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The team behind Baidu’s first smart speaker is now using AI to make films – TechCrunch

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The HBO sci-fi blockbuster Westworld has been an inspiring look into what humanlike robots can do for us in the meatspace. While current technologies are not quite advanced enough to make Westworld a reality, startups are attempting to replicate the sort of human-robot interaction it presents in virtual space.

Rct studio, which just graduated from Y Combinator and ranked among TechCrunch’s nine favorite picks from the batch, is one of them. The “Westworld” in the TV series, a far-future theme park staffed by highly convincing androids, lets visitors live out their heroic and sadistic fantasies free of consequences.

There are a few reasons why rct studio, which is keeping mum about the meaning of its deliberately lower-cased name for later revelation, is going for the computer-generated world. Besides the technical challenge, playing a fictional universe out virtually does away the geographic constraint. The Westworld experience, in contrast, happens within a confined, meticulously built park.

“Westworld is built in a physical world. I think in this age and time, that’s not what we want to get into,” Xinjie Ma, who heads up marketing for rct, told TechCrunch. “Doing it in the physical environment is too hard, but we can build a virtual world that’s completely under control.”

Rct studio wants to build the Westworld experience in virtual worlds. / Image: rct studio

The startup appears suitable to undertake the task. The eight-people team is led by Cheng Lyu, the 29-year-old entrepreneur who goes by Jesse and helped Baidu build up its smart speaker unit from scratch after the Chinese search giant acquired his voice startup Raven in 2017. Along with several of Raven’s core members, Lyu left Baidu in 2018 to start rct.

“We appreciate a lot the support and opportunities given by Baidu and during the years we have grown up dramatically,” said Ma, who previously oversaw marketing at Raven.

Let AI write the script

Immersive films, or games, depending on how one wants to classify the emerging field, are already available with pre-written scripts for users to pick from. Rct wants to take the experience to the next level by recruiting artificial intelligence for screenwriting.

At the center of the project is the company’s proprietary engine, Morpheus. Rct feeds it mountains of data based on human-written storylines so the characters it powers know how to adapt to situations in real time. When the codes are sophisticated enough, rct hopes the engine can self-learn and formulate its own ideas.

“It takes an enormous amount of time and effort for humans to come up with a story logic. With machines, we can quickly produce an infinite number of narrative choices,” said Ma.

To venture through rct’s immersive worlds, users wear a virtual reality headset and control their simulated self via voice. The choice of audio came as a natural step given the team’s experience with natural language processing, but the startup also welcomes the chance to develop new devices for more lifelike journeys.

“It’s sort of like how the film Ready Player One built its own gadgets for the virtual world. Or Apple, which designs its own devices to carry out superior software experience,” explained Ma.

On the creative front, rct believes Morpheus could be a productivity tool for filmmakers as it can take a story arc and dissect it into a decision-making tree within seconds. The engine can also render text to 3D images, so when a filmmaker inputs the text “the man throws the cup to the desk behind the sofa,” the computer can instantly produce the corresponding animation.

Path to monetization

Investors are buying into rct’s offering. The startup is about to close its Series A funding round just months after banking seed money from Y Combinator and Chinese venture capital firm Skysaga, it told TechCrunch.

The company has a few imminent tasks before achieving its Westworld dream. For one, it needs a lot of technical talent to train Morpheus with screenplay data. No one on the team had experience in filmmaking, so it’s on the lookout for a creative head who appreciates AI’s application in films.

rct studio

Rct studio’s software takes a story arc and dissects it into a decision-making tree within seconds. / Image: rct studio

“Not all filmmakers we approach like what we do, which is understandable because it’s a very mature industry, while others get excited about tech’s possibility,” said Ma.

The startup’s entry into the fictional world was less about a passion for films than an imperative to shake up a traditional space with AI. Smart speakers were its first foray, but making changes to tangible objects that people are already accustomed to proved challenging. There has been some interest in voice-controlled speakers, but they are far from achieving ubiquity. Then movies crossed the team’s mind.

“There are two main routes to make use of AI. One is to target a vertical sector, like cars and speakers, but these things have physical constraints. The other application, like Alpha Go, largely exists in the lab. We wanted something that’s both free of physical limitation and holds commercial potential.”

The Beijing and Los Angeles-based startup isn’t content with just making the software. Eventually, it wants to release its own films. The company has inked a long-term partnership with Future Affairs Administration, a Chinese sci-fi publisher representing about 200 writers, including the Hugo award-winning Cixin Liu. The pair is expected to start co-producing interactive films within a year.

Rct’s path is reminiscent of a giant that precedes it: Pixar Animation Studios . The Chinese company didn’t exactly look to the California-based studio for inspiration, but the analog was a useful shortcut to pitch to investors.

“A confident company doesn’t really draw parallels with others, but we do share similarities to Pixar, which also started as a tech company, publishes its own films, and has built its own engine,” said Ma. “A lot of studios are asking how much we price our engine at, but we are targeting the consumer market. Making our own films carry so many more possibilities than simply selling a piece of software.”

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My latest co-op multiplayer obsession is Raft, the game where you build a raft

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Enlarge / Raft is developed by Redbeet Interactive and published by Axolot Games.

Redbeet Interactive

My co-op gaming group has logged a few hundred extra hours in Deep Rock Galactic since I wrote about it a year and a half ago, but we’re always looking for another game to fall in love with.

We’ve tried a bunch of things in the last year, guided by a combination of positive reviews and “whatever is on sale in Steam at the time.” We’ve logged time in Back 4 BloodPayday 2Warhammer: Vermintide 2, Sea of Thieves, Diablo IIIRisk of Rain 2, and Borderlands 3, and each has had its charms. But the one that has stuck with me the most is called Raft, a game about building a raft.

Raft isn’t new—it went into Early Access in 2018—but its formal 1.0 release happened this past June. The pitch: You begin the game drifting across an endless ocean on a tiny wooden raft cobbled together from flotsam and jetsam. Armed with only a trusty throwable plastic hook, you must comb the ocean for planks, plastic, and other bits of scrap that you can use to expand your raft and stay alive. And once you’re no longer in constant danger of starving to death (and once you can steer your raft instead of just letting it drift), you can begin sailing to the world’s remaining islands to figure out what happened to everyone else.

Bits of trash dot the water around you—from these, your empire will be painstakingly constructed.
Enlarge / Bits of trash dot the water around you—from these, your empire will be painstakingly constructed.

Andrew Cunningham

The surest sign that you’ll like Raft is if you like Minecraft (or if you want to like Minecraft but find its general aimlessness frustrating instead of freeing). Building is all done on a grid system, you’re constantly combining and recombining materials to build and improve your tools, and the way the game gradually advances from an early survival-horror phase to a more free-form building-and-exploration phase is distinctly Minecraft-y. The game includes combat, and what is here feels fine (it flows a lot better than the clunky, boring combat in Sea of Thieves), but it’s all subordinate to building, exploring, and resource gathering.

The crafting UI and inventory management are dense and kind of clunky, in a (mostly) endearing, <em>Minecraft</em>-meets-<em>Animal Crossing</em> kind of way.
Enlarge / The crafting UI and inventory management are dense and kind of clunky, in a (mostly) endearing, Minecraft-meets-Animal Crossing kind of way.

Andrew Cunningham

In the early game, you’ll be driven almost exclusively by hunger and thirst. The two meters are ticking down all the time, and starving or dehydrating will slow you down and eventually sap your health until you die (you can always revive or respawn, but the former requires a teammate to haul you to a bed on your raft and the latter comes at the cost of 2/3 of your inventory at normal difficulty). Further complication circles you in the form of an aggressive and omnipresent shark, which is always ready to bite you if you hop in the water (or to take a bite out of your raft, if you’re out of its reach).

You can play solo, but the game is less intimidating with friends—it means more mouths to feed, but you also don’t need to stop collecting precious planks and palm leaves so you can take a break to fish or refill your water desalinization rig. There are no specific character classes, but there’s enough to do that you and up to three of your friends can find a distinct lane depending on what you like the most. I focus mostly on actual raft construction and caring for our steadily growing menagerie of domesticated animals, while others in our group prefer navigating, collecting food and materials, and advancing the game’s tech tree.

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Activision pays $35M SEC settlement over workplace misconduct disclosures

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Enlarge / Taking a close look…

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced Friday that Activision Blizzard has agreed to pay $35 million to settle a probe into the company’s handling of widespread workplace harassment and discrimination allegations.

In an administrative order, the SEC said that complaints of workplace misconduct at Activision Blizzard “were not collected or analyzed for disclosure purposes” since at least 2018. This left Activision Blizzard management “lacking sufficient information to understand the volume and substance of employee complaints of workplace misconduct,” and therefore unable to warn investors of any potential business risks those complaints entailed.

The SEC also found that Activision asked departing employees to enter into “separation agreements” that illegally asked those employees “to notify Activision Blizzard of any requests from an administrative agency in connection with a report or complaint.” That violates SEC rules designed to protect whistleblowers and prohibit employers from impeding employee complaints to government agencies.

The SEC says Activision started implementing “company-wide structural changes” on workplace misconduct complaints starting in May of 2020 and changed its separation agreement language in early 2022.

By settling these matters out of court, Activision avoids any formal admission of wrongdoing. “We are pleased to have amicably resolved this matter,” Activision Blizzard said in a statement provided to Ars Technica. “As the order recognizes, we have enhanced our disclosure processes with regard to workplace reporting and updated our separation contract language. We did so as part of our continuing commitment to operational excellence and transparency. Activision Blizzard is confident in its workplace disclosures.”

Despite the size of the settlement, the payment represents less than 0.4 percent of Activision Blizzard’s $8.8 billion in annual revenue (as of 2021) and, thus, will likely have a minimal impact on the company’s bottom line. Settling the matter out of court also means the complaint is no longer a potential complication for Microsoft’s planned $69 billion acquisition of Activision, which is facing its own government headwinds from the Federal Trade Commission.

Today’s settlement follows an $18 million settlement the company reached with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2021, just a day after that complaint was filed.

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Did Billy Mitchell use this illicit joystick to set a Donkey Kong high score?

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Mitchell (right) at the 2007 FAMB convention with former Twin Galaxies referee Todd Rogers and what appears to be a Donkey Kong cabinet with a modified joystick.

Over the years, King of Kong star Billy Mitchell has seen his world-record Donkey Kong scores stripped, partially reinstated, and endlessly litigated, both in actual court and the court of public opinion. Through it all, Mitchell has insisted that every one of his records was set on unmodified Donkey Kong arcade hardware, despite some convincing technical evidence to the contrary.

Now, new photos from a 2007 performance by Mitchell seem to show obvious modifications to the machine used to earn at least one of those scores, a fascinating new piece of evidence in the long, contentious battle over Mitchell’s place in Donkey Kong score-chasing history.

The telltale joystick

The photos in question were taken at the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers (FAMB) Convention, which hosted Mitchell as part of its “80s Arcade Night” promotion in July 2007. Mitchell claims to have achieved a score of 1,050,200 points at that event, a performance that was recognized by adjudicator Twin Galaxies as a world record at the time (but which by now would barely crack the top 30).

In his defamation case against Twin Galaxies, Mitchell includes testimony from several purported witnesses to his FAMB performance. That includes former Twin Galaxies referee Todd Rogers (who was later also banned from Twin Galaxies), who testified that the machine used at the event was “an original Nintendo Donkey Kong Arcade machine as I have known since 1981.”

Another angle showing Mitchell, Rogers, and Ritch Workman in front of the seemingly modified <em>Donkey Kong</em> cabinet.

Another angle showing Mitchell, Rogers, and Ritch Workman in front of the seemingly modified Donkey Kong cabinet.

But the pictures from the FAMB convention, made public by fellow high-score-chaser David Race last month, raise additional questions about that claim, thanks to what Race calls a “glaringly non-original joystick” seen in the machine shown in those photos.

Original upright Donkey Kong arcade cabinets were shipped with a distinctive short joystick with a prominent black ball atop a silver metal stick (close-up available here). But the machine behind Mitchell in the recently released FAMB photos clearly shows a taller joystick with a red ball and stick.

The joystick shown in the FAMB photos (left, zoomed in for detail) vs. the joystick on an unmodified <em>Donkey Kong</em> cabinet (right).
Enlarge / The joystick shown in the FAMB photos (left, zoomed in for detail) vs. the joystick on an unmodified Donkey Kong cabinet (right).

Use of a non-original joystick would violate Twin Galaxies’ Donkey Kong rules, which require games be played with “an original stock 4-way Donkey Kong arcade joystick, or a replacement 4-way joystick of exact size and shape as the original Donkey Kong arcade game joystick.” Twin Galaxies’ also requires “a wide image of the game’s control panel” in any record recording to verify this. And archived rules discussions also suggest that players of that era knew cabinets with aftermarket joysticks were known to be unacceptable, even if the core arcade board had authentic Donkey Kong software.

A taller joystick might actually be a hindrance for high-level Donkey Kong play since it requires more physical movement to get the same in-game results. But that disadvantage could be worth it if the controls in question were an eight-way joystick rather than the standard four-way joystick Nintendo shipped on original cabinets. An eight-way joystick mod could give a player an advantage by letting them enter diagonal inputs (e.g., up and left simultaneously), which could speed up transitions after climbing ladders, for instance.

Mitchell also testified in court documents that his FAMB Donkey Kong performance was “visible on a TV above the cabinet to give the guests greater viewing capability.” But while a VCR can be seen above the cabinet in the photos—presumably to record the performance for later verification—no such external display can be seen (though it conceivably could have been brought in for added visibility when Mitchell was actually playing).

In that same testimony package, technician Robert Childs testified that the FAMB score was achieved using “my same Donkey Kong Arcade machine,” which was purportedly used by Mitchell to set a 2004 record of 1,047,200 points in Childs’ warehouse/showroom. Assuming that’s true, the non-standard joystick could also further jeopardize that performance’s place in the record books.

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