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Tech

Microsoft has a plan to beat Chromebooks at their own game

Microsoft is holding an education-focused event on May 2nd, and speculation has indicated that we might see Windows 10 Cloud for the first time. The software is pegged as a low-resource platform that could compete with Google’s Chrome OS, which has been making big inroads in EDU markets recently. The latest indication of Microsoft’s plan to take Chromebooks on comes from Windows Central, which published a leaked spec sheet showing Windows 10 Cloud minimum specs and performance requirements as compared to Chromebooks.

Assuming this chart is accurate, it gives us a good idea of what sort of hardware we’ll be seeing from Windows 10 Cloud devices. The relatively modest specs include 4GB of RAM, a quad-core Celeron (or better) processor and either 32GB or 64GB of storage — that all sounds a lot like you’ll find in a Chromebook. Microsoft is looking to achieve “all-day” battery life for “most students” and super-short boot and wake from sleep times, as well.

What we’ve seen from Windows 10 Cloud suggests that machines running this new software will only work with Universal Windows Platform apps you get from the Microsoft Store — traditional Windows software will be out. But for a lot of students, that plus the many web-based apps and services out there will be enough to get a lot of work done. In any event, it looks like we’ll know more in less than two weeks, and we’ll be at Microsoft’s event to cover all the news.

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TN specials

ARM-powered Windows 10 laptops will arrive this holiday

Remember Windows RT, the stripped back version of Windows 8 meant for ARM-based hardware? It was a complete failure for Microsoft, recreating the desktop environment but little else for the Surface and Lumia 2520. Undeterred, Microsoft is working with Qualcomm to get Windows 10 running on Snapdragon processors. Announced last December, we should see the fruits of that partnership in new hardware later this year. Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf revealed during an investor call: “Our Snapdragon 835 is expanding into mobile PC designs running Windows 10, which are scheduled to launch in the fourth calendar quarter this year.”

Unlike Windows RT, ARM-based hardware running Windows 10 should support proper desktop-class apps. That’s because Microsoft is building an emulator directly into the OS capable of handling Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word, and other desktop staples. That’s a big promise, but one that could change the complexion of the Windows 10 market if successful. For one, it’ll be the same experience that Windows customers are used to — no strange amalgamation of apps and environments like the Surface 2. For another, ARM-based hardware should offer longer battery life, providing better options for people who need stamina more than power.

It’s also possible that ARM-powered laptops will be cheaper than their Intel-based contemporaries. That’s not guaranteed, but if it does happen Microsoft will be better positioned to tackle Chromebooks and iPads in the classroom. The first wave of ARM-based devices will come from other manufacturers, rather than Microsoft’s Surface division. Lenovo is reportedly working on a device, and there’s a good chance we’ll see a few more at Microsoft’s Build conference in Seattle.

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Tech

Facebook’s plans for Oculus are finally taking shape

When Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion in early 2014, it wasn’t entirely clear what Mark Zuckerberg planned to do with all of the virtual reality hardware suddenly at his fingertips. Hell, it wasn’t even clear that VR was going to be a legitimate industry: Sony hadn’t revealed the PlayStation VR yet, Google Cardboard didn’t exist, and Valve was a year away from announcing the HTC Vive headset. VR was truly in its infancy when the world’s largest social networking site strode in, promising to deliver video games and “many other experiences” on the Oculus Rift.

While we’re still waiting on the “video games” part of that promise, today Facebook launched the beta for Spaces, its first attempt at translating social networking to VR. Spaces is a digital world exclusive to the Oculus Rift that you can share with up to three other people at a time. Create a 3D avatar of yourself and hang out with digital renditions of your VR-capable friends, talking, drawing objects, exploring 360-degree films and taking photos with a selfie stick. And that’s about it.

Even though Spaces is fairly barebones and still in the early stages of development — Facebook says the beta represents 1 percent of its goal product — it’s our first glimpse at Zuckerberg’s grand VR vision. This is what Facebook wanted when it bought Oculus: selfie sticks in VR.

Seriously.

“This is really a new communication platform,” Zuckerberg wrote about VR in 2014. “By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

Facebook Spaces is precisely what Zuckerberg laid out from the beginning. It’s a way to share an experience with a friend, even if that person lives across the world, and even if your adventure is as simple as taking a photo together. Spaces lays the foundation for grander features like playing games together in VR, and its goal is clear: Blur the line between hanging out in reality and “hanging out” on Facebook (where algorithms and advertisers can more easily find you).

However, Facebook’s dream of trans-continental selfies (and ads) won’t come true if you or your friends don’t own an Oculus Rift — and chances are, you don’t. Oculus hasn’t shared actual Rift sales figures, but third-party industry trackers suggest it sold between 250,000 and 400,000 headsets in 2016. Regardless of the actual number, Facebook’s headset is firmly in last place, hundreds of thousands of units behind the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.

Not to mention, Facebook Spaces requires users to own the Oculus Touch controllers as well — a $99 accessory that doesn’t come bundled with every Rift.

This hardware shortfall makes one aspect of today’s announcement particularly intriguing: Anyone using Spaces is able to call friends via Facebook Messenger video and talk with them inside the VR world, regardless of whether that friend has a Rift. Facebook is aware that VR can’t survive on its own right now; it has to be incorporated into our existing systems until the hardware itself is more accessible and normalized. Or, until the bulky VR headsets disappear entirely, replaced by mass-market augmented reality systems instead, like HoloLens or a functional Google Glass.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook has pounced on the AR industry as well, today announcing the Camera Effects Platform to help developers create apps that overlay objects, information and filters on the real world. This parallel focus on AR and VR isn’t an accident — in fact, both industries are a large part of Facebook’s 10-year roadmap.

Facebook is poised to combine Oculus’ hardware chops with a steady stream of camera-based AR innovation rolling in from developers across the world — and within its own walls. Facebook is preparing to take over our reality, in whatever form it eventually takes.

 

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Tech

Lenovo’s convertible Chromebook is built with Android apps in mind

Convertible Chromebooks are all the rage lately, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at Lenovo’s offerings. It did release the Chrome-powered ThinkPad Yoga 11e, but that was aimed at schools. Now, however, Lenovo is building a 2-in-1 Chromebook aimed at the mainstream — it just launched the Flex 11 Chromebook, a budget 11.6-inch hybrid designed to run Android apps. It can’t actually use Android apps yet (Google Play support is “coming soon,” Lenovo says), but its combination of a tablet mode with a quad-core, 2.1GHz ARM processor should make it well-suited to your favorite mobile titles. Just don’t expect it to be speedy compared to Chromebooks using Celeron or Core chips.

The 4GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and 1,366 x 768 screen resolution won’t blow you away, but there are a few perks to this relatively no-frills design. The Flex 11 includes USB-C to support newer peripherals and charge your system (there’s also USB 3.0, HDMI and an SD card slot), and it’s built to take some abuse between the reinforced ports and water resistance on both the keyboard and trackpad. You might like the 10-hour estimated battery life, as well.

However, the real allure is likely the price. The Flex 11 Chromebook will cost just $279 when it arrives this month. That’s not exactly revolutionary (Acer has a lower-priced option for students), but that’s much better than the $439 you had to pay for the school-oriented ThinkPad when it was new. This is clearly aimed at anyone looking to get their feet wet with Chromebooks, whether they’re doing schoolwork or just watching Netflix on the couch.

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Articles Featured/Opinions

Facebook details its plans for a brain-computer interface

Facebook wants you to use your brain to interact with your computer. Specifically, instead of using something primitive like a screen or a controller, the company is looking into ways that you and I can interact with our PCs or phones just by using our mind. Regina Dugan, the head of Building 8, the company’s secretive hardware R&D division, delved into this on stage at F8. “What if you could type directly from your brain?” she asks.

In a video demo, Dugan showed the example of a woman in a Stanford lab who is able to type eight words per minute directly with her brain. This means, Dugan says, that you can text your friends without using your phone. She goes on to say that in a few years time, the team expects to demonstrate a real-time silent speech system capable of delivering a hundred words per minute. “That’s five times faster than you can type on your smartphone, and it’s straight from your brain,” she said. “Your brain activity contains more information than what a word sounds like and how it’s spelled; it also contains semantic information of what those words means.”

And that’s not all. Dugan adds that it’s also possible to “listen” to human speech by using your skin. It’s like using Braille, but through a system of actuators and sensors. Dugan showed a video example of how a woman could figure out exactly what objects were selected on a touchscreen based on inputs delivered through a connected armband. The armband’s system of actuators was tuned to 16 frequency bands, and has a tactile vocabulary of nine words, learned in about an hour.

This, Dugan says, also has the potential of removing language barriers. “You could think in Mandarin, but feel in Spanish,” she said. “We are wired to communicate and connect.”

Of course, a lot of this tech is still a few years out. And this is just a small sample of what Dugan has been working on since she joined Facebook in April 2016. She served as the 19th Director of the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and she’s the former head of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (no big deal).

The stuff that Facebook is creating at Building 8 is modeled after DARPA, and would integrate both mind and body. “Our world is both digital and physical,” she said, saying there’s no need to put down your phone in order to communicate with the people in front of you. That is a false choice, she said, because you need both. “Our goal is to create and ship new, category-defining consumer products that are social first, at scale,” she said. “We can honor the intimacy of what’s timeless, and also create products that refuse to accept that false choice.”

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Tech

Logitech’s sub-$100 deck tempts new mechanical keyboard fans

Mechanical keyboard aficionados may extol the virtues of their chosen device like speed and feel but often downplay how much that luxury will cost you. Many good mechanical keyboards run between $150 and $200, with gaming-centric models jacking up the price thanks to features like RGB lighting and programmable keys. Logitech’s new G413 hopes to indoctrinate the less hardcore by eschewing most of the bells and whistles, delivering a quality gaming deck that will cost you only $90/£99.

Gallery: Logitech G413 hands-on | 11 Photos

The G413 is a solid piece of kit, with an aluminum plate underneath the keys and a thick braided cord providing USB pass-through so you can plug stuff into it and reduce cable clutter on your desk. Even the feet feel pretty solid and are hard to pull off — and yes, I tried, as I’ve had a few go missing in the past. The keys are easy to remove, which makes the deck super simple to clean, as well as allowing you to swap out buttons if you have replacements on hand.

However, getting new keys isn’t as easy as it would be on rival peripherals that use the fairly common Cherry-brand switches. Like Razer, Logitech uses its own proprietary switches, known as the Romer-G. They don’t feel as sharp as Cherry switches or Razer’s brand, with a slightly soft impression on each key press. But the actuation point is only 1.5mm deep (with a force of 45g), so they’re just as responsive. They’re a huge improvement over the keys in Logitech’s low-cost G213, which was aimed at the same audience with a similar price point. That model wasn’t mechanical, using what the company called “Mech Dome” keys instead. That’s a fancy name for what are essentially high-quality membrane buttons.

Logitech at least supplies a set of contoured WASD replacement keys in the box for more serious gamers. Further customization is also offered via Logitech’s software, allowing users to program the function keys with macros. The ability to customize the lighting is not available, though — Logitech left out multicolored LEDs to bring the price down. This leaves users with an ominous red backlight under each key instead (it can be turned down or off). I was glad to see macro buttons omitted as well, as I have a bad habit of accidentally hitting those extra keys when trying to type. But I admit that I wouldn’t have minded some dedicated media controls at least — I’ve grown rather fond of them after using Corsair’s K95 for so long.

The black keys with their red glow contrast rather nicely with the G413’s backplate, but there’s also a pretty sweet-looking silver version available — however, it’s a Best Buy exclusive. Whatever your preference, both colors will run you $90/£99 and can be picked up today.

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News

Facebook’s new 360 cameras bring multiple perspectives to live videos

Last year, Facebook announced the Surround 360, a 360-degree camera that can capture footage in 3D and then render it online via specially designed software. But it wasn’t for sale. Instead, the company used it as a reference design for others to create 3D 360 content, even going so far as to open source it on Github later that summer. As good as the camera was, though, it still didn’t deliver the full VR experience. That’s why Facebook is introducing two more 360-degree cameras at this year’s F8: the x24 and x6. The difference: These cameras can shoot in six degrees of freedom, which promises to make the 360 footage more immersive than before.

The x24 is so named because it has 24 cameras; the x6, meanwhile, has — you guessed it — six cameras. While the x24 looks like a giant beach ball with many eyes, the x6 is shaped more like a tennis ball, which makes for a less intimidating look. Both are designed for professional content creators, but the x6 is obviously meant to be a smaller, lighter and cheaper version.

Both the x24 and the x6 are part of the Surround 360 family. And, as with version one (which is now called the Surround 360 Open Edition), Facebook doesn’t plan on selling the cameras themselves. Instead, Facebook plans to license the x24 and x6 designs to a “select group of commercial partners.” Still, the versions you see in the images here were prototyped in Facebook’s on-site hardware lab (cunningly called Area 404) using off-the-shelf components. The x24 was made in partnership with FLIR, a company mostly known for its thermal imaging cameras, while the x6 prototype was made entirely in-house.

But before we get into all of that, let’s talk a little bit about what sets these cameras apart from normal 360 ones. With a traditional fixed camera, you see the world through its fixed lens. So if you’re viewing this content (also known as stereoscopic 360) in a VR headset and you decide to move around, the world stays still as you move, which is not what it would look like in the real world. This makes the experience pretty uncomfortable and takes you out of the scene. It becomes less immersive.

With content that’s shot with six degrees of freedom, however, this is no longer an issue. You can move your head to a position where the camera never was, and still view the world as if you were actually there. Move your head from side to side, forwards and backwards, and the camera is smart enough to reconstruct what the view looks like from different angles. All of this is due to some special software that Facebook has created, along with the carefully designed pattern of the cameras. According to Brian Cabral, Facebook’s Engineering Director, it’s an “optimal pattern” to get as much information as possible.

I had the opportunity to have a look at a couple of different videos shot with the x24 at Facebook’s headquarters (Using the Oculus Rift, of course). One was of a scene shot in the California Academy of Sciences, specifically at the underwater tunnel in the Steinhart Aquarium. I was surprised to see that the view of the camera would follow my own as I tilted my head from left to right and even when I crouched down on the floor. I could even step to the side and look “through” where the camera was, as if it wasn’t there at all. If the video was shot through a traditional 360 camera, it’s likely that I would see the camera tripod if I looked down. But with the x24, I just saw the floor, as if I was a disembodied ghost floating around.

Another wonderful thing about videos shot with six degrees of freedom is that each pixel has depth. Each pixel is literally in 3D. This a breakthrough for VR content creators, and opens up a world of possibilities in visual effects editing. This means that you can add 3D effects to live action footage, a feat that usually would have required a green screen.

I saw this demonstrated in the other video, which was of a scene shot on the roof of one of Facebook’s buildings. Facebook along with Otoy, a Los Angeles-based cloud rendering company, were able to actually add effects to the scene. Examples include floating butterflies, which wafted around when I swiped at them with a Touch controller. They also did a visual trick where I could step “outside” of the scene and encapsulate the entire video in a snow globe. All of this is possible because of the layers of depth that the footage provides.

That’s not to say there weren’t bugs. The video footage I saw had shimmering around the edges, which Cabral said is basically a flaw in the software that they’re working to fix. Plus, the camera is unable to see what’s behind people, so there’s a tiny bit of streaking along the edges.

Still, there’s lots of potential with this kind of content. “This is a new kind of media in video and immersive experiences,” said Eric Cheng, Facebook’s head of Immersive Media, who was previously the Director of Photography at Lytro. “Six degrees of freedom has traditionally been done in gaming and VR, but not in live action.” Cheng says that many content creators have told him that they’ve been waiting for a way to bridge live action into these “volumetric editing experiences.”

Indeed, that’s partly why Facebook is partnering with a lot of post-production companies like Adobe, Foundry and Otoy in order to develop an editing workflow with these cameras. “Think of these cameras as content acquisition tools for content creators,” said Cheng.

But what about other cameras, like Lytro’s Immerge for example? “There’s a large continuum of these things,” said Cabral. “Lytro sits at the very very high-end.” It’s also not nearly as portable as both the x24 and x6, which are both designed for a much more flexible and nimble approach to VR capture.

As for when cameras like these will make their way down to the consumer level, well, Facebook says that will come in future generations. “That’s the long arc of where we’re going with this,” said CTO Mike Schroepfer.

“Our goal is simple: We want more people producing awesome, immersive 360 and 3D content,” said Schroepfer. “We want to bring people up the immersion curve. We want to be developing the gold standard and say this is where we’re shooting for.”

av, cameras, f8, f82017, facebook, personal computing, personalcomputing, CTO, Mike Schroepfer, gadgetry, gear,3D content,Lytro’s Immerge, Los Angeles, social media, social media app,media, entertainment, Adobe, Foundry, Otoy, camera, Brian Cabral, Facebook’s Engineering Director, optimal pattern

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Tech

Early computing pioneer Robert Taylor dies

The technology world just lost one of its most prominent innovators. Robert Taylor, best known as the mastermind of ARPAnet (the internet’s precursor), has died at 85. As the director of the US military’s Advanced Research Projects Agency from 1965 until 1970, he helped pioneer the concept behind shared networks — he was frustrated with constantly switching terminals and wanted to access multiple networks from one system. While a lot of the credit goes to his team for implementing ARPAnet, he both pushed hard for the project and wrote a legendary 1968 essay that foretold the internet’s future: a vast, decentralized grid of connected devices that would reshape communication at just about every level.

This wasn’t Taylor’s only influential role. He went on to Xerox’s fabled Palo Alto Research Center, which he oversaw (first as associate manager and then as full manager) during one of its most influential periods. PARC broke ground on Ethernet technology, early internet development (by linking computers to ARPANET through Ethernet) and, of course, the windowed visual computing interfaces that people take for granted today. Even his later work at DEC was influential, as his research team helped usher in multi-processor workstations and sophisticated multitasking in Unix-based computers.

Moreover, Taylor was influential in laying the moral groundwork for the internet. Even in 1968, he was arguing that his connected future had to be open to everyone and not just the elite. He was also aware that the internet could be both harmful and helpful, and predicted the rise of botnets years in advance. Much like Tim Berners-Lee and other later pioneers, Taylor wasn’t just concerned about chips or software. He was thinking about the long-term social ramifications of his work, and you can arguably credit the mostly democratized nature of the internet to him.

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