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Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator is a beautiful work in progress

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For the last two weeks, I’ve been flying around the world in a preview of Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator. Without a doubt, it’s the most beautiful flight simulator yet, and it’ll make you want to fly low and slow over your favorite cities because — if you pick the right one — every street and house will be there in more detail than you’ve ever seen in a game. Weather effects, day and night cycles, plane models — it all looks amazing. You can’t start it up and not fawn over the graphics.

But the new Flight Simulator is also still very much a work in progress, too, even just a few weeks before the scheduled launch date on August 18. It’s officially still in beta, so there’s still time to fix at least some of the issues I list below. Because Microsoft and Asobo Studios, which was responsible for the development of the simulator, are using Microsoft’s AI tech in Azure to automatically generate much of the scenery based on Microsoft’s Bing Maps data, you’ll find a lot of weirdness in the world. There are taxiway lights in the middle of runways, giant hangars and crew buses at small private fields, cars randomly driving across airports, giant trees growing everywhere (while palms often look like giant sticks), bridges that are either under water or big blocks of black over a river — and there are a lot of sunken boats, too.

When the system works well, it’s absolutely amazing. Cities like Barcelona, Berlin, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and others that are rendered using Microsoft’s photogrammetry method look great — including and maybe especially at night.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The rendering engine on my i7-9700K with an Nvidia 2070 Super graphics card never let the frame rate drop under 30 frames per second (which is perfectly fine for a flight simulator) and usually hovered well over 40, all with the graphics setting pushed up to the maximum and with a 2K resolution.

When things don’t work, though, the effect is stark because it’s so obvious. Some cities, like Las Vegas, look like they suffered some kind of catastrophe, as if the city was abandoned and nature took over (which in the case of the Vegas Strip doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, to be honest).

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Thankfully, all of this is something that Microsoft and Asobo can fix. They’ll just need to adjust their algorithms, and because a lot of the data is streamed, the updates should be virtually automatic. The fact that they haven’t done so yet is a bit of a surprise.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Chances are you’ll want to fly over your house the day you get Flight Simulator. If you live in the right city (and the right part of that city), you’ll likely be lucky and actually see your house with its individual texture. But for some cities, including London, for example, the game only shows standard textures, and while Microsoft does a good job at matching the outlines of buildings in cities where it doesn’t do photogrammetry, it’s odd that London or Amsterdam aren’t on that list (though London apparently features a couple of wind turbines in the city center now), while Münster, Germany is.

Once you reach altitude, all of those problems obviously go away (or at least you won’t see them). But given the graphics, you’ll want to spend a lot of time at 2,000 feet or below.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

What really struck me in playing the game in its current state is how those graphical inconsistencies set the standard for the rest of the experience. The team says its focus is 100% on making the simulator as realistic as possible, but then the virtual air traffic control often doesn’t use standard phraseology, for example, or fails to hand you off to the right departure control when you leave a major airport. The airplane models look great and feel pretty close to real (at least the ones I’ve flown myself), but some currently show the wrong airspeed. Some planes use modern glass cockpits with the Garmin 1000 and G3X, but those still feel severely limited.

But let me be clear here. Despite all of this, even in its beta state, Flight Simulator is a technical marvel and it will only get better over time.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Let’s walk through the user experience a bit. The install on PC (the Xbox version will come at some point in the future) is a process that downloads a good 90GB so that you can play offline as well. The install process asks you if you are okay with streaming data, too, and that can quickly add up. After reinstalling the game and doing a few flights for screenshots, the game had downloaded about 10GB already — it adds up quickly and is something you should be aware of if you’re on a metered connection.

Once past the long install, you’ll be greeted by a menu screen that lets you start a new flight, go for one of the landing challenges or other activities the team has set up (they are really proud of their Courchevel scenery) and go through the games’ flight training program.

Image Credits: Microsoft

That training section walks you through eight activities that will help you get the basics of flying a Cessna 152. Most take fewer than 10 minutes and you’ll get a bit of a de-brief after, but I’m not sure it’s enough to keep a novice from getting frustrated quickly (while more advanced players will just skip this section altogether anyway).

I mostly spent my time flying the small general aviation planes in the sim, but if you prefer a Boeing 747 or Airbus 320neo, you get that option, too, as well as some turboprops and business jets. I’ll spend some more time with those before the official launch. All of the planes are beautifully detailed inside and out and except for a few bugs, everything works as expected.

To actually start playing, you’ll head for the world map and choose where you want to start your flight. What’s nice here is that you can pick any spot on your map, not just airports. That makes it easy to start flying over a city, for example. As you zoom into the map, you can see airports and landmarks (where the landmarks are either real sights like Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle or cities that have photogrammetry data). If a town doesn’t have photogrammetry data, it will not appear on the map.

As of now, the flight planning features are pretty basic. For visual flights, you can go direct or VOR to VOR, and that’s it. For IFR flights, you choose low or high-altitude airways. You can’t really adjust any of these, just accept what the simulator gives you. That’s not really how flight planning works (at the very least you would want to take the local weather into account), so it would be nice if you could customize your route a bit more. Microsoft partnered with NavBlue for airspace data, though the built-in maps don’t do much with this data and don’t even show you the vertical boundaries of the airspace you are in.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

It’s always hard to compare the plane models and how they react to the real thing. Best I can tell, at least the single-engine Cessnas that I’m familiar with mostly handle in the same way I would expect them to in reality. Rudder controls feel a bit overly sensitive by default, but that’s relatively easy to adjust. I only played with a HOTAS-style joystick and rudder setup. I wouldn’t recommend playing with a mouse and keyboard, but your mileage may vary.

Live traffic works well, but none of the general aviation traffic around my local airports seems to show up, even though Microsoft partner FlightAware shows it.

As for the real/AI traffic in general, the sim does a pretty good job managing that. In the beta, you won’t really see the liveries of any real airlines yet — at least for the most part — I spotted the occasional United plane in the latest builds. Given some of Microsoft’s own videos, more are coming soon. Except for the built-in models you can fly in the sim, Flight Simulator is still missing a library of other airplane models for AI traffic, though again, I would assume that’s in the works, too.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

We’re three weeks out from launch. I would expect the team to be able to fix many of these issues and we’ll revisit all of them for our final review. My frustration with the current state of the game is that it’s so often so close to perfect that when it falls short of that, it’s especially jarring because it yanks you out of the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, though, flying in FS2020 is already a great experience. Even when there’s no photogrammetry, cities and villages look great once you get over 3,000 feet or so. The weather and cloud simulation — in real time — beats any add-on for today’s flight simulators. Airports still need work, but having cars drive around and flaggers walking around planes that are pushing back help make the world feel more alive. Wind affects the waves on lakes and oceans (and windsocks on airports). This is truly a next-generation flight simulator.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft and Asobo have to walk a fine line between making Flight Simulator the sim that hardcore fans want and an accessible game that brings in new players. I’ve played every version of Flight Simulator since the 90s, so getting started took exactly zero time. My sense is that new players simply looking for a good time may feel a bit lost at first, despite Microsoft adding landing challenges and other more gamified elements to the sim. In a press briefing, the Asobo team regularly stressed that it aimed for realism over anything else — and I’m perfectly okay with that. We’ll have to see if that translates to being a fun experience for casual players, too.

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News-reading app Flipboard expands local coverage, including coronavirus updates, to 12 more US metros

Posted by | Android, apple news, Apps, Atlanta, austin, baltimore, boston, charlotte, chicago, Cleveland, coronavirus, COVID-19, Dallas, denver, detroit, Facebook Paper, flipboard, journalism, Las Vegas, local news, Los Angeles, Media, miami, minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, new york city, News, news aggregation, news aggregator, news aggregators, news app, operating systems, Orlando, Philadelphia, pittsburgh, Portland, ProPublica, raleigh, real estate, sacramento, Salt Lake City, san diego, Seattle, St. Louis, tampa bay, toronto, United States, vancouver, washington, Washington D.C. | No Comments

Earlier this year, personalized news aggregation app Flipboard expanded into local news. The feature brought local news, sports, real estate, weather, transportation news and more to 23 cities across the U.S. Today, Flipboard is bringing local news to 12 more U.S. metros and is adding critical coronavirus local coverage to all of the 35 supported locales.

The 12 new metros include the following:  Baltimore, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Orlando, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, St. Louis and Tampa Bay.

They join the 23 cities that were already supported: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington, D.C.

To offer local news in its app, Flipboard works with area partners, big and small, like The Plain Dealer’s Cleveland.com, the Detroit Free Press and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It has now added to the list of partners local news service Patch and ProPublica, including its Local Reporting Network partners and its collaborative journalism project Electionland.

Patch alone is putting out more than 200 local coronavirus stories per day. Meanwhile, the ProPublica Local Reporting Network funds and jointly publishes year-long investigative projects with 23 local news organizations across the U.S. The Electionland initiative reports on problems that disenfranchise eligible voters, like misinformation, changing voting laws and rules, voter harassment, equipment failures and long lines at the polls.

To determine if a user should be shown local news, based on a user’s IP address — not a precise location — the app may recommend stories relevant to local audiences. It will also offer the Local sections inside the Explore tab in the Flipboard app. Once added, users can then browse their local news alongside other content they’re interested in, across a variety of topics.

At present, there are two main areas of interest to news readers — the COVID-19 outbreak and the 2020 Election, both of which are now offered in the local sections. In addition to understanding the current state of the pandemic on a global and national level, Flipboard readers in the supported areas will be able to track how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting where they live. This could include coverage of things like local ordinances, school closings, shelter-in-place laws, number of cases and deaths, testing resources and more.

“Understanding the decisions state and local governments make and their impact on the community is not only important, but gives people a greater connection to their local leaders and the media,” said Marci McCue, VP of Content and Communications at Flipboard. “For instance, as a local resident you may want coverage from national newspapers about the coronavirus outbreak, but even more importantly is a local source that tells you where you can get tested and measures local leaders are taking that impact your daily life,” she noted.

The addition of coronavirus special coverage at a local level, aggregated from across publishers, means readers will be able to track stories without having to hop around different sites or apps from area newspapers or broadcasters.

For Flipboard’s business, adding local news allows advertisers to target against user interests, which may now include a city’s metro region as one of those interests.

Flipboard’s mobile app today reaches 145 million users per month. Local news is available in the supported metros across both iOS and Android .

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Is Amazon’s Alexa ready to leave home and become a wearable voice assistant?

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Hardware Event 2019, Android, Assistant, car accessory, computing, digital assistant, echo, Fire OS, fire phone, Gadgets, Google, hardware, operating systems, Seattle, smart speakers, smartphone, Speaker, TC, virtual assistant | No Comments

Amazon’s device event today played host to a dizzying number of product announcements, of all stripes — but notably, there are three brand new ways to wear Alexa on your body. Amazon clearly wants to give you plenty of options to take Alexa with you when you leave the house, the only place it’s really held sway so far — but can Amazon actually convince people that it’s the voice interface for everywhere, and not just for home?

Among the products Amazon announced at its Seattle event, Echo Frames, Echo Loop and Echo Buds all provide ways to take Alexa with you wherever you go. What’s super interesting — and telling — about this is that Amazon went with three different vectors to try to convince people to wear Alexa, instead of focusing its efforts on just one. That indicates a stronger than ever desire to break Alexa out of its home environment.

alexa echo amazon 9250082

The company has tried to get this done in different ways before. Alexa has appeared in Bluetooth speakers and headphones, in some cars (including now GM, as of today) and via Amazon’s own car accessory — and though the timing didn’t line up, it would’ve been a lock for Amazon’s failed Fire Phone.

Notice that none of these existing examples have helped Amazon gain any apparent significant market share when it comes to Alexa use on the go. While we don’t have great stats on how well-adopted Alexa is in-car, for instance, it stands to reason that we’d be hearing a lot more about its success if it was indeed massively successful — in the same way we hear often about Alexa’s prevalence in the home.

Amazon lacks a key vector that other voice assistants got for free: Being the default option on a smartphone. Google Assistant manages this through both Google’s own, and third-party Android, phones. Apple’s Siri isn’t often celebrated for its skill and performance, but there’s no question that it benefits from being the only really viable option on iOS when it comes to voice assistant software.

Amazon had to effectively invent a product category to get Alexa any traction at all — the Echo basically created the smart speaker category, at least in terms of significant mass market uptake. Its success with its existing Echo devices proves that this category served a market need, and Amazon has reaped significant reward as a result.

But for Amazon, a virtual assistant that only operates in the confines of the home covers only a tiny part of the picture when it comes to building more intelligent and nuanced customer profiles, which is the whole point of the endeavor to begin with. While Americans seem to be spending more time at home than ever before, a big percentage of peoples’ days is still spent outside, and this is largely invisible to Alexa.

The thing is, the only reliable and proven way to ensure you’re with someone throughout their entire day is to be on their smartphone. Alexa is, via Amazon’s own app, but that’s a far cry from being a native feature of the device, and just a single tap or voice command away. Amazon’s own smartphone ambitions deflated pretty quickly, so now it’s casting around for alternatives — and Loop, Frames and Buds all represent its most aggressive attempts yet.

alexa echo amazon 9250074

A smart spread of bets, each with their own smaller pool of penetration among users versus a general staple like a smartphone, might be Amazon’s best way to actually drive adoption — especially if they’re not concerned with the overall economics of the individual hardware businesses attached to each.

The big question will be whether A) these products can either offer enough value on their own to justify their continued use while Alexa catches up to out-of-home use cases from a software perspective, or B) Amazon’s Alexa team can iterate the assistant’s feature set quickly enough to make it as useful on the go as it is at home, which hasn’t seemed like something it’s been able to do to date (not having direct access to smartphone functions like texting and calling is probably a big part of that).

Specifically for these new products, I’d put the Buds at the top of the list as the most likely to make Alexa a boon companion for a much greater number of people. The buds themselves offer a very compelling price point for their feature set, and Alexa coming along for the ride is likely just a bonus for a large percentage of their addressable market. Both the Frames and the Loop seem a lot more experimental, but Amazon’s limited release go-to-market strategy suggest it has planned for that as well.

In the end, these products are interesting and highly indicative of Amazon’s direction and ambition with Alexa overall, but I don’t think this is the watershed moment for the digital assistant beyond the home. Still, it’s probably among the most interesting spaces in tech to watch, because of how much is at stake for both winners and losers.

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Amazon might reveal fitness-tracking Alexa wireless earbuds, Echo with better sound this week

Posted by | AirPods, Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Android, Apple, apple inc, Assistant, Berkshire Hathaway, CNBC, Companies, fitbit, Gadgets, hardware, hearables, industries, iPhone, Samsung, Seattle, TC, wireless earbuds | No Comments

Amazon is building wireless earbuds that offer Alexa voice assistant access, and fitness tracking for use during activities, according to a new report from CNBC. These earbuds, combined with a new, larger Echo designed to provide more premium sound, could feature into Amazon’s hardware event taking place this Wednesday in Seattle, though the outlet is unclear on the release timeline for this gear based on its source.

These earbuds would be a major new product for Amazon, and would be the company’s first foray into personal health and fitness devices. While Amazon has either built or bought products in a wide range of connected gadget categories, including smart home and smart speakers in particular, so far it hasn’t seemed all that aggressive in personal health, even as Apple, Samsung and others have invested heavily in these areas.

CNBC’s report says that these new Alexa buds will have an accelerometer on board for measuring motion, and will be able to also provide distance tracking, calories burned and pace – in other words, all the things that you’d expect to track with a fitness wearable like the Apple Watch or a Fitbit.

Leaving aside their fitness features, earbuds would provide Amazon a way to deliver a more portable Alexa for people to take with them outside of the house. The company has partnered with other headphone makers on similar third-party Alexa integrations, and they’ve also experimented with bringing Alexa to the car, for instance, but it’s largely still a home-based assistant, successful as its been.

Helping the appeal of these reported new products, the buds are said to be retailing for under $100, which will put them at a big price advantage when compared to similar offerings from either dedicated audio companies and headphone makes, and to potential rivals like Apple’s AirPods. Though the report indicates that they’ll still rely on being connected to an iPhone or Android device for connectivity, as they won’t have their own data connection.

Amazon is also readying a bigger echo that has a built-in woofer and overall better sound than its existing lineup, according to CNBC . That mirrors a report from July from Bloomberg that also said Amazon was readying a high-end echo, with a planned launch for next year.

Some or all of these new hardware devices could make their debut at Wednesday’s event, but it seems likely a lot of what we’ll see will be a surprise.

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Transit aggregates bike-share bike locations from multiple services in Seattle and Washington, DC

Posted by | Apps, bike sharing, bikes, cycling, Mobile, Seattle, TC, transit, Transportation | No Comments

 With multiple bike-share services to choose from, it can be a pain to open up two or three apps just to see which has the bike closest to you. Transit, an app that shows (you guessed it) transit options nearby and recently raised $5M, now tracks multiple services on its maps of Seattle and Washington, D.C., showing you the best bike to go to regardless of who operates it. Read More

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Ofo comes to the US, joining the bike-share fray in Seattle

Posted by | bike sharing, Gadgets, mobike, Mobile, ofo, Seattle, TC, Transportation | No Comments

 Seattle seems like an unlikely venue for a duel between bike-sharing companies: it’s rainy, hilly, its residents can’t drive and another bike-share program recently went belly-up publicly and ignominiously. But Ofo, one of several Chinese giants in the space, is the third company to launch in the city in a month. It’s the company’s first foray in the States. Read More

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Seattle Police Department suspends its Twitch channel following Charleena Lyles controversy

Posted by | Gaming, Government, law enforcement, police, Seattle, TC, Twitch | No Comments

 Facing backlash on its handling of the officer-involved shooting death of Charleena Lyles, the Seattle Police Department will shut down its official Twitch channel. The department started experimenting with community outreach over the game streaming platform earlier this year. Read More

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PicoBrew’s Zymatic Beer Making Machine Made A Brewer Out Of A Noob Like Me

Posted by | executive, Gadgets, Microsoft, picobrew, Seattle, Startups, TC | No Comments

Zymatic by PicoBrew PicoBrew is a beer-centered startup in Seattle, founded by brothers Bill and Jim Mitchell and Avi Geiger.
The machine at the heart of their operation is The Zymatic—an apparatus that simplifies beer-making by reducing the need to monitor the cooking process of creating Wort (unfermented beer).
Did their device turn a beer drinker like me, with zero brewing experience, into a beer maker? Read More

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