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June 25, 2019
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Now at Google, Facebook’s former teen-in-residence launches new social game Emojishot

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Facebook’s former teen-in-residence Michael Sayman, now at Google, is back today with the launch of a new game: Emojishot, an emoji-based guessing game for iOS, built over the past ten weeks within Google’s in-house incubator, Area 120.

The game, which is basically a version of charades using emoji characters, is notable because of its creator.

By age 17, Sayman had launched five apps and had become Facebook’s youngest-ever employee. Best known for his hit game 4 Snaps, the developer caught Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, earning him a demo spot on stage at Facebook’s F8 conference. While at Facebook, Sayman built Facebook’s teen app Lifestage — a Snapchat-like standalone project which allowed the company to explore new concepts around social networking aimed at a younger demographic.

Lifestage was shut down two years ago, and Sayman defected to Google shortly afterward. At Google, he was rumored to be heading up an internal social gaming effort called Arcade where gamers played using accounts tied to their phone numbers — not a social network account.

At the time, HQ Trivia was still a hot title, not a novelty from a struggling startup — and the new gaming effort looked liked Google’s response. However, Arcade has always been only an Area 120 project, we understand.

To be clear, that means it’s not an official Google effort — as an Area 120 project, it’s not associated with any of Google’s broader efforts in gaming, social or anything else. Area 120 apps and services are instead built by small teams who are personally interested in pursuing an idea. In the case of Emojishot, it was Sayman’s own passion project.

Emojishot itself is meant to be played with friends, who take turns using emoji to create a picture so friends can guess the word. For example, the game’s screenshots show the word “kraken” may be drawn using an octopus, boat and arrow emojis. The emojis are selected from a keyboard below and can be resized to create the picture. This resulting picture is called the “emojishot,” and can also be saved to your Camera Roll.

Players can pick from a variety of words that unlock and get increasingly difficult as you successfully progress through the game. The puzzles can also be shared with friends to get help with solving, and there’s a “nudge” feature to encourage a friend to return to the game and play.

According to the game’s website, the idea was to make a fun game that explored emojis as art and a form of communication.

Unfortunately, we were unable to test it just yet, as the service wasn’t up-and-running at the time of publication. (The game is just now rolling out so it may not be fully functional until later today).

While there are other “Emoji Charades” games on the App Store, the current leading title is aimed at playing with friends at a party on the living room TV, not on phones with friends.

Sayman officially announced Emojishot today, noting his efforts at Area 120 and how the game came about.

“For the last year, I’ve been working in Area 120, Google’s workshop for experimental products. I’ve been exploring and rapidly prototyping a bunch of ideas, testing both internally and externally,” he says. “Ten weeks ago, we came up with the idea for an emoji-based guessing game. After a lot of testing and riffing on the idea, we’re excited that the first iteration — Emojishot — is now live on the iOS App Store…We’ve had a lot of fun with it and are excited to open it up to a wider audience,” Sayman added.

He notes that more improvements to the game will come over time, and offered to play with newcomers via his username “michael.”

The app is available to download from the U.S. iOS App Store here. An Android waitlist is here.

 

Oculus Quest and Rift S now shipping

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Facebook -owned Oculus is shipping its latest VR headgear from today. Preorders for the PC-free Oculus Quest and the higher end Oculus Rift S opened up three weeks ago.

In a launch blog Oculus touts the new hardware’s “all-in-one, fully immersive 6DOF VR” — writing: “We’re bringing the magic of presence to more people than ever before — and we’re doing it with the freedom of fully untethered movement”.

For a less varnished view on what it’s like to stick a face-computer on your head you can check out our reviews by clicking on the links below…

Oculus Quest

TC: “The headset may not be the most powerful, but it is doubtlessly the new flagship VR product from Facebook”

Oculus Rift S

TC: “It still doesn’t feel like a proper upgrade to a flagship headset that’s already three years old, but it is a more fine-tuned system that feels more evolved and dependable”

The Oculus blog contain no detail on pre-order sales for the headsets — beyond a few fine-sounding words.

Meanwhile Facebook has, for months, been running native ads for Oculus via its eponymous and omnipresent social network — although there’s no explicit mention of the Oculus brand unless you click through to “learn more”.

Instead it’s pushing the generic notion of “all-in-one VR”, shrinking the Oculus brand stamp on the headset to an indecipherable micro-scribble.

Here’s one of Facebook’s ads that targeted me in Europe, back in March, for e.g.:

For those wanting to partake of Facebook flavored face gaming (and/or immersive movie watching), the Oculus Quest and Rift S are available to buy via oculus.com and retail partners including Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg, Walmart, and GameStop in the US; Currys PC World, FNAC, MediaMarkt, and more in the EU and UK; and Amazon in Japan.

Just remember to keep your mouth shut.

Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm

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When your game tops a hundred million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokemon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters, and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, since Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokemon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places, and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs, and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick, and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid, and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters, and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things, chests, mobs, and encounters, are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, since the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should, and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but you get the idea.

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press, we got to experience a couple build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone).

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokemon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokemon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well, and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it should be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t like take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The Hololens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

ObjectiveEd is building a better digital curriculum for vision-impaired kids

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Children with vision impairments struggle to get a solid K-12 education for a lot of reasons — so the more tools their teachers have to impart basic skills and concepts, the better. ObjectiveEd is a startup that aims to empower teachers and kids with a suite of learning games accessible to all vision levels, along with tools to track and promote progress.

Some of the reasons why vision-impaired kids don’t get the education they deserve are obvious, for example that reading and writing are slower and more difficult for them than for sighted kids. But other reasons are less obvious, for example that teachers have limited time and resources to dedicate to these special needs students when their overcrowded classrooms are already demanding more than they can provide.

Technology isn’t the solution, but it has to be part of the solution, because technology is so empowering and kids take to it naturally. There’s no reason a blind 8-year-old can’t also be a digital native like her peers, and that presents an opportunity for teachers and parents both.

This opportunity is being pursued by Marty Schultz, who has spent the last few years as head of a company that makes games targeted at the visually-impaired audience, and in the process saw the potential for adapting that work for more directly educational purposes.

“Children don’t like studying and don’t like doing their homework,” he told me. “They just want to play video games.”

It’s hard to argue with that. True of many adults too for that matter. But as Schultz points out, this is something educators have realized in recent years and turned to everyone’s benefit.

“Almost all regular education teachers use educational digital games in their classrooms and about 20 percent use it every day,” he explained. “Most teachers report an increase in student engagement when using educational video games. Gamification works because students own their learning. They have the freedom to fail, and try again, until they succeed. By doing this, students discover intrinsic motivation and learn without realizing it.”

Having learned to type, point and click, do geometry and identify countries via games, I’m a product of this same process and many of you likely are as well. It’s a great way for kids to teach themselves. But how many of those games would be playable by a kid with vision impairment or blindness? Practically none.

Held back

It turns out that these kids, like others with disabilities, are frequently left behind as the rising technology tide lifts everyone else’s boats. The fact is it’s difficult and time consuming to create accessible games that target things like Braille literacy and blind navigation of rooms and streets, so developers haven’t been able to do so profitably and teachers are left to themselves to figure out how to jury-rig existing resources or, more likely, fall back on tried and true methods like printed worksheets, in-person instruction, and spoken testing.

And since teacher time is limited and instructors trained in vision impaired learning are thin on the ground, these outdated methods are also difficult to cater to an individual student’s needs. For example a kid may be great at math but lack directionality skills. You need to draw up an “individual education plan” (IEP) explaining (among other things) this and what steps need to be taken to improve, then track those improvements. It’s time-consuming and hard! The idea behind ObjectiveEd is to create both games that teach these basic skills and a platform to track and document progress as well as adjust the lessons to the individual.

How this might work can be seen in a game like Barnyard, which like all of ObjectiveEd’s games has been designed to be playable by blind, low vision, or fully sighted kids. The game has the student finding an animal in a big pen, then dragging it in a specified direction. The easiest levels might be left and right, then move on to cardinal directions, then up to clock directions or even degrees.

“If the IEP objective is ‘Child will understand left versus right and succeed at performing this task 90 percent of the time,’ the teacher will first introduce these concepts and work with the child during their weekly session,” Schultz said. That’s the kind of hands-on instruction they already get. “The child plays Barnyard in school and at home, swiping left and right, winning points and getting encouragement, all week long. The dashboard shows how much time each child is playing, how often, and their level of success.”

That’s great for documentation for the mandated IEP paperwork, and difficulty can be changed on the fly as well:

“The teacher can set the game to get harder or faster automatically, or move onto the next level of complexity automatically (such as never repeating the prompt when the child hesitates). Or the teacher can maintain the child at the current level and advance the child when she thinks it’s appropriate.”

This isn’t meant to be a full-on K-12 education in a tablet app. But it helps close the gap between kids who can play Mavis Beacon or whatever on school computers and vision-impaired kids who can’t.

Practical measures

Importantly, the platform is not being developed without expert help — or, as is actually very important, without a business plan.

“We’ve developed relationships with several schools for the blind as well as leaders in the community to build educational games that tackle important skills,” Schultz said. “We work with both university researchers and experienced Teachers of Visually Impaired students, and Certified Orientation and Mobility specialists. We were surprised at how many different skills and curriculum subjects that teachers really need.”

Based on their suggestions, for instance, the company has built two games to teach iPhone gestures and the accessibility VoiceOver rotor. This may be a proprietary technology from Apple but it’s something these kids need to know how to use, just like they need to know how to run a Google search, use a mouse without being able to see the screen, and other common computing tasks. Why not learn it in a game like the other stuff?

Making technological advances is all well and good, but doing so while building a sustainable business is another thing many education startups have failed to address. Fortunately, public school systems actually have significant money set aside specifically for students with special needs, and products that improve education outcomes are actively sought and paid for. These state and federal funds can’t be siphoned off to use on the rest of the class so if there’s nothing to spend them on, they go unused.

ObjectiveEd has the benefit of being easily deployed without much specialty hardware or software. It runs on iPads, which are fairly common in schools and homes, and the dashboard is a simple web one. Although it may eventually interface with specialty hardware like Braille readers, it’s not necessary for many of the games and lessons, so that lowers the deployment bar as well.

The plan for now is to finalize and test the interface and build out the games library — ObjectiveEd isn’t quite ready to launch, but it’s important to build it with constant feedback from students, teachers, and experts. With luck in a year or two the visually-impaired youngsters at a school near you might have a fun new platform to learn and play with.

“ObjectiveEd exists to help teachers, parents and schools adapt to this new era of gamified learning for students with disabilities, starting with blind and visually impaired students,” Schultz said. “We firmly believe that well-designed software combined with ‘off-the-shelf’ technology makes all this possible. The low cost of technology has truly revolutionized the possibilities for improving education.”

Reality Check: The marvel of computer vision technology in today’s camera-based AR systems

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British science fiction writer, Sir Arther C. Clark, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Augmented reality has the potential to instill awe and wonder in us just as magic would. For the very first time in the history of computing, we now have the ability to blur the line between the physical world and the virtual world. AR promises to bring forth the dawn of a new creative economy, where digital media can be brought to life and given the ability to interact with the real world.

AR experiences can seem magical but what exactly is happening behind the curtain? To answer this, we must look at the three basic foundations of a camera-based AR system like our smartphone.

  1. How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization + Mapping)
  2. How do computers understand what the world looks like? (Geometry)
  3. How do computers understand the world as we do? (Semantics)

Part 1: How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization)

Mars Rover Curiosity taking a selfie on Mars. Source: https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/msl/pia19808/looking-up-at-mars-rover-curiosity-in-buckskin-selfie/

When NASA scientists put the rover onto Mars, they needed a way for the robot to navigate itself on a different planet without the use of a global positioning system (GPS). They came up with a technique called Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO) to track the rover’s movement over time without GPS. This is the same technique that our smartphones use to track their spatial position and orientation.

A VIO system is made out of two parts.

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