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What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

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Between xCloud, Stadia and a slew of subscription services, this year’s E3 marks a turning point for the industry

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The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

Europe publishes common drone rules, giving operators a year to prepare

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Europe has today published common rules for the use of drones. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says the regulations, which will apply universally across the region, are intended to help drone operators of all stripes have a clear understanding of what is and is not allowed.

Having a common set of rules will also means drones can be operated across European borders without worrying about differences in regulations.

“Once drone operators have received an authorisation in the state of registration, they are allowed to freely circulate in the European Union. This means that they can operate their drones seamlessly when travelling across the EU or when developing a business involving drones around Europe,” writes EASA in a blog post.

Although published today and due to come into force within 20 days, the common rules won’t yet apply — with Member States getting another year, until June 2020, to prepare to implement the requirements.

Key among them is that starting from June 2020 the majority of drone operators will need to register themselves before using a drone, either where they reside or have their main place of business.

Some additional requirements have later deadlines as countries gradually switch over to the new regime.

The pan-EU framework creates three categories of operation for drones — open’ (for low-risk craft of up to 25kg), ‘specific’ (where drones will require authorization to be flown) or ‘certified’ (the highest risk category, such as operating delivery or passenger drones, or flying over large bodies of people) — each with their own set of regulations.

The rules also include privacy provisions, such as a requirement that owners of drones with sensors that could capture personal data should be registered to operate the craft (with an exception for toy drones).

The common rules will replace national regulations that may have already been implemented by individual EU countries. Although member states will retain the ability to set their own no-fly zones — such as covering sensitive installations/facilities and/or gatherings of people, with the regulation setting out the “possibility for Member States to lay down national rules to make subject to certain conditions the operations of unmanned aircraft for reasons falling outside the scope of this Regulation, including environmental protection, public security or protection of privacy and personal data in accordance with the Union law”.

The harmonization of drone rules is likely to be welcomed by operators in Europe who currently face having to do a lot of due diligence ahead of deciding whether or not to pack a drone in their suitcase before heading to another EU country.

EASA also suggests the common rules will reduce the likelihood of another major disruption — such as the unidentified drone sightings that ground flights at Gatwick Airport just before Christmas which stranded thousands of travellers — given the registration requirement, and a stipulation that new drones must be individually identifiable to make it easier to trace their owner.

“The new rules include technical as well as operational requirements for drones,” it writes. “On one hand they define the capabilities a drone must have to be flown safely. For instance, new drones will have to be individually identifiable, allowing the authorities to trace a particular drone if necessary. This will help to better prevent events similar to the ones which happened in 2018 at Gatwick and Heathrow airports. On the other hand the rules cover each operation type, from those not requiring prior authorisation, to those involving certified aircraft and operators, as well as minimum remote pilot training requirements.

“Europe will be the first region in the world to have a comprehensive set of rules ensuring safe, secure and sustainable operations of drones both, for commercial and leisure activities. Common rules will help foster investment, innovation and growth in this promising sector,” adds Patrick Ky, EASA’s executive director, in a statement.

Sense Photonics flashes onto the lidar scene with a new approach and $26M

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Lidar is a critical part of many autonomous cars and robotic systems, but the technology is also evolving quickly. A new company called Sense Photonics just emerged from stealth mode today with a $26M A round, touting a whole new approach that allows for an ultra-wide field of view and (literally) flexible installation.

Still in prototype phase but clearly enough to attract eight figures of investment, Sense Photonics’ lidar doesn’t look dramatically different from others at first, but the changes are both under the hood and, in a way, on both sides of it.

Early popular lidar systems like those from Velodyne use a spinning module that emit and detect infrared laser pulses, finding the range of the surroundings by measuring the light’s time of flight. Subsequent ones have replaced the spinning unit with something less mechanical, like a DLP-type mirror or even metamaterials-based beam steering.

All these systems are “scanning” systems in that they sweep a beam, column, or spot of light across the scene in some structured fashion — faster than we can perceive, but still piece by piece. Few companies, however, have managed to implement what’s called “flash” lidar, which illuminates the whole scene with one giant, well, flash.

That’s what Sense has created, and it claims to have avoided the usual shortcomings of such systems — namely limited resolution and range. Not only that, but by separating the laser emitting part and the sensor that measures the pulses, Sense’s lidar could be simpler to install without redesigning the whole car around it.

I talked with CEO and co-founder Scott Burroughs, a veteran engineer of laser systems, about what makes Sense’s lidar a different animal from the competition.

“It starts with the laser emitter,” he said. “We have some secret sauce that lets us build a massive array of lasers — literally thousands and thousands, spread apart for better thermal performance and eye safety.”

Sense Photonics flashes onto the lidar scene with a new approach and $26M 2These tiny laser elements are stuck on a flexible backing, meaning the array can be curved — providing a vastly improved field of view. Lidar units (except for the 360-degree ones) tend to be around 120 degrees horizontally, since that’s what you can reliably get from a sensor and emitter on a flat plane, and perhaps 50 or 60 degrees vertically.

“We can go as high as 90 degrees for vert which i think is unprecedented, and as high as 180 degrees for horizontal,” said Burroughs proudly. “And that’s something auto makers we’ve talked to have been very excited about.”

Here it is worth mentioning that lidar systems have also begun to bifurcate into long-range, forward-facing lidar (like those from Luminar and Lumotive) for detecting things like obstacles or people 200 meters down the road, and more short-range, wider-field lidar for more immediate situational awareness — a dog behind the vehicle as it backs up, or a car pulling out of a parking spot just a few meters away. Sense’s devices are very much geared toward the second use case.

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These are just prototype units, but they work and you can see they’re more than just renders.

Particularly because of the second interesting innovation they’ve included: the sensor, normally part and parcel with the lidar unit, can exist totally separately from the emitter, and is little more than a specialized camera. That means that while the emitter can be integrated into a curved surface like the headlight assembly, while the tiny detectors can be stuck in places where there are already traditional cameras: side mirrors, bumpers, and so on.

The camera-like architecture is more than convenient for placement; it also fundamentally affects the way the system reconstructs the image of its surroundings. Because the sensor they use is so close to an ordinary RGB camera’s, images from the former can be matched to the latter very easily.

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The depth data and traditional camera image correspond pixel-to-pixel right out of the system.

Most lidars output a 3D point cloud, the result of the beam finding millions of points with different ranges. This is a very different form of “image” than a traditional camera, and it can take some work to convert or compare the depths and shapes of a point cloud to a 2D RGB image. Sense’s unit not only outputs a 2D depth map natively, but that data can be synced with a twin camera so the visible light image matches pixel for pixel to the depth map. It saves on computing time and therefore on delay — always a good thing for autonomous platforms.

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Sense Photonics’ unit also can output a point cloud, as you see here.

The benefits of Sense’s system are manifest, but of course right now the company is still working on getting the first units to production. To that end it has of course raised the $26 million A round, “co-led by Acadia Woods and Congruent Ventures, with participation from a number of other investors, including Prelude Ventures, Samsung Ventures and Shell Ventures,” as the press release puts it.

Cash on hand is always good. But it has also partnered with Infineon and others, including an unnamed tier-1 automotive company, which is no doubt helping shape the first commercial Sense Photonics product. The details will have to wait until later this year when that offering solidifies, and production should start a few months after that — no hard timeline yet, but expect this all before the end of the year.

“We are very appreciative of this strong vote of investor confidence in our team and our technology,” Burroughs said in the press release. “The demand we’ve encountered – even while operating in stealth mode – has been extraordinary.”

Weighing Peloton’s opportunity and risks ahead of IPO

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Exercise tech company Peloton filed confidentially for IPO this week, and already the big question is whether their last private valuation at $4 billion might be too rich for the appetites of public market investors. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons leading up to the as-yet revealed market debut date.

Risk factors

The biggest thing to pay attention to when it comes time for Peloton to actually pull back the curtains and provide some more detailed info about its customers in its S-1. To date, all we really know is that Peloton has “more than 1 million users,” and that’s including both users of its hardware and subscribers to its software.

The mix is important – how many of these are actually generating recurring revenue (vs. one-time hardware sales) will be a key gauge. MRR is probably going to be more important to prospective investors when compared with single-purchases of Peloton’s hardware, even with its premium pricing of around $2,000 for the bike and about $4,000 for the treadmill. Peloton CEO John Foley even said last year that bike sales went up when the startup increased prices.

Hardware numbers are not entirely distinct from subscriber revenue, however: Per month pricing is actually higher with Peloton’s hardware than without, at $39 per month with either the treadmill or the bike, and $19.49 per month for just the digital subscription for iOS, Android and web on its own.

That makes sense when you consider that its classes are mostly tailored to this, and that it can create new content from its live classes which occur in person in New York, and then are recast on-demand to its users (which is a low-cost production and distribution model for content that always feels fresh to users).

Audi proves two little screens are better than one big screen

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I’m spending some time in the new Audi Q8, and the car company equipped the crossover with its latest infotainment system. I love it, fingerprints, dust and all.

The grimy screens are part of the story. I could have cleaned up the screens for the photos, but I thought it was essential to show the screens after a couple of weeks of use.

There are two screens placed in the center stack of the Q8. The top one features controls for the radio, mapping system and vehicle settings. The bottom screen is for climate controls and additional controls like garage door opener and the vehicle’s cameras. Both have haptic feedback, so the buttons feel nearly real.

Both screens are tilted at the right angle, and the shifter is built in a way that provides a handy spot to rest your wrist, steadying it as you hit the screens.

Car companies are turning to touchscreens over physical buttons. It makes sense on some level, as screens are less expensive and scalable across vehicles. With screens, car companies do not need to design and manufacture knobs, buttons and sliders but instead create a software user interface.

Tesla took it to the next level with the debut of the Model S in 2012. The car company stuck a massive touchscreen in the center stack. It’s huge. I’m not a fan. I find the large screen uncomfortable and impractical to use while driving. Other car companies must agree, as few have included similar touchscreens in their vehicles. Instead of a single touchscreen, most car makers are using a combination of a touchscreen with physical knobs and buttons. For the most part, this is an excellent compromise, as the knobs and buttons are used for functions that will always be needed, like climate control.

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Audi is using a similar thought in its latest infotainment system. The bottom screen is always on and always displays the climate control. There’s a button that reveals shortcuts, too, so if the top screen is turned off, the driver can still change the radio to a preset. The top screen houses buttons for the radio, mapping and lesser-used settings.

The user interface uses a dark theme. The black levels are fantastic, even in direct sunlight, and this color scheme makes it easy to use during the day or night.

The touchscreens have downsides but none that are not present on other touchscreens. Glare is often an issue, and these screens are fingerprint magnets. I also found the screen to run hot to the touch after a few minutes in the sun.

Apple CarPlay remains a source of frustration. The Q8 has the latest CarPlay option, which allows an iPhone to run CarPlay wirelessly. It only works sometimes. And sometimes, when it does work, various apps like Spotify do not work in their typical fashion. Thankfully, Apple just announced a big update for CarPlay that will hopefully improve the connectivity and stability.

The infotainment system is now a critical component. Automakers must build a system that’s competent and feels natural to the driver and yet able to evolve as features are added to vehicles through over-the-air updates. Automakers must build a system that works today and continues to work years from now.

Audi’s latest infotainment system is impressive. It does everything right: it’s not a distraction, it’s easy to use and features fantastic haptic feedback.

Maker Faire halts operations and lays off all staff

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Financial troubles have forced Maker Media, the company behind crafting publication MAKE: magazine as well as the science and art festival Maker Faire, to lay off its entire staff of 22 and pause all operations. TechCrunch was tipped off to Maker Media’s unfortunate situation which was then confirmed by the company’s founder and CEO Dale Dougherty.

For 15 years, MAKE: guided adults and children through step-by-step do-it-yourself crafting and science projects, and it was central to the maker movement. Since 2006, Maker Faire’s 200 owned and licensed events per year in over 40 countries let attendees wander amidst giant, inspiring art and engineering installations.

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Maker Media Inc ceased operations this week and let go of all of its employees — about 22 employees” Dougherty tells TechCrunch. “I started this 15 years ago and it’s always been a struggle as a business to make this work. Print publishing is not a great business for anybody, but it works…barely. Events are hard . . . there was a drop off in corporate sponsorship.” Microsoft and Autodesk failed to sponsor this year’s flagship Bay Area Maker Faire.

But Dougherty is still desperately trying to resuscitate the company in some capacity, if only to keep MAKE:’s online archive running and continue allowing third-party organizers to license the Maker Faire name to throw affiliated events. Rather than bankruptcy, Maker Media is working through an alternative Assignment for Benefit of Creditors process.

“We’re trying to keep the servers running” Dougherty tells me. “I hope to be able to get control of the assets of the company and restart it. We’re not necessarily going to do everything we did in the past but I’m committed to keeping the print magazine going and the Maker Faire licensing program.” The fate of those hopes will depend on negotiations with banks and financiers over the next few weeks. For now the sites remain online.

The CEO says staffers understood the challenges facing the company following layoffs in 2016, and then at least 8 more employees being let go in March according to the SF Chronicle. They’ve been paid their owed wages and PTO, but did not receive any severance or two-week notice.

“It started as a venture-backed company but we realized it wasn’t a venture-backed opportunity” Dougherty admits, as his company had raised $10 million from Obvious Ventures, Raine Ventures, and Floodgate. “The company wasn’t that interesting to its investors anymore. It was failing as a business but not as a mission. Should it be a non-profit or something like that? Some of our best successes for instance are in education.”

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The situation is especially sad because the public was still enthusiastic about Maker Media’s products  Dougherty said that despite rain, Maker Faire’s big Bay Area event last week met its ticket sales target. 1.45 million people attended its events in 2016. MAKE: magazine had 125,000 paid subscribers and the company had racked up over one million YouTube subscribers. But high production costs in expensive cities and a proliferation of free DIY project content online had strained Maker Media.

“It works for people but it doesn’t necessarily work as a business today, at least under my oversight” Dougherty concluded. For now the company is stuck in limbo.

Regardless of the outcome of revival efforts, Maker Media has helped inspire a generation of engineers and artists, brought families together around crafting, and given shape to a culture of tinkerers. The memory of its events and weekends spent building will live on as inspiration for tomorrow’s inventors.

Here’s how Google Stadia performs depending on your internet connection

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Google is introducing more about the launch of its Stadia streaming gaming service today, and VP Phil Harrison gave us performance specifics today so you can see exactly how the company thinks the service will perform based on what kind of internet connection you have. It tops out at an impressive 4K resolution, with HDR color, 60fps frame rate and 5.1 surround sound, but you’ll have to have at least a 35 Mbps connection to get that level of quality.

Meanwhile, at 20 Mbps you’ll get full HD 1080p output, while retaining HDR video, 60fps and 5.1 surround. And Google has optimized for smoothness of stream by retaining 60 fps all the way down to its recommended minimum bandwidth connection quality of 10 Mbps (and even potentially below that based on this chart). You’ll only get 720p streams at that level, however, and stereo instead of surround sound.

“With Stadia, our goal is to make gaming more accessible for everyone,” is how Harrison framed it, and that applies to its range of connection support as well as its device availability. At launch you’ll be able to play Stadia games on your TV (via Chromecast Ultra), desktop, laptop and tablet (via browsers) and on smartphones, though only Pixel phones to begin with starting with Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a (via dedicated Stadia app).

Here’s how Google Stadia performs depending on your internet connection

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Google is introducing more about the launch of its Stadia streaming gaming service today, and VP Phil Harrison gave us performance specifics today so you can see exactly how the company thinks the service will perform based on what kind of internet connection you have. It tops out at an impressive 4K resolution, with HDR color, 60fps frame rate and 5.1 surround sound, but you’ll have to have at least a 35 Mbps connection to get that level of quality.

Meanwhile, at 20 Mbps you’ll get full HD 1080p output, while retaining HDR video, 60fps and 5.1 surround. And Google has optimized for smoothness of stream by retaining 60 fps all the way down to its recommended minimum bandwidth connection quality of 10 Mbps (and even potentially below that based on this chart). You’ll only get 720p streams at that level, however, and stereo instead of surround sound.

“With Stadia, our goal is to make gaming more accessible for everyone,” is how Harrison framed it, and that applies to its range of connection support as well as its device availability. At launch you’ll be able to play Stadia games on your TV (via Chromecast Ultra), desktop, laptop and tablet (via browsers) and on smartphones, though only Pixel phones to begin with starting with Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a (via dedicated Stadia app).

Sennheiser debuts its first wireless gaming headset, the GSP 670

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During Computex last week, Sennheiser gave media a sneak peek at its first wireless gaming headset, the GSP 670, slated to ship starting at the beginning of next month.

The GSP 670 retails for €349 (about $393), significantly pricier then other popular wireless gaming headsets (as well as its wired predecessor, the Sennheiser GSP 600, priced at $249.95). Sennheiser is hoping its features, as well as the company’s reputation for excellent sound quality and comfortable headsets, will convince gamers to take the plunge. (When I tried on a pair at Computex, it delivered on wearability, connection speeds and audio quality, but of course it is hard to tell how headsets will feel and sound after hours of gaming, versus a few minutes of testing).

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Despite the freedom afforded by wireless, many gamers stick with wired headsets to avoid reductions in sound quality and connection speeds or having to worry about battery levels, issues that Sennheiser addresses with the GSP 670’s features. Like other wireless headsets, the GSP 670 needs to be connected to a wireless dongle. Each one comes with a GSA 70 compact USB dongle with proprietary technology that Sennheiser developed to ensure a low-latency connection it promises transmits sounds with “near-zero delay.” The USB is compatible with PCs and the Sony Playstation 4. The GSP 670 also has Bluetooth, so users can pair it with their smartphones and tablets as well.

The GSP 670’s microphone is noise-cancelling and can be muted by raising the boom arm. The headset has two volume wheels to allow users to control chat audio and game audio separately. Gamers can also adjust the audio on the GSP 670 with Sennheiser’s Gaming Suite for Windows, a software tool that lets users switch between audio presets or customize sound levels, and also includes surround sound modes and an equalizer.

In terms of battery, Sennheiser claims the GSP 670’s quick-charging battery can run for two hours after a seven minute charge. When fully charged, it says the battery can last for up to 20 hours on Bluetooth and 16 hours when connected via the GSA 70 dongle. The headset has automatic shutdown to save power.

The GSP 670 is currently available for pre-order on Sennheiser’s website and will ship beginning on July 1.

Pokémon Sword and Shield arrive worldwide on November 15, 2019

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Nintendo Switch has Pokémon games, but it doesn’t really have its own Pokémon games, not in the true sense. Pokémon Sword and Shield, coming November 15, 2019, will be the first real Pokémon games (don’t even mention Pokémon Let’s Go – don’t) for Nintendo Switch, and now we know more about them thanks to today’s Pokémon Direct livestream event from Nintendo.

Starting with the intro video, you can tell that Sword and Shield will be a full-fledged new extension of the Pokémon world taking place in the new Galar region – a fact emphasized by the theme song that played over it which featured the catchy hook “A whoollle new worlllddd.”

Plus in this new region, part of the fiction is that everyone loves watching battles on TV, which seems like it will come into play for big battles. We also got a glimpse at a bunch of new Pokémon, including a sheep one called Wooloo; a flower thing called Gossifleur (which evolves to Eldegoss); plus a “bite” type called Dredgnaw.

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There’s also a new place called, not super imaginatively, the “Wild Area” which is pretty much an open world between human settlements where you get the chance to encounter wild Pokémon you can catch. These will vary depending on weather conditions and time of day, and it looks like much more of a free-ranging experience, when compared to the relatively hard-tracked previous instalments.

Pokémon also get a special power called ‘Dynamax’ in this instalment, which is a special power that makes them huge and more powerful for three turns. This also factors into a new mode where up to four Pokémon trainers can team up to squad raid a single Dynamax wild Pokémon who retains their amped up power for the duration of the conflict. At the end, players get a chance to capture the Pokémon – and some are exclusively available to catch this way.

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We also got an intro to new characters including region champion Leon, his younger brother Hop (a primary rival for the player), plus a really quick look at some of the gym battles.

The real capper though was a CG cinematic introducing the game’s legendaries, which are wolf-like Pokémon who have – you guessed it – a sword and a shield respectively. These are called Zacian and Zamazenta.

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