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Epic Games buys 3Lateral, maker of super-realistic ‘digital humans’ – TechCrunch

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Epic Games announced this morning that they’ve acquired Serbia-based 3Lateral, a game studio focused on designing more realistic computer-generated human characters.

The team of 60+ will be continuing their work with existing partners and maintaining their presence in Serbia. 3Lateral founder Vladimir Mastilovic will lead Epic Games’ worldwide digital humans efforts, the company says.

No details on a price or specific deal terms were given.

The non-digital human team behind 3Lateral

Epic Games, which operates Fortnite as well as the Unreal Engine game development platform, has worked with 3Lateral in the past on projects to push the level of realism and detail that are possible with human avatars. Epic has open-sourced this work for developers; the acquisition will likely further expand the capabilities of Unreal Engine users to promote more detailed character design.

“Real-time 3D experiences are reshaping the entire entertainment industry, and digital human technology is at the forefront. Fortnite shows that 200,000,000 people can experience a 3D world together. Reaching the next level requires capturing, personalizing, and conveying individual human faces and emotions,” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said in a statement.

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Revisiting the “Tsar Bomba” nuclear test

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Enlarge / The mushroom cloud from the Soviet detonation of “Tsar Bomba” on October 30, 1961, was so large that the photographers had a hard time capturing its full dimensions.

The detonation of the first nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 is seared into our collective memory, and the world has been haunted by the prospect of a devastating nuclear apocalypse ever since. Less well-known but equally significant from a nuclear arms race standpoint was the Soviet Union’s successful detonation of hydrogen “superbomb” in the wee hours of October 30, 1961.

Dubbed “Tsar Bomba” (loosely translated, “Emperor of Bombs”), it was the size of a small school bus—it wouldn’t even fit inside a bomber and had to be slung below the belly of the plane. The 60,000-pound (27 metric tons) test bomb’s explosive yield was 50 million tons (50 megatons) of TNT, although the design had a maximum explosive yield of 100 million tons (100 megatons).

The US had conducted the first successful test of a hydrogen bomb (codename: Ivy Mike) in 1954 and had been pondering the development of even more powerful hydrogen superbombs. But the Soviets’ successful test lent greater urgency to the matter. Ultimately, President John F. Kennedy opted for diplomacy, signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on October 7, 1963.

But US nuclear policy—and hence world history—might have turned out very differently, according to Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey and author of Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, released earlier this year. He also maintains the NUKEMAP, an interactive tool that enables users to model the impact of various types of nuclear weapons on the geographical location of their choice. 

Wellerstein has analyzed recently declassified documents pertaining to the US response to Tsar Bomba during the Kennedy administration. He described his conclusions in a fascinating article recently published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the test.

Wellerstein gives a particularly vivid description of the Tsar Bomba detonation in his introduction:

At 11:32 a.m., the bombardier released the weapon. As the bomb fell, an enormous parachute unfurled to slow its descent, giving the pilot time to retreat to a safe distance. A minute or so later, the bomb detonated. A cameraman watching from the island recalled:

A fire-red ball of enormous size rose and grew. It grew larger and larger, and when it reached enormous size, it went up. Behind it, like a funnel, the whole earth seemed to be drawn in. The sight was fantastic, unreal, and the fireball looked like some other planet. It was an unearthly spectacle!

The flash alone lasted more than a minute. The fireball expanded to nearly six miles in diameter—large enough to include the entire urban core of Washington or San Francisco, or all of midtown and downtown Manhattan. Over several minutes it rose and mushroomed into a massive cloud. Within ten minutes, it had reached a height of 42 miles and a diameter of some 60 miles. One civilian witness remarked that it was “as if the Earth was killed.”

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Stadia finally launches on LG TVs, shows off the greatness that could’ve been

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Enlarge / The official Stadia Controller in “clearly white.”

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In arguably the first good news for Stadia in 2021, Google’s beleaguered game-streaming service has finally landed on a single company’s TVs—and only those manufactured in 2020 and beyond.

That’s not necessarily a reason to strike up the band and throw a “Stadia is back” party (especially without any exclusive Stadia games on the horizon.) But the gaming service’s arrival on modern LG televisions late Tuesday is still fascinating, mostly because of how neatly and seamlessly it works. The results make me wonder how much better the Stadia story might have turned out if app support like this had been in place from the start.

Got any extra-long USB cables lying around?

Since its limited November 2019 launch, Google’s Stadia service has been added to many platforms, including laptops and desktops, Android and iOS devices, and Google TV-branded streaming devices. But smart TV support has been scattershot, with popular device families like Amazon Fire, Roku, and Apple TV missing out on Stadia. There has also been a lack of built-in smart TV support from major manufacturers like Samsung and LG. (It’s worth noting that Amazon Luna and Apple Arcade compete as subscription-based gaming services.)

Tuesday’s Stadia release on LG TVs brings Google’s gaming app to any set that supports “webOS 5.0 and above,” and it follows an announcement from LG earlier this year at CES that pledged some form of Stadia on LG sets in the “second half of 2021.” The first week of December technically hits that deadline.

My own LG CX, manufactured in 2020, meets LG’s OS requirements, so I took the simple steps of accessing LG’s app store, downloading Stadia to my TV, and booting the service up. The app’s introductory screen directs users to either create a new account on a web browser or enter existing Stadia credentials via remote control. It then displays instructions for connecting a gamepad to an LG TV—which may not be elegant, depending on your set.

LG’s 2021 sets include Bluetooth support, but the 2020 ones don’t. That left me with the option of either dusting off my existing Stadia Controller or grabbing a long USB cable, plugging it into my TV’s open USB port on its backside, and physically connecting my spare Xbox or PlayStation gamepads. (Stadia’s instructions said that I could toggle the Stadia app on my phone and then wirelessly connect my gamepad to the phone while also playing on the TV, since they’re all connected to the same cloud server. While that’s a welcome stopgap solution, it sure isn’t elegant.)

This dated screen of Stadia's interface continues to resemble what you can expect from the new smart TV implementation on LG TVs. And yes, that means navigating through menus to find the all-important "link code" for official Stadia Controllers.
Enlarge / This dated screen of Stadia’s interface continues to resemble what you can expect from the new smart TV implementation on LG TVs. And yes, that means navigating through menus to find the all-important “link code” for official Stadia Controllers.

Any wired gamepad will be recognized when you exit and reenter the app. Unfortunately, Stadia Controller users will always need to use the TV’s remote to start the app and pick their account, then enter a special four-button code on the gamepad to link it to your session. Unlike on Chromecast and Google TV, the current version of LG’s Stadia app doesn’t put that gamepad code on the main screen. Every time you start Stadia on LG TVs, you must either use your remote to find the “controllers” option tab or write your previous shortcut code down and hope it doesn’t change. Assuming anyone on the Stadia engineering team is still employed and listening, can you fix this?

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Ubisoft’s first NFT plans make no sense

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Enlarge / Galaxy brain, meet Ubisoft brain…

Ubisoft became the first big-name game publisher to jump on the non-fungible token bandwagon Tuesday. After teasing its interest in the space last month, the company is officially rolling out Quartz, a system of in-game cosmetic items powered by a new kind of NFT, called “Digits.”

By using a decentralized NFT blockchain, Ubisoft promises its Quartz system will “grant players more control than ever” and “more autonomy and agency” in order to “genuinely make players stakeholders of our games.” But as currently described, Ubisoft’s Quartz system seems like an overcomplicated repackaging of a run-of-the-mill system of DLC cosmetics—but now with extra buzzwords and artificial scarcity layered on top.

And despite all the bold talk of “decentralization,” the Quartz system is still so deeply controlled by Ubisoft that we wonder whether a simple internal database managed directly by the company would be a better fit.

Quartz, explained

Quartz—which rolls out later this month—is simply a system that provides access to cosmetic items for a single game, Ghost Recon Breakpoint. The first three such cosmetics—representing a specific gun, a face mask, and “enhanced pants” in the game—will be available for free on three days in the coming weeks.

Unlike traditional DLC, where supply is unlimited and every purchased copy is identical, Ubisoft stresses three ways in which Quartz cosmetics are unique:

  • Limited editions: Each Quartz NFT “edition” will be limited to a set number, ranging from “a few units to a few thousands,” Ubisoft says. It’s not clear how many will be available for each of these first three “free” editions.
  • Serial Numbers: Each individual NFT in a single edition has a unique serial number that “is displayed on the collectible and on the in-game item.”
  • Player names: A Digit’s metadata will contain “the history of its previous owners,” represented by their Ubisoft player names.
The first three
Enlarge / The first three “editions” of Quartz NFTs will be available at specific times later this month.

So in practice, your “Wolf Enhanced Helmet A” will look and function a lot like mine. But if you look closely, you’ll see a different number etched into the virtual forehead of that helmet. And if you dig into the NFT’s metadata, you’ll be able to see who used to own that particular copy of the helmet.

Ubisoft seems to foresee a chase-the-collectible metagame forming around these minor differences. “Owning a Digit will make you an actual part of its history,” the company says in its FAQ. Elsewhere, Ubisoft encourages players to “be the first owner of a particular Digit or chase the one of your favorite streamer.”

OK, sure. Maybe some people will get really excited about “owning” the only digital pair of Wolf Enhanced Pants numbered “69420” and once owned by Ninja. We can’t say that we’re excited about it, but there may be some market for such a thing.

But marketing rare or unique in-game items—and letting players resell them—isn’t a new thing. Ubisoft doesn’t need NFTs or “the blockchain” to enable this kind of artificially scarce digital collectible; a basic centrally controlled database could do the same thing much more simply.

Anyone who has sold a special-edition ship in Eve Online‘s strictly regulated economy knows how this can work. The same goes for anyone who bought and sold Artifact cards on the Steam marketplace or those who remember the ill-fated Diablo III real-money auction house.

All these examples and more predated the widespread adoption of NFTs and didn’t need the technology for any of the features Ubisoft is touting here.

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