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Daily Crunch: Google’s not making any more tablets

Posted by | Daily Crunch, Google, hardware, Mobile | No Comments

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Google says it’s not making any more tablets

“For Google’s first-party hardware efforts, we’ll be focusing on Chrome OS laptops and will continue to support Pixel Slate,” the company said in statement.

Google SVP Rick Osterloh took to Twitter to emphasize that while Google’s hardware team will be “solely focused on building laptops moving forward,” the company will still be working with partners on Android and Chrome OS tablets.

2. Slack’s value rockets as stock closes up 48.5% in public debut

At the close of trading yesterday, Slack’s market cap sat well above $20 billion, or nearly 3 times its most recent private valuation of $7 billion.

3. One of NASA’s robotic astronaut helpers just flew on its own in space for the first time

The robot — called “Bumble” and one of a series of Astrobee robots that NASA developed to work along with astronauts on the ISS — is the first ever to fly on its own in space.

4. Samsung exec says the Galaxy Fold is ‘ready to hit the market’

Just last week, Huawei noted that it was holding off on its own Mate X release. But Samsung, at least, may finally be ready to unleash its foldable on the world, two months after the planned release.

5. Meet your new chief of staff: An AI chatbot

Mailbox’s founders are back with their second act: An AI-enabled assistant called Navigator meant to help teams work and communicate more efficiently.

6. Terry Gou resigns as Foxconn’s chairman to run for president of Taiwan

Gou, who founded Foxconn 45 years ago and is also its biggest shareholder, will remain on the company’s board.

7. A chat with Niantic CEO John Hanke on the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Built in collaboration with WB Games, Wizards Unite is a reimagining of Pokémon GO’s real-world, location-based gaming concept through the lens of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

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Northzone’s Paul Murphy goes deep on the next era of gaming

Posted by | Amazon, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Electronic Arts, esports, Gaming, Google, King, league of legends, Media, mobile gaming, Netflix, Nintendo Switch, Paul Murphy, Rovio, Sports, stadia, Startups, Steam, supercell, Talent, TC, Tencent, unity-technologies, Venture Capital, Virtual reality | No Comments

As the gaming market continues to boom, billions of dollars are being invested in new games and new streaming platforms vying to own a piece of the action. Most of the value is accruing to the large incumbents in a space, however, and the entrance of Google and other big tech companies makes it difficult to identify where there are compelling opportunities for entrepreneurs to build new empires.

TechCrunch media analyst Eric Peckham recently sat down with Paul Murphy, Partner at European venture firm Northzone, to discuss Paul’s view of the market and where he is focusing his dollars. Below is the transcript of the conversation (edited for length and clarity):


Eric Peckham: You co-founded the hit mobile game Dots before moving to London and joining Northzone last year. Are you still bullish on investment opportunities in mobile gaming or do you think the market has changed?

Paul Murphy: I’m bullish on mobile gaming–the market is bigger than it has ever been. There’s a whole generation of people that have been trained to play games on mobile phones. So those are things that are very positive.

The challenge is you don’t really have a rising tide moment anymore. The winners have won. And so it’s very, very difficult for someone to enter with new content and build a business that’s as big as Supercell or King, regardless of how good their content is. So while the prize for winning in mobile gaming content big, the likelihood is smaller.

Where I’m spending most of my time is not on content, it’s on components within mobile gaming. We’re looking at infrastructure: different platforms that enable mobile gaming, like Bunch which we invested in.

Their product allows you to do live video and audio on top of mobile games. So we don’t have to take any content risk. We’re betting that this great product will fit into a large inventory ecosystem.

Peckham: New mobile game studios that are launching all seem to fall under the sphere of influence of these bigger companies. They get a strategic investment from Supercell or another company. To your point, it’s tough for a small startup to compete entirely on its own.

Murphy: It’s possible in mobile gaming still but it’s really, really hard now. At the same time, what you’ve seen is the odds of winning are lower. It is hard to reach the same scale when it costs you $5.00 to acquire a user today, whereas when Candy Crush launched, it was $0.05 per user. So it’s almost impossible to achieve King-like scale today.

Therefore, you’re looking at similar content risk with reduced upside, which makes that equation less attractive for venture capital. But it might be perfectly fine for an established company because they don’t need to do the marketing, they have the audience already.

The big gaming companies all struggle with the challenge of how to create the next hit IP. They have this machine that can bring any great game to market efficiently, with a large audience they can cross promote from and capital they can invest to build a big brand quickly. For them, the biggest challenge is getting the best content.

So it’s natural to me that the pendulum has swung towards strategic investors in mobile gaming content. Epic has a fund that they set up with Improbable, Supercell is making direct investments, Tencent has been making investments for years. Even from a content perspective, you’re probably going to see Apple, Google, and Amazon making more content investments in mobile gaming.

Image via Getty Images / aurielaki

Peckham: Does this same market dynamic apply to PC games and console games? Do you see a certain area within gaming where there’s still opportunity for independent startups to create the game itself and find success at a venture scale?

Murphy: The reason we made our investment in Klang Games, which is building an MMO called Seed that people will primarily play through PC, is that while there is content risk–you’re never going to get rid of the possibility that the IP doesn’t fly–if it works, it will be massive…an Earth-shattering level of success. If their vision comes to life, it will be very, very big.

So that one has all the risks that you’d have in any other game studio but the upside is exponentially larger, so the bet makes sense to us. And it so happens that it’s going to be on PC first, where there’s certainly a lot of competition but it’s not as saturated and the monetization methods are healthier than in mobile gaming. In PC, you don’t have to do free-to-play tactics that interfere with the gameplay.

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A chat with Niantic CEO John Hanke on the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gaming, Google, harry potter wizards unite, ingress, interview transcript, john hanke, Media, Mobile, mobile gaming, niantic, Personnel, pokemon, Pokémon Go, Social, Startups, Talent, TC, universal studios, Virtual reality | No Comments

Just shy of three years ago, Pokémon GO took over the world. Players filled the sidewalks, and crowds of trainers flooded parks and landmarks. Anywhere you looked, people were throwing Pokéballs and chasing Snorlax.

As the game grew, so did the company behind it. Niantic had started its life as an experimental “lab” within Google — an effort on Google’s part to keep the team’s founder, John Hanke, from parting ways to start his own thing. In the months surrounding GO’s launch, Niantic’s team shrank dramatically, spun out of Google, and then rapidly expanded… all while trying to keep GO’s servers from buckling under demand and to keep this massive influx of players happy. Want to know more about the company’s story so far? Check out the Niantic EC-1 on ExtraCrunch here.

Now Niantic is back with its next title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Built in collaboration with WB Games, it’s a reimagining of Pokémon GO’s real-world, location-based gaming concept through the lens of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.

I got a chance to catch up with John Hanke for a few minutes earlier this week — just ahead of the game’s US/UK launch this morning. We talked about how they prepared for this game’s launch, how it’s built upon a platform they’ve been developing across their other titles for years, and how Niantic’s partnership with WB Games works creatively and financially.

Greg Kumparak: Can you tell me a bit about how all this came to be?

John Hanke: Yeah, you know.. we did Ingress first, and we were thinking about other projects we could build. Pokémon was one that came up early, so we jumped on that — but the other one that was always there from the beginning, of the projects we wanted to do, was Harry Potter. I mean, it’s universally beloved. My kids love the books and movies, so it’s something I always wanted to do.

Like Pokémon, it was an IP we felt was a great fit for [augmented reality]. That line between the “muggle” world and the “magic” world was paper thin in the fiction, so imagining breaking through that fourth wall and experiencing that magic through AR seemed like a great way to use the technology to fulfill an awesome fan fantasy.

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Carmen Sandiego returns to Google Earth with a new caper

Posted by | fiction, Gaming, Google, Google-Earth, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Netflix, russia, TC | No Comments

Google Earth first made use of its rich global 3D visualization as a backdrop for a Carmen Sandiego tie-in back in March, but today there’s a new adventure to explore. After solving The Crown Jewels Caper, amateur home gumshoes are now tasked with finding out the secrets of The Keys to the Kremlin Caper, which kicks off in Russia, as you might’ve guessed from the name.

Google makes use of the Netflix re-imagining of the classic globetrotting Carmen Sandiego character, which debuted in a 1985 computer game released by Broderbund Software. The Google Earth version includes pixelated graphics and gameplay inspired by the original series, with the modern look that’s used in the Netflix show by educational publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The game can be played on Android, iOS or desktop (via Chrome) and has a lot of the same charm and appeal of the original series, with similar educational value in terms of highlighting some key cultural and geographic details along the way as you investigate the case.

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Is your product’s AI annoying people?

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, brand management, cars, Column, customer experience, Emerging-Technologies, Google, Google Duplex, personal assistant, Tesla, Tesla Autopilot, Tesla Model S | No Comments
James Glasnapp
Contributor

James Glasnapp is a senior UX researcher at PARC.

Artificial intelligence is allowing us all to consider surprising new ways to simplify the lives of our customers. As a product developer, your central focus is always on the customer. But new problems can arise when the specific solution under development helps one customer while alienating others.

We tend to think of AI as an incredible dream assistant to our lives and business operations, when that’s not always the case. Designers of new AI services should consider in what ways and for whom might these services be annoying, burdensome or problematic, and whether it involves the direct customer or others who are intertwined with the customer. When we apply AI services to make tasks easier for our customers that end up making things more difficult for others, that outcome can ultimately cause real harm to our brand perception.

Let’s consider one personal example taken from my own use of Amy.ai, a service (from x.ai) that provides AI assistants named Amy and Andrew Ingram. Amy and Andrew are AI assistants that help schedule meetings for up to four people. This service solves the very relatable problem of scheduling meetings over email, at least for the person who is trying to do the scheduling.

After all, who doesn’t want a personal assistant to whom you can simply say, “Amy, please find the time next week to meet with Tom, Mary, Anushya and Shiveesh.” In this way, you don’t have to arrange a meeting room, send the email, and go back and forth managing everyone’s replies. My own experience showed that while it was easier for me to use Amy to find a good time to meet with my four colleagues, it soon became a headache for those other four people. They resented me for it after being bombarded by countless emails trying to find some mutually agreeable time and place for everyone involved.

Automotive designers are another group that’s incorporating all kinds of new AI systems to enhance the driving experience. For instance, Tesla recently updated its autopilot software to allow a car to change lanes automatically when it sees fit, presumably when the system interprets that the next lane’s traffic is going faster.

In concept, this idea seems advantageous to the driver who can make a safe entrance into faster traffic, while relieving any cognitive burden of having to change lanes manually. Furthermore, by allowing the Tesla system to change lanes, it takes away the desire to play Speed Racer or edge toward competitiveness that one may feel on the highway.

However, for the drivers in other lanes who are forced to react to the Tesla autopilot, they may be annoyed if the Tesla jerks, slows down or behaves outside the normal realm of what people expect on the freeway. Moreover, if they are driving very fast and the autopilot did not recognize they were operating at a high rate of speed when the car decided to make the lane change, then that other driver can get annoyed. We can all relate to driving 75 mph in the fast lane, only to have someone suddenly pull in front of us at 70 as if they were clueless that the lane was moving at 75.

For two-lane traffic highways that are not busy, the Tesla software might work reasonably well. However, in my experience of driving around the congested freeways of the Bay Area, the system performed horribly whenever I changed crowded lanes, and I knew that it was angering other drivers most of the time. Even without knowing those irate drivers personally, I care enough about driving etiquette to politely change lanes without getting the finger from them for doing so.

Post Intelligence robot

Another example from the internet world involves Google Duplex, a clever feature for Android phone users that allows AI to make restaurant reservations. From the consumer point of view, having an automated system to make a dinner reservation on one’s behalf sounds excellent. It is advantageous to the person making the reservation because, theoretically, it will save the burden of calling when the restaurant is open and the hassle of dealing with busy signals and callbacks.

However, this tool is also potentially problematic for the restaurant worker who answers the phone. Even though the system may introduce itself as artificial, the burden shifts to the restaurant employee to adapt and master a new and more limited interaction to achieve the same goal — making a simple reservation.

On the one hand, Duplex is bringing customers to the restaurant, but on the other hand, the system is narrowing the scope of interaction between the restaurant and its customer. The restaurant may have other tables on different days, or it may be able to squeeze you in if you leave early, but the system might not handle exceptions like this. Even the idea of an AI bot bothering the host who answers the phone doesn’t seem quite right.

As you think about making the lives of your customers easier, consider how the assistance you are dreaming about might be more of a nightmare for everyone else associated with your primary customer. If there is a question regarding the negative experience of anyone related to your AI product, explore that experience further to determine if there is another better way to still delight them without angering their neighbors.

From a user-experience perspective, developing a customer journey map can be a helpful way to explore the actions, thoughts and emotional experiences of your primary customer or “buyer persona.” Identify the touchpoints in which your system interacts with innocent bystanders who are not your direct customers. For those people unaware of your product, explore their interaction with your buyer persona, specifically their emotional experience.

An aspirational goal should be to delight this adjacent group of people enough that they would move toward being prospects and, eventually, becoming your customers as well. Also, you can use participant ethnography to analyze the innocent bystander in relation to your product. This is a research method that combines the observations of people as they interact with processes and the product.

A guiding design inspiration for this research could be, “How can our AI system behave in such a way that everyone who might come into contact with our product is enchanted and wants to know more?”

That’s just human intelligence, and it’s not artificial.

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From Project Scarlett to Gooigi: The best of E3 2019

Posted by | e3 2019, Gaming, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony | No Comments

Every story about E3 has opened with a mention of Sony’s absence, and this one’s no different. The lack of one of gaming’s “big three” loomed large over the show, right down to a strange sense of space on the showroom floor.

Even Xbox chief Phil Spencer mourned the absence of the company’s biggest competitor, stating, “I wish Sony was here,” during a live stream.

But the show went on, as it has through countless ebbs and flows of the gaming industry. Sony’s clearly got plenty up its sleeve with regard to next-generation content, and frankly, no one’s too worried about their health.

Microsoft, meanwhile, came out swinging on Sunday. The company had a TON of games to reveal at the show, with dozens of trailers, all told. And while Microsoft did touch upon two key pieces of news, it ultimately ended up blowing through those announcements, with very little time devoted to either its next-generation 8K console, Project Scarlett, or its streaming service, Project xCloud.

In fact, we ultimately went back to Microsoft later in the week to clarify some things about the service and discovered in the process that console streaming will be free and not a part of the broader xCloud offering.

While Microsoft ultimately seemed cautious (or pressed for time) to go into either xCloud or Game Pass in too much detail onstage, streaming was unquestionably the biggest story of the show. That’s due in no small part to the fact that Google took a little wind out of E3’s sails by shedding more light on its Stadia offering during a surprise press conference last Friday.

On Tuesday, a Nintendo executive confirmed for me that the company is exploring streaming, but wasn’t able to comment on any specifics. Regardless, the writing is clearly on the wall here, and Nintendo has certainly taken notice. In the meantime, the company showed off its latest Animal Crossing title, a sneak peek of the next Zelda and the surprise hit of the show: A gooey Luigi called, naturally, Gooigi. Honestly though, I’m most excited about that Link’s Awakening remaster.

Square’s big event was fairly lackluster, though we did get a preview of the Uncanny (Valley) Avengers. Ubisoft had some cool demos on tap, including Watch Dogs: Legion and story mode for Assassin’s Creed. The publisher is also launching its own streaming service, with help from Google Stadia. Bethesda, meanwhile, is getting in on the battle royale phenomenon with a new mode for Fallout 76. Though the Fall Guys’ version is far more adorable.

There’s a Razer energy drink, Opera gaming browser, new George R.R. Martin game, Warcraft-meets-The-Office show from the It’s Always Sunny crew and a dance game for the Nintendo Wii. Not the Switch, not the Wii U, the Wii. Happy E3 2019!

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Google’s Game Builder turns building multiplayer games into a game

Posted by | cloud gaming, Developer, e-commerce, freeware, Gaming, Google, Javascript, Minecraft, Software, stadia, Steam, video games, video gaming | No Comments

Google’s Area 120 team, the company’s in-house incubator for some of its more experimental projects, today launched Game Builder, a free and easy to use tool for PC and macOS users who want to build their own 3D games without having to know how to code. Game Builder is currently only available through Valve’s Steam platform, so you’ll need an account there to try it.

After a quick download, Game Builder asks you about what screen size you want to work on and then drops you right into the experience after you tell it whether you want to start a new project, work on an existing project or try out some sample projects. These sample projects include a first-person shooter, a platformer and a demo of the tool’s card system for programming more complex interactions.

The menu system and building experience take some getting used to and isn’t immediately intuitive, but after a while, you’ll get the hang of it. By default, the overall design aesthetic clearly draws some inspiration from Minecraft, but you’re pretty free in what kind of game you want to create. It does not strike me as a tool for getting smaller children into game programming since we’re talking about a relatively text-heavy and complex experience.

To build more complex interactions, you use Game Builder’s card-based visual programming system. That’s pretty straightforward, too, but also takes some getting used to. Google says building a 3D level is like playing a game. There’s some truth in that, in that you are building inside the game environment, but it’s not necessarily an easy game either.

One cool feature here is that you can also build multiplayer games and even create games in real time with your friends.

Traditionally, drag-and-drop game builders feel pretty limited. The Area 120 team is trying to overcome this by also letting you use JavaScript to go beyond some of the pre-programmed features. Google is also betting on Poly, its library of 3D objects, to give users lots of options for creating and designing their levels.

It’s no secret that Google is taking games pretty seriously these days, now that it is getting ready to launch its Stadia game streaming service later this year. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between the two just yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Game Builder on Stadia, too.

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What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

Posted by | Apple, e3 2019, events, Gadgets, Gaming, Google, Hulu, Media, Microsoft, Netflix, Nintendo, Sony, Spotify, stadia, Streaming Media, ubisoft, Uplay, xbox | No Comments

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

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Google opens its Android security-key tech to iPhone and iPad users

Posted by | Android, authentication, computer security, cryptography, Google, iPad, multi-factor authentication, Security, security token | No Comments

Google will now allow iPhone and iPad owners to use their Android security key to verify sign-ins, the company said Wednesday.

Last month, the search and mobile giant said it developed a new Bluetooth-based protocol that will allow modern Android 7.0 devices and later to act as a security key for two-factor authentication. Since then, Google said 100,000 users are already using their Android phones as a security key.

Since its debut, the technology was limited to Chrome sign-ins. Now Google says Apple device owners can get the same protections without having to plug anything in.

Signing in to a Google account on an iPad using an Android 7.0 device (Image: Google)

Security keys are an important security step for users who are particularly at risk of advanced attacks. They’re designed to thwart even the smartest and most resourceful attackers, like nation-state hackers. Instead of a security key that you keep on your key ring, newer Android devices have the technology built-in. When you log in to your account, you are prompted to authenticate with your key. Even if someone steals your password, they can’t log in without your authenticating device. Even phishing pages won’t work because only legitimate websites support security keys.

For the most part, security keys are a last line of defense. Google admitted last month that its standalone Titan security keys were vulnerable to a pairing bug, potentially putting it at risk of hijack. The company offered a free replacement for any affected device.

The security key technology is also FIDO2 compliant, a secure and flexible standard that allows various devices running different operating systems to communicate with each other for authentication.

For the Android security key to work, iPhone and iPad users need the Google Smart Lock app installed. For now, Google said the Android security key will be limited to sign-ins to Google accounts only.

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Google Assistant comes to Waze navigation app

Posted by | Android, Android Auto, Apps, Assistant, automotive, computing, Google, Google-Maps, Lyft, smartphones, Software, TC, Transportation, Uber, United States, waze | No Comments

Ever since Google acquired Waze back in 2013, features from each have been slowly making their way back and forth between it and Google Maps — and today Waze gets a big upgrade with Google Assistant integration, which means you can use the smart voice companion within the app.

Google Assistant in Waze will provide access to your usual Assistant features, like playback of music and podcasts, but it’ll also offer access to many Waze-specific abilities, including letting you ask it to report traffic conditions, or specifying that you want to avoid tolls when routing to your destination.

Google has done a good job of rolling out support for Assistant in its own Android Auto in-car software, and even brought it to Google Maps on Apple’s competing CarPlay system earlier this year. The benefits of having Assistant work natively within Waze are many, but the number one might be its potential to reduce distractions while on the road.

Waze remains a top choice among drivers, and anecdotally most Uber and Lyft drivers I encounter still swear by its supremacy over the competition, including Google’s other own-branded Maps solution.

Google Assistant will be available via a rollout starting today in the U.S., in English only to start and on Android smartphones. Expect that availability to expand over time.

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