Virtual reality

Facebook acquires the VR game studio behind one of the Rift’s best titles

Posted by | Facebook, Gaming, M&A, Oculus Rift, Sanzaru Games, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

Facebook is aiming to build on its VR hardware launches of 2019 with an investment in virtual reality software.

Facebook announced today that it has acquired Bay Area VR studio Sanzaru Games, the developer of “Asgard’s Wrath,” considered by many enthusiasts to be one of the Oculus Rift’s best games. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but the studio will continue to operate its offices in the U.S. and Canada with “the vast majority” of employees coming aboard following the acquisition, Facebook says.

The 13-year-old game studio has created a total of four titles for the Oculus Rift, including “Asgard’s Wrath” and “Marvel Powers United VR,” both of which were at least partially funded by Oculus Studios. Sanzaru has also made a number of titles on console and mobile systems, releasing games structured around their own IP alongside licensed titles for properties like Sonic and Spyro.

Following Facebook’s acquisition of Beat Games in November, the Sanzaru Games purchase showcases Facebook’s continued interest in propping up VR game studios and aligning them around their interests while allowing them to operate independently. While Beat Games’ “Beat Saber” was considered a more mass market title, Sanzaru’s “Asgard’s Wrath” represented a play toward courting serious gamers with a lengthier first-person adventure title.

Facebook has already injected billions of dollars into its VR ambitions and, as the company hopes to build out the content ecosystems of hardware it released last year (including the Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S), there is little to suggest that their rate of investment will slow in the near future.

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Games already are social networks

Posted by | augmented reality, clash of clans, discord, epic games, Facebook, Gaming, High Fidelity, league of legends, Philip Rosedale, Social, Virtual reality, virtual worlds | No Comments

Video games are only getting more popular.

Roughly 2.5 billion people around the world played games last year, double the number of players in 2013. Gaming is a $149 billion industry, growing 7% year over year, with the U.S. as its largest market. In America, the average gamer is 33 years old and 46% of gamers are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

(This is part one of a seven-part series about virtual worlds.)

Per Quartz reporter Dan Kopf’s summary of U.S. Department of Labor data:

More people now report playing games on a typical day — 11.4% in 2017 compared to 7.8% in 2003 — and, on days they do play games, they spend more time doing so — about 145 minutes in 2017, compared to 125 in 2003.

Young people are the biggest driver of the trend. From 2003 to 2015, 15-24 year olds spent less than 25 minutes playing games on the average day. From 2015 to 2017, those in that age group dedicated almost 40 minutes a day to games.

Mobile games account for a large part of this dramatic growth, but all major game categories are growing. The console gaming market — the oldest segment and most expensive due to hardware cost — expanded more than 7% last year alone.

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A multiverse, not the metaverse

Posted by | augmented reality, epic games, Facebook, fortnite, Gaming, Minecraft, Mojang, Roblox, Social, Virtual reality, virtual worlds | No Comments

Following web forums, web platforms and mobile apps, we are entering a new stage of social media — the multiverse era — where the virtual worlds of games expand to become mainstream hubs for social interaction and entertainment. In a seven-part Extra Crunch series, we will explore why that is the case and which challenges and opportunities are making it happen.

In 10 years, we will have undergone a paradigm shift in social media and human-computer interaction, moving away from 2D apps centered on posting content toward shared feeds and an era where mixed reality (viewed with lightweight headsets) mixes virtual and physical worlds. But we’re not technologically or culturally ready for that future yet. The “metaverse” of science fiction is not arriving imminently.

Instead, the virtual worlds of multiplayer games — still accessed from phones, tablets, PCs and consoles — are our stepping stones during this next phase.

Understanding this gradual transition helps us reconcile the futuristic visions of many in tech with the reality of how most humans will participate in virtual worlds and how social media impacts society. This transition centers on the merging of gaming and social media and leads to a new model of virtual worlds that are directly connected with our physical world, instead of isolated from it.

Multiverse virtual worlds will come to function almost like new countries in our society, countries that exist in cyberspace rather than physical locations but have complex economic and political systems that interact with the physical world.

Throughout these posts, I make a distinction between the “physical,” “virtual,” and “real” worlds. Our physical world defines tangible existence like in-person interactions and geographic location. The virtual world is that of digital technology and cyberspace: websites, social media, games. The real world is defined by the norms of what we accept as normal and meaningful in society. Laws and finance aren’t physical, but they are universally accepted as concrete aspects of life. I’ll argue here that social media apps are virtual worlds we have accepted as real — unified with normal life rather than separate from it — and that multiverse virtual worlds will make the same crossover.

In fact, because they incentivize small group interactions and accomplishment of collaborative tasks rather than promotion of viral posts, multiverse virtual worlds will bring a healthier era for social media’s societal impact.

The popularity of massive multiplayer online (MMO) gaming is exploding at the same time that the technology to access persistent virtual worlds with high-quality graphics from nearly any device is hitting the market. The rise of Epic Games’ Fortnite since 2017 accelerated interest in MMO games from both consumers who don’t consider themselves gamers and from journalists and investors who hadn’t paid much attention to gaming before.

In the decade ahead, people will come to socialize as much in virtual worlds that evolved from games as they will on platforms like Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. Building things with friends within virtual worlds will become common, and major events within the most popular virtual worlds will become pop culture news stories.

Right now, three-quarters of U.S.-based Facebook users interact with the site on a daily basis; Instagram (63%), Snapchat (61%), YouTube (51%) and Twitter (41%) have similarly penetrated the daily lives of Americans. By comparison, the percentage of people who play a game on any given day increased from just 8% in 2003 to 11% in 2016. Within the next few years, that number will multiply as the virtual worlds within games become more fulfilling social, entertainment and commercial platforms.

As I mentioned in my 2020 media predictions article, Facebook is readying itself for this future and VCs are funding numerous startups that are building toward it, like Klang Games, Darewise Entertainment and Singularity 6. Epic Games joins Roblox and Mojang (the company behind Minecraft) as among the best-positioned large gaming companies to seize this opportunity. Startups are already popping up to provide the middleware for virtual economies as they become larger and more complex, and a more intense wave of such startups will arrive over the next few years to provide that infrastructure as a service.

Over the next few years, there will be a trend: new open-world MMO games that emphasize social functionality that engages users, even if they don’t care much about the mission of the game itself. These new products will target casual gamers wanting to enter the world for merely a few minutes at a time since hardcore gamers are already well-served by game publishers.

Some of these more casual, socializing-oriented MMOs will gain widespread popularity, the economy within and around them will soar and the original gaming scenario that provided a focus on what to do will diminish as content created by users becomes the main attraction.

Let’s explore the forces that underpin this transition. Continue reading through the seven articles in this series (which will be linked below as they are published daily over the next six days):

  1. Games already are social networks
  2. Social apps already are lightweight virtual worlds
  3. What virtual worlds in this transition era look like
  4. Why didn’t this already happen?
  5. How virtual worlds could save society
  6. The rise of virtual economies and their merging with our “real” economy
  7. Competitive landscape of the multiverse

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Forensic Architecture redeploys surveillance-state tech to combat state-sponsored violence

Posted by | augmented reality, eyal weizman, forensic architecture, Gadgets, Government, Media, privacy, Social, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

The specter of constant surveillance hangs over all of us in ways we don’t even fully understand, but it is also possible to turn the tools of the watchers against them. Forensic Architecture is exhibiting several long-term projects at the Museum of Art and Design in Miami that use the omnipresence of technology as a way to expose crimes and violence by oppressive states.

Over seven years Eyal Weizman and his team have performed dozens of investigations into instances of state-sponsored violence, from drone strikes to police brutality. Often these events are minimized at all levels by the state actors involved, denied or no-commented until the media cycle moves on. But sometimes technology provides ways to prove a crime was committed and occasionally even cause the perpetrator to admit it — hoisted by their own electronic petard.

Sometimes this is actual state-deployed kit, like body cameras or public records, but it also uses private information co-opted by state authorities to track individuals, like digital metadata from messages and location services.

For instance, when Chicago police shot and killed Harith Augustus in 2018, the department released some footage of the incident, saying that it “speaks for itself.” But Forensic Architecture’s close inspection of the body cam footage and cross reference with other materials makes it obvious that the police violated numerous rules (including in the operation of the body cams) in their interaction with him, escalating the situation and ultimately killing a man who by all indications — except the official account — was attempting to comply. It also helped additional footage see the light which was either mistakenly or deliberately left out of a FOIA release.

In another situation, a trio of Turkish migrants seeking asylum in Greece were shown, by analysis of their WhatsApp messages, images and location and time stamps, to have entered Greece and been detained by Greek authorities before being “pushed back” by unidentified masked escorts, having been afforded no legal recourse to asylum processes or the like. This is one example of several recently that appear to be private actors working in concert with the state to deprive people of their rights.

Situated testimony for survivors

I spoke with Weizman before the opening of this exhibition in Miami, where some of the latest investigations are being shown off. (Shortly after our interview he would be denied entry to the U.S. to attend the opening, with a border agent explaining that this denial was algorithmically determined; we’ll come back to this.)

The original motive for creating Forensic Architecture, he explained, was to elicit testimony from those who had experienced state violence.

“We started using this technique when in 2013 we met a drone survivor, a German woman who had survived a drone strike in Pakistan that killed several relatives of hers,” Weizman explained. “She has wanted to deliver testimony in a trial regarding the drone strike, but like many survivors her memory was affected by the trauma she has experienced. The memory of the event was scattered, it had lacunae and repetitions, as you often have with trauma. And her condition is like many who have to speak out in human rights work: The closer you get to the core of the testimony, the description of the event itself, the more it escapes you.”

The approach they took to help this woman, and later many others, jog her own memory, was something called “situated testimony.” Essentially it amounts to exposing the person to media from the experience, allowing them to “situate” themselves in that moment. This is not without its own risks.

“Of course you must have the appropriate trauma professionals present,” Weizman said. “We only bring people who are willing to participate and perform the experience of being again at the scene as it happened. Sometimes details that would not occur to someone to be important come out.”

A digital reconstruction of a drone strike’s explosion was recreated physically for another exhibition.

But it’s surprising how effective it can be, he explained. One case exposed American involvement hitherto undisclosed.

“We were researching a Cameroon special forces detention center, torture and death in custody occurred, for Amnesty International,” he explained. “We asked detainees to describe to us simply what was outside the window. How many trees, or what else they could see.” Such testimony could help place their exact location and orientation in the building and lead to more evidence, such as cameras across the street facing that room.

“And sitting in a room based on a satellite image of the area, one told us: ‘yes, there were two trees, and one was over by the fence where the American soldiers were jogging.’ We said, ‘wait, what, can you repeat that?’ They had been interviewed many times and never mentioned American soldiers,” Weizman recalled. “When we heard there were American personnel, we found Facebook posts from service personnel who were there, and were able to force the transfer of prisoners there to another prison.”

Weizman noted that the organization only goes where help is requested, and does not pursue what might be called private injustices, as opposed to public.

“We require an invitation, to be invited into this by communities that invite state violence. We’re not a forensic agency, we’re a counter-forensic agency. We only investigate crimes by state authorities.”

Using virtual reality: “Unparalleled. It’s almost tactile.”

In the latest of these investigations, being exhibited for the first time at MOAD, the team used virtual reality for the first time in their situated testimony work. While VR has proven to be somewhat less compelling than most would like on the entertainment front, it turns out to work quite well in this context.

“We worked with an Israeli whistleblower soldier regarding testimony of violence he committed against Palestinians,” Weizman said. “It has been denied by the Israeli prime minister and others, but we have been able to find Palestinian witnesses to that case, and put them in VR so we could cross reference them. We had victim and perpetrator testifying to the same crime in the same space, and their testimonies can be overlaid on each other.”

Dean Issacharoff — the soldier accused by Israel of giving false testimony — describes the moment he illegally beat a Palestinian civilian. (Caption and image courtesy of Forensic Architecture)

One thing about VR is that the sense of space is very real; if the environment is built accurately, things like sight-lines and positional audio can be extremely true to life. If someone says they saw the event occur here, but the state says it was here, and a camera this far away saw it at this angle… these incomplete accounts can be added together to form something more factual, and assembled into a virtual environment.

“That project is the first use of VR interviews we have done — it’s still in a very experimental stage. But it didn’t involve fatalities, so the level of trauma was a bit more controlled,” Weizman explained. “We have learned that the level and precision we can arrive at in reconstructing an incident is unparalleled. It’s almost tactile; you can walk through the space, you can see every object: guns, cars, civilians. And you can populate it until the witness is satisfied that this is what they experienced. I think this is a first, definitely in forensic terms, as far as uses of VR.”

A photogrammetry-based reconstruction of the area of Hebron where the incident took place.

In video of the situated testimony, you can see witnesses describing locations more exactly than they likely or even possibly could have without the virtual reconstruction. “I stood with the men at exactly that point,” says one, gesturing toward an object he recognized, then pointing upwards: “There were soldiers on the roof of this building, where the writing is.”

Of course it is not the digital recreation itself that forces the hand of those involved, but the incontrovertible facts it exposes. No one would ever have known that the U.S. had a presence at that detainment facility, and the country had no reason to say it did. The testimony wouldn’t even have been enough, except that it put the investigators onto a line of inquiry that produced data. And in the case of the Israeli whistleblower, the situated testimony defies official accounts that the organization he represented had lied about the incident.

Avoiding “product placement” and tech incursion

Sophie Landres, MOAD’s curator of Public Programs and Education, was eager to add that the museum is not hosting this exhibit as a way to highlight how wonderful technology is. It’s important to put the technology and its uses in context rather than try to dazzle people with its capabilities. You may find yourself playing into someone else’s agenda that way.

“For museum audiences, this might be one of their first encounters with VR deployed in this way. The companies that manufacture these technologies know that people will have their first experiences with this tech in a cultural or entertainment contrast, and they’re looking for us to put a friendly face on these technologies that have been created to enable war and surveillance capitalism,” she told me. “But we’re not interested in having our museum be a showcase for product placement without having a serious conversation about it. It’s a place where artists embrace new technologies, but also where they can turn it towards existing power structures.”

Boots on backs mean this not an advertisement for VR headsets or 3D modeling tools.

She cited a tongue-in-cheek definition of “mixed reality” referring to both digital crossover into the real world and the deliberate obfuscation of the truth at a greater scale.

“On the one hand you have mixing the digital world and the real, and on the other you have the mixed reality of the media environment, where there’s no agreement on reality and all these misinformation campaigns. What’s important about Forensic Architecture is they’re not just presenting evidence of the facts, but also the process used to arrive at these truth claims, and that’s extremely important.”

In openly presenting the means as well as the ends, Weizman and his team avoid succumbing to what he calls the “dark epistemology” of the present post-truth era.

“The arbitrary logic of the border”

As mentioned earlier, Weizman was denied entry to the U.S. for reasons unknown, but possibly related to the network of politically active people with whom he has associated for the sake of his work. Disturbingly, his wife and children were also stopped while entering the states a day before him and separated at the airport for questioning.

In a statement issued publicly afterwards, Weizman dissected the event.

In my interview the officer informed me that my authorization to travel had been revoked because the “algorithm” had identified a security threat. He said he did not know what had triggered the algorithm but suggested that it could be something I was involved in, people I am or was in contact with, places to which I had traveled… I was asked to supply the Embassy with additional information, including fifteen years of travel history, in particular where I had gone and who had paid for it. The officer said that Homeland Security’s investigators could assess my case more promptly if I supplied the names of anyone in my network whom I believed might have triggered the algorithm. I declined to provide this information.

This much we know: we are being electronically monitored for a set of connections – the network of associations, people, places, calls, and transactions – that make up our lives. Such network analysis poses many problems, some of which are well known. Working in human rights means being in contact with vulnerable communities, activists and experts, and being entrusted with sensitive information. These networks are the lifeline of any investigative work. I am alarmed that relations among our colleagues, stakeholders, and staff are being targeted by the US government as security threats.

This incident exemplifies – albeit in a far less intense manner and at a much less drastic scale – critical aspects of the “arbitrary logic of the border” that our exhibition seeks to expose. The racialized violations of the rights of migrants at the US southern border are of course much more serious and brutal than the procedural difficulties a UK national may experience, and these migrants have very limited avenues for accountability when contesting the violence of the US border.

The works being exhibited, he said, “seek to demonstrate that we can invert the forensic gaze and turn it against the actors — police, militaries, secret services, border agencies — that usually seek to monopolize information. But in employing the counter-forensic gaze one is also exposed to higher-level monitoring by the very state agencies investigated.”

Forensic Architecture’s investigations are ongoing; you can keep up with them at the organization’s website. And if you’re in Miami, drop by MOAD to see some of the work firsthand.

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Facebook is building an operating system so it can ditch Android

Posted by | Andrew Bosworth, Android, Apps, augmented reality, brain-computer interface, Facebook, Facebook hardware, Facebook Portal, Gadgets, Gaming, Google, hardware, Mobile, Oculus, Social, TC, Virtual reality, Wearables | No Comments

Facebook doesn’t want its hardware like Oculus or its augmented reality glasses to be at the mercy of Google because they rely on its Android operating system. That’s why Facebook has tasked Mark Lucovsky, a co-author of Microsoft’s Windows NT, with building the social network an operating system from scratch, according to The Information’s Alex Heath. To be clear, Facebook’s smartphone apps will remain available on Android.

“We really want to make sure the next generation has space for us,” says Facebook’s VP of Hardware, Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth. “We don’t think we can trust the marketplace or competitors to ensure that’s the case. And so we’re gonna do it ourselves.”

Eye OS

By moving to its own OS, Facebook could have more freedom to bake social interaction — and hopefully privacy — deeper into its devices. It could also prevent a disagreement between Google and Facebook from derailing the roadmaps of its gadgets. Facebook tells TechCrunch the focus of this work is on what’s needed for AR glasses. It’s exploring all the options right now, including potentially partnering with other companies or building a custom OS specifically for augmented reality.

One added bonus of moving to a Facebook-owned operating system? It could make it tougher to force Facebook to spin out some of its acquisitions, especially if Facebook goes with Instagram branding for its future augmented reality glasses.

Facebook Portal Lineup

Facebook has always been sore about not owning an operating system and having to depend on the courtesy of some of its biggest rivals. Those include Apple, whose CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly thrown jabs at Facebook and its chief Mark Zuckerberg over privacy and data collection. In a previous hedge against the power of the mobile operating systems, Facebook worked on a secret project codenamed Oxygen circa 2013 that would help it distribute Android apps from outside the Google Play store if necessary, Vox’s Kurt Wagner reported.

That said, its last attempt to wrestle more control of mobile away from the OS giants in 2013 went down in flames. The Facebook phone, built with HTC hardware, ran a forked version of Android and the Facebook Home user interface. But drowning the experience in friends’ photos and Messenger chat bubbles proved wildly unpopular, and both the HTC First and Facebook Home were shelved.

Investing in tomorrow tech

Now Facebook is hoping to learn from past mistakes as it ramps up its hardware efforts with a new office for the AR/VR team in Burlingame, 15 miles north of the company’s headquarters. The 770,000-square-foot space is designed to house roughly 4,000 employees. Facebook tells TechCrunch the team will move there in the second half of 2020 to make use of its labs, prototype space and testing areas. The AR/VR team will still have members at other offices across California, Washington, New York and abroad.

TechCrunch asked for more info about the space, and Facebook revealed that it’s planning to open a public-facing, experiential space — possibly the first Facebook-branded permanent location that anyone can visit. There, people will be able to come play with its augmented reality and virtual reality products. Those could range from the Oculus Quest headsets and Facebook Portal smart displays it currently sells to potential future products like the camera glasses it’s reportedly building with Ray Ban-maker Luxottica and eventually its full-fledged AR eyewear.

A rendering of Facebook’s under-construction new space in Burlingame, Calif.

Facebook says it’s considering building true retail space into the Burlingame office to let people try and then buy its hardware products. This would be a significant first step toward self-branded Facebook retail spaces in the vein of Apple and Microsoft’s stores.

Interested in potentially controlling more of the hardware stack, Facebook held acquisition talks with $4.5 billion market cap semiconductor company Cirrus Logic, which makes audio chips for Apple and more, The Information reports. That deal never happened, and it’s unclear how far the talks went given tech giants constantly keep their M&A teams open to discussions. But it shows how serious Facebook is taking hardware, even if Portal and Oculus sales have been slow to date. Facebook declined to comment on the matter.

That could start to change next year, though, as flagship virtual reality experiences hit the market. I got a press preview of the upcoming Medal of Honor first-person shooter that will launch on the Oculus Quest in 2020. An hour of playing the World War II game flew by, and it was one of the first VR games that felt like you could enjoy it week after week rather than being just a tech demo. Medal of Honor could prove to be the killer app that convinces gamers they have to get a Quest.

Social hardware

Facebook has also been working on hardware experiences for the enterprise. Facebook Workplace video calls can now run on Portal, with its smart camera auto-zooming to keep everyone in the board room in frame or focused on the action. The Information reports Facebook is also prototyping a VR videoconferencing system that Boz has been testing with his team. Facebook tells TechCrunch that Boz hosted two internal events where he videoconferenced through VR to about 100 of his team leaders using virtual Q&A software Facebook is prototyping internally. It’s hoping to learn what would be necessary to consistently hold meetings in VR.

The hardware initiatives, meanwhile, feed back into Facebook’s core ad business. It’s now using some data about what people do on their Oculus or Portal to target them with ads. From playing certain games to accessing kid-focused experiences to virtually teleporting to vacation destinations, there’s plenty of lucrative data for Facebook to potentially mine.

Facebook tells TechCrunch that Portal currently takes data — like if you log in, make calls or use certain features — to inform ad targeting. For example, it could show you ads related to video calling if you do that a lot. With Oculus, if you connect your Facebook account, then data about apps you use or events you join could be used to tune its algorithms or target ads.

Facebook even wants to know what’s on our mind before we act on it. The Information reports that Facebook’s brain-computer interface hardware for controlling interfaces by employing sensors to recognize a word a user is thinking has been shrunk down. It’s gone from the size of a refrigerator to something hand-held, but is still far from ready for integration into a phone. Facebook tells TechCrunch it’s making progress, improving the word error rate significantly up the state-of-the-art research and expanding the dictionary of words that can be recognized. Facebook can now decode brain activity in real time, and it’s working on an intermediary system for identifying single words as it pushes toward 100 words-per-minute brain typing.

Selling Oculus headsets, Portal screens and mind-readers might never generate the billions in profits Facebook earns from its efficient ads business, but they could ensure the social network isn’t locked out of the next waves of computing. Whether those are fully immersive like virtual reality, convenient complements to our phones like smart displays or minimally invasive sensors, Facebook wants them to be social. If it can bring your friends along to your new gadgets, Facebook will find some way to squeeze out revenue while keeping these devices from making us more isolated and less human.

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Valve’s flagship Half-Life VR game will land in March of 2020

Posted by | Gaming, half life, TC, Valve, Virtual reality | No Comments

As expected, Valve just dropped some details about Half-Life: Alyx, the flagship VR game it teased earlier this week.

Here’s what we know so far:

  • It’s scheduled for release in March of 2020.
  • Players will take on the role of Alyx, wearing a pair of “gravity gloves” that allow you to grab things otherwise out of reach.
  • It’ll take place sometime between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Alas, for anyone hoping for something that takes place after the events set in motion in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 12 years ago, it sounds like this ain’t it. With that said, they told The Verge in an interview that players should play through Episode 2 first… so Valve might have surprises in store there.
  • It’s built on the Source 2 engine, and will work on “all SteamVR compatible VR systems” — so HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest when hooked to a PC, Windows Mixed Reality headset, or Valve’s own Index VR headset.
  • It’s built to be played whether you want to move around your room, stand in one place or sit in a chair.
  • It’ll cost $60, but be free for anyone who owns Valve’s Index VR headset. Index owners will also get alternate in-game gun skins, and “Alyx-themed content” in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Valve also posted a trailer, showing everything from headcrabs to the Citadel from Alyx’s first-person VR perspective… plus a special little cameo if you stick around to the end. Check it out here:

 

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Valve confirms it’s making a ‘flagship’ Half-Life VR game

Posted by | Gaming, half life, TC, Valve, Virtual reality | No Comments

After what feels like years of rumors, it’s official: Valve is making a virtual reality Half-Life game.

Official word of the new title comes via Valve’s (brand new, but verified) Twitter account, where the company is promising more details later this week:

While it’s a bit curious to drop news like this as the first tweet from a brand new account, Valve’s long-established official Steam twitter account retweeted it — so signs are pointing toward it being legit.

Alas, we know next to nothing besides the name — Half-Life: Alyx — until 10 am on Thursday. Will we finally get a proper conclusion for Alyx Vance, whose storyline ended so abruptly when Valve dropped the Half-Life storyline mid-sentence 12 years ago ?

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BMW’s magical gesture control finally makes sense as touchscreens take over cars

Posted by | automotive, automotive industry, BMW, driver, Ford, Gadgets, RAM, Tesla, Touchscreens, Virtual reality, volvo | No Comments

BMW has been equipping its cars with in-air gesture control for several years and I never paid attention to it. It seemed redundant. Why wave your hand in the air when there are dials, buttons and touchscreens to do the same thing? Until this week, that is, when I took delivery of a BMW 850i loaner equipped with the tech. This is about the future.

I didn’t know the 850i used gesture control, because, frankly, I had forgotten BMW had this technology; I stumbled upon it. Just make a motion in the air to control the volume or tell the navigation to send you home. Now, in 2019, with giant touchscreens set to takeover cars, I find BMW’s gesture control smart and a great solution to a future void of buttons.

It’s limited in use right now. There are only a few commands: volume, nav, recent calls and turning on and off the center screen. It’s easy to see additional functions added in the future. It’s sorely missing the ability to step back a screen. I want that function the most.

Here’s how it works: To control the volume, take one finger and spin it in the air above the center stack. Anywhere. The range is impressive. A person can do this next to the screen or two feet away. A person’s arm could be resting on the center armrest and lift in the air and twirl their finger. Bam, it controls the volume. Put two fingers up – not spinning, like a flat peace sign – and the screen turns on or off. Make a fist and open it twice to load the navigation or phone (user picks the function).

After using the system for several days, I never had a false positive. The volume control took about 10 minutes to master, while the other gestures worked the first time.

In this car, these commands work in conjunction with physical buttons, dials and a touchscreen. The gestures are optional. A user can turn off the function in the settings, too.

I found the in-air control a lovely addition to the buttons, though. At night, in the rain, they’re great as they do not require the driver to remove their focus from the road. Just twirl your fingers to turn down the volume.

I’m not convinced massive touchscreens are better for the driver. The lack of actual, tactile response along with burying options in menus can lead drivers to take their eyes off the road. For the automaker, using touchscreens is less expensive than developing, manufacturing and installing physical buttons. Instead of having rows of plastic buttons and dials along with the mechanical bits behind them, automakers can use a touchscreen and program everything to be on-screen. Tesla did it first; Ram, Volvo and now Ford are following.

In-air gesture control could improve the user experience with touchscreens. When using BMW’s system, I didn’t have to take my eyes off the road to find the volume — something that I have to do occasionally, even in my car. Instead, I just made a circle in the air with my right hand. Likewise, BMW’s system lets the user call up the nav and navigate to a preset destination (like work or home) by just making another gesture.

As touchscreens take over cars, automakers will likely look to similar systems to supplement the lack of physical buttons. While gestures aren’t as good, they’re better than just a silly touchscreen.

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VR/AR startup valuations reach $45 billion (on paper)

Posted by | ar/vr, augmented reality, Entertainment, Facebook, Gadgets, Goldman Sachs, Magic Leap, Microsoft, niantic, Oculus, Venture Capital, Virtual reality, Wearables | No Comments

Despite early-stage virtual reality market and augmented reality market valuations softening in a transitional period, total global AR/VR startup valuations are now at $45 billion globally — include non-pure play AR/VR startups discussed below, and that amount exceeds $67 billion. More than $8 billion has been returned to investors through M&A already, with the remaining augmented and virtual reality startups carrying more than $36 billion valuations on paper. Only time will tell how much of this value gets realized for investors.

(Note: this analysis is of AR/VR startup valuations only, excluding internal investment by large corporates like Facebook . Again, this analysis is of valuation, not revenue.)

Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform

Selected AR/VR companies that have raised funding or generated significant revenue, plus selected corporates as of September 2019.

There is significant value concentration, with just 18 AR/VR pure plays accounting for half of the $45 billion global figure. Some of the large valuations are for Magic Leap (well over $6 billion), Niantic (nearly $4 billion), Oculus ($3 billion from exit to Facebook), Beijing Moviebook Technology ($1 billion+) and Lightricks ($1 billion). While there are unicorns, the market hasn’t seen an AR/VR decacorn yet.

Across all industries — not just AR/VR — around 60% of VC-backed startups fail, not 90% as often quoted. That doesn’t mean this many startups crash and burn, but that 60% of startups deliver less than 1x return on investment (ROI) to investors (i.e. investors get less back than they put in). To better understand what’s happening in AR/VR, let’s analyze the thousands of startup valuations in Digi-Capital’s AR/VR Analytics Platform to see where the smart money is by sector, stage and country.

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HTC’s new CEO discusses the phonemaker’s future

Posted by | 5g, Apple, AT&T, augmented reality, Chanel, cher wang, China, deutsche telekom, Disrupt, Disrupt SF 2019, Ericsson, Exodus, Facebook, Google, hardware, HTC, huawei, Internet of Things, Louis-Vuitton, Mobile, mobile devices, Nokia, smartphones, sprint, T-Mobile, telecommunications, Verizon, Virtual reality, Yves Maitre | No Comments

On September 17, HTC announced that cofounder Cher Wang would be stepping down as CEO. In her place, Yves Maitre stepped into the role of Chief Executive, after more than a decade at French telecom giant, Orange.

It’s a tough job at an even tougher time. The move comes on the tail of five consecutive quarterly losses and major layoffs, including a quarter of the company’s staff, which were let go in July of last year.

It’s a far fall for a company that comprised roughly 11 percent of global smartphone sales, some eight years ago. These days, HTC is routinely relegated to the “other” column when these figures are published.

All of this is not to say that the company doesn’t have some interesting irons in the fire. With Vive, HTC has demonstrated its ability to offer a cutting edge VR platform, while Exodus has tapped into an interest in exploring the use of blockchain technologies for mobile devices.

Of course, neither of these examples show any sign of displacing HTC’s once-booming mobile device sales. And this January’s $1.1 billion sale of a significant portion of its hardware division to Google has left many wondering whether it has much gas left in the mobile tank.

With Wang initially scheduled to appear on stage at Disrupt this week, the company ultimately opted to have Maitre sit in on the panel instead. In preparation for the conversation, we sat down with the executive to discuss his new role and future of the struggling Taiwanese hardware company.

5G, XR and the future of the HTC brand

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