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AR/VR surveys an industry in transition – TechCrunch



Industry vets and students alike crammed into UCLA’s historic Royce Hall last week for TC Sessions: AR/VR, our one-day event on the fast-moving (and hype-plagued) industry and the people in it. Disney, Snap, Oculus and more stopped by to chat and show off their latest; if you didn’t happen to be in LA that day, read on and find out what we learned — and follow the links to watch the interviews and panels yourself.

To kick off the day we had Jon Snoddy from Walt Disney Imagineering. As you can imagine, this is a company deeply invested in “experiences.” But he warned that VR and AR storytelling isn’t ready for prime time: “I don’t feel like we’re there yet. We know it’s extraordinary, we know it’s really interesting, but it’s not yet speaking to us deeply the way it will.”

Next came Snap’s Eitan Pilipski. Snapchat wants to leave augmented reality creativity up to the creators rather than prescribing what they should build. AR headsets people want to wear in real life might take years to arrive, but nevertheless Snap confirmed that it’s prototyping new AI-powered face filters and VR experiences in the meantime.

I was onstage next with a collection of startups which, while very different from each other, collectively embody a willingness to pursue alternative display methods — holography and projection — as businesses. Ashley Crowder from VNTANA and Shawn Frayne from Looking Glass explained how they essentially built the technology they saw demand for: holographic display tech that makes 3D visualization simple and real. And Lightform’s Brett Jones talked about embracing and extending the real world and creating shared experiences rather than isolated ones.

Frayne’s holographic desktop display was there in the lobby, I should add, and very impressive it was. People were crowding three or four deep to try to understand how the giant block of acrylic could hold 3D characters and landscapes.

Maureen Fan from BaoBab Studios touched on the importance of conserving cash for entertainment-focused virtual reality companies. Previewing her new film, Crow, Fan noted that new modes of storytelling need to be explored for the medium, such as the creative merging of gaming and cinematic experiences.

Up next was a large panel of investors: Niko Bonatsos (General Catalyst), Jacob Mullins (Shasta Ventures), Catherine Ulrich (FirstMark Capital) and Stephanie Zhan (Sequoia). The consensus of this lively discussion was that (as Fan noted earlier) this is a time for startups to go lean. Competition has been thinned out by companies burning VC cash and a bootstrapped, efficient company stands out from the crowd.

Oculus is getting serious about non-gaming experiences in virtual reality. In our chat with Oculus Executive Producer Yelena Rachitsky, we heard more details about how the company is looking to new hardware to deepen the interactions users can have in VR and that new hardware like the Oculus Quest will allow users to go far beyond the capabilities of 360-degree VR video.

Of course if Oculus is around, its parent company can’t be far away. Facebook’s Ficus Kirkpatrick believes it must build exemplary “lighthouse” AR experiences to guide independent developers toward use cases they could enhance. Beyond creative expression, AR is progressing slowly because no one wants to hold a phone in the air for too long. But that’s also why Facebook is already investing in efforts to build its own AR headset.

Matt Miesnieks, from, announced the opening of his company’s augmented reality development platform to the public and made a case of the creation of an open mapping platform and toolkit for opening augmented reality to collaborative experiences and the masses.

Augmented reality headsets like Magic Leap and HoloLens tend to hog the spotlight, but phones are where most people will have their first taste. Parham Aarabi (ModiFace), Kirin Sinha (Illumix) and Allison Wood (Camera IQ) agreed that mainstreaming the tech is about three to five years away, with a successful standalone device like a headset somewhere beyond that. They also agreed that while there are countless tech demos and novelties, there’s still no killer app for AR.

Derek Belch (STRIVR), Clorama Dorvilias (DebiasVR) and Morgan Mercer (Vantage Point) took on the potential of VR in commercial and industrial applications. They concluded that making consumer technology enterprise-grade remains one of the most significant adoptions to virtual reality applications in business. (Companies like StarVR are specifically targeting businesses, but it remains to be seen whether that play will succeed.)

With Facebook running the VR show, how are small VR startups making a dent in social? The CEOs of TheWaveVR, Mindshow and SVRF all say that part of the key is finding the best ways for users to interact and making experiences that bring people together in different ways.

After a break, we were treated to a live demo of the VR versus boxing game Creed: Rise to Glory, by developer Survios co-founders Alex Silkin and James Iliff. They then joined me for a discussion of the difficulties and possibilities of social and multiplayer VR, both in how they can create intimate experiences and how developers can inoculate against isolation or abuse in the player base.

Early-stage investments are key to the success of any emerging industry, and the VR space is seeing a slowdown in that area. Peter Rojas of Betaworks and Greg Castle from Anorak offered more details on their investment strategies and how they see success in the AR space coming along as the tech industry’s biggest companies continue to pump money into the technologies.

UCLA contributed a moderator with Anderson’s Jay Tucker, who talked with Mariana Acuna (Opaque Studios) and Guy Primus (Virtual Reality Company) about how storytelling in VR may be in very early days, but that this period of exploration and experimentation is something to be encouraged and experienced. Movies didn’t begin with Netflix and Marvel — they started with picture palaces and one-reel silent shorts. VR is following the same path.

And what would an AR/VR conference be without the creators of the most popular AR game ever created? Niantic already has some big plans as it expands its success beyond Pokémon GO. The company, which is deep in development of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, is building out a developer platform based on their cutting-edge AR technologies. In our chat, AR research head Ross Finman talks about privacy in the upcoming AR age and just how much of a challenger Apple is to them in the space.

That wrapped the show; you can see more images (perhaps of yourself) at our Flickr page. Thanks to our sponsors, our generous hosts at UCLA, the motivated and interesting speakers and most of all the attendees. See you again soon!

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Google Bard gets better at homework with improved math and logic capabilities



Google Bard is getting a little smarter today with the addition of math and logic capabilities. Google employee Jack Krawczyk announced the change on Twitter, saying, “Now Bard will better understand and respond to your prompts for multi-step word and math problems, with coding coming soon.”

Logic questions were a big flaw when Bard arrived tens of days ago, and some answers made Bard seem particularly dumb to early testers. In one example from last week, Bard repeatedly asserted that one plus two equaled four. Today, Google’s state-of-the-art AI chatbot models can now correctly say that the answer is three. So there has been at least some change. It can also correctly list the months in a year instead of making up names like “Maruary.”

Bard still gets tripped up by really basic logic questions, though. HowToGeek’s Chris Hoffman posed the question to Bard on day one, “What’s heavier, five pounds of feathers or a one pound dumbbell?” Google Bard responded with the ridiculous claim that “There’s no such thing as 5 pounds of feathers.” In the replies, ChatGPT didn’t do any better, saying that five pounds of feathers and a one pound dumbbells “weigh the same amount, which is five pounds.”

Google gives the same incorrect answer to this question as ChatGPT.
Enlarge / Google gives the same incorrect answer to this question as ChatGPT.

Ron Amadeo

With today’s update, Google Bard now says the same incorrect answer as ChatGPT: “Five pounds of feathers and a one pound dumbbell weigh the same.” That could be a common mistake of these types of language models (which all seem to be really bad with facts and numbers), but that’s interesting given that Google has been accused of (and denied) training Bard with ChatGPT’s output.

Besides logic being a major gap in Bard’s capabilities, it has also been artificially limited to not attempt to answer programming questions, so it’s good to hear from Krawczyk that those capabilities are coming soon. ChatGPT is famous for being able to pump out tons of code in whatever language and style you like, and once in a while, the code even works!

Krawczyk added, “We’re always balancing new capabilities for Bard with efficiency. And this update is one example of the many improvements we’re making to Bard every week.”

Weekly improvements would be great. Google has been getting crushed by Wall Street for taking the slow approach with its AI releases, but it still seems like the company is taking the slow approach with Bard. The first release is labeled an “Experiment,” isn’t part of Google Search, and is sequestered to its own little site at The service is also only available in the US and UK.

In an interview with The New York Times posted today, Google CEO Sundar Pichai admitted Google was still holding back its best AI, saying, “We clearly have more capable models. Pretty soon, maybe as this goes live, we will be upgrading Bard to some of our more capable PaLM models, so which will bring more capabilities, be it in reasoning, coding. It can answer math questions better. So you will see progress over the course of next week.”

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Twitter posts the code it claims determines which tweets people see, and why



Enlarge / Twitter has posted what it states is the code used by its algorithm to recommend tweets to its users.

Twitter has made good on one of CEO Elon Musk’s many promises, posting on a Friday afternoon what it claims is the code for its tweet recommendation algorithm on GitHub.

The code, posted under a GNU Affero General Public License v3.0, contains numerous insights as to what factors make a tweet more or less likely to show up in users’ timelines.

In a blog post accompanying the code release, Twitter’s engineering team (under no particular byline) notes that the system for determining which “top Tweets that ultimately show up on your device’s For You timeline” is “composed of many interconnected services and jobs.” Each time a Twitter home screen is refreshed, Twitter pulls “the best 1,500 Tweets from a pool of hundreds of millions,” the post states.

The largest source of those tweets are “In-Network Sources,” or users someone follows. The top tweets from that pile are ranked on the likelihood of a user’s engagement with that tweet’s author; the more likely, the more their tweets show up in For You. For the “Out-of-Network Sources,” those not followed by the user, Twitter says it considers tweets that attracted engagement from people users follow and tweets liked by those who like tweets similar to a user.

Already, those who have looked through the code have spotted considerations that raise many more questions. Many have posted them, naturally, on Twitter itself.

Ólafur Waage, a senior software developer at Norwegian software consulting service TurtleSec, noted that inside “HomeTweetTypePredicates.scala,” some of the seeming considerations for a tweet to be a candidate for the “For You” section are:

  • author_is_elon
  • author_is_power_user
  • author_is_democrat
  • author_is_republican

Elsewhere in the code, a code comment presumably left by a Twitter engineer clarifies that those identification values are “used purely for metrics collection.” The comment reads as follows:

These author ID lists are used purely for metrics collection. We track how often we are serving Tweets from these authors and how often their tweets are being impressed by users. This helps us validate in our A/B experimentation platform that we do not ship changes that negatively impacts one group over others.

The names of the objects in question such as “DDGStatsDemocratsFeature” or “DDGStatsElonFeature” seem to support this interpretation, but it may not be possible to confirm that with the available code. It’s interesting that Twitter is checking and collating these variables, however. During a Twitter Spaces audio session, a Twitter engineer noted that the Democrat and Republican labels were used for metrics. Musk, who claimed he was unaware of the labels before today, suggested they should not be there.

Other things considered about a tweet include whether it’s less than 30 minutes old, if it has pictures, and whether it’s from a “power user,” which some believe means a “legacy” verified account.

Musk tweeted alongside the company’s blog post that the recommendation algorithm, claiming that the “acid test” will be if “independent third parties” can “determine, with reasonable accuracy, what will probably be shown to users.”

Twitter’s posting of its algorithm code comes just days after the social network’s broader source code was discovered on GitHub, potentially having been there for months, according to The New York Times. Twitter then obtained a subpoena forcing GitHub to reveal the GitHub poster’s information.

A report from Platformer earlier this week suggested that Twitter utilized a secret list of 35 top Twitter users, including President Biden, LeBron James, Ben Shapiro, and Musk. Evidence of that list’s implementation, reportedly spurred partly from Musk’s dissatisfaction with his own engagement, has not been found so far in Twitter’s posted code base.

Most notably, the code arrives just hours before “legacy verified” users—those given a blue checkmark to indicate authenticity or notability before Musk’s purchase of the service—are to be un-verified in favor of paying Twitter Blue subscribers. While some users connected to governments and large organizations may apply for checkmarks of other colors, only Twitter Blue subscribers, at $8 per month, will receive “prioritized ranking in conversations,” among other features.

All of those changes happen to arrive on April 1, or April Fool’s Day.

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Right to repair, universal charging port mandates eyed to save Canadians money



Like in other parts of the world, Canada is working out what the right to repair means for its people. The federal government said in its 2023 budget released Tuesday that it will bring the right to repair to Canada. At the same time, it’s considering a universal charging port mandate like the European Union (EU) is implementing with USB-C.

The Canadian federal government’s 2023 budget introduces the right to repair under the chapter entitled “Making Life More Affordable and Supporting the Middle Class.” It says that the “government will work to implement a right to repair, with the aim of introducing a targeted framework for home appliances and electronics in 2024.” The government plans to hold consultations on the matter and claimed it will “work closely with provinces and territories” to implement the right to repair in Canada:

When it comes to broken appliances or devices, high repair fees and a lack of access to specific parts often mean Canadians are pushed to buy new products rather than repairing the ones they have. This is expensive for people and creates harmful waste.

Devices and appliances should be easy to repair, spare parts should be readily accessible, and companies should not be able to prevent repairs with complex programming or hard-to-obtain bespoke parts. By cutting down on the number of devices and appliances that are thrown out, we will be able to make life more affordable for Canadians and protect our environment.

The budget also insinuates that right-to-repair legislation can make third-party repairs cheaper than getting a phone, for example, repaired by the manufacturer, where it could cost “far more than it should.” 

The budget’s release comes in the same month as the European Commission’s adoption of a proposal that would require tech makers to provide repairs for up to 10 years after purchase, depending on the product category. The European Parliament and Council must approve the proposal before it’s law.

A broader look at right-to-repair discussions around the globe show the difficulties in creating a system that appeases both consumer advocates and tech companies. The strength of EU’s right-to-repair legislation has been criticized for things like failing to cover certain types of electronics and not ensuring that necessary aspects, like spare parts, tools, and manuals, are affordably priced.

But some, like tech trade group DigitalEurope’s director-general, Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, think such legislation should be built around “manufacturer-led repair networks.”

At the (very) end of 2022, New York became the first state to implement an electronics right-to-repair law, but significant changes made to the Digital Fair Repair Act have been heavily detailed.

Meanwhile, self-repair initiatives by tech giants like Samsung and Apple have been scrutinized for lack of supported products and, in the case of Apple, requiring remote OEM authorization for repairs.

India announced that it was setting up a committee to hammer out a right-to-repair framework in July, and its legislation may cover four categories: electronics, automobiles, farming equipment, and consumer durables. 

Universal charging port also under consideration

Canada’s 2023 budget also revealed the government’s interest in introducing a standard charging port for electronics. The budget says the government “will work with international partners and other stakeholders to explore implementing a standard charging port in Canada.” It says a universal charging port could help residents save money and e-waste.

“Every time Canadians purchase new devices, they need to buy new chargers to go along with them, which drives up costs and increases electronic waste,” the budget says.

The EU famously made universal charging port mandates a reality, requiring that smartphones, tablets, and other consumer gadgets with wired charging have a USB-C port by December 28, 2024. Laptops will be required to do the same by April 2026. The landmark legislation has pushed Apple to reluctantly work on a USB-C iPhone.

The incoming EU requirements also started a trickle-down effect around the world, where numerous countries are now considering some type of universal charging port rules of their own. India is considering such a mandate to take place by March 2025 and potentially excluding wearables, hearables, and feature phones, due to associated costs. Brazil also had a public consultation about a USB-C charging smartphone requirement that ended in August. And although the US hasn’t seen much visible movement around such a law, some politicians have asked the Secretary of Commerce for a strategy.

As governments, tech makers, and consumer advocates seek to define legislation that impacts how consumers use and buy electronics and create e-waste, debate around the right to repair and charging standards abound. This has brought the issues greater attention, including among consumers, some of which are demanding repairability and e-waste consideration in their products, legally mandated or not. Framework, which makes modular laptops, continuing to expand its portfolio is one indicator of consumer interest in repairability and choice. Regardless of how different geographies’ governments decide to handle things, these types of discussions have, rightfully so, become impossible to ignore.

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