Software

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

Posted by | artificial intelligence, barcelona, bing maps, computing, Gaming, Las Vegas, Microsoft, microsoft flight simulator, nvidia, San Francisco, Seattle, Software, TC | No Comments

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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The TourBox adds a touch of tactile control to your editing workflow in a portable package

Posted by | controller, Gadgets, hardware, loupedeck, operating systems, photo sharing, Reviews, Software, TC, TourBox | No Comments

Now is a great time to be dipping back into creative projects you’ve had on hold, including editing archives of photos you promised you’d get back to “later.” There are a number of different gadgets designed to help make that process easier, but one of the more accessible is the TourBox, a $169 hardware controller that includes a number of different hardware buttons, dials and switches that can be customized via software to work with a variety of creative applications.

The basics

TourBox is a device that occupies roughly the desk space of an Apple Magic Trackpad, with a USB-C connection to plug into your computer. It’s equipped with a D-pad, two dials, a scroll wheel and seven buttons. The TourBox software provides customizable controls for each of these, allowing you to assign keys to each.

Built-in profiles support popular photo editing applications, including Photoshop, Lightroom and Capture One; video editing software like Final Cut Pro, Premiere and DaVinci Resolve; and drawing software, including Clip Studio Paint. Each of the default configurations for these applications can also be customized depending on a user’s preferences and needs.

TourBox differs from other, more expensive devices in this category in a number of respects — it leans heavily on keyboard shortcuts, for instance, definitely simplifying software actions but not providing the same level of plug-in integration that competitors, including the more premium Loupedeck+ and Loupedeck CT, provide. Those are considerably more expensive, however, and what TourBox provides could suit the workflows of pros who are looking primarily to supplement, rather than replace, their existing keyboard productivity workflows.

Design

The TourBox is compact, but feels sturdy. It’s heavier than I expected, which makes it more likely to stay put on the desk where you put it rather than shifting around during use. The exterior is a matte, rubberized plastic that has a nice aesthetic and a pleasant tactile feel, though it will pick up dust.

TourBox’s buttons and controls feature unique shapes and elements, like raised spokes and ridges on the wheels, to help you navigate the control surface entirely by feel. It produces a controller that looks very interesting because of its asymmetrical layout and exterior surface, but all of that actually makes it much easier to learn how to operate it entirely by feel after a little practice, which is key to long-term use in terms of actually ensuring the TourBox saves you time, by being something you can eventually basically commit to muscle memory.

While the design of the buttons and other controls makes a lot of sense, the actual feel of them isn’t all that great. There are some highlights, including clicky turning to help with fine-grained controls, but overall the buttons feel a bit mushy and generally don’t match up to the feel of the controls on other surfaces like the Loupedeck hardware mentioned above. Given the price difference, the lower-quality feel of the physical controls can be forgiven, and it doesn’t affect actual performance, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Performance

As with any new hardware controller, the TourBox takes some getting used to, and the software that the company provides, while it includes a basic tutorial, requires non-obvious user tweaks like manual switching of profiles to work with different applications. There’s a major 2.1 update in the works that will deliver auto-profile switching, among a number of other improvements.

Once you learn how to use the TourBox software and spend some time familiarizing yourself with the profiles for the applications you use, TourBox is indeed user-friendly, and can save you a lot of time and extra keystrokes on most common functions, including things like zooming and panning, adjusting brush size, undoing and redoing and much more.

As mentioned, the unique physical layout and button shapes appear initially odd, but ultimately mean that you can develop a very memorable workflow using the TourBox that becomes second nature. By default, some of the modifier key combinations that were shipped in the software profiles required a bit of unusual hand gymnastics for me, but all of these are customizable, so it was easy to make changes that resulted in more ergonomically friendly usage.

Bottom line

While there are a growing number of options when it comes to hardware control surfaces to help you create an at-home editing suite, the TourBox at $169 is one of the most affordable out there. It’s also an extremely portable option, requiring just one cable, which you can easily pack in just about any bag.

More demanding and pro users would do well to look at Loupedeck’s offerings, and the Monogram Creative Console provides a lot more modular customizability for a system that can grow with your needs, but for on-the-road editing and enthusiasts who are just looking for something to make their editing easier and faster but with minimal fuss, the TourBox is a solid option.

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Apple’s iOS 14 will give users the option to decline app ad tracking

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, computing, events, Google, iPads, iPhone, iTunes, mach, operating systems, privacy, Security, smartphones, Software, wwdc 2020 | No Comments

A new version of iOS wouldn’t be the same without a bunch of security and privacy updates. Apple on Monday announced a ton of new features it’ll bake into iOS 14, expected out later this year with the release of new iPhones and iPads.

Apple said it will allow users to share your approximate location with apps, instead of your precise location. It’ll allow apps to take your rough location without identifying precisely where you are. It’s another option that users have when they give over their location. Last year, Apple allowed users to give over their location once so that apps can’t track a person as they go about their day.

iPhones with iOS 14 will also get a camera and microphone recording indicator in the status bar. It’s a similar feature to the camera light that comes with Macs and MacBooks. The recording indicator will sit in the top bar of your iPhone’s display when your front or rear camera is in use, or if a microphone is active.

But the biggest changes are for app developers themselves, Apple said. In iOS 14, users will be asked if they want to be tracked by the app. That’s a major change that will likely have a ripple effect: By allowing users to reject tracking, it’ll reduce the amount of data that’s collected, preserving user privacy.

Apple also said it will also require app developers to self-report the kinds of permissions that their apps request. This will improve transparency, allowing the user to know what kind of data they may have to give over in order to use the app. It also will explain how that collected data could be tracked outside of the app.

Android users have been able to see app permissions for years on the Google Play app store.

The move is Apple’s latest assault against the ad industry as part of the tech giant’s privacy-conscious mantra.

The ad industry has frequently been the target of Apple’s barbs, amid a string of controversies that have embroiled both advertisers and data-hungry tech giants, like Facebook and Google, which make the bulk of their profits from targeted advertising. As far back as 2015, Apple CEO Tim Cook said its Silicon Valley rivals are “gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it.” Apple, which makes its money selling hardware, “elected not to do that,” said Cook.

As targeted advertising became more invasive, Apple countered by baking in new privacy features to its software, like its intelligence tracking prevention technology and allowing Safari users to install content blockers that prevent ads and trackers from loading.

Just last year Apple told developers to stop using third-party trackers in apps for children or face rejection from the App Store.

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Daily Crunch: Twitter rolls out audio tweets

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, artificial intelligence, ceo, Daily Crunch, iTunes, machine learning, operating systems, Rahul Vohra, Social, Software, Stockwell, TechCrunch, text messaging, Twitter, United Kingdom | No Comments

Twitter tries to make audio tweets a thing, the U.K. backtracks on its contact-tracing app and Apple’s App Store revenue share is at the center of a new controversy.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for June 18, 2020.

1. Twitter begins rolling out audio tweets on iOS

Twitter is rolling out audio tweets, which do exactly what you’d expect — allow users to share thoughts in audio form. The feature will only be available to some iOS users for now, though the company says all iOS users should have access “in the coming weeks.” (No word on an Android or web rollout yet.)

This feature potentially allows for much longer thoughts than a 280-character tweet. Individual audio clips will be limited to 140 seconds, but if you exceed the limit, a new tweet will be threaded beneath the original.

2. UK gives up on centralized coronavirus contacts-tracing app — switches to testing model backed by Apple and Google

The U.K.’s move to abandon the centralized approach and adopt a decentralized model is hardly surprising, but the time it’s taken the government to arrive at the obvious conclusion does raise some major questions over its competence at handling technology projects.

3. Apple doubles down on its right to profit from other businesses

Apple this week is getting publicly dragged for digging in its heels over its right to take a cut of subscription-based transactions that flow through its App Store. This is not a new complaint, but one that came to a head this week over Apple’s decision to reject app updates from Basecamp’s newly launched subscription-based email app called Hey.

4. Payfone raises $100M for its mobile phone-based digital verification and ID platform

Payfone has built a platform to identify and verify people using data (but not personal data) gleaned from your mobile phone. CEO Rodger Desai said the plan for the funding is to build more machine learning into the company’s algorithms, expand to 35 more geographies and to make strategic acquisitions to expand its technology stack.

5. Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra says recession is the ‘perfect time’ to be aggressive for well-capitalized startups

We had an extensive conversation with Vohra as part of Extra Crunch Live, also covering why the email app still has more than 275,000 people on its wait list. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Stockwell, the AI-vending machine startup formerly known as Bodega, is shutting down July 1

Founded in 2017 by ex-Googlers, the AI vending machine startup formerly known as Bodega first raised blood pressures — people hated how it was referenced and poorly “disrupted” mom-and-pop shops in one fell swoop — and then raised a lot of money. But ultimately, it was no match for COVID-19 and how it reshaped our lifestyles.

7. Apply for the Startup Battlefield

With TechCrunch Disrupt going virtual, this is your chance to get featured in front of our largest audience ever. The post says you’ve only got 72 hours left, but the clock has been ticking since then — the deadline is 11:59pm Pacific tomorrow, June 19. So get on it!

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.

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Apple and Google launch exposure notification API, enabling public health authorities to release apps

Posted by | Android, api, Apple, Apps, Bluetooth, computing, contact tracing, coronavirus, COVID-19, Google, Health, iOS, mobile app, operating systems, smartphones, Software, TC, United States | No Comments

Apple and Google today made available the first public version of their exposure notification API, which was originally debuted as a joint contact-tracing software tool. The partners later renamed it the Exposure Notification system to more accurately reflect its functionality, which is designed to notify individuals of potential exposure to others who have confirmed cases of COVID-19, while preserving privacy around identifying info and location data.

The launch today means that public health agencies can now use the API in apps released to the general public. To date, Apple and Google have only released beta versions of the API to help with the development process.

To be clear, this launch means that developers working on behalf of public health agencies can now issue apps that make use of it — Apple and Google themselves are not creating an exposure-notification or contact-tracing app. The companies say that many U.S. states and 22 countries across five continents have already asked for, and been provided access to, the API to support their development efforts, and they anticipate more being added going forward. So far, Apple and Google say they have conducted more than 24 briefings and tech talks for public health officials, epidemiologists and app developers working on their behalf.

The exposure notification API works using a decentralized identifier system that uses randomly generated temporary keys created on a user’s device (but not tied to their specific identify or info). Apple and Google’s API allows public health agencies to define what constitutes potential exposure in terms of exposed time and distance, and they can tweak transmission risk and other factors according to their own standards.

Further, Apple and Google will allow apps to make use of a combination of the API and voluntarily submitted user data that they provide through individual apps to enable public health authorities to contact exposed users directly to make them aware of what steps they should take.

During the course of the API’s development, Apple and Google have made various improvements to ensure that privacy is an utmost consideration, including encrypting all Bluetooth metadata (like signal strength and specific transmitting power), as that could potentially be used to determine what type of device was used, which offers a slim possibility of associating an individual with a specific device and using that as one vector for identification.

The companies have also explicitly barred use of the API in any apps that also seek geolocation information permission from users — which means some apps being developed by public health authorities for contact tracing that use geolocation data won’t be able to access the exposure notification API. That has prompted some to reconsider their existing approach.

Apple and Google provided the following joint statement about the API and how it will support contact-tracing efforts undertaken by public health officials and agencies:

One of the most effective techniques that public health officials have used during outbreaks is called contact tracing. Through this approach, public health officials contact, test, treat and advise people who may have been exposed to an affected person. One new element of contact tracing is Exposure Notifications: using privacy-preserving digital technology to tell someone they may have been exposed to the virus. Exposure Notification has the specific goal of rapid notification, which is especially important to slowing the spread of the disease with a virus that can be spread asymptomatically.

To help, Apple and Google cooperated to build Exposure Notifications technology that will enable apps created by public health agencies to work more accurately, reliably and effectively across both Android phones and iPhones. Over the last several weeks, our two companies have worked together, reaching out to public health officials scientists, privacy groups and government leaders all over the world to get their input and guidance.

Starting today, our Exposure Notifications technology is available to public health agencies on both iOS and Android. What we’ve built is not an app — rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install. Our technology is designed to make these apps work better. Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app. User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.

Today, this technology is in the hands of public health agencies across the world who will take the lead and we will continue to support their efforts.

The companies previously announced plans to make Exposure Notification a system-level feature in a later update to both their respective mobile operating systems, to be released sometime later this year. That “Phase two” portion of the strategy might be under revision, however, as Google and Apple said they continue to be in conversation with public health authorities about what system-level features will be useful to them in development of their COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

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YouTube Music adds a transfer option ahead of Google Play Music’s shutdown this year

Posted by | Android, Apple, apple music, artist, computing, Entertainment, Google, Google Play, google play music, mobile software, music services, operating systems, smartphones, Software, Spotify, TC, YouTube, YouTube Music | No Comments

Google is making it easier for Google Play Music users to make the switch to the company’s now preferred music app, YouTube Music, ahead of its plans to shut down Google Play Music later this year. Starting today, Google Play Music users will be able to move their libraries, personal taste preferences and playlists to the newer YouTube Music service by way of a new “transfer” option available in the app.

The company has been steadily working to make YouTube Music its default music service, in order to eventually replace Google Play Music. Last year, for example, Google shut down the Google Play Artist Hub and began preinstalling YouTube Music on Android smartphones. It said at the time those moves were part of its broader strategy to merge the two services.

Now we have a deadline of sorts for Google Play Music’s end-of-life — sometime later this year, according to Google’s announcement.

One challenge in this transition was the ability for Google Play users to retain their personalization preferences, library and playlists from Google Play Music, when moving to the new service. Most users did not relish the idea of starting from scratch after building up years of history on Google Play Music.

That’s where today’s new “transfer” option comes in.

On YouTube Music, users will be able to now click on a “transfer” button on iOS and Android to start the transfer of their uploads, purchases, added songs and albums, personal and subscribed playlists, likes and dislikes, curated stations and personal taste preferences.

Following the transfer, users will immediately see an updated YouTube Music home screen reflecting the impact of this new data on their personalized recommendations. YouTube Music will also email users when the transfer is complete and their music has been fully added to the in-app “Library” tab.

Current customers will be alerted to the transfer option via an email that includes more detailed instructions.

Google also addressed Google Play Music user feedback by rolling out new features to YouTube Music aimed at making its newer service more compatible (in terms of feature set) with the older one.

It recently added increased playlist length (from 1,000 to 5,000 songs), support for uploads (up to 100,000 tracks — which is 50,000 more compared with Google Play Music), offline listening, lyrics and an Explore tab for discovering new music, playlists and genres.

In addition, podcast listeners are able to visit a webpage (http://podcasts.google.com/transfer) to transfer their subscriptions and episode progress to Google Podcasts with a single click. The Google Podcasts app, like YouTube Music, will serve as Google’s default podcast listening experience, similar to how Apple’s Podcasts is its own dedicated app for audio programs.

YouTube Music has yet to rival Spotify or Apple in terms of paying music subscribers. Earlier this year, the company said YouTube Music and YouTube Premium combined to have more than 20 million paid subscribers, but it didn’t break out how many users converted to paid customers to access the music subscription offering. Meanwhile, Apple announced last year its Apple Music service topped 60 million subscribers; Spotify as of Q1 2020 now has 130 million paid subscribers.

In part, YouTube Music’s struggles are due to the fact that Google is operating two separate music services, splitting its customer base. When Google Play Music fully shuts down, that could change.

YouTube Music is being offered at the same $9.99 per month subscription price as Google Play Music, which includes on-demand streaming, background listening, offline access and an ad-free experience. For $11.99 per month, users can extend that experience to YouTube by way of YouTube Premium.

Google didn’t provide an exact date for the shutdown of Google Play Music.

“For now, users will continue to have access to both services,” the company said. “We want to ensure everyone has time to transfer their content and get used to YouTube Music, so we’ll provide plenty of notice ahead of users no longer having access to Google Play Music later this year.”

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India’s Glance tops 100M daily active users in 21 months

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, InMobi, LG, Roposo, Samsung, Social, Software, Xiaomi | No Comments

Glance, which serves media content, news and casual games on the lock screen of Android -powered smartphones, has amassed 100 million daily active users, it said today.

The subsidiary of ad-firm InMobi Group reached the milestone in 21 months in what appears to be the shortest duration for any popular internet service to gain their first 100 million daily active users, said Naveen Tewari, founder and chief executive of InMobi Group, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Glance uses AI to offer personalized experience to its users. The service replaces the otherwise empty lock screen with locally relevant news, stories, and casual games. Late last year, InMobi acquired Roposo, a Gurgaon-headquartered startup, that has enabled it to introduce short-form videos on the platform.

“Introducing short-form videos and games on Glance has helped us increase the engagement level. About 25% of our users actively play games on Glance,” said Tewari. The firm is now working to make these short-form videos available in many local languages. (You can also try the service on your mobile web browser or through its preview app on Google Play Store.)

Glance ships pre-installed on several smartphone models. The subsidiary maintains tie-ups with nearly every top Android smartphone vendor including Xiaomi, the top player in India, and Samsung.

But users can easily disable the service, said Tewari, adding that the 100 million users the firm is reporting today are those who consciously engage with content on Glance. Users spend about 25 minutes consuming content on Glance each day, he said.

Sitting on the lock screen, perhaps the most coveted real estate on a smartphone to reach a user, has allowed Glance to deliver any information to a very large number of users in a short time. Tewari said more than 50 million users reacted to Glance informing them about India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech last month surrounding the lockdown in the country, for instance.

“We are not just a short-form video platform. We are not just a gaming platform nor one that serves just news. Given where we sit, we cater to nearly everything that is out there across the world. So everyone has something to consume,” he said.

The service is currently available in India, its biggest market with more than 80 million users, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Tewari said the firm plans to roll out Glance across the globe in the next two years.

Glance, which raised $45 million last year, is currently not monetizing its users. Tewari said he has experimented with a few ideas, but won’t make any push on this front for another one to two quarters.

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Facebook to launch ‘virtual dating’ over Messenger for Facebook Dating users

Posted by | bumble, coronavirus, COVID-19, dating, eharmony, Facebook, Facebook Dating, Hinge, IAC, Match Group, Messenger, Mobile, operating systems, Social, social media, social network, Software, TC, Tinder, Video, video dating, world wide web | No Comments

Facebook will soon allow users to go on “virtual dates,” the company announced today. The social network is planning to introduce a new video calling feature that will allow users of its Facebook Dating service to connect and video call over Messenger, as an alternative to going on a real-world date. This sort of feature is much in demand amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced people to stay home and practice social distancing.

But for online dating apps, which aim to connect people in the real world, it’s a significant challenge for their business.

For the time being, government lockdowns have limited the places where online daters could meet up for their first date. Restaurants, malls, bars and other retail establishments are closed across regions impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. But even when those restrictions lift, many online dating app users will be wary of meeting up with strangers for those first-time, getting-to-know-you dates. Video chat offers a safer option to explore potential connections with their matches.

When the new Facebook Dating feature goes live, online daters will be able to invite a match to a virtual date. The recipient can either choose to accept or decline the offer via a pop-up that appears.

If they accept, the Facebook Dating users will be connected in a video chat powered by Facebook Messenger in order to get to know one another.

As the feature is still being developed, Facebook declined to share more specific details about how it will work, in terms of privacy and security features.

Facebook is not the first online dating service to pivot to video as a result of the pandemic. But many rival dating apps were adopting video features well before the coronavirus struck, as well.

Bumble, for example, has offered voice and video calling in its app for roughly a year. The feature there works like a normal phone call or Apple’s FaceTime. However, users don’t have to share their phone number or other private information, like an email address, which makes it safer.

The company says use of the feature has spiked over the last two months as users embrace virtual dating.

Meanwhile, Match Group has more recently rolled out video across a number of the dating apps it operates.

This month, the Match app added video chat that allows users who have already matched to connect over video calls. Match-owned Hinge also rolled out a “Dating from Home” prompt and is preparing its own live video date feature, as well, Match says. Plenty of Fish (PoF), another Match property, launched live-streaming in March, giving singles a new way to hang out with friends and potential matches.

Match Group’s flagship app Tinder has not yet embraced live video dates, but still offers a way for users to add video to their profiles. The company couldn’t comment on whether or not video dating was in the works for Tinder, but in the post-COVID era, it would be almost bizarre to not offer such feature.

Other dating apps have also launched video dating, including eHarmony and a number of lesser-known dating apps hoping to now gain traction for their video dating concepts.

Facebook says the feature will roll out in the months ahead and will be available everywhere Facebook Dating is available.

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Vivaldi browser gets built-in tracking blocker, goes GA on Android

Posted by | Ad blocking, Android, DuckDuckGo, Firefox, freeware, google-chrome, Jon von Tetzchner, online advertising, Software, TC, Vivaldi, Web browsers | No Comments

Vivaldi, the browser launched by former Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner, has long positioned itself as a highly customizable alternative to Chrome and Firefox for power users. Today, the team is launching version 3.0 of its desktop browser, with built-in tracker and ad blockers, and it’s bringing its Android browser out of beta.

I’ve long been a fan of Vivaldi, but the company was relatively late to the tracking protection game. Now it’s doubling down by integrating a blocklist powered by DuckDuckGo’s Tracker Radar.

Like competing browsers, Vivaldi offers three blocking levels that users can easily toggle on and off for individual websites. Those blocking levels are relatively blunt, though, with the options to either block trackers, block trackers and ads, or disable blocking. Competitors like Edge offer slightly more nuanced options for blocking trackers, though I would expect Vivaldi to adopt a similar scheme over time.

For the most part, the Vivaldi team always said that it would delegate ad blocking to extensions, though it added the option to block highly intrusive ads in the middle of last year. And while the company still notes that blocking trackers provides enough privacy protection, with today’s update, it now also gives users the option to block virtually all ads without the need to download any extensions (as a Chromium-based browser, Vivaldi supports all Chrome extensions).

Also new in the desktop version is a clock. Yes. A clock. That may sound like a weird feature, given that your desktop of choice surely features a clock, but like all things Vivaldi, you can a) remove it and b) there is actually some usefulness here as you can, for example, set up timers if you’re into Pomodoro or similar productivity techniques. And because it is Vivaldi, you can set all kinds of custom alarms and countdown timers, too.

As for the mobile version, which is now generally available for Android 5 and higher, the most important fact is probably that it exists, given how most users expect to be able to easily sync their bookmarks, passwords and browsing history between mobile and desktop. As with other browsers, you can choose what you want to sync.

Like the desktop version, Vivaldi for Android now also features a tracking and ad blocker. There’s also a built-in screenshot tool and support for Vivaldi notes, which also sync between devices.

The mobile browser isn’t quite as flexible as the desktop version, with its plethora of options, but that’s probably not what you’re looking for in a mobile browser anyway. But having a stable mobile browser that can accompany the desktop version is a big deal for Vivaldi and may give users who were on the sidelines a reason to take another look at it.

Out of the box, there’s no other browser that will give you the kind of flexibility Vivaldi does.

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Media software maker Plex launches new subscriber-only apps for music and server management

Posted by | Apps, audio, Media, Mobile, plex, Software, streaming | No Comments

Media software maker Plex has released two new projects today from its internal R&D group, Plex Labs. One is an updated take on the classic Winamp player it calls Plexamp, and another is a dedicated app for Plex server administration. The projects are meant to appeal largely to Plex power users who take full advantage of Plex’s software suite, which has grown over time from being only a home media solution to a one-stop shop for everything from live TV to streaming audio.

The first of the new apps, Plexamp, is actually a revamp of the first Plex Labs project released. In December 2017, Plex introduced its own music player, whose name Plexamp was a nod to the Winamp player it aimed to replace. The project, like others from Plex Labs, was built by Plex employees in their spare time.

The goal with the original Plexamp was to offer a small desktop player that could handle any music format. The app let you use media keys for playing, pausing and skipping tracks and it worked offline when the Plex server ran on your laptop. It also offered visualizations to accompany your music that pulled from the album art.

While the original app ran on Mac or Windows, the new release works across five platforms, now including iOS, Android and Linux.

The app itself has been completely redone, as well — rewritten from scratch, in fact. And it’s tied to Plex’s subscription service, Plex Pass — meaning you’ll need to be a paying customer to use it.

The company explains the original version of Plexamp had issues around portability and licensing; it didn’t have an easy way to add functionality; and it was built with React, which tied it to the web.

To create the new Plexamp (version 3.0), Plex built an audio player library called TREBLE on top of a low-level commercial audio engine. TREBLE has been shipping in Plex’s commercial applications, but this release brings it to Plexamp. The addition helped make the app portable across almost all desktop and mobile platforms, as was it being rewritten in React Native.

The new app provides features Plex Pass music listeners want, like gapless playback, high-quality resampling, Sweet Fades (Plex’s “smart” alternative to crossfades) soft transitions and pre-caching. Plex also added a few more effects, including one for voice boosting spoken word audio and another for silence compression.

But the app really sells itself to longtime Plex users, as Plexamp lets you go back to see your own “top personal charts” for what you’ve listened to the most in years past. (Sort of like a Plex version of Apple Music’s Replay playlists).

Plexamp 3.0 also introduces a feature that lets you build your own mixes by picking a set of artists. Plus it offers a more expansive list of stations, supports offline listening and improves its search functionality.

The new Recent Searches area, for example, will save your search results from across servers, as well as TIDAL and podcasts. And a new Recent Plays feature shows you the music you consciously chose to play, again including across all servers and TIDAL.

There are some little touches, too, that show the personal care that went into the app’s design — like the way Plexamp uses album art and a process called “UltraBlur” to give each artist and alum page its own look. Or how there are options for light and dark — and lighter and darker — themes.

The other big new release from Plex Labs is the new Plex Dash app.

This mobile and tablet app lets you keep a close eye on your personal media server, including a way to see all playbacks even across multiple servers, plus other administrative features.

With Plex Dash, you can edit your artwork, scan for new media, fix incorrect matches, check on server resource usage, tweak library settings and view server logs live.

Plex suggests you it run on the iPad you have mounted in the wall — like in your fancy media room, I guess — but for us poorer folks, it runs on your smartphone, too.

It’s a power user tool, but one that will be welcomed for those fully immersed in a Plex-run home media setup. (And also a good way to respond to criticism that Plex is too focused today on its streaming and TV options, and not its core home media software customer base.)

Like Plexamp, the new Plex Dash requires a Plex Pass subscription and runs on iOS and Android.

The apps launched today are notable as they’re the first to arrive from Plex Labs since the original release of Plexamp in 2017 and because they require a subscription in order to work.

Plex at the end of 2019 said it had 15 million registered households using its service. Though the service is profitable, only a small percentage are paid subscribers. New apps with extra features, then, could convince more Plex users to upgrade.

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