powered cars. #reInvent pic.twitter.com/9Qmmqj4Ebw

— AWS re:Invent (@AWSreInvent) November 28, 2018

Developers first get started using a virtual car and tracks in a cloud-based 3D racing simulator, powered by AWS RoboMaker. Here, they can train an autonomous driving model against a collection of predefined race tracks included with the simulator, then evaluate them virtually or choose to download them to the real-world AWS DeepRacer car.

They can also opt to participate in the first AWS DeepRacer League at the re:Invent conference, where the car was announced. This event will take place over the next 24 hours in the AWS DeepRacer workshops and at the MGM Speedway and will involve using Amazon SageMakerAWS RoboMaker and other AWS services.

There are six main tracks, each with a pit area, a hacker garage and two extra tracks developers can use for training and experimentation. There will also be a DJ.

The league will continue after the event, as well, with a series of live racing events starting in 2019 at AWS Global Summits worldwide. Virtual tournaments will also be hosted throughout the year, Amazon said, with the goal of winning the AWS DeepRacer 2019 Championship Cup at re:invent 2019.

As for the car’s hardware itself, it’s a 1/18th-scale, radio-controlled, four-wheel drive vehicle powered by an Intel Atom processor. The processor runs Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, ROS (Robot Operating System) and the Intel OpenVino computer vision toolkit.

The car also includes a 4 megapixel camera with 1080p resolution, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, multiple USB ports and battery power that will last for about two hours.

It’s available for sale on Amazon here.

more AWS re:Invent 2018 coverage

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