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A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg – TechCrunch

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TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…


TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?

[silence]

[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]

[silence] 

[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water…

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.


Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?

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Google Russia forced to declare bankruptcy after bank account seizure

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Enlarge / The Google doodle for Russia National Day 2016.

Google’s going… out of business?! That’s apparently the case in Russia. As Reuters reports, Google’s Russia subsidiary plans to file for bankruptcy after “the authorities seized its bank account, making it impossible to carry on operations.” Reuters has a statement from Google:

The Russian authorities’ seizure of Google Russia’s bank account has made it untenable for our Russia office to function, including employing and paying Russia-based employees, paying suppliers and vendors, and meeting other financial obligations. Google Russia has published a notice of its intention to file for bankruptcy.

A regulatory filing showed Google Russia has been expecting to file for bankruptcy since March 22. The division did $2 billion in revenue last year, but that doesn’t matter much when authorities take your entire bank account.

Unlike many tech companies that have abandoned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, Google has tried to keep doing business in the country. Heavy hitters like Google Search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail, and Google Play are all still running in Russia. Google’s most important product, the ad platform, was shut down on March 3 in Russia after the Russian government started demanding it censor ads about the war. Over the next few days in March, the big four credit card companies all pulled out of Russia, making normal business transactions very difficult. Google cited this “payment system disruption” as the reason for shutting down Google Play paid apps.

It’s not clear how much of a presence Google will have in Russia going forward. Google has been accused of having a cozy relationship with Russia, and its behavior is an outlier over competitors like Microsoft and Apple, which both voluntarily stopped paid services in the country before the credit card companies pulled out. While Google enjoys a ~90 percent search market share in many countries, Russia is one of the few places it faces a viable search competitor; Google splits the search market nearly 50/50 with local tech company Yandex. That market share might explain why Google doesn’t take a tough stance against Russia—if it gets blocked even temporarily, there might not be a market to come back to.

The Russian government still wants to rely on Google for some services, though. The government said Tuesday it wants to keep YouTube running in the country, saying that a shutdown would harm Russian citizens. Like the rest of the world, there are no video sites on the same scale as YouTube in Russia.

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Microsoft previews a new, totally redesigned Outlook for Windows app

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Enlarge / The new Outlook client for Windows will unify the web and offline clients—when it’s done, anyway.

Microsoft

For years now, Microsoft has been planning behind the scenes to unify its disparate Outlook clients across the web, Windows, and macOS. Today, that goal moved one step closer to completion with the introduction of a new Outlook client for Windows users that closely mirrors the interface and functionality of the Outlook web client.

The new app is available to Office Insiders in the Beta channel who have work or school Microsoft 365 accounts. Regular Microsoft accounts aren’t currently supported. This appears to be the same version of the Outlook client that leaked to the public a couple of weeks ago.

A unified Outlook client, also known as “One Outlook” or “Project Monarch,” will be an especially welcome change for Mac users. The Mac version of Outlook has always looked different from and been less fully featured than the Windows client, though the current situation is much better than the bad old days of Microsoft Entourage.

The new Outlook app will reportedly replace not just the current Outlook app but also Windows’ built-in Mail and Calendar apps. Those apps received minor updates for Windows 11 to bring them in line with its redesigned user interface but otherwise haven’t seen many functional improvements in recent years. The new Outlook app will run on Windows 10 and 11, but we don’t know whether it will replace the Mail and Calendar apps in both OSes.

The new Outlook app is still in early development, and as such, there is a long list of common mail client features that it doesn’t support. In-development and planned features that aren’t yet supported include support for IMAP mail accounts, @outlook.com accounts, offline use, use with multiple accounts, and support for working with .pst Outlook data files.

We may get more information on the One Outlook project at Microsoft’s Build developer conference, which runs next week from May 24–26.

Listing image by Microsoft

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Acer’s new portable monitors can make 2D look like 3D

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Enlarge / Acer’s SpatialLabs View portable monitor.

Acer

Good portable monitors improve your computing experience by providing more screen real estate. But two 4K portable monitors announced today, Acer’s SpatialLabs View and SpatialLabs View Pro, have a trick up their sleeves: making content look like it’s coming out of the screen. Using Acer’s proprietary hardware-software solution, SpatialLabs, the monitors can convert 2D content, like supported games, photos, and CAD designs, into stereoscopic 3D.

Certified by Adobe and Autodesk, SpatialLabs uses a specialized optical lens, two eye-tracking cameras, and AI to make 2D work look 3D without pesky glasses or other clunky headgear. SpatialLabs works by creating a set of images for each eye and projecting them through the optical lens to where you’re looking.

Acer’s idea is that creators, like CAD designers, 3D animators, and developers, quickly see how their work looks in 3D. The stereoscopic 3D environment doesn’t require time-consuming rendering, so it can provide a helpful and more immersive way to preview work.

Acer introduced SpatialLabs through its ConceptD 7 SpatialLabs Edition laptop in October and is now bringing it to entertainment and work-focused 15.6-inch portable monitors. It also announced a gaming laptop with the tech today.

Acer showed the monitors with an HDMI 2.0 and USB-C port for video, plus USB-A and a headphone jack.
Enlarge / Acer showed the monitors with an HDMI 2.0 and USB-C port for video, plus USB-A and a headphone jack.

Acer

Meant for personal use, the SpatialLabs View monitor claims to present supported games in stereoscopic 3D through the new SpatialLabs TrueGame platform.

Gaming in stereo 3D

Acer's SpatialLabs View will be pricier and slower than your typical portable gaming monitor.
Enlarge / Acer’s SpatialLabs View will be pricier and slower than your typical portable gaming monitor.

Acer

“This is possible because games are mostly created with three dimensions in mind: Developers include information about depth into each scene and object they build,” Acer said in its announcement. “SpatialLabs leverages this already existing information in order to present the games in stereoscopic 3D.”

Acer said that TrueGame would support more than 50 games upon release, including BioShock Infinite, Borderlands 2, Forza Horizon 4 and 5, God of War, No Man’s Sky, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Tiny Tina’s Wonderland. TrueGame will provide preconfigured 3D profiles for each title that will automatically launch when you play a supported game. Acer claimed it will add more games “on a continuous basis.”

So what’s the benefit of making gaming graphics look like they’re popping out of a 15.6-inch screen? According to Acer, you can expect more spacious-looking rooms and objects that “appear genuinely layered.” Before passing judgment, we have to see it in person but are curious how the effect might impact fast-paced action. The SpatialLabs View is also a smaller, high pixel density (282.4 pixels per inch) display with a 60 Hz refresh rate and response time of up to 30 ms, making it much slower than the 360 Hz desktop-sized gaming monitors and laptops available.

A secondary 3D screen for creators

The SpatialLabs View Pro is more similar to the ConceptD 7 SpatialLabs Edition laptop in that it targets creative professionals. Acer said the portable monitor supports “all major file formats,” including OBJ, FBX, STEP, STL, COLLADA, IGES, glTF, 3DS, BLEND, PLY, DAE, IGS, and Datasmith, enabling the use of 3D design software like Cinema 4D, Revit, and Solidworks.

The monitor also works with the SpatialLabs Model Viewer, which lets you bring over images, models, and animations from 3D software and view them in stereoscopic 3D. And if you use Autodesk Maya or Blender, you could edit on a normal screen in 2D and view those changes in real time in stereoscopic 3D on the portable monitor. SpatialLabs also has a feature to generate a simulated stereo 3D image from 2D photos and videos. Integration with 3D modeling platform Sketchfab, for downloading additional 3D assets, could also help Acer encourage more use cases.

Acer also sees the SpatialLabs View Pro attracting customers to kiosks and point-of-sale displays, equipping it with a VESA mount, hand gesture recognition, and up to a 5-hour battery life to help.

Acer hopes images seemingly popping out of a screen will catch shoppers' eyes.
Enlarge / Acer hopes images seemingly popping out of a screen will catch shoppers’ eyes.

Acer

When you’re not using the upcoming displays’ 3D features, they’re just regular 4K IPS panels. They claim a max brightness of 323 nits, which would be strong for a portable monitor, 100 percent coverage of the Adobe RGB color space, and 1,200:1 contrast ratios.

Moving the needle?

SpatialLabs was a niche use when Acer announced it in the fall, and that remains the case. But these monitors may move the needle a bit—at least more than the laptop did.

For one, they should be notably cheaper than the SpatialLabs laptop. Acer didn’t share a price for the upcoming monitors, but the PC sells outside the US for 3,500 pounds/4,000 euros (about $4,366/$4,216).

Portable monitors are also a more approachable path to stereoscopic 3D than investing in a computer. Of course, the portable monitors assume you already have the computing capabilities to drive your 3D apps and SpatialLabs. Acer didn’t provide GPU or CPU requirements for a smooth SpatialLabs experience (we’ve asked and will update this piece if we hear back), but the ConceptD 7 SpatialLabs Edition has an octa-core Intel Core i7-11800H, and Nvidia RTX 3080 (8GB), while the Predator Triton Helios 300 SptialLbas Edition gaming laptop announced today goes up to an i9-12900H and RTX 3080

It remains to be seen if SpatialLabs can work with games in a way that looks good and doesn’t hinder gameplay or induce nausea. Competitive gamers will opt for something with a higher refresh rate, but it’s also hard to imagine more casual gamers flocking to the SpatialLabs View for stereoscopic 3D gaming. That’s especially true considering that the SpatialLabs View will cost way more than most desktop-sized gaming monitors at $1,099 “this summer.”

Having a second screen dedicated to the 3D experience seems more natural for creators and developers already working in this space, especially if it’s executed well. But dealing with a smaller screen and finding the proper use is a pertinent obstacle for professionals. Creatives may also be hesitant to become dependent on somewhat new technology for critical work.

Acer didn’t share a price or release date for the SpatialLabs View Pro ahead of press time.

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