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March 23, 2019
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Hands-on with the Oculus Rift S: the ‘S’ stands for Subpar

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The Oculus Rift S is a bit of an odd one. Three years after the Rift’s initial launch, Oculus has released a product that feels like a lateral move rather than a leap forward. It’s better in a few ways and worse in a few ways. After spending some time playing with it and spending a lot more time thinking about it, it’s not super clear to me why Oculus made it.

The best reason I can think of is that Facebook sees standalone VR as the area where it should be completely ignoring profits to achieve a mass audience, and PC VR users should essentially be subsidizing the broader market with hardware they actually make money off. Oculus seems to be wanting it both ways though, because they could have released a headset that pushed the limits and charged more for it, but they opted to launch a product that moved laterally and made sacrifices — but they still are charging more for it.

We reported that former Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe left his position as head of PC VR at Facebook partially over the frustration of this project being settled on, something he saw as representative of the company’s “race to the bottom,” a source told us in October.

I will say that the Rift S looks better in real life than it does on paper, but compared to the Oculus Quest and Oculus Go headsets, it still feels like Oculus is launching something below their own standards with the Rift S, and that their co-designer Lenovo ultimately made them a headset on-the-cheap that got the job done while lowering the build-of-materials costs.

Well, what is there to like about the new headset?

The new Insight tracking is great, and while this headset basically feels like a minor upgrade to Lenovo’s Mixed Reality headset, the tracking is undoubtedly better than what is available on Microsoft’s two-camera reference layout. By comparison, the Rift S has five cameras, which seem to capture a much greater tracking volume, which really encapsulates all of those edge cases where the controllers are far out of sight.

This is a great system and while outside-in tracking is probably always going to be more accurate in certain situations, moving away from the old method was worth it in terms of making the setup process easier. On that note, the new passthrough mode, which you can use to set up your boundaries in the Guardian system, seems quite a bit easier to use.

On the note of displays, Oculus made some sacrifices here moving from OLED to LCD… and from 90hz to 80hz… and from dual adjustable panels to a single panel, but I was largely pleased with the clarity of the new, higher-res single display. This is an area that I’ll really need to dig more into with a full review, but there weren’t any apparent huge issues.

Otherwise, not a ton jumps out as a clear improvement.

The new “halo” ring strap system isn’t for me, comfort-wise, but I can imagine others will prefer the fit. Even so, it gives the headset a much more rickety build quality, which has taken an overall downgrade from the original Rift, in my opinion. Lenovo’s headsets have typically been bulkier and harder feeling than the softer-edged products from Google, Oculus and HTC; Lenovo’s VR design ethos is on full display here.

The removal of built-in headphones seems like the most outright poor decision with this release and, while the integrated speakers are serviceable, it’s clear you’ll want to add some wired headphones if you’re looking for a serious experience, which most PC VR users definitely are.

The new Touch controllers are fine; they’re the same as what will ship with the Oculus Quest. They have a different design that feels pretty familiar, but they feel smaller and a bit cheaper. The tracking ring has moved from around your knuckles to the top of the controller.

When it comes to gameplay — when the headset is on and you’re buried in an experience — most of these issues aren’t as apparent as when you consider them individually. The issue is that while the Quest and Go are miles better than any other products in their individual categories, this latest effort is just very mehh. It’s actually odd how much more high-quality the Oculus Quest feels than the Rift S when trying one after the other; it seems like it should be the other way around.

I’ll have to spend more time with the headset for a full review, of course, but on first approach the Rift S seems to be a misstep in Facebook’s otherwise stellar VR product line, even if the new Insight tracking system is a push forward in the hardware’s overall usability.

News Source = techcrunch.com

What latency feels like on Google’s Stadia cloud gaming platform

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After peppering Google employees with questions regarding Stadia’s latency, pricing and supported devices, to mostly no avail, I got my hands on one of their new controllers and pressed play on the Doom 2016 gameplay they were showing off on a big-screen TV.

Things started off pretty ugly. The frame rate dropped to a fast-paced PowerPoint presentation, the resolution dipped between 4K crispness and indecipherable blurriness and latency seemed to be as much as a half-second. As the Google employees looked nervously at each other, someone grabbed the controller from me and restarted the system.

After a system restart, things moved along much, much more smoothly. But what the situation sums up is that when it comes to game streaming, things can be unpredictable. To give Google credit, they stress-tested their system by running Stadia on hotel Wi-Fi rather than taking me down to Mountain View and letting me play with Stadia under much more controlled conditions.

Stadia is Google’s cloud game-streaming service and, while there’s a lot we don’t know, the basic tenants are clear. It moves console-level gaming online into your Chrome browser and lets you access it from devices like smartphones that wouldn’t be able to handle the GPU-load initially.

Despite the initial hiccup, my experience with Stadia was largely positive. Doom 2016 was in crisp 4K and I was able to focus on the game without thinking about the service I was playing it on, which is ultimately the best endorsement of a new platform like this.

This will likely be a great service for more casual gamers, but might not be the best fit for the most hardcore users playing multi-player titles. While you may be launching this service directly from YouTube feeds of esports gamers, this is something they probably wouldn’t use. That’s because the latency between input and something being displayed onscreen isn’t imperceptible, though it’s probably good enough for the vast majority of users (myself included), which is still a worthy prize for the company’s efforts to take on the massive gaming market.

Google Stadia VP Phil Harrison wouldn’t give me a proper range of where exactly latency fell, but he did say it was less than the time it took for a human to perceive something and react — which another Google employee then told me differed person-to-person, but was generally 70ms-130ms — so I suppose the most official number we’ll get is that the latency is probably somewhere less than 70ms.

There is no hard truth here, though, because latency will really depend on your geographic proximity to the data center. Being in San Francisco, I connected to a data center roughly 50 miles away in San Jose. Google confirmed to me that not all rural users in supported countries will be able to signup for the service at launch because of this.

Other interesting things to note:

  • Google said they’d confirm devices later, but when asked about iOS support at launch they highlighted that they were focused on Pixel devices at launch.
  • It doesn’t sound like you’ll be able to restore purchases of games you’ve previously gotten; you’ll unsurprisingly have to buy all of your Stadia titles on the platform.
  • You’ll be able to access games from YouTube streams, but there will also be an online hub for all your content and you can access games via links.
  • The controller was nice and probably felt most similar to the design of Sony’s DualShock controller.

We’ll probably be hearing a lot more at Google I/O this summer, but with my first hands-on demo, the service certainly works and it certainly feels console-quality. The big freaking question is how Google prices this, because that pricing is going to determine whether it’s a service for casual gamers or hardcore gamers, and that will determine whether it’s a success.

Update: We were playing a level from Doom 2016, not Doom Eternal

News Source = techcrunch.com

Uber Freight is expanding into Europe

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Uber Freight, the newly spun out Uber business unit that helps truck drivers connect with shipping companies, is kicking off its global expansion plans. The company said Wednesday it is launching the app in Europe, starting with the Netherlands.

Local carriers and drivers will be able to book and move their first loads with Uber Freight in the next few weeks, CEO Lior Ron wrote in a blog posted Wednesday. Uber Freight plans to expand to more European countries this year.

The EU and U.S. freight markets have problematic similarities. They’re both huge — the EU truckload market is a $400 billion marketplace and third after China and the U.S. — and inefficient.

“The European trucking market is experiencing a severe shortage of drivers, and of the time drivers are on the road, 21 percent of total kilometers travelled are empty,” Ron wrote. “Inefficiency of this scale results in shippers struggling to find available drivers to move their goods. Additionally, small- to medium-sized carriers in the EU make up more than 85% of the total carrier pool, and just like in other international freight markets, they experience the most difficulty connecting with larger shippers.”

Ron argues that the Uber Freight app has the ability to address these pain points in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

Uber Freight has been scaling up its business since launching in May 2017, growing from limited regional operations in Texas to the rest of the continental U.S. The company has offices in San Francisco and Chicago. Uber Freight has launched a series of programs and features since March 2018, including “fleet mode” and Uber Freight Plus, which gives app users access to discounts on services such as fuel, tires and phone plans.

In August, Uber announced that it would make Uber Freight a separate unit and more than double its investment into the business. Since then, the company has redesigned the app, adding new navigation features that make searching for and filtering loads easier to customize and more intuitive, as well as other features, including an updated map view and a search bar across the top of the screen.

It’s also made some key hires, one of which intimated the company’s global ambitions. The company hired Andrew Smith, one of Box’s early employees, to head up global sales at Uber Freight, and Bar Ifrach, formerly of Airbnb, to lead its marketplace team, TechCrunch learned last month.

The company has made headway breaking into the U.S. market. The app has been downloaded more than 328,000 times and 12 percent of 350,000 U.S. owner operators have completed the Uber Freight onboarding process, which means they’ve booked or are ready to book a load, the company says. 

Uber Freight had about 30,000 active users last quarter.

Skymind raises $11.5M to bring deep learning to more enterprises

in Artificial Intelligence/Asia/Cisco/computing/deep learning/Delhi/govtech fund/India/Java/natural language processing/north america/Politics/Python/Recent Funding/ServiceNow/Skymind/SoftBank/Startups/TC/Technology Partners/translink capital/Y Combinator by

Skymind, a Y Combinator-incubated AI platform that aims to make deep learning more accessible to enterprises, today announced that it has raised an $11.5 million Series A round led by TransLink Capital, with participation from ServiceNow, Sumitomo’s Presidio Ventures, UpHonest Capital and GovTech Fund. Early investors Y Combinator, Tencent, Mandra Capital, Hemi Ventures, and GMO Ventures, also joined the round/ With this, the company has now raised a total of $17.9 million in funding.

The inclusion of TransLink Capital gives a hint as to how the company is planning to use the funding. One of TransLink’s specialties is helping entrepreneurs develop customers in Asia. Skymind believes that it has a major opportunity in that market, so having TransLink lead this round makes a lot of sense. Skymind also plans to use the round to build out its team in North America and fuel customer acquisition there.

“TransLink is the perfect lead for this round, because they know how to make connections between North America and Asia,” Skymind CEO Chris Nicholson told me. “That’s where the most growth is globally, and there are a lot of potential synergies. We’re also really excited to have strategic investors like ServiceNow and Sumitomo’s Presidio Ventures backing us for the first time. We’re already collaborating with ServiceNow, and Skymind software will be part of some powerful new technologies they roll out.”

It’s no secret that enterprises know that they have to adapt AI in some form but are struggling with figuring out how to do so. Skymind’s tools, including its core SKIL framework, allow data scientists to create workflows that take them from ingesting the data to cleaning it up, training their models and putting them into production. The promise here is that Skymind’s tools eliminate the gap that often exists between the data scientists and IT.

“The two big opportunities with AI are better customer experiences and more efficiency, and both are based on making smarter decisions about data, which is what AI does,” said Nicholson. “The main types of data that matter to enterprises are text and time series data (think web logs or payments). So we see a lot of demand for natural-language processing and for predictions around streams of data, like logs.”

Current Skymind customers include the likes of ServiceNow and telco company Orange, while some of its technology partners that integrate its services into their portfolio include Cisco and SoftBank .

It’s worth noting that Skymind is also the company behind Deeplearning4j, one of the most popular open-source AI tools for Java. The company is also a major contributor to the Python-based Keras deep learning framework.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Daily Crunch: Apple unveils new AirPods

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

1. Apple announces new AirPods

The new AirPods are fitted with the H1 chip, which is meant to offer performance efficiencies, faster connect times between the pods and your devices and the ability to ask for Siri hands-free with the “Hey Siri” command.

“They are powered by the new Apple -designed H1 chip which brings an extra hour of talk time, faster connections, hands-free ‘Hey Siri’ and the convenience of a new wireless battery case,” said Apple’s Phil Schiller in a press release.

2. Google fined €1.49BN in Europe for antitrust violations in search ad brokering

Speaking at a press conference today, EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said the search giant — “by far the biggest” search ad broker in the region, with its AdSense platform taking a share in Europe of “well above 70% since 2006” — had engaged in illegal practices in order to “cement its dominant market position.”

3. All 88 companies from Y Combinator’s W19 Demo Day 2

And there were already 85 startups that pitched on Day 1!

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

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

5. Disney closes its $71.3B Fox acquisition

The goal of the enormous acquisition is to help Disney position itself for a streaming-centric future.

6. Kickstarter CEO Perry Chen steps down

Chen says he will stay with the service as chairman of the board, focusing “on high-level and long-term company needs.” Kickstarter will be promoting its head of Design and Product, Aziz Hasan, as interim CEO, as Chen steps away from day to day operations.

7. The Oculus Rift S is indeed real and arrives in spring for $399

After years of high-profile onstage announcements, Oculus has decided to quietly deliver the successor to its flagship Rift virtual reality headset, confirming most of our October report with the release of the new Oculus Rift S.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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