Column

Will the gaming industry clutch up in 2019?

Posted by | Column, Gaming, TC | No Comments
Joost van Dreunen
Contributor

Joost van Dreunen is the co-founder of the game analytics firmSuperData, a Nielsen company.

2019 promises to be a great year in games. Innovation and competition will elevate the industry’s offerings and drive more inclusivity among a broader range of audiences.

Cloud gaming emerges as the new frontier and brings about unlikely partnerships.

Collectively, gamers will serve as the canary in the coal mine as large tech companies look to introduce new technologies to mainstream consumer audiences. Companies like Amazon, Tencent, Google and Microsoft already own and operate massive data centers that virtually run enterprise applications. In 2019, we will see continued investment in infrastructure and content acquisition as these billion-dollar companies seek to claim the consumer market.

Cloud gaming is a massive market opportunity that extends beyond just interactive entertainment. Microsoft already generates significant revenues from cloud-based services, and doubling down on gaming will open the door to broader adoption by consumers and a bigger piece of the market.

It also comes with significant competition, each player with their own motivations. Tencent, for one, got hit hard with a slowdown in mobile game approvals by the Chinese government, causing its share price to drop. Since then, things have started to improve somewhat, but it has incentivized Tencent to reduce its exposure in gaming and look for other non-content business segments that generate steady revenue and require less government regulation. For the first three quarters of 2018, Tencent’s cloud operations generated $864 million (RMB 6 billion) in revenues and more than doubled year-over-year.

Google has also been trying to wiggle its way into the cloud gaming business. Its cloud operations make about $10 billion annually, and recently appointed a new CEO likely to expand Google Cloud’s vertical product capabilities in non-tech categories.

And there is, of course, Amazon. With currently more than 50 percent market share in cloud computing and a strong user acquisition and engagement channel with Twitch, Amazon is uniquely positioned. But its previous efforts around interactive entertainment have so far not produced any real tangible results despite it ramping up expenditure. This makes it more likely that Amazon will become a third-party infrastructure provider for companies like Sony and Nintendo instead.

As these titans double down on cloud gaming initiatives, we can expect to see some surprising partnerships. For instance, Tencent and Google are currently working together in China. This gives the latter an entry point into a market that has long been out of reach. Meanwhile, incumbents like Sony, Nintendo and legacy game publishers will have to decide on going at it alone, as is the case of Electronic Arts, or buddying up and surrendering a piece of revenue.

Gamers win as the PC games market breaks into pieces.

It’s not a bad thing. But after more than a decade of a virtual monopoly held by Valve, new contenders have emerged. We already saw how Valve tried to get in front of Epic’s announcement that it was lowering its platform fees. And not long after, Discord popped up with an even better rate.

Breaking with the standard 30 percent cut, which is what most platforms (Apple, Facebook) claim in exchange for their services, Valve announced a few major changes. Two key sentences from the announcement. First, Valve’s new revenue distribution: “when a game makes over $10 million on Steam, the revenue share for that application will adjust to 75%/25% on earnings beyond $10M. At $50 million, the revenue share will adjust to 80%/20% on earnings beyond $50M.” Succinctly, make more and keep more.

Part of what is driving this is consolidation at the top. In the PC market the top-line firms have been growing at an incredible rate. Between 2013 and 2017, Activision grew its PC operations at +10 percent compound annual growth rate. EA’s was +30 percent, and Bethesda’s +36 percent. Meanwhile, the share of the top four public companies, based on PC gaming revenue, grew from 44 percent to 60 percent in that same period. It’s getting less crowded at the top and digital stores will have to compete.

The big publishers like Activision, Ubisoft and EA already have their digital storefronts and distribution platforms. Different from the brick-and-mortar space, publishers managed to build their own rather than rely on third-parties. For years, the big guys have had no interest in putting their content side-by-side with a growing number of small and medium-sized game companies.

Epic’s wild success with Fortnite has afforded it a much broader range of strategic options. So far it has lowered its store fees and retroactively paid developers on its platform. And now it is budding into the digital PC market by using its vast financial resources to compete head-on with Valve. Finally, Discord’s entry should be noted, too. Adding a content offering to an existing community, rather than the other way around, Discord is the new hot thing. Certainly, it has yet to lay claim to a hit title of its own. But it has both the expertise and critical mass to become an important next store front. It raised an additional $150 million right before the holidays.

All this takes place against the backdrop of a declining physical games market. It’s been a tough few months in meat space. In its recent earnings, GameStop came in at $2.08 billion and +4.8 percent in global sales, but Wall Street was not impressed. GameStop blamed Call of Duty and “sports titles.” With the recent sell-off of Spring Mobile to lower its debt, the specialty retailer continues on the hunt for new leadership, either in the form of a new CEO (unlikely) or new owner (likely). Whoever is going to scoop up GameStop is probably waiting for 19Q1 when sales dip and its valuation will be lower.

The breaking up of Valve’s dominance is good for players and companies that make games. Consumers will get better prices and more choice, and the various digital stores will compete over functionality and improved user experience. This is a win-win for all.

Walled gardens will be broken down, enabling cross-platform play with anyone, anywhere.

Despite digitization, the bulk of interactive entertainment has remained within one of the various walled gardens. That is going to change. Like telecom networks that allow people to speak to each other irrespective of their phone provider, so, too, will online gaming break down silos. In 2019, cross-platform play will become ubiquitous. The end of 2018 has already shown the potential of this as Fortnite’s success resulted in each of the platforms agreeing to play nicely with one another.

Legacy publishers like Activision Blizzard have also tasted what cross-platform play can do for their franchises: Hearthstone has continued to dominate the collective card game category, because it works seamlessly across PC and mobile, and offers a smooth integration with live-streaming platforms like Twitch.

Cross-platform play should be at the top of every studio’s design agenda in 2019.

Subscriptions and bundled content will drive sales in 2019.

After seeing the initial success with subscriptions enjoyed by Twitch and Microsoft’s GamePass, more companies will adopt this monetization model. Large platform holders like Sony and Apple are looking to grow their revenues by offering content subscriptions. Both of these companies have indicated they have plans to increase services revenue as a direct response to reaching the limit of how much hardware they can sell.

Game publishers have been experimenting with micro-transactions to great success. Tentpole franchises like FIFA, Hearthstone and GTA V Online have made a mint from what they call “recurrent revenues.” Beyond up-selling their audiences on a regular schedule with content updates, they will explore subscription models that will provide massive discounts and unique content to players in exchange for a more predictable revenue flows.

Video games will face more and new regulation with a focus on kids.

Now that gaming has emerged as a mainstream form of entertainment, the industry can expect more scrutiny. In addition, there will be sharper focus on kids and technology in 2019. Data companies will be increasingly under the microscope. Similar to the loot box scandal that resulted in various governments speaking out, we will see an effort focused on protecting children. This means that game companies will be held to a higher standard with regards to how they handle data on minors. Against the background of a festering trade war between eastern and western economies, data ownership, in particular around children, will emerge as a political topic and strategic business challenge.

It also means that titles like Fortnite will be fingered as culprits in narratives around an erosion of culture and well-being (although this is largely driven by misinformed industry critics). The title’s appeal to younger audiences will make it a likely scapegoat as the usual choir sings its disdain for video games. This year’s congressional hearing in the U.S. more than satisfied our need for examples of how disconnected government representatives are from technology used by literally everyone else. Different from previous generations, however, I expect the companies currently at the top of the food chain to know exactly how to respond. They will push titles that offer a safe, pleasant space for kids to play, uninterrupted by broader challenges found everywhere else.

Next year will, however, not be a continuation of exuberance as we’ve seen previously. Trends in related industries suggest that gaming, too, will move toward a more concentrated competitive landscape and closer government monitoring.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Further consolidation is imminent for the games industry.

In response to the slowdown in consumer spending, some game companies will go out of business and others will gobble up the failing ones to strengthen their market positions. Nothing new here, but it does leave room for speculation as to who will buy whom. I previously speculated that Amazon would buy GameStop and still think they might. Only it will happen when GameStop reaches its wits end, probably at the end of Q1 2019.

Across Europe there have been a series of smaller acquisitions throughout the year, some of which are now turning sour. Starbreeze had its offices raided (which I’m told sounded worse than it was). Even so, this year the ambitious portfolio approach of buying up smaller studios and leveraging their IP against efficient distribution networks became, perhaps, too popular.

Finally, I expect companies like Tencent to continue satisfying their appetites for foreign assets. If nothing else, this year has cemented Tencent’s need to diversify as they look to mitigate some of its recent stresses by lowering its exposure to games revenue and further investing in western companies and platforms. Over the past two years its success with this strategy has greatly lowered competition across PC and mobile, the two most innovative categories.

This does not mean that innovation itself is at risk. It just means that the stakes will be higher for any firm that does not make a billion or more in revenues.

Courtesy of Feodora Chiosea/Getty Images

The coming winter brings a slowdown in growth, and possibly in revenue and innovation.

I’ve been writing about this for a while now. But don’t misunderstand: I want to be wrong about this. While I would like to predict that 2019 will bring even more growth and more money for everyone, the supporting evidence simply isn’t there.

For one, mobile gaming is showing saturation across different markets, including in China. It has evolved from insignificance to become the biggest games market worldwide and is now starting to slow. We are also at the end of the current console cycle. This simply means that the platforms are going to discount their hardware and the bulk of consumers looking to spend are disproportionately price conscious.

Overall economic indicators suggest that consumer spending, especially in the U.S., is headed to a slowdown. Following the tax breaks earlier in the year, overall spending surprised even the retailers. But that party is going to end soon. Finally, as gaming has become mainstream, its underlying economics have shifted. In broad terms this means that where previously the games industry may have seemed “counter-cyclical” it is going to follow suit with whatever happens to consumer spending at large. In addition, investors have become savvier and are starting to trade aggressively against game stocks. This means game companies are less inclined to take risks on content innovation (as in the case of EA).

The long-term silver lining here is that this imminent stagnation is the precursor of the industry’s overall transition. But before spring comes winter.

Live-streamers and influencers embark on a drama binge.

Yes, newfound fame will get the better of them and stupid things will be said. This is still the very first generation that suddenly finds itself thrust into the mainstream spotlight — they don’t have the benefit of the intense vetting that other industries have subjected their rising stars to before sending them on the main stage. With many still amateurs and competing against one another to win the favor of audiences and aggregators alike, the stakes are substantially higher.

In their hunger for attention, aspiring streamers will sacrifice their authenticity and some will undoubtedly ruin their careers before it even starts. Mounting pressures from growing competition will drive this new generation of tastemakers to “keep it real” and remain authentic. Twitch and YouTube will do what they can, I’m sure. But for many, this authenticity will be too much.

EA takes a hit in 2019.

Among the Big Three, Electronic Arts will have the toughest year. Despite its aggressive expansion effort illustrated by the acquisition of GameFly’s streaming division, EA is going to face the music with investors. This is somewhat undeserved, because financial investors insist on continual growth and generally can’t see past the next quarter. And, to be fair, EA has a few weaknesses: its revenue and its margin are highly dependent on the continuing success of FIFA Ultimate Team. In addition, it has relatively little new IP in the pipe, which makes it even more difficult for investors to care about the longer-term future. Simply put, EA can’t free itself from Wall Street’s needs as several analysts have already started to lower their expectations for the year ahead.

Photo courtesy/Getty Images/Guido Krzikowski/Bloomberg

GameStop sells, but it’s not a party.

I already predicted this last year and was almost right: GameStop has been trying to get acquired for the past six months. Its C-suite has seen better days, most recently resulting in a letter from one of its largest shareholders, Tiger Management, to get its sh!t together (aka perform a strategic review). The company has been unable to find a buyer and now finds itself forced to essentially abandon the diversification strategy it initiated in 2014 by acquiring retail chain in parallel market segments. Just recently GameStop sold off Spring Mobile and is likely to use the money to pay off its debts and improve the likelihood of some private equity firm or a company like Amazon to buy it. No one expected it to be a great year for games retail, but it’s getting sadder.

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Virtual reality gaming and the pursuit of ‘flow state’

Posted by | Column, creativity, Gaming, instagram, Los Angeles, Oculus Rift, Orpheus, player, smartphones, Virtual reality, virtual reality games | No Comments
Maggie Lane
Contributor

Maggie Lane is a writer and producer of virtual reality experiences and covers the industry for various publications.

You need to stop procrastinating. Maybe it’s time for some…

Bulletproof Coffee, Modafinil, nootropics, microdoses of acid, caffeine from coffee, caffeine from bracelets, aromatherapy, noise-canceling headphones, meditation, custom co-working spaces or productivity apps?

Whatever your choice, workers today (especially in the tech industry) will do just about anything to be more productive.

What we seek is that elusive, perfect focus — or flow state. According to researchers, someone in flow will experience a lack of sense of self, a decline in fear and time distortion. It is peak performance coupled with a euphoric high. All your happy neurotransmitters fire, and your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex performs differently — you do not second-guess yourself, you quite simply just flow into the next stages of the activity at hand. And you happen to be performing at the highest level possible. Sounds amazing, right?

But how do we invite this state in? A detailed piece in Fast Company outlines how extreme sports (professional surfing, steep incline skiing, skydiving, etc.) are the quickest way we’ve found to tap into human flow. Yet, these hobbies are just that — extreme. They require a large amount of skill and can be dangerous. For example, Steven Kotler, a pioneer in flow state research, broke almost 100 bones as a journalist researching the topic.

It all leads back to our collective (and very American) obsession with input versus output — are we achieving the most possible with the energy we put in? For all the bells and whistles at our disposal, we as a society are steadily declining in productivity as time goes on.

In 2014, a Gallup Poll found that the average American worker only spends a depressing 5 percent of their day in flow. A 2016 Atlantic article hypothesized that the main reason we’re decreasing in productivity as a workforce is that we’re not introducing new technologies quickly enough. Tech like robotics and smartphones could add a productivity push, but aren’t being integrated into the workplace. Business models are for the large part not that different from 10 years ago. In essence, we’re bored — we’re not being challenged in an engaging way, so we’re working harder than ever but achieving less.

But what if getting into flow state could be as easy as playing a video game?

Gameplay in RaveRunner

I first met Job Stauffer, co-founder and CCO at Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment, when I was, in fact, procrastinating from work. I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a clip of Job playing RaveRunner. As I love rhythm games, I immediately requested a build. Yet, I’d soon learn that this wasn’t just a simple VR experience.

RaveRunner was built for Vive, but easily ran on my Rift. When I first stepped into the game, I felt a bit overwhelmed — there was a lot of dark empty space; almost like something out of TRON. It was a little scary, which is actually very helpful for entering flow state. However, my fear soon dissipated as before me was a transparent yellow lady (Job calls her “Goldie”) dancing with the beat — providing a moving demo for gameplay. Unlike the hacking nature of Beat Saber, where you smash blocks with lightsabers, in RaveRunner you touch blue and orange glowing circles with your controllers, and move your whole body to the rhythm of the music.

There’s a softer, feminine touch to RaveRunner, and it wasn’t just Goldie. Behind the design of this game is a woman, Ashley Cooper, who is the developer responsible for the gameplay mechanics that can help a player attain flow. “Being in the flow state is incredibly rewarding and we strive to help people reach it by creating experiences like RaveRunner,” says Cooper. RaveRunner is a game you can get lost in, and by stimulating so many senses it allows you to let your higher level thoughts slip away — you become purely reactionary and non-judgmental.

In essence — flow.

After playing in this world for an hour, I called Job and learned more about his company. Apart from RaveRunner, Orpheus has also rolled out two other experiences — MicrodoseVR and SoundSelf. I got my first hands-on demo of all three products in one sitting at a cannabis technology event in Los Angeles, Grassfed LA. Grassfed is specifically geared toward higher-brow, hip tech enthusiasts; and the Orpheus suite of products fit right in.

As I lay in a dome with meditative lighting, a subwoofer purring below me, SoundSelf gave me one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in VR. I chanted into a microphone and my voice directly influenced the visuals before me. It felt like my spirit, the God particle, whatever you want to call it, was being stimulated from all these sensations. It was such a beautiful experience, but also was pure flow. I felt two minutes pass in the experience. I would have bet a hundred dollars on this. But I was inside for 10. Time didn’t make sense — a key indicator of flow state.

Next up was Microdose VR. I first tried Microdose VR in 2016 at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Esalen is the birthplace of the human potential movement, and so it was fitting that it was there, where I initially grasped the potential of VR for transformational experiences. Every other experience I had tried up to that point had been First Person Shooters or 360-video marketing pieces. And not to slight those experiences, but I felt that VR must be able to do MORE. Android Jones’ Microdose blew my mind. Like with SoundSelf, I completely lost track of time. I was directly impacting visuals with my body movements, and sound was a big factor as well. It was the first time I could easily imagine staying in VR for hours. Most of all, it was an experience that was only possible within VR. The game was the biggest euphoric rush I’ve felt in VR, and that feeling occurred again at this event.

We have the power as consumers to play games that tie in intrinsically with self-care but often don’t have options available. Job was propelled down this path when he asked himself “if I invest one hour of my time per day into playing a video game, what will I personally gain from that time invested, and will I even have time left over to do genuinely good things for myself?”

Orpheus is pioneering the fusion of game design with traditional self-care practices like meditation, dance/exercise, listening to music and creating art: “In short, we simply want players to feel amazing and have zero regrets about their time spent playing our games, allowing them to walk away knowing they have leveled up themselves, instead of their in-game avatars alone.”

One thing that will make it easier for people to try these experiences are portable headsets such as the ViveFocus and the Oculus Quest. Being untethered will allow people to travel with VR wherever they may go. Job sees this fundamental shift right ahead of us, as “video games and self-care are about to become one in the same. A paradigm shift. This is why all immersive Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment projects will be engineered for this critically important wave of VR.”

Orpheus is not a VR-only company, although their first three experiences are indeed for VR. As they expand, they hope to open up to a variety of types of immersive experiences, and are continually looking for projects that align with their holistic mission.

At the end of the day, I love that Orpheus is attempting to tap into a part of the market that so desperately needs their attention. If we don’t make self-care a major part of VR today, then we’ll continue to use VR as a distraction from, as opposed as a tool to enhance, our daily lives.

As for me, along with the peppermint tea, grapefruit candle and music that make my focus possible, I’ll now be adding some Orpheus games into my flow repertoire.

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The new era in mobile

Posted by | Apple, autonomous vehicles, Column, Google, Mobile, TC, Tesla | No Comments
Joe Apprendi
Contributor

Joe Apprendi is a general partner at Revel Partners.
More posts by this contributor

A future dominated by autonomous vehicles (AVs) is, for many experts, a foregone conclusion. Declarations that the automobile will become the next living room are almost as common — but, they are imprecise. In our inevitable driverless future, the more apt comparison is to the mobile device. As with smartphones, operating systems will go a long way toward determining what autonomous vehicles are and what they could be. For mobile app companies trying to seize on the coming AV opportunity, their future depends on how the OS landscape shapes up.

By most measures, the mobile app economy is still growing, yet the time people spend using their apps is actually starting to dip. A recent study reported that overall app session activity grew only 6 percent in 2017, down from the 11 percent growth it reported in 2016. This trend suggests users are reaching a saturation point in terms of how much time they can devote to apps. The AV industry could reverse that. But just how mobile apps will penetrate this market and who will hold the keys in this new era of mobility is still very much in doubt.

When it comes to a driverless future, multiple factors are now converging. Over the last few years, while app usage showed signs of stagnation, the push for driverless vehicles has only intensified. More cities are live-testing driverless software than ever, and investments in autonomous vehicle technology and software by tech giants like Google and Uber (measured in the billions) are starting to mature. And, after some reluctance, automakers have now embraced this idea of a driverless future. Expectations from all sides point to a “passenger economy” of mobility-as-a-service, which, by some estimates, may be worth as much as $7 trillion by 2050.

For mobile app companies this suggests several interesting questions: Will smart cars, like smartphones before them, be forced to go “exclusive” with a single OS of record (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon/AGL), or will they be able to offer multiple OS/platforms of record based on app maturity or functionality? Or, will automakers simply step in to create their own closed loop operating systems, fragmenting the market completely?

Automakers and tech companies clearly recognize the importance of “connected mobility.”

Complicating the picture even further is the potential significance of an OS’s ability to support multiple Digital Assistants of Record (independent of the OS), as we see with Google Assistant now working on iOS. Obviously, voice NLP/U will be even more critical for smart car applications as compared to smart speakers and phones. Even in those established arenas the battle for OS dominance is only just beginning. Opening a new front in driverless vehicles could have a fascinating impact. Either way, the implications for mobile app companies are significant.

Looking at the driverless landscape today there are several indications as to which direction the OSes in AVs will ultimately go. For example, after some initial inroads developing their own fleet of autonomous vehicles, Google has now focused almost all its efforts on autonomous driving software while striking numerous partnership deals with traditional automakers. Some automakers, however, are moving forward developing their own OSes. Volkswagen, for instance, announced that vw.OS will be introduced in VW brand electric cars from 2020 onward, with an eye toward autonomous driving functions. (VW also plans to launch a fleet of autonomous cars in 2019 to rival Uber.) Tesla, a leader in AV, is building its own unified hardware-software stack. Companies like Udacity, however, are building an “open-source” self-driving car tech. Mobileye and Baidu have a partnership in place to provide software for automobile manufacturers.

Clearly, most smartphone apps would benefit from native integration, but there are several categories beyond music, voice and navigation that require significant hardware investment to natively integrate. Will automakers be interested in the Tesla model? If not, how will smart cars and apps (independent of OS/voice assistant) partner up? Given the hardware requirements necessary to enable native app functionality and optimal user experience, how will this force smart car manufacturers to work more seamlessly with platforms like AGL to ensure competitive advantage and differentiation? And, will this commoditize the OS dominance we see in smartphones today?

It’s clearly still early days and — at least in the near term — multiple OS solutions will likely be employed until preferred solutions rise to the top. Regardless, automakers and tech companies clearly recognize the importance of “connected mobility.” Connectivity and vehicular mobility will very likely replace traditional auto values like speed, comfort and power. The combination of Wi-Fi hotspot and autonomous vehicles (let alone consumer/business choice of on-demand vehicles) will propel instant conversion/personalization of smart car environments to passenger preferences. And, while questions remain around the how and the who in this new era in mobile, it’s not hard to see the why.

Americans already spend an average of 293 hours per year inside a car, and the average commute time has jumped around 20 percent since 1980. In a recent survey (conducted by Ipsos/GenPop) researchers found that in a driverless future people would spend roughly a third of the time communicating with friends and family or for business and online shopping. By 2030, it’s estimated the autonomous cars “will free up a mind-blowing 1.9 trillion minutes for passengers.” Another analysis suggested that even with just 10 percent adoption, driverless cars could account for $250 billion in driver productivity alone.

Productivity in this sense extends well beyond personal entertainment and commerce and into the realm of business productivity. Use of integrated display (screen and heads-up) and voice will enable business multi-tasking from video conferencing, search, messaging, scheduling, travel booking, e-commerce and navigation. First-mover advantage goes to the mobile app companies that first bundle into a single compelling package information density, content access and mobility. An app company that can claim 10 to 15 percent of this market will be a significant player.

For now, investors are throwing lots of money at possible winners in the autonomous automotive race, who, in turn, are beginning to define the shape of the mobile app landscape in a driverless future. In fact, what we’re seeing now looks a lot like the early days of smartphones with companies like Tesla, for example, applying an Apple -esque strategy for smart car versus smartphone. Will these OS/app marketplaces be dominated by a Tesla — or Google (for that matter) — and command a 30 percent revenue share from apps, or will auto manufacturers with proprietary platforms capitalize on this opportunity? Questions like these — while at the same time wondering just who the winners and losers in AV will be — mean investment and entrepreneurship in the mobile app sector is an extremely lucrative but risky gamble.

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Everyday home gear made smart

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Belkin, belkin wemo, Bluetooth, Column, electronics manufacturing, Gadgets, Google, Home Automation, iRobot, kwikset, Nest Labs, Roomba, smart devices, smart thermostat, smartphone, Speaker, wi-fi, Wirecutter | No Comments
Makula Dunbar
Contributor

Makula Dunbar is a writer with Wirecutter.

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

If you only have one smart home device, it’s likely something simple and fun like a voice-controlled speaker or color-changing LED light bulb. As you expand your smart home setup, you can begin to swap out gear that isn’t as flashy but you still use everyday.

Switching to connected locks, power outlets and smoke alarms are all simple installs that can improve your safety and comfort in your own home. We’ve pulled together some of our favorite essentials made smart for anyone looking to upgrade.

Smart lock: Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen

The Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen is the most versatile smart lock that we’ve tested. Whether you prefer to use a wireless fob, smartphone app or key, you’ll be able to control the lock with all of them. When we compared it to similar models, the Kevo’s Bluetooth-activated tap-to-unlock mechanism was the easiest to use.

The second generation of the Kevo improved on security and has all-metal internal components for better protection against forced break-in attempts. With the optional Kevo Plus upgrade, you’ll add the ability to control the lock remotely and receive status-monitoring updates.

Photo: Liam McCabe

Robot Vacuum: iRobot Roomba 960

If cleaning is neither your forte or preferred pastime, a robot vacuum will come in handy. Our upgrade pick, the iRobot Roomba 960, is one of the most powerful models that we tested. It can be controlled through the iRobot Home app and uses a bump-and-track navigation system that helps vacuum an entire floor without missing spots.

If its battery is running low during a session, it’ll return to its dock to power up before finishing the job. It’s easy to disassemble for maintenance and is equipped with repairable parts that make it worth its price over some of our less serviceable picks.

Photo: Rachel Cericola

Plug-in Smart Outlet: Belkin Wemo Mini

We tested 26 smart outlet models over more than 45 hours and chose the Belkin Wemo Mini Wi-Fi plug as our top pick. If you’ve ever thought it’d be nice to remotely turn on or off home essentials such as lamps, air conditioners and fans from your smartphone, plugging them into a smart outlet makes it possible.

The Wemo Mini has proven to be reliable throughout long-term testing, it doesn’t block other outlets on the same wall plate and it’s compatible with iOS and Android devices and assistants, including HomeKit/Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. The interface of the Wemo app is intuitive and easy to use. You can view all of your connected devices on one screen, set powering timers and from anywhere power on or off a device plugged into the Wemo outlet.

Photo: Jennifer Pattison Tuohy

Smart Thermostat: Nest Thermostat E

For a smart thermostat that’s affordable and doesn’t require extensive programming, we recommend the Nest Thermostat E. After about a week, it creates a schedule after learning cooling and heating preferences that you’ve set. It isn’t compatible with as many HVAC systems as similar Nest models, but it’s easy to install and doesn’t lack any features we expect.

It does come with Eco Mode — an energy-saving geofencing feature that detects when your home is empty (or when your smartphone is nowhere near your house). The Nest app uses the same technology to set the thermostat to a preferred temperature when it senses you’re on your way home. If you don’t have your smartphone on hand, you can still operate the Thermostat E by turning its outer ring and pressing selections on its touchscreen.

Photo: Michael Hession

Smart Smoke Alarm: Nest Protect

A smoke alarm is one of the most relied-upon safety devices in every home. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget to do routine checks to ensure it’s in tip-top shape and functioning properly. With a smart smoke alarm like the Nest Protect, we found that its simple app, self-tests, monthly sound checks and consistent alerts are enough to keep fire safety worries at bay.

It isn’t difficult to install, has a sleek design and integrates with other smart home devices like the Nest Cam (which can record video of a fire) and the Nest Learning Thermostat (which shuts down HVAC systems that may be the cause of a fire). It’s sensitive to fast- and slow-burning fires, plus it monitors homes for both smoke and carbon monoxide.

These picks may have been updated by Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

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With a $10 million round, Nigeria’s Paga plans global expansion

Posted by | africa, alipay, Android, Bank, bank transfers, california, cellulant, ceo, Column, e-commerce, economy, ethiopia, Finance, kenya, M-Pesa, Mexico, mobile devices, mobile payment, money, Nigeria, Omidyar Network, online payments, p2p, PayPal, Philippines, Safaricom, San Francisco, Spotify, Sweden, Uber, vodafone, western union | No Comments
Jake Bright
Contributor

Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga is gearing up for an international expansion with $10 million in funding let by the Global Innovation Fund. 

The company is planning to release its payments product in Ethiopia, Mexico, and the Philippines—CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch at Disrupt San Francisco.

Paga looks to go head to head with regional and global payment players, such as PayPal, Alipay, and Safaricom’s M-Pesa, according to Oviosu.

“We are not only in a position to compete with them, we’re going beyond them,” he  said of Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile money product. “Our goal is to build a global payment ecosystem across many emerging markets.”

Founded in 2012, Paga has created a multi-channel network and platform to transfer money, pay-bills, and buy things digitally that’s already serving 9 million customers in Nigeria—including 6000 businesses. All of whom can drop into one of Paga’s 17,167 agents or transfer funds from one of Paga’s mobile apps.

Paga products work on iOS, Android, and basic USSD phones using a star, hashtag option. The company has remittance partnerships with the likes of Western Union and Moneytrans and allows for third-party integration of its app.

Paga has also built out considerable scale in home market Nigeria—which boasts the dual distinction as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy.

Since inception, the startup has processed 57 million transactions worth $3.6 billion, according to Oviosu.

That’s no small feat given the country straddles the challenges and opportunities of growing digital payments. Only recently did Nigeria’s mobile and internet penetration break 50 percent and 40 percent of the country’s 196 million remain unbanked.

To bring more of Nigeria’s masses onto digital commerce, Paga recently launched a new money transfer-app that further simplifies the P2P payment process from mobile devices.

For nearly a decade, Kenya’s M-Pesa—which has 20 million active users and operates abroad—has dominated discussions of mobile money in Africa.

Paga and a growing field of operators are diversifying the continent’s payment playing field.

Fintech company Cellulant raised $47 million in 2019 on its business of processing $350 million in payment transactions across 33 African countries.

In Nigeria, payment infrastructure company Interswitch has expanded across borders and is pursuing an IPO. And Nigerian payment gateway startups Paystack and Flutterwave have digitized volumes of B2B transactions while gaining global investment.

So why does Paga—a Nigerian payments company—believe it can expand its digital payments business abroad?

“Why not us?,” said CEO Oviosu. “People sit in California and listen to Spotify that was developed in Sweden. And Uber started somewhere before going to different countries and figuring out local markets,” he added.

“The team behind this business has worked globally for some of the top tech names. This platform can stand shoulder to shoulder with any payments company built somewhere else,” he said.

On that platform, Oviosu underscores it has positioned itself as a partner, not a rival, to traditional banks. “Our ecosystem is not built to compete with you, it’s actually complimentary to you,” he said of the company’s positioning to big banks—enabling Paga to partner with seven banks in Nigeria.

Paga also sees potential to adapt its model to other regulatory and consumer environments. “We’ve built an infrastructure that rides across all mobile networks,” said Oviosu. “We’re not trying to be a bank. Paga wants to work with the banks and financial institutions to enable a billion people to access and use money,” he said.

As part of the $10 million round (which brings Paga’s total funding up to $35 million), Global Innovation Partners will take a board seat. Other round participants include Goodwell, Adlevo Capital, Omidyar Network, and Unreasonable Capital.

Paga will use the Series B2 to grow its core development team of 25 engineers across countries and continents. It will also continue its due diligence on global expansion—though no hard dates have been announced.

On revenues, Paga makes money on merchant payments, bank to bank transfers, and selling airtime and data. “As we roll out other services, we will build a model where we will make money on savings and lending,” said the company’s CEO.

As for profitability, Paga does not release financials, but reached profitability in 2018, according to Oviosu—something that was confirmed in the due diligence process with round investors.

On the possibility of beating Interswitch (or another venerable startup) to become Africa’s first big tech IPO, Oviosu plays that down. “For the next 3-5 years I see us staying private,” he said.

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MallforAfrica goes global, Kobo360 and Sokowatch raise VC, France explains its $76M fund

Posted by | africa, Android, Column, designer, east africa, Emmanuel Macron, France, Ghana, kenya, kobo360, Lagos, Nigeria, Proparco, Rwanda, senegal, sokowatch, Startups, Tanzania, Uber, Village Global, Y Combinator | No Comments
Jake Bright
Contributor

Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

B2B e-commerce company Sokowatch closed a $2 million seed investment led by 4DX Ventures. Others to join the round were Village Global, Lynett Capital, Golden Palm Investments and Outlierz  Ventures.

The Kenya-based company aims to shake up the supply chain market for Africa’s informal retailers.

Sokowatch’s platform connects Africa’s informal retail stores directly to local and multi-national suppliers — such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble — by digitizing orders, delivery and payments with the aim of reducing costs and increasing profit margins.

“With both manufacturers and the small shops, we’re becoming the connective layer between them, where previously you had multiple layers of middle-men from distributors, sub-distributors, to wholesalers,” Sokowatch founder and CEO Daniel Yu told TechCrunch.

“The cost of sourcing goods right now…we estimate we’re cutting that cost by about 20 percent [for] these shopkeepers,” he said.

“There are millions of informal stores across Africa’s cities selling hundreds of billions worth of consumer goods every year,” said Yu.

These stores can use Sokowatch’s app on mobile phones to buy wares directly from large suppliers, arrange for transport and make payments online. “Ordering on SMS or Android gets you free delivery of products to your store, on average, in about two hours,” said Yu.

Sokowatch generates revenues by earning “a margin on the goods that we’re selling to shopkeepers,” said Yu. On the supplier side, they also benefit from “aggregating demand…and getting bulk deals on the products that we distribute.”

The company recently launched a line of credit product to extend working capital loans to platform clients. With the $2 million round, Sokowatch — which currently operates in Kenya and Tanzania — plans to “expand to new markets in East Africa, as well as pilot additional value add services to the shops,” said Yu.

MallforAfrica and DHL launched MarketPlaceAfrica.com: a global e-commerce site for select African artisans to sell wares to buyers in any of DHL’s 220 delivery countries.

The site will prioritize fashion items — clothing, bags, jewelry, footwear and personal care — and crafts, such as pictures and carvings. MallforAfrica is vetting sellers for MarketPlace Africa online and through the Africa Made Product Standards association (AMPS), to verify made-in-Africa status and merchandise quality.

“We’re starting off in Nigeria and then we’ll open in Kenya, Rwanda and the rest of Africa, utilizing DHL’s massive network,” MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch about where the goods will be sourced. “People all around the world can buy from African artisans online, that’s the goal,” Folayan told TechCrunch.

Current listed designer products include handbags from Chinwe Ezenwa and Tash women’s outfits by Tasha Goodwin.

In addition to DHL for shipping, MarketPlace Africa will utilize MallforAfrica’s e-commerce infrastructure. The startup was founded in 2011 to solve challenges global consumer goods companies face when entering Africa.

French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a $76 million African startup fund at VivaTech 2018 and TechCrunch paid a visit to the French Development Agency (AFD) — which will administer the new fund — to get details on how it will work.

The $76 million (or €65 million) will divvy up into three parts, AFD Digital Task Team Leader Christine Ha told TechCrunch.

“There are €10 million [$11.7 million] for technical assistance to support the African ecosystem… €5 million will be available as interest-free loans to high-potential, pre-seed startups…and…€50 million [$58 million] will be for equity-based investments in series A to C startups,” explained Ha during a meeting in Paris.

The technical assistance will distribute in the form of grants to accelerators, hubs, incubators and coding programs. The pre-seed startup loans will issue in amounts up to $100,000 “as early, early funding to allow entrepreneurs to prototype, launch and experiment,” said Ha.

The $58 million in VC startup funding will be administered through Proparco, a development finance institution — or DFI — partially owned by the AFD. “Proparco will take equity stakes, and will be a limited partner when investing in VC funds,” said Ha.

Startups from all African countries can apply for a piece of the $58 million by contacting any of Proparco’s Africa offices.

The $11.7 million technical assistance and $5.8 million loan portions of France’s new fund will be available starting in 2019. On implementation, AFD is still “reviewing several options…such as relying on local actors through [France’s] Digital Africa platform,” said Ha. President Macron followed up the Africa fund announcement with a trip to Nigeria last month.

Nigerian logistics startup Kobo360 was accepted into Y Combinator’s 2018 class and gained some working capital in the form of $1.2 million in pre-seed funding led by Western Technology Investment.

The startup — with an Uber -like app that connects Nigerian truckers to companies with freight needs — will use the funds to pay drivers online immediately after successful hauls.

Kobo360 is also launching the Kobo Wealth Investment Network, or KoboWIN — a crowd-invest, vehicle financing program. Through it, Kobo drivers can finance new trucks through citizen investors and pay them back directly (with interest) over a 60-month period.

On Kobo360’s utility, “We give drivers the demand and technology to power their businesses,” CEO Obi Ozor told TechCrunch. “An average trucker will make $3,500 a month with our app. That’s middle class territory in Nigeria.”

Kobo360 has served 324 businesses, aggregated a fleet of 5,480 drivers and moved 37.6 million kilograms of cargo since 2017, per company stats. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever and DHL.

Ozor thinks the startup’s asset-free, digital platform and business model can outpace traditional long-haul 3PL providers in Nigeria by handling more volume at cheaper prices.

“Logistics in Nigeria have been priced based on the assumption drivers are going to run empty on the way back…When we now match freight with return trips, prices crash.”

Kobo360 will expand in Togo, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Senegal.

[PHOTO: BFX.LAGOS] And finally, applications are open for TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield Africa, to be held in Lagos, Nigeria, December 11. Early-stage African startups have until September 3 to apply here.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

·         CowryWise micro-savings service opens high-yield government bonds to everyday Nigerians


African Tech Around the Net

·         More Than Half of Sub-Saharan Africa to Be Connected to Mobile by 2025, Finds New GSMA Study
·         Ethiopia’s Gebeya acquires Coders4Africa to accelerate its growth
·         Rwanda, Andela partner to launch pan-African tech hub in Kigali
·         Google’s free public Wi-Fi initiative expanded to Africa
·         Accounteer wins 2018 MEST Entrepreneur challenge
·         SafeBoda completes expansion to Kenya, now live in Nairobi
·         Uganda government sued over social media tax

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The best Amazon Prime Day deals you can still grab

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Prime Day, Column, Gadgets, Wirecutter | No Comments
Makula Dunbar
Contributor

Makula Dunbar is a writer with Wirecutter.

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions. Read Wirecutter’s continuously updated list of deals here.

Amazon Prime Day this year, despite its slow start, broke records and boosted the fortunes of its competitors. And now that it’s over, we found some deals you can still take advantage of.

Asus ROG Swift PG279Q 27 Inch

Street Price: $740; Deal Price: $690

A new low price on our gaming monitor pick for Nvidia graphics card users. While it only beats our previous low by a few bucks, this monitor has been stubborn about sticking to $740.

The Asus ROG Swift PG279Q 27 Inch is our G-Sync pick in our guide to the best gaming monitors. David Murphy wrote, “Our pick had the best contrast ratio and lowest measured black levels among our finalists, which helps bring out detail in movies and games; it has all the input connections you need, as well as a built-in USB 3.0 hub; and it’s incredibly adjustable.”

AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable (15 foot)

Street Price: $11; Deal Price: $7

At $7 for a 15 foot cable, this is a new low price. We haven’t seen any discount for this particular size since 2017 and the street price typically sticks to $11.

The AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable is the top pick in our guide to cheap, great HDMI cables. “The AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable is a no-frills HDMI cable, but with HDMI, frills aren’t necessary,” Geoffrey Morrison wrote. “The cable is sturdily built and works with any video signal of today (and probably ones into the near future). Both the 3- and 15-foot lengths passed all our tests, including HDR tests.”

DJI Spark Fly More Combo

Street Price: $550; Deal Price: $500

Down to $500 in all available colors, this is a solid drop from a typical price of $550 for the DJI Spark Fly More Combo, a bundle that includes the Spark, controller, extra battery and other accessories.

The DJI Spark is our entry-level pick for drone photography in our guide to the best drones. “If all you want is something to capture aerial footage on occasion for personal use and social-media sharing, you can save several hundred dollars by getting the DJI Spark,” Mike Perlman wrote. “Despite weighing half as much as the Mavic and folding up to about the size of your hand, it has all the important features you need from a video drone: 1080p video recording, image and flight stabilization, collision-avoidance technology and an included controller, and smart-flight modes like ActiveTrack (tracks and follows a subject) and gesture controls all come standard.”

Lutron Caséta (2 of our top in-wall wireless light switch and dimmer pick + control hub + 2 remotes)

Street Price: $160; Deal Price: $120

If you’re looking for a Lutron Caséta starter kit this is a good deal on one that includes two switches, one bridge and two remotes. Usually priced at $160, the price drops to $120 at checkout, this matches the lowest price we’ve seen.

The Lutron Caséta Wireless In-Wall Dimmer and the Lutron Caséta Smart Bridge are the top picks in our guide to the best in-wall wireless light switch and dimmer. Rachel Cericola wrote, “After spending more than 30 hours swapping out switches, flipping switches, programming timers, and talking to experts, we’ve decided that the Lutron Caséta Wireless In-Wall Dimmer is the best wireless in-wall dimmer switch for most people. It’s phase-adaptive, so it can work with any lighting load; it’s the easiest to physically install; and like the other eight units we tested, it features straightforward remote control and scheduling.”

Philips Hue White A19 4-Pack 60W

Street Price: $50; Deal Price: $40

For those of you who want a set of smart LED light bulbs but don’t want or need the added price for color, a 4-pack of 60W Philips Hue bulbs is an excellent deal matching the previous lowest price on the white variant of our top pick for best smart LED light bulbs.

“Setting up Hue lights requires a few simple steps, much like any other smart-home device. The gateway connects to your home router or network switch via a wired Ethernet port,” Grant Clauser wrote. “This connects the system to your network and allows you to control the lights with a smartphone or tablet connected wirelessly to the same network.”

Q Acoustics 3020

Street Price: $270; Deal Price: $243

At $243 from a street price of $270, this is the lowest price we’ve seen for a pair of Q Acoustics 3020 in either the American Walnut finish or graphite color. These colors are typically priced lower than the black and white colors, but if you absolutely must have either of those, they are also down to the lowest price we’ve seen at $289 from $320.

The Q Acoustics 3020 is the top pick in our guide to the best bookshelf speakers for most stereos. “The Q Acoustics 3020 pair reproduces music of all genres with great detail and clarity on a wide soundstage. Despite each speaker’s compact size, the set delivers both strong bass and accurate vocals,” Chris Heinonen wrote. “These speakers are efficient, too, which means they can play louder with less-powerful receivers and amplifiers. The compact, rounded-corner design comes in four finishes to help this set fit in with a wider variety of decors.”

Roku Streaming Stick

Street Price: $45; Deal Price: $35

Recently we’ve been seeing a lot of price fluctuations between $40 and $50, so it’s nice to see this media streaming device down to a new low price of $35. Prior to this deal the best price we’ve seen is $39.

The Roku Streaming Stick is the runner-up pick (if you don’t need 4K) in our guide to the best media streaming devices. Chris Heinonen wrote, “If you don’t need to stream UltraHD 4K content, the Roku Streaming Stick is the best option available today. It is almost identical to the Streaming Stick+, but supports only 1080p resolution and doesn’t have the external Wi-Fi antenna. If you know you aren’t going to get a 4K TV in the future, or are just looking to upgrade an existing 1080p TV or projector, it offers the same content selection, search, and performance of our main pick.”

Fujifilm X-T2

Street Price: $1500; Deal Price: $1,100

The high-end Fujifilm camera we recommend is down to a new low price of $1,100 from a street price of $1,500. The deal is for the black color and only the body without a lens. Prior to this sale the lowest price we’ve seen is $1,400, although there were some deals around Black Friday for the camera with a lens.

The Fujifilm X-T2 is the top pick for experienced shooters and pros in our guide to the best Fujifilm cameras. Amadou Diallo wrote, “The Fujifilm X-T2 represents a significant investment into your photography, and that’s before you even consider adding any of Fujifilm’s well-regarded lenses. But its sensor outperforms what you get in many DSLRs, providing impressively detailed images in even very dark lighting conditions.”

ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet

Street Price: $190; Deal Price: $130 w/ code AMUZISNW

Use the code AMUZISNW to get this price. It’s the lowest price we’ve seen so far, and only $8 more than our top pick, but with 30 percent more mAh/charge.

The ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet is our runner-up pick for laptop charging in our guide to the best portable AC battery pack. “If our top pick is unavailable or you need a little more power to keep a larger laptop going, get the ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet,” Mark Smirniotis wrote. “It has the same 85 W output as the Jackery PowerBar, so it can power the same types of laptops and electronics, but with an extra 25 percent capacity, this ChargeTech model will last a bit longer—handy if you’re frequently on long-haul flights or working in the field.”

littleBits Rule Your Room Kit

Street Price: $80; Deal Price: $40

Down to $40 when typically it’s priced around $85, this is an all-time low price for this electronics kit. Prior to this deal the lowest price we’ve seen is $56. We doubt this deal will last more than a few days, at most, so don’t wait — grab it at this low price if you know a would-be inventor.

The littleBits Rule Your Room Kit is the upgrade pick in our guide to the best electronics kits for kids and beginners. “Kids can create a piggy-bank alarm, a catapult, or an invention of their own using modular pieces that snap together magnetically. Each project takes more time and produces a more satisfying, practical device than those in the other kits we tested,” Signe Brewster wrote. “The Rule Your Room Kit comes with the fewest pieces and sample projects among our field of competitors, but because littleBits encourages the incorporation of everyday items into the projects, the kit feels like it offers more possibilities than other kits of similar size.”

Acton Blink Lite

Street Price: $225; Deal Price: $200

Back down to $200, this is a nice deal on this recommended electric skateboard. The Acton Blink Lite is our budget pick for lighter riders in our guide to the best electric skateboard. If you’re a sub-180-pound rider who isn’t looking to spend a ton, this is a good opportunity to save some cash. While the street price has dropped in recent months, it’s still a solid discount.

“The Acton Blink Lite may not be the most powerful board around, but it’s a phenomenal value considering its price, and it would be a good gift for the young skater in your life,” Jack Smith wrote. “But despite the lack in power, we found riding the Blink Lite to be a blast, largely due to its nimble mini-cruiser design and small size. It’s also significantly cheaper than most other boards available.”

Because great deals don’t just happen on Prime Day, sign up for our daily deals email and we’ll send you the best deals we find every weekday. Also, deals change all the time, and some of these may have expired. To see an updated list of current deals, please go here.

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Summer road trip tech essentials and extras

Posted by | Anker SoundSync Drive, Arkon Center Extension Car Headrest Tablet Mount, Column, Gadgets, Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S, iOttie Easy One Touch 4 Air Vent Mount, RAVPower RP-VC006, Wirecutter | No Comments
Makula Dunbar
Contributor

Makula Dunbar is a writer with Wirecutter.

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

Gearing up for a pleasant road trip entails more than picking an exciting destination. The mode of transportation, and what you’re able to do while traveling, sometimes makes or breaks hours spent on the road.

Whether you’re taking an older car on a short solo excursion, or piling in with family and friends for a cross-country drive, your road trip gear and setup can add to the experience. We’ve gathered some of our favorite picks that cover the basics.

iPad Headrest Mount: Arkon Center Extension Car Headrest Tablet Mount

If getting comfortable in a backseat and watching a movie sounds like an ideal way to pass time, do so with the help of a tablet mount. The Arkon Center Extension Car Headrest Tablet Mount securely holds iPads and most 9- to 12-inch tablets.

It attaches to the metal rods of the front seat headrest and its holster is attached to an extendable arm that can be positioned so one or multiple backseat passengers can get a clear view.

Photo: Rik Paul

Car GPS: Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S

Before the wheels start rolling, knowing where you’re going and how to get there is likely the first order of business. Using a standalone car GPS means your smartphone doesn’t have to be held hostage and you don’t have to rely on a live data connection.

The Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S has maps and a database with points of interest built in so that navigation — even off of the beaten path — is straightforward. It works via Bluetooth, can display alerts or searches from a smartphone and its maps are updated over Wi-Fi. During testing, its voice-control system was the simplest to use and its audible directions were the most precise.

You’ll like that its 5-inch touchscreen displays easy-to-follow lanes and road signs, along with nearby stops and speed limits.

Bluetooth Kit: Anker SoundSync Drive

There’s no fun in a road trip that doesn’t include your favorite podcasts and music playlists. Older cars without built-in Bluetooth pose a problem when it comes to streaming curated entertainment from a smartphone.

Bypass installing a new stereo system and use an inexpensive Bluetooth kit instead. We recommend the Anker SoundSync Drive for cars with an aux-in port as well as other options for different setups. The SoundSync Drive will allow you to listen to music and makes hands-free calls.

It offers high-quality audio that’s on par and better than competitors we tested, and it has convenient track-control buttons. Keep it powered by plugging its USB-A charging cable into any car charger or USB power source.

Photo: Michael Hession

Car Mount: iOttie Easy One Touch 4 Air Vent Mount

For a car mount that won’t get in the way of other devices that have to be placed on a windshield or dashboard, we recommend the iOttie Easy One Touch 4 Air Vent Mount. It fits into an air vent and its grip — which is secured by long rubber-lined arms and a spring-loaded clamp — places it above similar models.

Its cradle holds firm, it can be placed on vents of all thicknesses and it’s easy to position. The Easy One Touch 4 Air Vent Mount’s build makes it easy to access and it works against weighing down vent slats.

Photo: Nick Guy 

USB Car Charger: RAVPower RP-VC006

The RAVPower RP-VC006 USB car charger is small but packs a punch (up to 2.4 amps) with two USB ports for powering smartphones or tablets. It isn’t difficult to insert or remove, and when it’s dark outside, its LED and white ports make it easy to locate.

We like that it’s compact and doesn’t stick out too far. The RAVPower RP-VC006 plugs into a 12-volt power jack and it’s capable of charging two devices — simultaneously and in little to no time. It comes with a lifetime warranty, and if you’re concerned about misplacing it or running out of juice, it’s cheap enough to buy a few.

This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter.

When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commissions.

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Apple’s Shortcuts will flip the switch on Siri’s potential

Posted by | Amazon, Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, apple tv, Apple Watch, Apps, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Column, computing, Craig Federighi, Google, google now, iOS, iPad, iPhone, iTunes, mobile devices, operating system, screen time, siri, Software, virtual assistant | No Comments
Matthew Cassinelli
Contributor

Matthew Cassinelli is a former member of the Workflow team and works as an independent writer and consultant. He previously worked as a data analyst for VaynerMedia.

At WWDC, Apple pitched Shortcuts as a way to ”take advantage of the power of apps” and ”expose quick actions to Siri.” These will be suggested by the OS, can be given unique voice commands, and will even be customizable with a dedicated Shortcuts app.

But since this new feature won’t let Siri interpret everything, many have been lamenting that Siri didn’t get much better — and is still lacking compared to Google Assistant or Amazon Echo.

But to ignore Shortcuts would be missing out on the bigger picture. Apple’s strengths have always been the device ecosystem and the apps that run on them.

With Shortcuts, both play a major role in how Siri will prove to be a truly useful assistant and not just a digital voice to talk to.

Your Apple devices just got better

For many, voice assistants are a nice-to-have, but not a need-to-have.

It’s undeniably convenient to get facts by speaking to the air, turning on the lights without lifting a finger, or triggering a timer or text message – but so far, studies have shown people don’t use much more than these on a regular basis.

People don’t often do more than that because the assistants aren’t really ready for complex tasks yet, and when your assistant is limited to tasks inside your home or commands spoken inton your phone, the drawbacks prevent you from going deep.

If you prefer Alexa, you get more devices, better reliability, and a breadth of skills, but there’s not a great phone or tablet experience you can use alongside your Echo. If you prefer to have Google’s Assistant everywhere, you must be all in on the Android and Home ecosystem to get the full experience too.

Plus, with either option, there are privacy concerns baked into how both work on a fundamental level – over the web.

In Apple’s ecosystem, you have Siri on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod, CarPlay, and any Mac. Add in Shortcuts on each of those devices (except Mac, but they still have Automator) and suddenly you have a plethora of places to execute these all your commands entirely by voice.

Each accessory that Apple users own will get upgraded, giving Siri new ways to fulfill the 10 billion and counting requests people make each month (according to Craig Federighi’s statement on-stage at WWDC).

But even more important than all the places where you can use your assistant is how – with Shortcuts, Siri gets even better with each new app that people download. There’s the other key difference: the App Store.

Actions are the most important part of your apps

iOS has always had a vibrant community of developers who create powerful, top-notch applications that push the system to its limits and take advantage of the ever-increasing power these mobile devices have.

Shortcuts opens up those capabilities to Siri – every action you take in an app can be shared out with Siri, letting people interact right there inline or using only their voice, with the app running everything smoothly in the background.

Plus, the functional approach that Apple is taking with Siri creates new opportunities for developers provide utility to people instead of requiring their attention. The suggestions feature of Shortcuts rewards “acceleration”, showing the apps that provide the most time savings and use for the user more often.

This opens the door to more specialized types of apps that don’t necessarily have to grow a huge audience and serve them ads – if you can make something that helps people, Shortcuts can help them use your app more than ever before (and without as much effort). Developers can make a great experience for when people visit the app, but also focus on actually doing something useful too.

This isn’t a virtual assistant that lives in the cloud, but a digital helper that can pair up with the apps uniquely taking advantage of Apple’s hardware and software capabilities to truly improve your use of the device.

In the most groan-inducing way possible, “there’s an app for that” is back and more important than ever. Not only are apps the centerpiece of the Siri experience, but it’s their capabilities that extend Siri’s – the better the apps you have, the better Siri can be.

Control is at your fingertips

Importantly, Siri gets all of this Shortcuts power while keeping the control in each person’s hands.

All of the information provided to the system is securely passed along by individual apps – if something doesn’t look right, you can just delete the corresponding app and the information is gone.

Siri will make recommendations based on activities deemed relevant by the apps themselves as well, so over-active suggestions shouldn’t be common (unless you’re way too active in some apps, in which case they added Screen Time for you too).

Each of the voice commands is custom per user as well, so people can ignore their apps suggestions and set up the phrases to their own liking. This means nothing is already “taken” because somebody signed up for the skill first (unless you’ve already used it yourself, of course).

Also, Shortcuts don’t require the web to work – the voice triggers might not work, but the suggestions and Shortcuts app give you a place to use your assistant voicelessly. And importantly, Shortcuts can use the full power of the web when they need to.

This user-centric approach paired with the technical aspects of how Shortcuts works gives Apple’s assistant a leg up for any consumers who find privacy important. Essentially, Apple devices are only listening for “Hey Siri”, then the available Siri domains + your own custom trigger phrases.

Without exposing your information to the world or teaching a robot to understand everything, Apple gave Siri a slew of capabilities that in many ways can’t be matched. With Shortcuts, it’s the apps, the operating system, and the variety of hardware that will make Siri uniquely qualified come this fall.

Plus, the Shortcuts app will provide a deeper experience for those who want to chain together actions and customize their own shortcuts.

There’s lots more under the hood to experiment with, but this will allow anyone to tweak & prod their Siri commands until they have a small army of custom assistant tasks at the ready.

Hey Siri, let’s get started

Siri doesn’t know all, Can’t perform any task you bestow upon it, and won’t make somewhat uncanny phone calls on your behalf.

But instead of spending time conversing with a somewhat faked “artificial intelligence”, Shortcuts will help people use Siri as an actual digital assistant – a computer to help them get things done better than they might’ve otherwise.

With Siri’s new skills extendeding to each of your Apple products (except for Apple TV and the Mac, but maybe one day?), every new device you get and every new app you download can reveal another way to take advantage of what this technology can offer.

This broadening of Siri may take some time to get used to – it will be about finding the right place for it in your life.

As you go about your apps, you’ll start seeing and using suggestions. You’ll set up a few voice commands, then you’ll do something like kick off a truly useful shortcut from your Apple Watch without your phone connected and you’ll realize the potential.

This is a real digital assistant, your apps know how to work with it, and it’s already on many of your Apple devices. Now, it’s time to actually make use of it.

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Inside Atari’s rise and fall

Posted by | Activision, animation, apollo, Atari, Atari Games, cashier, Column, computing, entertainment software association, formula one, Gadgets, gamestop, Gaming, JC Penney, kmart, laser, lasers, mattel, monaco, Namco, Nintendo, pac-man, phoenix, player, Prince, race car, racer, Rogue, rubber, super mario bros, TC, temple run, tomb raider, Toys R Us, Vice President | No Comments
Jamie Lendino
Contributor

Jamie Lendino is the editor-in-chief of Extreme Tech.

By the first few months of 1982, it had become more common to see electronics stores, toy stores, and discount variety stops selling 2600 games. This was before Electronics Boutique, Software Etc., and later, GameStop . Mostly you bought games at stores that sold other electronic products, like Sears or Consumer Distributors. Toys ’R’ Us was a big seller of 2600 games. To buy one, you had to get a piece of paper from the Atari aisle, bring it to the cashier, pay for it, and then wait at a pickup window behind the cash register lanes.

Everyone had a favorite store in their childhood; here’s a story about one of mine. A popular “destination” in south Brooklyn is Kings Plaza, a giant (for Brooklyn) two-story indoor mall with about 100 stores. My mother and grandmother were avid shoppers there. To get to the mall from our house, it was about a 10-minute car service ride. So once a week or thereabouts, we’d all go. The best part for me was when we went inside via its Avenue U entrance instead of on the Flatbush Avenue side. Don’t ask me what went into this decision each time; I assume it depended on the stores my mother wanted to go to. All I knew was the Avenue U side had this circular kiosk maybe 50 feet from the entrance. The name has faded from memory. I remember it was a kind of catch-all for things like magazines, camera film, and other random stuff.

But the most important things were the Atari cartridges. There used to be dozens of colorful Atari game boxes across the wall behind the counter. When we walked up to the cashier’s window, there was often a row of new Atari games across the top as well. Sometimes we left without a new cartridge, and sometimes I received one. But we always stopped and looked, and it was the highlight of my trip to the mall each time.

For whatever reason, I remember the guy behind the counter gave me a hard time one day. I bought one of Atari’s own cartridges—I no longer remember which, but I’m almost sure it was either Defender or Berzerk—that came with an issue of Atari Force, the DC comic book. I said I was excited to get it. The guy shot me a dirty look and said, “You’re buying a new Atari cartridge just for a comic book?” I was way too shy to argue with him, even though he was wrong and I wanted the cartridge. I don’t remember what my mother said, or if she even heard him. Being too shy to protest, I sheepishly took my game and we both walked away.

Mattel Stumbles, While Atari Face-Plants

Mattel began to run into trouble with its Intellivision once the company tried to branch out from sports games. Because Mattel couldn’t license properties from Atari, Nintendo, or Sega, it instead made its own translations of popular arcade games. Many looked better than what you’d find on the 2600, but ultimately played more slowly thanks to the Intellivision’s sluggish CPU. Perhaps the most successful was Astrosmash, a kind of hybrid of Asteroids and Space Invaders, where asteroids, space ships, and other objects fell from the sky and became progressively more difficult. Somewhat less successful were games like Space Armada (a Space Invaders knock off).

Mattel also added voice synthesis—something that was all the rage at the time—to the Intellivision courtesy of an add-on expansion module called Intellivoice. But only a few key games delivered voice capability: Space Spartans, Bomb Squad, B-17 Bomber (all three were launch titles), and later, Tron: Solar Sailer. The Intellivoice’s high cost, lack of a truly irresistible game, and overall poor sound quality meant this was one thing Atari didn’t have to find a way to answer with the 2600.

These events made it easier for Atari to further pull away from Mattel in the marketplace, and it did so—but not without a tremendous self-inflicted wound. A slew of new 2600 games arrived in the first part of 1982. Many important releases came in this period and those that followed, and we’ll get to those shortly. But there was one in particular that the entire story arc of the platform balanced on, and then fractured. It was more than a turning point; its repercussions reverberated throughout the then-new game industry, and to this day it sticks out as one of the key events that ultimately did in Atari.

Pac-Man (Atari, March 1982)

The single biggest image-shattering event for the 2600—and Atari itself—was the home release of its Pac-Man cartridge. I can still feel the crushing disappointment even now. So many of my friends and I looked forward to this release. We had talked about it all the time in elementary school. Pac-Man was simply the hottest thing around in the arcades, and we dreamed of playing it at home as much as we wanted. The two-year wait for Atari to release the 2600 cartridge seemed like forever. Retailers bought into the hype as well. Toy stores battled for inventory, JC Penney and Kmart bought in big along with Sears and advertised on TV, and even local drug stores started stocking the game. And yet, what we got…wasn’t right.

Just about everyone knows how Pac-Man is supposed to work, but just in case: You gobble up dots to gain points while avoiding four ghosts. Eat a power pellet, and you can turn the tables on the ghosts, chase them down, and eat them. Each time you do so, the “eyes” of the ghost fly back to the center of the screen and the ghost regenerates. Eat all the dots and power pellets on the screen, and you progress to the next one, which gets harder. Periodically, a piece of fruit appears at the center of the screen. You can eat it for bonus points, and the kind of fruit denotes the level you are on (cherry, strawberry, orange, and so on).

But that’s not the game Atari 2600 owners saw. After securing the rights to the game from Namco, Atari gave programmer Tod Frye just five weeks to complete the conversion. The company had learned from its earlier mistakes and promised Frye a royalty on every cartridge manufactured (not sold), which was an improvement. But this was another mistake. The royalty plus the rushed schedule meant Frye made money even if the game wasn’t up to snuff, and thus Frye had incentive to complete it regardless. Atari also required the game to fit into just 4KB like older 2600 cartridges, rather than the newer 8KB size that was becoming much more common by this point. That profit-driven limitation heavily influenced the way Frye approached the design of the game. To top it all off, Atari set itself up for a colossal failure by producing some 12 million cartridges, even though there were only 10 million 2600 consoles in circulation at the time. The company was confident that not only would every single existing 2600 owner buy the game, but that 2 million new customers would buy the console itself just for this cartridge.

We all know how it turned out. The instruction manual sets the tone for the differences from the arcade early on. The game is now set in “Mazeland.” You eat video wafers instead of dots. Every time you complete a board, you get an extra life. The manual says you also earn points from eating power pills, ghosts, and “vitamins.” Something is definitely amiss.

Pac-Man himself always looks to the right or left, even if he is going up or down. The video wafers are long and rectangular instead of small, square dots. Fruits don’t appear periodically at the center of the screen. Instead, you get the aforementioned vitamin, a clear placeholder for what would have been actual fruit had there been more time to get it right. The vitamin always looks the same and is always worth 100 points, instead of increasing as you clear levels. The rest of the scoring is much lower than it is in the arcade. Gobbling up all four ghosts totals just 300 points, and each video wafer is worth just 1 point.

The ghosts have tremendous amounts of flicker, and they all look and behave identically, instead of having different colors, distinct personalities, and eyes that pointed in the right direction. The flicker was there for a reason. Frye used it to draw the four ghosts in successive frames with a single sprite graphic register, and drew Pac-Man every frame using the other sprite graphic register. The 2600’s TIA chip synchronizes with an NTSC television picture 60 times per second, so you end up seeing a solid Pac-Man, maze, and video wafers (I can still barely type “video wafers” with a straight face), but the ghosts are each lit only one quarter of the time. A picture tube’s phosphorescent glow takes a little bit to fade, and your eye takes a little while to let go of a retained image as well, but the net result is that the flicker is still quite visible.

It gets worse. The janky, gritty sound effects are bizarre, and the theme song is reduced to four dissonant chords. (Oddly, these sounds resurfaced in some movies over the next 20 years and were a default “go-to” for sound designers working in post-production.) The horizontally stretched maze is nothing like the arcade, either, and the escape routes are at the top and bottom instead of the sides. The maze walls aren’t even blue; they’re orange, with a blue background, because it’s been reported Atari had a policy that only space games could have black backgrounds (!). At this point, don’t even ask about the lack of intermissions.

One of Frye’s own mistakes is that he made Pac-Man a two-player game. “Tod used a great deal of memory just tracking where each player had left off with eaten dots, power pellets, and score,” wrote Goldberg and Vendel in Atari Inc.: Business is Fun. Years later, when Frye looked at the code for the much more arcade-faithful 2600 Ms. Pac-Man, he saw the programmers were “able to use much more memory for graphics because it’s only a one player game.”

Interestingly, the game itself is still playable. Once you get past the initial huge letdown and just play it on its own merits, Pac-Man puts up a decent experience. It’s still “Pac-Man,” sort of, even if it delivers a rough approximation of the real thing as if it were seen and played through a straw. It’s worth playing today for nostalgia—after all, many of us played this cartridge to death anyway, because it was the one we had—and certainly as a historical curiosity for those who weren’t around for the golden age of arcades.

Many an Atari 2600 fan turned on the platform—and Atari in general—after the release of Pac-Man. Although the company still had plenty of excellent games and some of the best were yet to come, the betrayal was immediate and real and forever colored what much of the gaming public thought of Atari. The release of the Pac-Man cartridge didn’t curtail the 2600’s influence on the game industry by any means; we’ll visit many more innovations and developments as we go from here on out. But the 2600 conversion of Pac-Man gave the fledgling game industry its first template for how to botch a major title. It was the biggest release the Atari 2600 had and would ever see, and the company flubbed it about as hard as it could. It was New Coke before there was New Coke.

Grand Prix (Activision, March 1982)

The next few games we’ll discuss further illustrate the quality improvements upstart third-party developers delivered, in comparison with Atari, which had clearly become too comfortable in its lead position. First up is Activision’s Grand Prix, which in hindsight was a bit of an odd way to design a racer . It’s a side-scroller on rails that runs from left to right, and is what racing enthusiasts call a time trial. Although other computer-controlled cars are on the track, you’re racing against the clock, not them, and you don’t earn any points or increase your position on track for passing them.

Gameplay oddities aside, the oversized Formula One cars are wonderfully detailed, with brilliant use of color and animated spinning tires. The shaded color objects were the centerpiece of the design, as programmer David Crane said in a 1984 interview. “When I developed the capability for doing a large multicolored object on the [2600’s] screen, the capability fitted the pattern of the top view of a Grand Prix race car, so I made a racing game out of it.” Getting the opposing cars to appear and disappear properly as they entered and exited the screen also presented a problem, as the 2600’s lack of a frame buffer came into play again. The way TIA works, the 2600 would normally just make the car sprite begin to reappear on the opposite side of the screen as it disappeared from one side. To solve this issue, Crane ended up storing small “slices” of the car in ROM, and in real time the game drew whatever portions of the car were required to reach the edge of the screen. The effect is smooth and impossible to detect while playing.

The car accelerates over a fairly long period of time, and steps through simulated gears. Eventually it reaches a maximum speed and engine note, and you just travel along at that until you brake, crash into another car, or reach the finish line. As the manual points out, you don’t have to worry about cars coming back and passing you again, even if you crash. Once you pass them, they’re gone from the race.

The four game variations in Grand Prix are named after famous courses that resonate with racing fans (Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch, Le Mans, and Monaco). The courses bear no resemblance to the real ones; each game variation is simply longer and harder than the last. The tree-lined courses are just patterns of vehicles that appear on screen. Whenever you play a particular game variation, you see the same cars at the same times (unless you crash, which disrupts the pattern momentarily). The higher three variations include bridges, which you have to quickly steer onto or risk crashing. During gameplay, you get a warning in the form of a series of oil slicks that a bridge is coming up soon.

Although Atari’s Indy 500 set the bar early for home racing games on the 2600, Grand Prix demonstrated you could do one with a scrolling course and much better graphics. This game set the stage for more ambitious offerings the following year. And several decades later, people play games like this on their phones. We just call titles like Super Mario Run (a side-scroller) and Temple Run (3D-perspective) “endless runners,” as they have running characters instead of cars.

Activision soon became the template for other competing third-party 2600 developers. In 1981, Atari’s marketing vice president and a group of developers, including the programmers for Asteroids and Space Invaders on the console, started a company called Imagic. The company had a total of nine employees at the outset. Its name was derived from the words “imagination” and “magic”—two key components of every cartridge the company planned to release. Imagic games were known for their high quality, distinctive chrome boxes and labels, and trapezoidal cartridge edges. As with Activision, most Imagic games were solid efforts with an incredible amount of polish and were well worth purchasing.

Although Imagic technically became the second third-party developer for the 2600, the company’s first game didn’t arrive until March 1982. Another company, Games by Apollo, beat it to the punch by starting up in October 1981 and delivering its first (mediocre) game, Skeet Shoot, before the end of the year.

But when that first Imagic game did arrive, everyone noticed.

Demon Attack

At first glance, the visually striking Demon Attack looks kind of like a copy of the arcade game Phoenix, at least without the mothership screen (something it does gain in the Intellivision port). But the game comes into its own the more you play it. You’re stuck on the planet Krybor. Birdlike demons dart around and shoot clusters of lasers down toward you at the bottom of the screen. Your goal is to shoot the demons all out of the sky, wave after wave.

The playfield is mostly black, with a graded blue surface of the planet along the bottom of the screen. A pulsing, beating sound plays in the background. It increases in pitch the further you get into each level, only to pause and then start over with the next wave. The demons themselves are drawn beautifully, with finely detailed, colorful designs that are well animated and change from wave to wave. Every time you complete a wave, you get an extra life, to a maximum of six.

On later waves, the demons divide in two when shot, and are worth double the points. You can shoot the smaller demons, or just wait—eventually each one swoops down toward your laser cannon, back and forth until it reaches the bottom of the screen, at which point it disappears from the playfield. Shoot it while it’s diving and you get quadruple points. In the later stages, demons also shoot longer, faster clusters of lasers at your cannon.

The game is for one or two players, though there’s a cooperative mode that lets you take turns against the same waves of demons. There are also variations of the game that let you shoot faster lasers, as well as tracer shots that you can steer into the demons. After 84 waves, the game ends with a blank screen, though reportedly a later run of this cartridge eliminates that and lets you play indefinitely. If I were still nine years old, I could probably take a couple of days out of summer and see if this is true. I am no longer nine years old.

Demon Attack was one of Imagic’s first three games, along with Trick Shot and Star Voyager. Rob Fulop, originally of Atari fame and one of Imagic’s four founders, programmed Demon Attack. In November 1982, Atari sued Imagic because of Demon Attack’s similarity to Phoenix, the home rights of which Atari had purchased from Centuri. The case was eventually settled. Billboard magazine listed Demon Attack as one of the 10 best-selling games of 1982. It was also Imagic’s best-selling title, and Electronic Games magazine awarded it Game of the Year.

“The trick to the Demon Attack graphics was it was the first game to use my Scotch-taped/rubber-banded dedicated 2600 sprite animation authoring tool that ran on the Atari 800,” Fulop said in 1993. “The first time Michael Becker made a little test animation and we ran Bob Smith’s utility that successfully squirted his saved sprite data straight into the Demon Attack assembly code and it looked the same on the [2600] as it did on the 800 was HUGE! Before that day, all 2600 graphics ever seen were made using a #2 pencil, a sheet of graph paper, a lot of erasing, and a list of hex codes that were then retyped into the source assembly code, typically introducing a minimum of two pixel errors per eight-by-eight graphic stamp.”

Although you can draw a line from Space Invaders to just about any game like this, Demon Attack combines that with elements of Galaga and Phoenix, with a beautiful look and superb gameplay all its own.

Pitfall! (Activision, April 1982)

A watershed moment in video game history, David Crane’s Pitfall! was one of the best games released for the 2600. As Pitfall Harry, your goal is to race through the jungle and collect 32 treasures—money bags, silver bars, gold bars, and diamond rings, worth from 2,000 to 5,000 points each. Jump and grab vines, and you soar over lakes, quicksand, and alligators, complete with a Tarzan-style “yell.” You can stumble on a rolling log or fall into a hole, both of which just dock you some points. Each time you fall into quicksand or a tar pit, drown in a lake, burn in a fire, or get eaten by an alligator or scorpion, you lose a life. When that happens, you start the next one by dropping from the trees on the left side of the screen to keep playing.

Pushing the joystick left or right makes Pitfall Harry run. He picks up treasure automatically. Holding the stick in either direction while pressing the button makes him jump, either over an obstacle or onto a swinging vine (running into the vine without jumping also works). Push down while swinging to let go of the vine. You also can push up or down to climb ladders.

In an incredible feat of programming, the game contains 255 screens, with the 32 treasures scattered throughout them. The world loops around once you reach the last screen. Although Adventure pioneered the multiroom map on the 2600, Pitfall! was a considerably larger design. Crane fit the game into the same 4KB ROM as Adventure. But rather than storing all 255 screens as part of the ROM—which wouldn’t have fit—Crane’s solution was not to store the world in ROM at all. Instead, the world is generated by code, the same way each time. This is similar to games like Rogue, but even in that case, the game generates the world and then stores it during play. Pitfall! generates each screen via an algorithm, using a counter that increments in a pseudorandom sequence that is nonetheless consistent and can be run forwards or backwards. The 8 bits of each number in the counter sequence define the way the board looks. Bits 0 through 2 are object patterns, bits 3 through 5 are ground patterns, bits 6 and 7 cover the trees, and bit 7 also affects the underground pattern. This way, the world is generated the same way each and every single time. When you leave one screen, you always end up on the same next screen.

“The game was a jewel, a perfect world incised in a mere [4KB] of code,” Nick Montfort wrote in 2001 in Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age, 1971-1984.

You get a total of three lives, and Crane points out in the manual that you need to use some of the underground passages (which skip three screens ahead instead of one) to complete the game on time. The inclusion of two on-screen levels—above ground and below ground, with ladders connecting them—makes the game an official platformer. And the game even gives you some say in where to go and what path you take to get there. Pitfall Harry is smoothly animated, and the vines deliver a genuine sensation of swinging even though the game is in 2D.

The game’s 20-minute timer, which approximates the 22-minute length of a standard half-hour television show, marked a milestone for console play. It was much longer than most arcade games and even cartridges like Adventure, which you could complete in a few minutes. The extra length allows for more in-depth play.

“Games in the early ’80s primarily used inanimate objects as main characters,” Crane said in a 2011 interview. “Rarely there would be a person, but even those weren’t fully articulated. I wanted to make a game character that could run, jump, climb, and otherwise interact with an on-screen world.” Crane spent the next couple of years tinkering with the idea before finally coming up with Pitfall!. “[After] only about 10 minutes I had a sketch of a man running on a path through the jungle collecting treasures. Then, after ‘only’ 1,000 hours of pixel drawing and programming, Pitfall Harry came to life.”

Crane said he had already gone beyond that 4KB ROM limit and back within it many times over hundreds of hours. Right before release, he was asked to add additional lives. “Now I had to add a display to show your number of lives remaining, and I had to bring in a new character when a new life was used.” The latter was easy, Crane said, because Pitfall Harry already knew how to fall and stop when he hit the ground. Crane just dropped him from behind the tree cover. “For the ‘Lives’ indicator I added vertical tally marks to the timer display. That probably only cost 24 bytes, and with another 20 hours of ‘scrunching’ the code I could fit that in.”

Pitfall! couldn’t have been timed more perfectly, as Raiders of the Lost Ark was the prior year’s biggest movie. The cartridge delivered the goods; it became the best-selling home video game of 1982 and it’s often credited as the game that kickstarted the platformer genre. Pitfall! held the top spot on Billboard’s chart for 64 consecutive weeks. “The fine graphic sense of the Activision design team greatly enriches the Pitfall! experience,” Electronic Games magazine wrote in January 1983, on bestowing the cartridge Best Adventure Videogame. “This is as richly complex a video game as you’ll find anywhere…Watching Harry swing across a quicksand pit on a slender vine while crocodiles snap their jaws frantically in a futile effort to tear off a little leg-of-hero snack is what video game adventures are all about.” Pitfall!’s influence is impossible to overstate. From Super Mario Bros. to Prince of Persia to Tomb Raider, it was the start of something huge.

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