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AR/VR surveys an industry in transition – TechCrunch

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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 6d.ai, 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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Eufy’s “local storage” cameras can be streamed from anywhere, unencrypted

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Enlarge / Eufy’s camera footage is stored locally, but with the right URL, you can also watch it from anywhere, unencrypted. It’s complicated.

When security researchers found that Eufy’s supposedly cloud-free cameras were uploading thumbnails with facial data to cloud servers, Eufy’s response was that it was a misunderstanding, a failure to disclose an aspect of its mobile notification system to customers.

It seems there’s more understanding now, and it’s not good.

Eufy didn’t respond to other claims from security researcher Paul Moore and others, including that one could stream the feed from a Eufy camera in VLC Media Player, if you had the right URL. Last night, The Verge, working with the security researcher “Wasabi” who first tweeted the problem, confirmed it could access Eufy camera streams, encryption-free, through a Eufy server URL.

This makes Eufy’s privacy promises of footage that “never leaves the safety of your home,” is end-to-end encrypted, and only sent “straight to your phone” highly misleading, if not outright dubious. It also contradicts an Anker/Eufy senior PR manager who told The Verge that “it is not possible” to watch footage using a third-party tool like VLC.

The Verge notes some caveats, similar to those that applied to the cloud-hosted thumbnail. Chiefly, you would typically need a username and password to reveal and access the encryption-free URL of a stream. “Typically,” that is, because the camera-feed URL appears to be a relatively simple scheme involving the camera serial number in Base64, a Unix timestamp, a token that The Verge says is not validated by Eufy’s servers, and a four-digit hex value. Eufy’s serial numbers are typically 16 digits long, but they are also printed on some boxes and could be obtained in other places.

We’ve reached out to Eufy and Wasabi and will update this post with any further information. Researcher Paul Moore, who initially raised concerns with Eufy’s cloud access, tweeted on November 28 that he had “a lengthy discussion with [Eufy’s] legal department” and would not comment further until he could provide an update.

Vulnerability discovery is far more of a norm than an exception in the smart home and home security fields. Ring, Nest, Samsung, the corporate meeting cam Owl—if it has a lens, and it connects to Wi-Fi, you can expect a flaw to show up at some point, and headlines to go with it. Most of these flaws are limited in scope, complicated for a malicious entity to act upon, and, with responsible disclosure and a swift response, will ultimately make the devices and systems stronger.

Eufy, in this instance, is not looking like the typical cloud security company with a typical vulnerability. An entire page of privacy promises, including some valid and notably good moves, has been made largely irrelevant within a week’s time.

You could argue that anyone who wants to be notified of camera incidents on their phone should expect some cloud servers to be involved. You might give Eufy the benefit of the doubt, that the cloud servers you can access with the right URL are simply a waypoint for streams that have to leave the home network eventually under an account password lock.

But it has to be particularly painful for customers who bought Eufy’s products under the auspices of having their footage stored locally, safely, and differently from those other cloud-based firms only to see Eufy struggle to explain its own cloud reliance to one of the largest tech news outlets.

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Pixel 7a rumors show similar design, big tech upgrades

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Enlarge / Yep, that’s what I thought it would look like.

OnLeaks and Smartprix

The design of the Pixel 7a does not seem like it will contain many surprises. OnLeaks has a fresh render for Google’s next mid-range phone, and it looks like a mini Pixel 7. Usually, these renders are based on CAD information passed out to accessory manufacturers, so the sizes and shapes are usually accurate, but things like the colors and materials are up for interpretation.

If rumors are true, this will be Google’s fourth phone to keep the camera-bar design going. The Pixel 6 and 6a camera bar had a clear glass or plastic covering around the camera lenses, while the Pixel 7 switched to an opaque, solid aluminum camera bar. Google likes these phones to look the same, so it’s a safe bet the Pixel 7a will also get a solid camera bar. Whether that’s aluminum or some other material is still up for interpretation. The front is also predictable and looks just like the Pixel 6a, with a flat screen and what the report calls “thick bezels.”

Elsewhere in the Pixel rumor mill, big upgrades are expected for the Pixel 7a. Android researcher Kuba Wojciechowski has been tracking the Pixel 7a (codenamed “Lynx” and “Pixel 22 Mid-range”) via the Android codebase, which reveals additions like (slow) 5 W wireless charging and the same Samsung GN1 main camera as what’s in the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, along with a Sony IMX787 for the wide-angle sensor. The new sensors would be a big camera upgrade. Currently, the Pixel 6a’s main camera is the venerable Sony IMX363, a sensor that Google has been using (with one minor revision) since the Pixel 2. A fresh set of sensors would make sense, given that the IMX363 is around six years old now.

You might ask, “Well, won’t flagship cameras cannibalize the bigger Pixel sales?” and we’ll say that Google has never seemed to care about that. The Pixel 6a has the same SoC as the Pixel 6 and really seems to strive to be a third flagship next to the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Running a similar camera loadout would fit that strategy. Cannibalization might matter for companies with big, established businesses, but Google might just want to grab at whatever sales it can get at this point.

Wojciechowski’s code hunting also says the Pixel 7a will sport a 90 Hz, 1080p Samsung display, which would also be a huge improvement over the 60 Hz Pixel 6a. All of this at the 6a’s current $449 price might sound like a lot, but the Pixel 7 recently shipped in India, and if Google wants to be competitive there, this still isn’t good enough. In India, it’s normal for phones in this price range to have 120 Hz displays and flagship specs. In the US, though, this phone at Pixel 6a prices would be a killer deal.

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Elon Musk appears to reconcile with Apple after Twitter tirade

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Elon Musk said he had a “good conversation” with Apple chief executive Tim Cook and “resolved the misunderstanding” about his claim that Twitter could be removed from the App Store, just days after the world’s richest man unleashed a tirade against the most valuable tech company.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Musk said that “Tim was clear that Apple never considered” potentially removing Twitter from the App Store, describing it as a “misunderstanding.”

Musk, who bought Twitter for $44 billion last month, also thanked Cook for “taking me round Apple’s beautiful HQ,” and posted a video from Apple Park.

The volte-face comes after the billionaire entrepreneur on Monday accused Apple of threatening to “withhold Twitter from its App Store” without explaining why, and criticized the iPhone maker for curbing advertising on the platform, writing: “Do they hate free speech in America?”

The Tesla and SpaceX chief executive also raised concerns about Apple’s “in-app purchase” policy, which gives it a 15-30 percent cut of digital purchases made on the iPhone, and claims that the company abuses its market power.

Musk has previously outlined plans to shift Twitter away from relying on advertising revenues—in which Apple takes no cut—towards more subscription revenues, from which Apple would take a slice.

Apple declined to comment.

The apparent reconciliation comes amid growing concern among some nonprofits and regulators about Musk’s relaxation of Twitter’s content moderation policing. Musk, a self-declared “free speech absolutist,” is reversing most permanent bans on the platform and allowing all speech as long as it is legal, although “negative/hate speech” will not be boosted in users’ feeds.

The approach has prompted dozens of large brands to pull spending from the platform over fears their advertising may run alongside toxic content.

In a blog post on Wednesday, Twitter said none of its policies had changed and that its trust and safety team remained “strong and well-resourced.”

Apple maintains guidelines requiring social media apps to “block abusive users,” allow users to “report offensive content” and to filter “objectionable material from being posted.”

When Apple expelled Parler, a Twitter rival used by rightwing extremists, Apple said it had “not upheld its commitment to moderate and remove harmful or dangerous content encouraging violence and illegal activity.”

Although the feud appears to be over for now, Musk’s tweets were a catalyst for renewed criticism of Apple that could prove damaging, as antitrust regulators and app developers voice concerns over its rules and the role it plays as “gatekeeper” by deciding what content is allowed on more than 1 billion phones worldwide.

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, warned Apple that removing Twitter from the App Store would be viewed as a “raw exercise of monopolistic power” and “would merit a response from the United States Congress.”

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook parent Meta, was also critical of Apple’s market power during an interview at The New York Times’s Dealbook summit on Wednesday, saying: “I do think Apple has sort of singled themselves out as the only company that is trying to control, unilaterally, what apps get on the [Apple] device and I don’t think that’s a sustainable or a good place to be.”

Apple has been dealing with criticism of the App Store for years. Epic Games, the maker of popular mobile game Fortnite, sued Apple in 2020 but only won on one of the 10 counts. Epic and Apple have both appealed against the decision.

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