Gadgets, Game & Mobile News

Netflix's latest interactive series for kids is 'Battle Kitty'

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 19:59
Netflix's growing catalog of interactive shows now includes another aimed at the younger crowd. The service has unveiled Battle Kitty, an animated series where kids help its namesake warrior fight monsters on an island and become a champion. Its or...

Waymo is building a new service center for its self-driving fleet

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 19:23
Waymo announced plans to open a new technical service center in Mesa, Arizona. There, it will service and maintain its Waymo One cars -- the vehicles that make up its self-driving car service. Waymo launched the on-demand, autonomous rides (with huma...

House committee chair calls for FTC antitrust investigation into Facebook

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 18:31
Facebook is already under regulatory scrutiny in the US, but it could be subject to much more pressure if one House representative has his way. Antitrust subcommittee chairman Rep. David Cicilline has written an editorial in the New York Times calli...

Watch Google's GDC 2019 event in 14 minutes

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 17:48
Earlier today at GDC 2019, Google officially revealed Stadia, a game-streaming service that will be available later this year in US, Canada, the UK and Europe. There's a lot Google didn't cover -- like pricing and an exact launch date -- but the...

The 9 biggest questions about Google’s Stadia game streaming service

TechCrunch - Tue, 2019-03-19 17:27

Google’s Stadia is an impressive piece of engineering to be sure: Delivering high definition, high framerate, low latency video to devices like tablets and phones is an accomplishment in itself. But the game streaming services faces serious challenges if it wants to compete with the likes of Xbox and PlayStation, or even plain old PCs and smartphones.

Here are our nine biggest questions about what the service will be and how it’ll work.

1. What’s the game selection like?

We saw Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (a lot) and Doom: Eternal, and a few other things running on Stadia, but otherwise Google’s presentation was pretty light on details as far as what games exactly we can expect to see on there.

It’s not an easy question to answer, since this isn’t just a question of “all PC games,” or “all games from these 6 publishers.” Stadia requires a game be ported, or partly recoded to fit its new environment — in this case a Linux-powered PC. That’s not unusual, but it isn’t trivial either.

Porting is just part of the job for a major studio like Ubisoft, which regularly publishes on multiple platforms simultaneously, but for a smaller developer or a more specialized game, it’s not so straightforward. Jade Raymond will be in charge of both first-party games just for Stadia as well as developer relations; she said that the team will be “working with external developers to bring all of the bleeding edge Google technology you have seen today available to partner studios big and small.”

What that tells me is that every game that comes to Stadia will require special attention. That’s not a good sign for selection, but it does suggest that anything available on it will run well.

Google scores a custom AMD GPU to power its Stadia cloud gaming hardware

2. What will it cost?

Perhaps the topic Google avoided the most was what the heck the business model is for this whole thing.

Do you pay a subscription fee? Is it part of YouTube or maybe YouTube Red? Do they make money off sales of games after someone plays the instant demo? Is it free for an hour a day? Will it show ads every 15 minutes? Will publishers foot the bill as part of their normal marketing budget? No one knows!

It’s a difficult play because the most obvious way to monetize also limits the product’s exposure. Asking people to subscribe adds a lot of friction to a platform where the entire idea is to get you playing within 5 seconds.

Putting ads in is an easy way to let people jump in and have it be monetized a small amount. You could even advertise the game itself and offer a one-time 10 percent off coupon or something. Then mention that YouTube Red subscribers don’t see ads at all.

Sounds reasonable, but Google didn’t mention anything like this at all. We’ll probably hear more later this year closer to launch, but it’s hard to judge the value of the service when we have no idea what it will cost.

3. What about iOS devices?

Google and Apple are bitter rivals in a lot of ways, but it’s hard to get around the fact that iPhone owners tend to be the most lucrative mobile customers. Yet there were none in the live demo and no availability mentioned for iOS.

Depending on its business model, Google may have locked itself out of the App Store. Apple doesn’t let you essentially run a store within its store (as we have seen in cases like Amazon and Epic) and if that’s part of the Stadia offering, it’s not going to fly.

An app that just lets you play might be a possibility, but since none was mentioned, it’s possible Google is using Stadia as a platform exclusive to draw people to Pixel devices. That kind of puts a limit on the pitch that you can play on devices you already have.

4. What about games you already own?

A big draw of game streaming is to buy a game once and play it anywhere. Sometimes you want to play the big awesome story parts on your 60-inch TV in surround sound, but do a little inventory and quest management on your laptop at the cafe. That’s what systems like Steam Link offer.

Epic Games is taking on Steam with its own digital game store, which includes higher take-home revenue rates for developers.

But Google didn’t mention how its ownership system will work, or whether there would be a way to play games you already own on the service. This is a big consideration for many gamers.

It was mentioned that there would be cross platform play and perhaps even the ability to bring saves to other platforms, but how that would work was left to the imagination. Frankly I’m skeptical.

Letting people show they own a game and giving them access to it is a recipe for scamming and trouble, but not supporting it is missing out on a huge application for the service. Google’s caught between a rock and a hard place here.

5. Can you really convert viewers to players?

This is a bit more of an abstract question, but it comes from the basic idea that people specifically come to YouTube and Twitch to watch games, not play them. Mobile viewership is huge because streams are a great way to kill time on a train or bus ride, or during a break at school. These viewers often don’t want to play at those times, and couldn’t if they did want to!

So the question is, are there really enough people watching gaming content on YouTube who will actually actively switch to playing just like that?

Photo: Maskot / Getty Images

To be fair, the idea of a game trailer that lets you play what you just saw five seconds later is brilliant. I’m 100 percent on board there. But people don’t watch dozens of hours of game trailers a week — they watch famous streamers play Fortnite and PUBG and do speedruns of Dark Souls and Super Mario Bros 1. These audiences are much harder to change into players.

The potential of joining a game with a streamer, or affecting them somehow, or picking up at the spot they left off, to try fighting a boss on your own or seeing how their character controls, is a good one, but making that happen goes far, far beyond the streaming infrastructure Google has created here. It involves rewriting the rules on how games are developed and published. We saw attempts at this from Beam, later acquired by Microsoft, but it never really bloomed.

Streaming is a low-commitment, passive form of entertainment, which is kind of why it’s so popular. Turning that into an active, involved form of entertainment is far from straightforward.

6. How’s the image quality?

Games these days have mind-blowing graphics. I sure had a lot of bad things to say about Anthem, but when it came to looks that game was a showstopper. And part of what made it great were the tiny details in textures and subtle gradations of light that are only just recently possible with advances in shaders, volumetric fog, and so on. Will those details really come through in a stream?

Damn.

Don’t get me wrong. I know a 1080p stream looks decent. But the simple fact is that high-efficiency HD video compression reduces detail in a noticeable way. You just can’t perfectly recreate an image if you have to send it 60 times per second with only a few milliseconds to compress and decompress it. It’s how image compression works.

For some people this won’t be a big deal. They really might not care about the loss of some visual fidelity — the convenience factor may outweigh it by a ton. But there are others for whom it may be distracting, those who have invested in a powerful gaming console or PC that gives them better detail at higher framerates than Stadia can possibly offer.

It’s not apples to apples but Google has to consider these things, especially when the difference is noticeable enough that game developers and publishers start to note that a game is “best experienced locally” or something like that.

7. Will people really game on the go?

I don’t question whether people play games on mobile. That’s one of the biggest businesses in the world. But I’m not sure that people want to play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on their iPa… I mean, Pixel Slate. Let alone their smartphone.

Games on phones and tablets are frequently time-killers driven by addictive short-duration game sessions. Even the bigger, more console-like games on mobile usually aim for shorter play sessions. That may be changing in some ways for sure but it’s a consideration, and AAA console games really just aren’t designed for 5-10 minute gaming sessions.

Add to that that you have to carry around what looks like a fairly bulky controller and this becomes less of an option for things like planes, cafes, subway rides, and so on. Even if you did bring it, could you be sure you’ll get the 10 or 20 Mbps you’ll need to get that 60FPS video rate? And don’t say 5G. If anyone says 5G again after the last couple months I’m going to lose it.

Naturally the counterpoint here is Nintendo’s fabulously successful and portable Switch. But the Switch plays both sides, providing a console-like experience on the go that makes sense because of its frictionless game state saving and offline operation. Stadia doesn’t seem to offer anything like that. In some ways it could be more compelling, but it’s a hard sell right now.

Google’s new Stadia game controller has a few tricks up its sleeves

8. How will multiplayer work?

Obviously multiplayer gaming is huge right now and likely will be forever, so the Stadia will for sure support multiplayer one way or another. But multiplayer is also really complicated.

It used to be that someone just picked up the second controller and played Luigi. Now you have friend codes, accounts, user IDs, automatic matchmaking, all kinds of junk. If I want to play The Division 2 with a friend via Stadia, how does that work? Can I use my existing account? How do I log in? Are there IP issues and will the whole rigmarole of the game running in some big server farm set off cheat detectors or send me a security warning email? What if two people want to play a game locally?

Many of the biggest gaming properties in the world are multiplayer focused, and without a very, very clear line on this it’s going to turn a lot of people off. The platform might be great for it — but they have some convincing to do.

9. Stadia?

Branding is hard. Launching a product that aims to reach millions and giving it a name that not only represents it well but isn’t already taken is hard. But that said… Stadia?

I guess the idea is that each player is kind of in a stadium of their own… or that they’re in a stadium where Ninja is playing, and then they can go down to join? Certainly Stadia is more distinctive than stadium and less copyright-fraught than Colosseum or the like. Arena is probably out too.

If only Google already owned something that indicated gaming but was simple, memorable, and fit with its existing “Google ___” set of consumer-focused apps, brands, and services.

Oh well!

House chair asks tech CEOs to speak about New Zealand shooting response

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 17:21
Internet companies say they've been scrambling to remove video of the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, but US politicians are concerned they haven't been doing enough. The Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Bennie Thomp...

Camera maker Insta360 raises $30M as it eyes 2020 IPO

TechCrunch - Tue, 2019-03-19 17:10

Insta360, one of the pioneers in making 360-degree cameras, just raised $30 million in a Series C+ funding round from Chinese investors, including Everest Venture Capital, MG Holdings and Huajin Capital.

The Shenzhen-based camera maker declined to disclose its latest valuation. It plans to use the fresh proceeds in research and development, marketing and after-sales services in its key international markets, including the United States and Japan, which are the company’s second and third-largest markets behind China.

Some of its past backers include IDG Capital, Qiming Ventures, home appliance maker Suning Holdings Group and file-sharing service Xunlei.

The company started making 360-degree cameras — thus the brand name — in 2014 when founder Liu Jingkang saw a gap in the market for compact, easy-to-use cameras shooting high-definition 360-degree footage. Over the years it has evolved into a four-pronged business covering all sorts of needs: 360-degree cameras for professionals and amateur users creating virtual reality content, action cameras for sports lovers and smartphone accessories for average consumers.

In stark contrast to loss-making GoPro, which Insta360 rivals in the action camera vertical, the Chinese firm has been profitable since 2017 and is planning to file for an initial public offering in China next year, Liu told TechCrunch in an interview. The company declined to provide more details of the planned flotation but said the success of its action camera line has helped it achieve five-times revenue growth in two years and reach profitability.

From professionals to amateurs

Though the VR sector remains in its infant stage, Liu is optimistic that 360 content will become a much sought-after media form in the years to come.

“Many families will be consuming virtual reality content for entertainment in the future, so we have a huge market for 360 content. That’s why we make a 360 camera each year to keep our top-tier position,” said Liu.

insta360

The Insta360 One X / Photo: Insta360

The action-camera market, by comparison, is more mature. Insta360 is riding a larger social trend of live blogging and short-form videos that has generated a huge demand for quality video content. Dozens of camera options, from Snap Spectacles to Tencent’s clone of the Snap glasses, are available to help people churn out content for video-sharing apps, but Liu saw problems in many of these products.

“[Video-shooting] spectacles, for examples, are quite offensive. Not everyone wants to wear them,” said the founder. “Many cameras do a bad job at video stabilization, so people end up with unusable footage. Lastly, and this is the key issue, users don’t know how to handle their footage.”

To that end, Insta360’s latest answer to documenting sports events and traveling is a camera that can easily be held by hand or slipped into a pocket. Called the One X, the gadget shoots in 5.7K resolution at 30 frames per second, delivering pleasingly smooth stabilization even when thrown around. The camera also comes with a software toolkit that automatically selects and stitches together users’ footage, which makes sharing to TikTok and Instagram a cinch. Check out TechCrunch’s review of One X below:



Insta360 has also been chasing after the masses, and its latest bid is an add-on lens that can instantly turn an iPhone into a 360-degree camera. The idea is that as users get a taste of the basic 360-degree experience, they may want to upgrade to a higher-end model.

“Insta360 has a rare ability to take cutting-edge imaging tech and put it into products that consumers want to use today,” said Gavin Li, senior director at Huajin Capital. “They’re moving faster and innovating more than their competitors, and they’re taking bold new approaches to the defining communication tool of our time: the camera.”

Apple dropped the price on several expensive Mac upgrades

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 16:49
Apple's iMac updates weren't the only changes the company made today. With less fanfare, it also lowered the cost of SSD upgrades for the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini. It lowered the cost to upgrade the 2013 Mac Pro RAM, too. These changes w...

BioWare promises to fix ‘Anthem’ after dismal launch

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 16:13
Anthem has had a rough launch, and no one is more aware of the issues than developer BioWare. In a candid blog post, company general manager Casey Hudson acknowledged the early run has been "rougher than expected" and said the team is "very disappoin...

The iPad Air seems boring, but I want one anyway

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 15:50
When Apple released the impressive and wildly expensive iPad Pro last fall, I started thinking that the company could use an iPad XR. I imagined a tablet that takes the high tech found in the new iPad Pro, but cuts some corners to make it more approa...

Arcimoto's latest three-wheeled EV is designed for deliveries

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 15:25
You might remember Arcimoto as the company behind the "Fun Utility Vehicle" (FUV) -- a three-wheeled, electric vehicle that's scheduled to hit the streets in Oregon, California and Washington this summer. With the FUV underway, Arcimoto has opened pr...

Here’s how you’ll access Google’s Stadia cloud gaming service

TechCrunch - Tue, 2019-03-19 15:03

Google isn’t launching a gaming console. The company is launching a service instead, Stadia. You’ll be able to run a game on a server and stream the video feed to your device. You won’t need to buy new hardware to access Stadia, but Stadia won’t be available on all devices from day one.

“With Google, your games will be immediately discoverable by 2 billion people on a Chrome browser, Chromebook, Chromecast, Pixel device. And we have plans to support more browsers and platforms over time,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said shortly after opening the conference.

As you can see, the Chrome browser will be the main interface to access the service on a laptop or desktop computer. The company says that you’ll be able to play with your existing controller. So if you have a PlayStation 4, Xbox One or Nintendo Switch controller, that should work just fine. Google is also launching its own controller.

As expected, if you’re using a Chromecast with your TV, you’ll be able to turn it into a Stadia machine. Only the latest Chromecast supports Bluetooth, so let’s see if you’ll need a recent model to play with your existing controller. Google’s controller uses Wi-Fi so that should theoretically work with older Chromecast models.

On mobile, it sounds like Google isn’t going to roll out its service to all Android devices from day one. Stadia could be limited to Pixel phones and tablets at first. But there’s no reason Google would not ship Stadia to all Android devices later.

Interestingly, Google didn’t mention Apple devices at all. So if you have an iPhone or an iPad, don’t hold your breath. Apple doesn’t let third-party developers sell digital content in their apps without going through the App Store. This will create a challenge for Google.

Stadia isn’t available just yet. It’ll launch later this year. As you can see, there are many outstanding questions after the conference. Google is entering a new industry and it’s going to take some time to figure out the business model and the distribution model.

Facebook limits ad targeting following discrimination settlement

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 14:54
Facebook has settled the lawsuit accusing the company of violating housing discrimination law through its ad system, and it's making changes to reduce the chances of future issues with housing ads and beyond. Marketers who want to run ads for credit...

'Apex Legends' has banned 500,000 accounts for cheating

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 14:48
Apex Legends season 1 is now underway, and beyond the updates previously Respawn had revealed would be included in today's patch (including a new character, balance changes and character hitbox fixes), it revealed 499,937 accounts have been banned fo...

MoviePass to offer its original $9.95 unlimited plan for a limited time

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 14:24
The monthly movie ticket subscription service MoviePass is switching back to the $9.95 per month uncapped plan that proved highly popular, but was ultimately unsustainable. There's a catch, though. Subscribers must pay for an annual subscription upfr...

Google is creating its own first-party game studio

TechCrunch - Tue, 2019-03-19 14:23

Google just unveiled Stadia at a conference in San Francisco, its cloud gaming platform. While most of the conference showcased well-known games you can play on your PC, Xbox One or Playstation 4, the company also announced that it is launching its own first-party game studio, Stadia Games and Entertainment.

Jade Raymond is going to head the studio and was here to announce the first details. The company is going to work on exclusive games for Stadia. But the studio will have a bigger role than that.

"I'm excited to announce that, as the head of Stadia Games and Entertainment, I will not only be bringing first party game studios to reimagine the next generation of games,” Raymond said. “Our team will also be working with external developers to bring all of the bleeding edge Google technology you have seen today available to partner studios big and small."

Raymond has been working in the video game industry for more than 15 years. In particular, she was a producer for Ubisoft in Montreal during the early days of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. She also worked on Watch Dogs before leaving Ubisoft for Electronic Arts.

She formed Motive Studios for Electronic Arts and worked with Visceral Games, another Electronic Arts game studio. She was working on an untitled single player Star Wars video game, but Visceral Games closed in 2017 and the project has been canceled since then.

According to Google, 100 studios around the world have already received development hardware for Stadia. There are over 1,000 engineers and creatives working on Stadia games or ports right now.

Stadia uses a custom made AMD GPU and a Linux operating system. Games that are already compatible with Linux should be easy to port to Stadia. But there might be more work for studios focused on Windows games.

According to Stadia.dev, the cloud instance runs on Debian and features Vulkan. The machine runs an x86 CPU with a “custom AMD GPU with HBM2 memory and 56 compute units capable of 10.7 teraflops”. That sounds a lot like the AMD Radeon RX Vega 56, a relatively powerful GPU but something not as powerful as what you can find in high-end gaming PCs today.

Google will be running a program called Stadia Partners to help third-party developers understand this new platform.

Google Stadia can use AI to change a game's art in real-time

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 14:01
Google's Stadia game streaming service isn't just using the cloud to make games playable anywhere -- it's also using the technology for some clever artistic tricks. A Style Transfer feature uses machine learning to apply art styles to the game world...

Google scores a custom AMD GPU to power its Stadia cloud gaming hardware

TechCrunch - Tue, 2019-03-19 13:58

Google’s new Stadia game streaming service may be great for people who don’t own a powerful PC or console, but those games have to run somewhere — specifically, in a Google datacenter. And the hardware they run on will be largely powered by a custom graphics card from AMD that, on paper at least, puts the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X to shame.

In its presentation at GDC today, Google touted its partnership with AMD, which created the unnamed card for integration with its Stadia “instances,” the Linux-based computers that will actually run the games players stream.

The actual specs shown on screen don’t mean much to hardware fiends — teraflops are how supercomputers are rated, not graphics cards, which have sophisticated custom units and pathways for different effects and calculations.

So although it’s impressive that this one produces 10.7 TF, more than the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X combined, unless you’re using this hardware for sequential logic operations, it’s more important to know its actual game-specific chops. Of course, I’m sure the GPU is also quite competent there — it has to handle both running a modern game at 4K and 60 FPS and may have some extra load from streaming the video as well.

Actually, now that we look at it, that specific combination of numbers looks a lot like AMD’s Pro Vega 56, perhaps overclocked to get to its big sibling the 64’s sheer flop power. “Custom” can mean lots of things, from building a brand new system to adding a racing stripe to a stock GPU.

The 16 GB of “total” RAM is also suspicious. The way it’s phrased suggests it may be inclusive of video RAM, i.e. that in the graphics card, which makes the most likely combo 4 GB in the card and 12 for the system. That’s just speculation, though.

Interestingly, shortly after announcing the single-GPU system that the Stadia will use, a multi-GPU instance was teased in order to show the possibilities of fluid dynamics in games. It’s unclear how this would come into play — perhaps it’s necessary for 4K instances of some games, or would be an upsell for performance-obsessed players.

Whatever the specifics, this gives an idea of what kind of power and cost the Stadia backend infrastructure is going to necessitate. Every concurrent player will require a dedicated instance, which at the scales Google hopes for means at least a couple hundred thousand of these things, increasing to millions if it takes off. Call the bill of materials $150 plus $50 a year in maintenance and upgrades (this is all just napkin math) and you’re easily looking at a hundred million dollar bottom line, probably way more.

As of this writing (the presentation is ongoing) there’s still no mention of how Google plans to make money from this whole… situation. Show ads every 10 minutes of play? Take a cut of game sales? Publishers pay Google to make instant games available? Perhaps, as with plenty of other Google products, they’ll just release it first and figure out how to make money later. That works sometimes.

Google built a controller for its Stadia gaming service

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 13:31
Google is backing up its new Stadia game streaming service with some honest-to-goodness hardware -- but not a box. The internet giant has unveiled a gamepad built with Stadia in mind, and it borrows a few cues from its earlier design patent. The wi...

YouTube bans secondary Alex Jones channel hosting NZ conspiracy videos

Engadget - Tue, 2019-03-19 13:13
YouTube has terminated a channel Alex Jones was reportedly using to skirt his ban from the platform. On a video posted on Resistance News, which was a secondary Infowars channel according to Media Matters, Jones described last week's New Zealand mosq...

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