Facebook’s virtual reality arm may soon find itself in the unfamiliar position of playing catch-up with hardware competitors.
Last week, TechCrunch reported that Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe had decided to leave Facebook partially due to his “fundamentally different views on the future of Oculus” and decisions surrounding the cancellation of a next-generation “Rift 2” project.
The company’s prototype “Rift 2” device, codenamed Caspar, was a “complete redesign” of the original Rift headset, a source familiar with the matter tells us. Its cancellation signified an interest by Facebook leadership to focus on more accessible improvements to the core Rift experience that wouldn’t require the latest PC hardware to function. Iribe did not agree with the direction, with a source telling us that he was specifically not interested in “offering compromised experiences that provided short-term user growth but sacrificed on comfort and performance.”
In the wake of the overhaul’s cancellation, the company will be pursuing a more modest product update — possibly called the “Rift S” — to be released as early as next year, which makes minor upgrades to the device’s display resolution while more notably getting rid of the external sensor tracking system, sources tell us. Instead, the headset will utilize the integrated “inside-out” Insight tracking system which is core to Facebook’s recently-announced Oculus Quest standalone headset.
The “Constellation” tracking system on the current-generation Rift offers precise accuracy thanks to the static external sensors that track the headset and Touch controllers. While the Insight system would likely offer users a much more simplified setup process, a clear pain point of the first-generation product, “inside-out” tracking systems have greater limitations when it comes to the lighting conditions they work in and are generally less accurate than systems with external trackers.
While Oculus has long led the way on hardware advances, this release could be seen as the company playing catch-up with competitors like Microsoft, which has partnered with OEMs including Samsung, Lenovo and LG to release headsets on its Windows Mixed Reality platform that also feature inside-out tracking as well as higher resolution displays than the Oculus Rift.
“While we don’t comment on rumors/speculation about our future products, as we shared last week, PC VR remains a part of our strategy and is a category we will continue to invest in. In addition to hardware, we have a robust software roadmap and are funding content well into 2020,” an Oculus spokesperson told TechCrunch.
There are some clear benefits for Oculus pushing iterative hardware in an iPhone-like “S” manner, especially around affordability, as a more drawn out device life cycle gives both Oculus and PC component manufacturers time to reduce VR’s high barrier to entry in terms of cost.
The cancellation of its Caspar “Rift 2” project, does suggest a less aggressive pace of innovation for the company with its flagship premium VR product. The move away from a redesign could alienate early adopters and send them to other platforms. It could also lead Oculus into a situation where new titles that take advantage of the latest systems aren’t compatible with Rift hardware.
At its Oculus Connect developer conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared that the Oculus Rift, Quest and Go represented “the completion of its first-generation of VR products.” As Zuckerberg continues to double-down on his long-term goal to bring 1 billion users into VR, the need to build the Oculus user base is growing more important but it’s unclear how essential the company believes leading the high-end PC VR market is to defining that early mainstream success.
This is the real voice behind Google Assistant
When using Google Assistant, most of us don’t even consider who the voice is coming from — after all, it’s artificial intelligence, not a real person. Our virtual assistants, be it Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, are always at our beck and call, but we (for the most part) remain well-aware of the fact that they’re just lines of code and intricate algorithms. But how would you feel if you knew that Google Assistant has a very human backstory?
In an interview with The Atlantic, James Giangola, the lead conversation and persona designer at Google, spoke about the Assistant at great length. When the team set out to create its AI-based assistant, they knew that the line between a cool, futuristic feature and a mildly creepy if uncanny voice bot is very, very thin. Google Assistant was never meant to seem human — that would just be disturbing — but she was meant to be just human enough to make us feel comfortable. To achieve that elusive feeling of somewhat reserved comfort, Giangola and his team went to great lengths to perfect the Assistant.
You’d think that just hiring a skilled voice actor would be enough, but there was much more to consider than just finding a pleasant voice. James Giangola set out on a quest to make the Google Assistant sound normal and to hide that alien feeling of speaking to a robot. In order to do this, he made up a lengthy backstory for the Assistant.
A robot with an extensive backstory
When searching for the right voice actress and then training her later on, The Atlantic notes that James Giangola came up with a very specific backstory for the AI. He did so because he wanted Google Assistant to appear real, and in order to give it a distinct personality, he gave the voice actress a lengthy background on the Assistant. First and foremost, the Assistant comes from Colorado, which gives her a neutral accent.
She comes from a well-read family and is the youngest daughter of a physics professor (who has a B.A. in art history from Northwestern University, no less) and a research librarian. She once worked for “a very popular late-night-TV satirical pundit” as a personal assistant. She was always a smart kid, she won $100,000 on the Kids Edition of “Jeopardy.” Oh, and she also likes kayaking. Let’s not forget: She’s not real.
The need to create such a specific backstory may seem questionable, and it actually was questioned by James Giangola’s colleagues. However, Giangola was able to prove his point during the audition process. When a colleague asked him how does anyone even sound like they’re into kayaking, Giangola fired back: “The candidate who just gave an audition — do you think she sounded energetic, like she’s up for kayaking?” And she didn’t, which to Giangola meant that she wasn’t the right voice.
Google aimed for ‘upbeat geekiness’
Aside from nailing the exact tone of her voice, which The Atlantic described as “upbeat geekiness,” the Assistant had to be trained to sound human not just by voice, but also by speech patterns and rhythms. In the interview, James Giangola talks about some of the different small changes that were made to take the Assistant from robotic to almost natural.
To illustrate the example, Giangola played a recording in which the AI had to contradict a user who wanted to book something on June 31. It had to be done in a delicate, natural-sounding manner that still delivers the required information. When prompted, the Assistant replied: “Actually, June has only 30 days,” achieving the level of vocal realism Giangola was looking for.
Although the Assistant’s intricate backstory may seem overkill, it seems to have helped Google find the right voice actress. According to Tech Bezeer, the main voice of the Assistant is Antonia Flynn, who was cast back in 2016. However, Google is not very forthcoming with information about who exactly voices each version of the Assistant, so this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The information originates from Reddit, where a user was able to track Flynn down based on her voice, but only Google knows whether she really is the friendly AI inside our mobile devices.
Microsoft’s post-Windows Phone vision leaks, but don’t get your hopes up
While Microsoft’s Windows Phone ambitions are well and truly dead at this point, there was a time when the company was plotting a follow-up to the ill-fated mobile operating system. That follow-up was known internally as Andromeda OS, and it was being developed as the operating system for the Surface Duo. Sadly, Microsoft’s plan to create a version of Windows for dual-screen devices never saw the light of day, but today we’re getting a look at an internal build of Andromeda OS and what could have been.
That look comes from Zac Bowden at Windows Central, who managed to get a build of Andromeda OS up and running on a Lumia 950. Even though Andromeda OS was intended for the Surface Duo, Microsoft apparently conducted internal testing on Lumia 950 devices, making it a solid choice for this hands-on.
In both his write-up and the video you see embedded below, Bowden is very clear that this is not some leak of a work-in-progress mobile operating system. Andromeda OS is dead and not in active development, so there’s no real hope of seeing a more fully-featured version launch on Microsoft’s mobile hardware at any point in the future. Despite that rather grim reality, this is a good look at the progress Microsoft made before it ultimately decided to ship the Surface Duo with Android.
Though the hands-on shows us an operating system that is very rough-around-the-edges and somewhat clunky, it’s immediately obvious that Microsoft planned Andromeda OS with inking capabilities at the center. For instance, the lock screen doubles as an inking space, allowing users to jot quick notes down on it that persist until they’re erased or the lock screen is cleared entirely.
Just as well, unlocking the device takes you to a home screen that also doubles as a journal. As with the lock screen, you can use this page to take notes, but you can also do things like paste stuff from the clipboard or insert an image for markup. Having the phone unlock to what is essentially a blank canvas instead of a home screen full of app icons is an interesting idea and one that we’re probably never going to see on other devices.
Andromeda OS also features a Start menu reminiscent of Windows Phone, which means that it has those familiar Live Tiles. Bowden also shows off the various gesture controls included in Andromeda OS, swiping from the left to summon the aforementioned Start menu and from the right to bring up Cortana and notifications. Swiping down pulls up the Control Center, which will look familiar to those who are currently using Windows 11.
We’re also given a brief demo of what Andromeda OS might have looked like on an actual dual-screen device, but since that demo is also on a Lumia 950, we sadly don’t get the full experience. Still, it’s interesting to see what might have been before Microsoft decided to can Andromeda OS entirely and switch to Android for the Surface Duo.
While there’s no chance we’ll see this project revived for future Microsoft hardware, there is always the chance that some individual features could make their way to the Surface Duo. Even then, it’s probably best to appreciate this as a relic of the past rather than something that might inform Microsoft’s future efforts, as disappointing as that may be for those who miss Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile.
Google just got terrible news in Europe – and it could get much worse
Google was just hit by some very bad news coming from Europe, but the news may be even worse for website owners than for Google itself. In an unprecedented case, the court in Austria has just ruled that Google Analytics is in violation with the European data protection laws. As a result, Google Analytics has been made illegal in Austria.
It all comes back to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) observed in Europe. Implemented in 2018, GDPR was created to give European citizens more control over their personal data, both online and offline. Unfortunately, the GDPR and US surveillance laws just do not mix.
According to a decision made in 2020 by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU,) policies that force website providers in the US to provide personal user data to authorities are against the GDPR. While this may not seem that related to Google Analytics at the first glance, it very much is. Some of the information readily collected by US providers is in direct violation with the GDPR, which in theory means that these websites would have to stop collecting private information in order to legally operate within Europe. In practice, it seems that not much has changed since 2018.
Google Analytics is now completely illegal in Austria
Prior to 2020, a law called the Privacy Shield was in place that allowed European data to be transferred to the United States. However, the shield was invalidated by the CJEU on July 16, 2020. Since then, US-based websites were not allowed to transfer the data of European citizens to the US. Of course, this only applies to data that falls under the GDPR, which only includes identifiable information about any given person. However, according to FieldFisher, this also includes IP addresses, as that is regarded as an “online identifier.”
Regardless of the 2020 ruling made by the CJEU, many providers continued to send personal data to the US — including Google Analytics. As stated by Max Schrems, honorary chair of NOYB, an European non-profit focused on digital rights, “Instead of actually adapting services to be GDPR compliant, US companies have tried to simply add some text to their privacy policies and ignore the Court of Justice. Many EU companies have followed the lead instead of switching to legal options.”
The Austrian Data Protection Authority has now followed up on what the CJEU ruled back in 2020 and made the use of Google Analytics completely illegal. The ruling comes into effect immediately, so all the websites that service Austrian citizens need to act quickly in order to not be fined for violating the local laws.
What will the new court ruling change?
Many companies that operate in Europe will now have to decide between continuing to use Google Analytics and swapping to an alternative website traffic tool. Refusing to comply may result in hefty fines. However, it could be that providers will continue to ignore the European laws and risk the fines: After all, not every such business will be caught or reported. If caught, the price could be high: NOYB has described a case where the Irish Data Protection Commission issued a fine of 225 million euro on WhatsApp for violating data protection laws.
Ultimately, US-based companies will have to think of workarounds for European privacy laws. Simply hosting customer data in Europe would be helpful, although this would of course limit the type of data that can be freely collected and distributed. For the time being, websites that continue to use Google Analytics will need to obtain consent from each visitor prior to collecting any data.
The choice to ban Google Analytics in Austria may be the first step in a larger revolution. Other countries in the European Union are likely to follow, so while Austria may be the first bit of bad news for Google, there is likely much more to come.
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