Oculus Reveals 1.0

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It’s here! And as predicted, it will launch with Xbox One and Windows 10. Yay! Sorry, let me back that up, I was momentarily exuberant. As you may know, I’m one of the idiot geeks straining at the leash for the launch of meaningful virtual reality. The gamers want it for that total immersive kill factor; I want it because there’s a bunch of stuff I want to do and a bunch of places I want to go that I may not get to in the real world any time soon. I’m also hopeful that we may just figure out how to cheat (or greatly delay) death in my lifetime, and VR will no doubt be an important factor.

Anyhow, my exuberance is a little premature because yesterday they revealed the equipment, but not the price or launch date, which is a vague “Q1 2016.” But still, the equipment looks like the real thing and the gizmos that go with it allow you to virtually touch and hold things in the VR world. That’s a little more than I’d expect out of the box with v1.0.

Importantly, they are announcing with Xbox One and Windows 10. That will give them a ton of early adopter gamers to sell to.  They are also offering $10MM in incentives to game manufactures to support VR. If you add in the recent announcement by GoPro of a 360 VR rig to allow users to record their own VR content, by the time the final thing is ready for release, there may well be a ton of VR enabled content out there that isn’t just VR versions of big selling games.

Their schedule means they will miss the Christmas window for this year, but they will be showing more details and announcing more partnerships at E3 in a couple of weeks. I wonder if that will include the price?

Googleopolis?

Key Speakers At The Google I/O Annual Developers Conference

It’s good to be Larry Page. The former boss of Google is famous for what can look like harebrained schemes. His plan to provide WiFi to the poorest places on Earth by balloon might even be fulfilled next year, and his self-driving cars are famous, or infamous depending on how you view the accident statistics. His latest “wouldn’t it be nice” idea is to re-imagine cities as better places to live. Sidewalk Labs has just been announced in conjunction with Bloomberg and NYC as a program to improve city life. It plans to link together a whole bunch of buzz words, like “ubiquitous connectivity” and the “Internet of things” to make cities better places in which to work and live.

Part of the background of this is the phenomenon of urban renewal, where young, rich white people are moving back into the cities instead of out to the suburbs. I hate to sound all political and bitter about this, but it’s hard not to. If you visit San Fran, you see this new world already in action. It’s the only city I’ve ever seen where the morning commute out of the city is about the same as the commute in. Worse in many cases.

What we see is a hipster tech army commuting out of their converted downtown lofts to their tech gigs in Silicon Valley. How convenient that Google decided to champion making the places their people want to live into nicer places (by “their people” I mean white, educated, techy millennials). This trend is reversing “white flight,” which left many of our cities to the poorest sectors of our society, while the wealthy built McMansions out of town. It also means that after five and on the weekends, many cities are wastelands occupied only by the homeless and mentally ill.

By all means, Google, let’s make change happen. If Google wants to make a real difference, how about launching “Google Sane,” a project to get the mentally ill off the streets and into care. How about “Google Club,” a program to offer after school activities and coaching so that minority kids have somewhere else to go that doesn’t involve gangs. How about “Google Bridge,” a program where Google puts their wealth and technology to work fixing the horrible infrastructure of many cities.

A super wealthy and powerful company like Google applying technology and working with local volunteers and agencies could make a huge difference quickly. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has eliminated several world-wide diseases pretty much single handedly. This bottom up approach is not a planned urban utopia (yet), but it would increase the quality of life for so many people in our cities, and make them better places for hipsters to hang out right away.

Apple Gunning for Google…Again

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A few weeks back, Facebook announced that it was adding a good sized index of Facebook-exclusive stuff to its product, which in theory presents a threat to Google News and possibly other search products. At its developer conference this week, Apple announced a much larger threat to Google.

This gets inside baseball very quickly, but it’s worth it; hang with me. If you are an iDevice user, you will be familiar with Spotlight search. It’s the search box that appears if you swipe down from pretty much anywhere in iOS. At the moment, it pulls up matches from some native apps on your phone; things like your contacts, calendar and some email programs.

The Apple announcement today will allow pretty much any app to link into Spotlight search through an API (that’s the language in which programs talk to each other). So if you have the CCN app (for example), and you searched for “ISIS” in the Spotlight bar, the CNN app could return stories from the main site CNN.com without you ever calling up a browser or doing a search on any other search engine. That’s potentially huge. It would also allow apps like Amazon and eBay to pull up commercial results, again without recourse to Google.

The nuance to this is that (unlike Google) Apple doesn’t rely on exploiting search results with commercials to drive 95% of its revenue, so it can promise (as it did this week) that your searches will never be shared or targeted. Given the massive and accelerating growth of mobile vs. desktop usage, this could make a significant dent in Google.

The good news for Google is that it owns Android, which holds a significant market lead in mobile devices. It could certainly make a similar move and return Google Ads around the results, but it doesn’t have the vice-like grip on its own mobile OS the way Apple does. Carriers futz with Android, which makes this kind of over-arching play trickier. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

The British Are Coming

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I’m a huge theater geek. Every time I visit New York, I stay as close to Broadway as possible and have been known to see a show a night for the entire trip. It’s not exactly a cheap hobby, but you do see some terrific stuff. Last night, I swapped Game of Thrones for the Tony’s and settled in for the usual cavalcade of “luvvy” fun watching a rich whitey award talented young things. By the way, what on earth prompted them to put Kristin Chenoweth in charge of anything? Let alone half the hosting duties. Fortunately, the writing was strong and she was there mostly as a punch line. But really, that was the best we could do?

It started with Helen Mirren and got progressively more and more British as the evening wore on. It’s tough to get more British than Helen Mirren, but somehow they succeeded. In category after category, the large glossy American shows and plays were aced out by edgy Brit fare. It was almost weird to watch. Plays like Fun Home and The Curious Case of The Dog in the Night pretty much swept the board. The Brits also won the categories they don’t typically feature on the show, like design and staging.

The stuff that did the best was by no means typical Broadway. It was dark, edgy, disturbing and, in most cases, pretty low budget. It was as if the powers that be just had enough of the glittery stuff. Speaking of glitter, I was delighted to see that John Cameron Mitchel — the creator of the show I have seen more than any other, Hedwig and the Angry Inch — was given his own special award. Having won a bunch of Tonys (including best revival of a musical last year), it didn’t seem like he was missing one. But perhaps it was special recognition for soldiering on with a knee brace, having broken his ACL on stage in the current run. A theatrical Purple Heart maybe.

There is some very cool looking large-scale and edgy US material currently burning up Broadway. If I was a gambling man, I’d have $50 on the hip hop musical about our founding fathers, Hamilton, sweeping next year’s crop. I was trying to get tickets last night, and there was nothing available until late July. Either way, last night it was cool to be a theater-mad Brit. Now, if we could only make more great movies.

Is Google Treading Water? Or Drowning?

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I’m not really a stock market betting guy. It’s a game I’ve never been good at and frankly doesn’t interest me. I do keep an eye on several stocks, though, and one of them is Google. It’s been a tough year for them, and I’m sure their larger investors are letting them have it at their current shareholders meeting. The problem is that they have been more or less flat, showing a 1% decline in a period where the S&P 500 has hit nearly 10% growth.

I have extensively documented the factors driving these doldrums. The rapid move to mobile by users when advertisers have been slower to follow has hurt them. They have swapped desktop dollars for mobile pennies in many categories. The irony of that transition will not be lost on newspapers, who suffered a similar calamity a decade or so ago when print dollars became online pennies.

Having conquered search, they went on to miss out on social media. They missed Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and a bunch of other upstarts that have been pulling users away from Google properties. They also have a penchant for super expensive, “revenue-free” projects like Google Glass, Fiber, Nest, Driverless cars and Loon. That’s fine and dandy when you are king of the hill and leading the pack, but it’s less cool when you are just another online ad platform. Add to those woes the growth of markets over which they don’t have any sway, like Amazon and eBay. It’s tougher to be a Googler than it was a few years back.

At its core, Google is an advertising platform based around an auction system. The explosion of mobile inventory and the slower rate of adoption by advertisers has driven their click prices down month over month. That will likely improve as the ad world catches up, but it won’t be soon.

They need some game-changing, revenue-rich ideas. To that end, they are moving towards being the marketplace and selling goods and services direct, as opposed to being the forum where advertisers pay to reach the audience. It’s a good idea if they can make it work, but it’s also dangerous as they may end up in competition with their own advertisers.

There is talk of them moving into our local space. The idea is that Google becomes the platform which a local business uses to get jobs, then shares the profit on that job with Google (as opposed to merely buying ads to get customers). It’s huge and potentially game changing. It’s also fraught with friction and would require a fundamental change in how the local economy works.

It’s possible that in spite of having a massive war chest of cash and market leadership in something as fundamental as search, the glory days of Google growth are behind us. If they are, Google stands the risk of being discounted in the same way that newspapers were a decade or so ago. Maybe it is already far too far out, and not waving but drowning.

Counting Calories the Google Way

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We all know that not all food is cooked equal. A fast-food cheeseburger versus one cooked at home contains quite a different nutritional value due to the choice of ingredients used during the preparation process. This is why sometimes counting calories might not necessarily be very accurate, but it is still a good way of getting a rough idea of how much you are consuming.

To aid you with this process, Google has been working on a project that taps into artificial intelligence to help analyze photos of food and give its best bet of the amount of calories there are in that meal.

This technology was recently revealed during the Rework Deep Learning Summit. Dubbed “Im2Calories”, it relies on a camera to analyze the photo. Based on demonstrations, it seems that the system is pretty adept at recognizing the different elements on a plate of food. It also gauged the size of each piece of food in relation to the plate, and also took into consideration any condiments that might have been used.

So how accurate is Im2Calories? At the moment it is unclear as to how close or far the system is from its readings, but Im2Calories is a system which will improve itself through use over time. Even if the technology only works some of the time, as more people begin to use it, the more data will be collected and the more accurate it will become. Im2Calories is designed to improve itself through usage.

At the moment there are apps like MyFitnessPal which has a huge database of different types of food, portion sizes, etc. that users have to enter in manually, but if Im2Calories could speed up the process through automation, more people might ditch the pen, paper, and calculator to figure out how much they are consuming.

Virtual Reality: Visible From Here

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If you follow my random jottings, you may recall that I’m very bullish about Virtual Reality. As a lifetime science fiction geek, VR has always been the Holy Grail. It never seemed achievable (for the average user at least), but it’s getting increasingly closer.

There are three monsters driving this development. A couple of years back, Facebook bought Oculus Rift, the company who managed to hack the human optic nerve and has been working on a ground-breaking headset ever since. I tried an early version, and it’s amazing.

Where Facebook is, can Google be far behind? In their recent I/O conference, Google announced improvements to its Android operating system to allow developers to essentially stitch together video sources from multiple cameras to produce a true VR result. It also has another larger version of its Android-based cardboard headset, which does VR on a shoestring. I have one; it’s clunky but cool, and only cost $40.

The last (much smaller) monster is GoPro. They have just announced a rig which puts six GoPro cameras on a circular rig, allowing users to collect images from multiple cameras simultaneously and then send them on to the Kolor VR platform they acquired recently.

All this stuff is super geeky for right now, but the moment the Oculus Rift headset is launched (hopefully in association with XBox or Sony PlayStation), it will be game on. Gamers will be the first customers, followed rapidly by the porn industry and sports. I’d expect Hollywood to be a year or so behind. What’s especially encouraging is that these players are working on a ‘wide and cheap’ approach, where VR will be readily available to pretty much anyone with modest income.

I realize I’m in the minority in my wildly excitement about this development, in the same way I was wildly underwhelmed by 3D TV. It’s coming folks, and sooner than we thought.

So, Texas. Climate Change. Still Not a thing?

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Perhaps I should stay away from politics and stick to technology, but this past year or two, especially the past weeks, have made it almost impossible not to get just a tiny bit infuriated with Texas. As you will have noted, the state’s had a horrible month or so. Many areas have reported five times their average rainfall and thousands have been displaced by biblical flooding. Meanwhile, next door in SoCal, we are going into our third year of severe drought.

I was looking at some stats recently, and a couple of interesting things jumped out at me. In the last elections, Texas went overwhelmingly Republican. There are a few blue corners, but it typically votes over 75% republican. In most cases, it’s not educated republicans but the God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, Wahoo! kind. Fair enough. It’s a free country.

In some other research, I found stats on opinions around climate change. Only about 25% of self-declared Republicans said they though climate change was a real thing, and in the Tea Party section, that drops even lower. By the way, as an aside, I saw the exhausting Mad Max Fury Road yesterday and the bad guys in that epic are how I picture the Tea Party would be if they ever got to power. But I digress.

So most of Texas votes Republican; thus, most Texans probably think that man-made climate change is a concoction of those lefty scientists. As another aside, a decade or two ago, I found myself doing a tech install in a news room at the Lakeland Ledger in mid Florida. One of the very nice young editors I was working with was complaining that she had to edit and then run a story about some new kind of dinosaur which had been recently discovered. As a guy with a B.S. in Genetics and Molecular Biology, evolution is close to my heart. I questioned her and her colleagues and discovered that not a single person on the team (all educated nice young people) believed that evolution was real. The firmly held consensus was that it was a scientific conspiracy. When I pointed out that scientists are unable to conspire to order coffee without massive and very public disagreements, they weren’t buying it.

It seems that there is a streak running through many Americans who would rather believe in angels than gravity. On that point, why don’t these nitwits go after chemistry or physics? Why only question ‘softer science’ like biology and meteorology? Is it because they don’t have the math?

In any event, we have just had both the hottest year and the coldest winter on record in many places. There is, at the very least, something weird and/or worrying going on. As millions of gallons bring the reality of climate change to Texans first hand, you have to wonder if anyone there is reconsidering their beliefs, even very slightly.

Good Old Fashioned Graft

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We are so inured to corruption of all kinds that I really think most of us just take it for granted nowadays. In the same way that we always expected the Duck Dynasty idiots to be racist homophobes and the Duggar Family to be child molesters, we expect big business to buy and sell our politicians at every level. Beyond the loss of a few reality TV show sponsors, we also expect the perpetrators to go unpunished. So it was with something close to incredulity that I watched FBI agents and Swiss police people raiding the offices of FIFA today.

As a card-carrying Brit, I’m supposed to love the beautiful game of football, or soccer if you insist. In fact, as a card-carrying asthmatic incapable of running for more than a few seconds as a kid, I stayed back in the classroom and did needle point with the girls. Simpler times, I guess. I’ve always loathed soccer; I hate the macho hooligans who play it and watch it and I hate the constant spitting. I hate the endless statistics and ridiculous jingoism it generates. The antics of its governing board, FIFA, always struck me as perfectly matching the boring, boorish nature of the sport. Much like the MLB and the NFL, the sport got the governing body it deserves.

A few weeks back, the hilarious John Oliver (one of three reasons to keep HBO) did an amazing piece on the comic opera level of corruption which pervades FIFA. He brilliantly mocked the absurd level of old fashioned graft hidden in plain sight. Corruption so extreme that it could land the 2022 World Cup in the despotic regime of Qatar, a country where it’s 110 degrees in the shade most of the year and they are building luxury hotels for the games with what is essentially slave labor. I’m pretty sure most of us laughed and mentally shrugged our shoulders. Business as usual, what ya gonna do? Then this morning’s events.

It would be fantastic if the FBI and the Swiss Gendarmerie follow through and actually jail the greedy, arrogant idiots who have treated FIFA as their private ATM for many years. Perhaps next, they can go after the greedy arrogant idiots at AIG and BofA who crashed the world’s economy back in 2009, but I’m not holding my breath for that one. Anyway, Vive Le Sport!

In the Name of “Digital Sovereignty”

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Russia’s cyber world has grown in recent years, and now has more than 80 million users, or about 60% of the population. But in the name of digital sovereignty, Russian authorities are stepping up efforts to corral it, part of a worldwide race between running online technology and the desires of law enforcement to keep tabs on all that activity. The battle lines are forming around the challenge of encryption, which companies are increasingly upgrading in the post-Edward Snowden era to satisfy the privacy concerns of customers.

Russian authorities are fighting back with a law that comes into effect in September, requiring all global Internet platforms, such as Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Apple to store data of Russian users on Russian servers. Furthermore, it directly warned that due to the encryption employed, Russian servers may be forced to take down entire platforms in order to block one piece of objectionable content.

The idea is that data stored on Russian servers will be protected from the prying eyes of the US National Security Agency. Experts say it may also rope off Russian cyberspace and make it easier for Russian authorities to control what their own citizens are posting and reading on the Internet. The main way Russian authorities have been doing that so far is through a complex register of banned websites that Russia-based ISP’s are required to block.

The list currently contains over 10,000 websites, mostly for content even an ardent civil libertarian might have trouble defending, such as child pornography, pro-terrorist agitation, and sites that glamorize suicide. Last week, the Russian communication supervising entity Roskomnadzor sent out warning letters to Google, Twitter, and Facebook, reminding them that they are required by Russian law to hand over data about any Russian blogger who has more than 3,000 readers daily. Any user of the services who posts items calling for “unsanctioned protests and unrest” must be blocked, and due to the companies’ use of https encryption, that could force Russian ISPs to block the entire site.

In barely three months, the new law requiring all companies that operate in Russian cyberspace to store the data of all Russian users on local servers will come into effect. Experts say the law is a sweeping declaration of “digital sovereignty,” but it’s also impossible to guess how it may be enforced. And while Russia may be using its own unique mixture of threats and ill-focused laws to try to address the encryption challenge, it is a global issue.