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March 21, 2019
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Microsoft open sources its data compression algorithm and hardware for the cloud

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The amount of data that the big cloud computing providers now store is staggering, so it’s no surprise that most store all of this information as compressed data in some form or another — just like you used to zip your files back in the days of floppy disks, CD-ROMs and low-bandwidth connections. Typically, those systems are closely guarded secrets, but today, Microsoft open sourced the algorithm, hardware specification and Verilog source code for how it compresses data in its Azure cloud. The company is contributing all of this to the Open Compute Project (OCP).

Project Zipline, as Microsoft calls this project, can achieve 2x higher compression ratios compared to the standard Zlib-L4 64KB model. To do this, the algorithm — and its hardware implementation — were specifically tuned for the kind of large data sets Microsoft sees in its cloud. Because the system works at the systems level, there is virtually no overhead and Microsoft says that it is actually able to manage higher throughput rates and lower latency than other algorithms are currently able to achieve.

Microsoft stresses that it is also contributing the Verilog source code for register transfer language (RTL) — that is, the low-level code that makes this all work. “Contributing RTL at this level of detail as open source to OCP is industry leading,” Kushagra Vaid, the general manager for Azure hardware infrastructure, writes. “It sets a new precedent for driving frictionless collaboration in the OCP ecosystem for new technologies and opening the doors for hardware innovation at the silicon level.”

Microsoft is currently using this system in its own Azure cloud, but it is now also partnering with others in the Open Compute Project. Among these partners are Intel, AMD, Ampere, Arm, Marvell, SiFive, Broadcom, Fungible, Mellanox, NGD Systems, Pure Storage, Synopsys and Cadence.

“Over time, we anticipate Project Zipline compression technology will make its way into several market segments and usage models such as network data processing, smart SSDs, archival systems, cloud appliances, general purpose microprocessor, IoT, and edge devices,” writes Vaid.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Microsoft launches Game Stack, brings Xbox Live to Android and iOS

in Azure/Cloud/Delhi/Developer/Gaming/India/Microsoft/mixer/Politics/Simplygon/xbox/xbox live by

Microsoft today announced a new initiative that combines all of the company’s gaming-related products for developers like Xbox Live, Azure PlayFab, Direct X, Mixer, Virtual Studio, Simplygon and Azure under a single umbrella. That umbrella, Microsoft Game Stack, is meant to give game developers, no matter whether they are at a AAA studio or working solo, all the tools they need to develop and then operate their games across devices and platforms.

“Game Stack brings together our game development platforms, tools and services like Direct X and Visual Studio, Azure and Playfab into a robust ecosystem that any game developer can use,” said Kareem Choudhry, the corporate vice president for the Microsoft Gaming Cloud. “We view this as a journey that we are just beginning.”

It’s worth noting that developers can pick and choose which of the services they want to use. While Azure is part of Game Stack, for example, the overall stack is cloud and device agnostic. Undoubtedly, though, Microsoft hopes that developers will adopt Azure as their preferred cloud. These days, after all, most games feature some online component, even if they aren’t multiplayer games, and developers need a place to store player credentials, telemetry data and other info.

One of the core components of Game Stack is PlayFab, a backend service for building cloud-connected games, which now falls under the Azure family. Microsoft acquired the service early last year and it’s worth noting that it supports all major gaming platforms, ranging from the Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Switch to iOS, Android, PC and web.

With today’s announcement, Microsoft is launching a number of new PlayFab services, too. These include PlayFab Matchmaking, a matchmaking service the company adapted from Xbox Live matchmaking, but that’s now available to all developers and on all devices. This service is now in public preview. In private preview are PlayFab Party, a voice and chat service (also modeled after Xbox Party Chat), PlayFab Game insights for real-time game telemetry, PlayFab Pub Sub for pushing content updates, notifications and more to the game client, and PlayFab User Generated Content for allowing players to safely share content with each other.

So while Game Stack may feel more like a branding exercise, it’s clear that PlayFab is where Microsoft is really putting its money as it’s competing with Amazon and Google, both of which have recently put a lot of emphasis on game developers, too.

In addition to these announcements, Microsoft also today said that it is bringing an SDK for Xbox Live to iOS and Android devices so that developers can integrate that service’s identity and community services into their games on those platforms, too.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Blind users can now explore photos by touch with Microsoft’s Seeing AI

in accessibility/Apps/Artificial Intelligence/Augmented Reality/Blindness/Computer Vision/Delhi/Disabilities/India/machine learning/Microsoft/mobile/Politics by

Microsoft’s Seeing AI is an app that lets blind and limited-vision folks convert visual data into audio feedback, and it just got a useful new feature. Users can now use touch to explore the objects and people in photos.

It’s powered by machine learning, of course, specifically object and scene recognition. All you need to do is take a photo or open one up in the viewer and tap anywhere on it.

“This new feature enables users to tap their finger to an image on a touch-screen to hear a description of objects within an image and the spatial relationship between them,” wrote Seeing AI lead Saqib Shaikh in a blog post. “The app can even describe the physical appearance of people and predict their mood.”

Because there’s facial recognition built in as well, you could very well take a picture of your friends and hear who’s doing what and where, and whether there’s a dog in the picture (important) and so on. This was possible on an image-wide scale already, as you can see in this image:

But the app now lets users tap around to find where objects are — obviously important to understanding the picture or recognizing it from before. Other details that may not have made it into the overall description may also appear on closer inspection, such as flowers in the foreground or a movie poster in the background.

In addition to this, the app now natively supports the iPad, which is certainly going to be nice for the many people who use Apple’s tablets as their primary interface for media and interactions. Lastly, there are a few improvements to the interface so users can order things in the app to their preference.

Seeing AI is free — you can download it for iOS devices here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Venture investors and startup execs say they don’t need Elizabeth Warren to defend them from big tech

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Responding to Elizabeth Warren’s call to regulate and break up some of the nation’s largest technology companies, the venture capitalists that invest in technology companies are advising the presidential hopeful to move slowly and not break anything.

Warren’s plan called for regulators to be appointed to oversee the unwinding of several acquisitions that were critical to the development of the core technology that make Alphabet’s Google and the social media giant Facebook so profitable… and Zappos.

Warren also wanted regulation in place that would block companies making over $25 billion that operate as social media or search platforms or marketplaces from owning companies that also sell services on those marketplaces.

As a whole, venture capitalists viewing the policy were underwhelmed.

“As they say on Broadway, ‘you gotta have a gimmick’ and this is clearly Warren’s,” says Ben Narasin, an investor at one of the nation’s largest investment firms,” New Enterprise Associates, which has $18 billion in assets under management and has invested in consumer companies like Jet, an online and mobile retailer that competed with Amazon and was sold to Walmart for $3.3 billion.

“Decades ago, at the peak of Japanese growth as a technology competitor on the global stage, the U.S. government sought to break up IBM . This is not a new model, and it makes no sense,” says Narasin. “We slow down our country, our economy and our ability to innovate when the government becomes excessively aggressive in efforts to break up technology companies, because they see them through a prior-decades lens, when they are operating in a future decade reality. This too shall pass.”

Balaji Sirinivasan, the chief technology officer of Coinbase, took to Twitter to offer his thoughts on the Warren plan. “If big companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are prevented from acquiring startups, that actually reduces competition,” Sirinivasan writes.

“There are two separate issues here that are being conflated. One issue is do we need regulation on the full platform companies. And the answer is absolutely,” says Venky Ganesan, the managing director of Menlo Ventures. “These platforms have a huge impact on society at large and they have huge influence.”

But while the platforms need to be regulated, Ganesan says, Senator Warren’s approach is an exercise in overreach.

“That plan is like taking a bazooka to a knife fight. It’s overwhelming and it’s not commensurate with the issues,” Ganesan says. “I don’t think at the end of the day venture capital is worrying about competition from these big platform companies. [And] as the proposal is composed it would create more obstacles rather than less.”

Using Warren’s own example of the antitrust cases that were brought against companies like AT&T and Microsoft is a good model for how to proceed, Ganesan says. “We want to have the technocrats at the FTC figure out the right way to bring balance.”

Kara Nortman, a partner with the Los Angeles-based firm Upfront Ventures, is also concerned about the potential unforeseen consequences of Warren’s proposals.

“The specifics of the policy as presented strike me as having potentially negative consequences for innovation. These companies are funding massive innovation initiatives in our country. They’re creating jobs and taking risks in areas of technology development where we could potentially fall behind other countries and wind up reducing our quality of life,” Nortman says. “We’re not seeing that innovation or initiative come from the government — or that support for encouraging immigration and by extension embracing the talented foreign entrepreneurs that could develop new technologies and businesses.”

Nortman sees the Warren announcement as an attempt to start a dialog between government regulators and big technology companies.

“My hope is that this is the beginning of a dialogue that is constructive,” Nortman says. “And since Elizabeth Warren is a thoughtful policymaker, this is likely the first salvo toward an engagement with the technology community to work collaboratively on issues that we all want to see solved and that some of us are dedicating our career in venture to help solving.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Hands-on with Microsoft’s new HoloLens 2

in Augmented Reality/computing/Delhi/Hardware/HoloLens/India/Magic Leap/Microsoft/microsoft hardware/Microsoft HoloLens/microsoft windows/mixed reality/mwc 2019/Politics/smartphone/TC/wearable devices by

Earlier this week, Microsoft used its MWC press conference to announce the next version of its HoloLens mixed reality visor. When it demoed the first version back in 2015, quite a few pundits assumed that the company had somehow faked the demos because this kind of real-time tracking and gesture recognition, combined with a relatively high-res display and packaged as a standalone device, had never been done before.

The fact that Microsoft took its sweet time to release this next version clearly shows that it wanted to gather feedback from its first set of users and developers who wrote apps for it. Microsoft also wasn’t under a lot of pressure to release an update, given that it never had a real competitor, with maybe the exception of Magic Leap, which is still in its very early days.

If version 1 came as a major surprise, then version 2, which I’ve now had time to try at MWC, is in many ways the natural evolution of the original promise: it’s more comfortable to wear, the field of view is large enough to feel more natural and the interaction model has been tweaked to make using HoloLens apps faster and easier. The hardware, too, has obviously been brought up to modern specs.

The first thing you’ll notice when you try the new version is that the initial calibration process that measures the distance between your eyes is now automatic. You essentially play a little game where you track a light in front of you and the new gaze recognition system takes care of setting up the calibration. Once that’s done, a hummingbird appears and lands on your hand. That’s also when you realize how much bigger the field of view has become. The bird is big enough that I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have fit into the relatively small box that restricted the HoloLens 1’s field of view.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience is still not quite what Microsoft’s videos would have you believe. You are still very aware of the fact that there’s an abrupt end between where the AR images appear and where they end — but it’s far less jarring now that you have this bigger box. As far as the resolution goes, the specs are pretty much the same and there’s no practical difference that I noted.

The other thing you’ll notice right from the get-go is that Microsoft wasn’t kidding when it said that the new HoloLens would be far more comfortable to wear. The original felt clamped to your head (and for me, it had a tendency to slowly slide down my face) and you never quite forgot how heavy it was. The new one rests comfortably on your forehead, and, while you still essentially clamp it to your face by tightening a knob at the back, wearing it feels far more natural. The actual device is only a few grams lighter than the first edition, but with what I assume is a different weight distribution, it simply feels lighter. And if you wear glasses, then there’s no pressure on those anymore either because none of the weight rests on your nose.

Another major difference: The HoloLens 2 is now a real visor that you can flip open. So while you can obviously look through the lenses, you can now also easily move the HoloLens away from your face.

As you go through the process of trying the new HoloLens, you’ll sooner or later come across menus, buttons and sliders. In the first version, the hand and gesture tracking wasn’t quite there to let you interact with those naturally. You’d have to use special gestures for that. Now, you simply tap on them as if you were using a smartphone. And when there’s a slider, you grab it and move it. The new demo applications that Microsoft showed off at MWC make good use of all of these.

And there’s another difference: This time around, Microsoft is clearly stating that the HoloLens 2 is for business users, and all of the demos focused on those. Gone are the days of shooting aliens as they break through your walls or playing virtual Minecraft on a table in your living room. Indeed, as Lorraine Bardeen, general manager of Engineering, D365 Mixed Reality Apps at Microsoft told me, the company clearly encouraged a lot of experimentation when it launched the first version. By now, those use cases have become clear.

“When we first started with HoloLens, both internally and in the first wave when we talked about, that this was a completely wide open technology,” she said. “It’s like if you had asked 30 years ago, what could you do with a personal computer. We started by making a bunch of sample applications.” Those applications showed off what you could do in gaming, communications, commercial applications, etc.

“We started by saying that this could be and do anything,” she added. But as HoloLens 1 arrived in the hands of users, a couple of clusters emerged and it’s those that Microsoft wants to focus on for the best out-of-box experience. But it’s also worth noting that Microsoft has committed to keeping HoloLens an open ecosystem. So if game developers want to create games — or their own game stores — there’s nothing holding them back.

Even though it’s now a far more capable device, at $3,500, it’s not a consumer device, and I don’t expect we’ll see any AAA games ported to HoloLens 2 anytime soon.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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