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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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Review: More remix than adaptation, Foundation is top-notch storytelling

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Isaac Asimov’s hugely influential Foundation series of science fiction novels is notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen. The author himself admitted that he wrote strictly for the printed page, and he always refused invitations to adapt his work for film or TV. But Asimov was more than happy to let others adapt his work to a new medium, and he was wise enough to expect that there would—and should—be significant departures from the print version.

That’s just what showrunner David S. Goyer (Dark Knight trilogy, Da Vinci’s Demons) has done with Foundation, Apple TV+’s visually stunning, eminently bingeable new series. Goyer describes it as more of a remix than a direct adaptation, and to my taste, it is a smashing success in storytelling. This series respects Asimov’s sweeping visionary ideas without lapsing into slavish reverence and over-pontification. That said, how much you like Goyer’s vision might depend on how much of a stickler you are about remaining faithful to the source material.

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

The fundamental narrative arc of the series remains intact. It’s a story that takes place across multiple planets over 1,000 years, with a huge cast of characters. Mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris, Chernobyl, Carnival Row) has developed a controversial theory of “psychohistory” that essentially applies math to sociology to make predictions about the future of the Galactic Empire, which rules every living person in the Milky Way. Seldon’s calculations predict the fall of the empire, ushering in a Dark Ages that will last 30,000 years, after which a second empire will emerge.

The collapse of the empire is inevitable, but Seldon has a plan to reduce the Dark Ages to a mere 1,000 years through the establishment of a Foundation to preserve all human knowledge so that civilization need not rebuild itself entirely from scratch. He is aided by his adoptive son and right-hand man, Raych Foss (Alfred Enoch, who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter franchise) and his new protege, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell, Voyagers), a math prodigy who travels to the capital to work with Seldon.

Seldon’s predictions make him a dangerous traitor in the eyes of the empire’s rulers. As he himself notes, those in power fear and despise change, and yet change is constant—and inevitable. Instead of executing him and creating a martyr, the rulers exile Seldon to the remote planet of Terminus at the edge of the galaxy, along with the members of the new Foundation, where they begin compiling the Encyclopedia Galactica.

Eventually, there is a threat from a neighboring outer planet, ultimately resolved by the warden of Terminus, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey, Fighting with my Family). And the Foundation members learn that Seldon’s plan was far more ambitious and complex than they realized. He told them just enough to set events in motion, since the tenets of psychohistory include an uncertainty principle of sociology, whereby if the collective population learns too much about its predicted fateful actions, those actions will soon become unpredictable. The clash between Seldon and the empire has often been described as a thousand-year game of chess, but there’s an element of rolling the dice and trusting in probabilities for the long game as well.

Perhaps the biggest change from the books is the replacement of the Empire’s ruling committee with a trio of clones called the Cleons. Brother Day (Lee Pace, Halt and Catch Fire, Pushing Daisies) is the primary ruler, with Brother Dusk (Terrance Mann, Sense8) serving in an advisory/legacy role. Meanwhile, Brother Dawn (played as a child by Cooper Carter and as a teenager by Cassian Bilton) is being groomed to take over as the new Brother Day. This gives more of a human face to the rulers, with complex emotions and interpersonal relationships, and all the actors are perfectly cast. I personally would watch Lee Pace read the phone book, and he has much meatier fare to work with here. Technically, they are all perfect incarnations of the same man, at different ages, and this is both the source of their strength as a team and of their conflicts. (Dusk has gained valuable wisdom, if the younger, strong-willed Day could bring himself to listen.)

We knew from the trailers that Salvor Hardin, warden of Terminus, had been gender-swapped, but the character has also been completely reimagined. The Salvor of the books is a shrewd politician (the latest in a long line) who deftly navigates a fraught political environment as the Foundation plants roots on Terminus. In the series, Salvor is a young woman who is still figuring out who she is and what role she’s meant to play in Seldon’s great plan. She shares many of the same traits as Book Salvor, but they are not yet fully developed. She also has a love interest in intergalactic space junker Hugo Krast (Daniel MacPherson, A Wrinkle in Time), and a secret connection in the grand scheme of things that we shall refrain from revealing here.

Asimov’s original trilogy was (to my college self) an enjoyably brisk read, even if the prose got a bit dry and cerebral at times. Goyer has preserved that same tight pacing in the TV series, deftly weaving in character backstories to flesh them out, setting up relationships and the inevitable conflicts between those characters, and inventing some pretty big dramatic moments out of whole cloth to keep the story humming along and viewers hooked. The story jumps between settings and time periods quite a lot, but the writers have done an excellent job sign-posting those jumps, especially in the earlier episodes, to ensure viewers are sufficiently oriented to follow along. (No need for elaborate timeline charts here, as with The Witcher and Dark, although that may change with subsequent seasons.)

The actors all deliver strong, powerful performances from the aforementioned leads on down, and the cinematography and costume and production design are exceptional. Apple TV+ is deeply invested in this series, and it shows. If I had one tiny quibble, it would be that Goyer had so much ground to cover to set up this first season that the big ideas sometimes feel more ornamental than central. I’d love to see the ensuing seasons (assuming they transpire) take a few more breaths here and there to bring those elements front and center more often. I’m confident this writing team could do so without bogging down everything else that works so well.

In short, this is a terrific first ten episodes—Goyer envisions some 80 episodes, should Apple TV+ give him the chance—with no maddening cliffhanger. The finale resolves several plot lines and sets up a few others, leaving viewers both satisfied and eager for more. I think Asimov himself would be pleased with Foundation, particularly since his daughter Robyn is an executive producer on the series and signed off on Goyer’s vision.

The first two episodes of Foundation are now available for streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes will drop every Friday until the S1 finale on November 19, 2021.

Listing image by YouTube/Apple TV+

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Death Stranding Director’s Cut review: More fun, just as divisive

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Death Stranding‘s release in 2019 was probably the most anticipated game of Hideo Kojima’s career.

The Metal Gear director had arguably become the premiere auteur in video games. He had a reputation for convention-bucking design, meta-humor, and unapologetic cinematic influences. But this project was the first child of his acrimonious divorce with Konami, and no one had a clue what he might do next.

Death Stranding was appropriately weird, whatever it was. The first teaser showed crab exoskeletons crawling over a lifeless beach, tar handprints imprinted on the sand, a naked, weeping Norman Reedus (Senior Gaming Editor Kyle Orland noted in our original review on PS4, Death Stranding is Hideo Kojima unleashed. So what could possibly be left for a Death Stranding Director’s Cut? It turns out, quite a lot—just maybe not by that name.

Death Stranding Director’s Cut [PS5]

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A Hideo Kojima game, still

Yes, Death Stranding has finally hit PS5, and it’s as uncompromising now as it was two years ago—even if it doesn’t much resemble a director’s cut in the typical film sense. Unlike Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut (Sony’s other recent PS5 re-release buoyed by extended content), Death Stranding‘s doesn’t have a full-blown expansion bolted on to its older foundations to help flesh out its story.

Kojima doesn’t agree with its naming convention, either, which won’t faze anyone who follows his daily film, book, and music recommendations on social media. In a recent tweet, he offered a more fitting name for this release (“Director’s Plus”), confirming that there wasn’t a collection of cutting-room-floor scenes inserted back into the original’s ambitious, unwieldy script.

If you skipped Death Stranding when it was on PS4 or PC, Director’s Cut is the one to play. It offers fresh goodies for players to mess around with and a couple of fun, if bite-sized, new mission areas which blatantly call back to Metal Gear, among other things. As a bells-and-whistles port, Director’s Cut does a good job of expanding on its delivery-man-in-the-post-apocalypse-simulator premise, bolstered by the exclusive DLC of its release and tweaked further to take full advantage of the PS5’s suite of exclusive features.

These extras don’t necessarily push things far outside the grueling moment-to-moment revolutions of the game’s underlying systems—and in some instances, they even intensify the game. But what stands out more to me than the advertised toys is how KojiPro has gone back and seemingly re-finessed what was previously there, going so far as to smooth out some of the prickly rough edges that divided players on release. Though subtle, these revisions offer the best argument for playing (or replaying) this version. That said, I’ve loved Kojima’s work since 1998, so if you weren’t already on board for Death Stranding‘s wild ride, my digging into what’s new here may not change your mind.

For everyone else, you’ll find plenty of Kojima goodness. Director’s Cut leans into Metal Gear‘s inclination to turn on a dime from theatrical gravitas to left-field absurdity, something that was curbed a bit in the original Death Stranding. Now you’re free to run for your life past umbilical-corded monsters to building ramps for daredevil jumping over chasms, or you can use a cargo catapult as a remote-controlled mortar to bombard terrorists in POV with a load of parcels—y’know, normal stuff for any software carrying the “A Hideo Kojima Game” label.

There’s more here for diligent players, too. You can uncover additional equipment types designed for more efficient hauls across Death Stranding‘s desolate landscape, a genuinely unexpected shift that goes a long way toward making Director’s Cut as inviting for newcomers as it ever will be. There are also actual changes to the game world itself, though you’d likely never notice them without comparing this version with the PS4’s. Regardless of whatever you choose to do, though, you’re playing in Kojima’s sandbox. Hope you like his pitch.

Reconnecting the world?

If you’ve never touched Death Stranding, it’s a good example of what happens with a celebrity creative calls up all his buddies to make something crazy. Joining Reedus, several of its characters are played by actors or directors Kojima deeply admires, including Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Casino Royale), Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), and Wonder Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner, though she was mostly let off the hook for voice work alongside Del Toro and Refn. A number of other friends appear as survivors in the world: Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kong: Skull Island), Geoff Keighley, Junji Ito, Famitsu Weekly editor Hirokazu Hamamura, Remedy head and Max Payne face model Sam Lake—the list goes on.

Its plot sounds equally insane. After a future America is devastated by a mysterious cataclysm, invisible ghosts from a post-limbo otherworld permeate the land of the living. These ghosts (BTs, an abbreviation for “Beached Things”) cause voidouts (massive explosions that annihilate entire cities) when they come into contact with a human. Meanwhile, any corpse will transform into a BT itself if not incinerated. Following the disaster, the country is in shambles, and survivors from sea to shining sea to permanently hunker down in underground shelters. They want to avoid BTs and the storms of instant-aging “timefall” the monsters bring in their wake.

Sam Porter Bridges (Reedus), a porter from the organization Bridges (one of Kojima’s tamer name choices) is different. He can come back from the dead, for one. He also has an affliction that allows him to sense nearby BTs, and he is partnered with the baby from the game’s first teaser, BB, who lives in a pod on Sam’s chest and operates as a living spectral radar to make BTs visible. With these gifts, Sam is tasked by Bridges with the unenviable job of saving what’s left of America and reintegrating the now-disparate “strands” of society through an interconnected successor to the internet.

As such, you deliver cargo to people in need on a coast-to-coast journey while also bringing more nodes into the so-called Chiral Network. In a clever touch, outposts throughout the country indirectly connect you with other players on their own expeditions, allowing anyone “in-network” to share items, traversal equipment, vehicles, and (if they feel like lending a hand) lost deliveries, transported asynchronously in from others’ games.

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Apple turns post-lawsuit tables on Epic, will block Fortnite on iOS

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Enlarge / A Fortnite loading screen displayed on an iPhone in 2018, when Apple and Epic weren’t at each other’s legal throats.

Weeks after Epic’s apparent “win” against Apple in the Epic Games v. Apple case, Apple issued a letter denying Epic’s request to have its developer license agreement reinstated until all legal options are exhausted. This effectively bans Fortnite and any other software from the game maker from returning to Apple’s App Store for years.

Epic was handed an initial victory when the US District Court for Northern California issued an injunction on September 10 ordering Apple to open up in-game payment options for all developers. At the time, the injunction was something of a moral victory for Epic—allowing the developer to keep its in-game payment systems in its free-to-play Fortnite intact while avoiding paying Apple a 30 percent fee that had previously covered all in-app transactions.

But now Epic has faced a significant reversal of fortune.

In a letter sent on September 21 to Epic’s legal counsel, Apple’s lawyers said the company refused to reinstate Epic’s account until the courts issue a final, non-appealable verdict. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney revealed Apple’s decision in series of tweets posted on September 22. Sweeney claims the appeals process for the case could take as long as five years.

Apple’s revocation of Epic’s developer license—required to develop and distribute games to the App Store—was “valid, lawful, and enforceable,” Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said in her ruling. This leaves the decision whether to allow Epic back into the App Store up to Apple.

Apple’s legal team also cited Epic’s alleged “duplicitous” conduct. Apple is referring to the move that sparked the case—Epic adding code into iOS’s version of Fortnite that enable users to buy items directly from the company.

The letter pointed to a tweet Sweeney had posted earlier this month. In the tweet, Sweeney said he “wouldn’t trade an alternative payment system away to get Fortnite back on iOS.” Sweeney said his words were taken out of context.

Sweeney tweeted an email he wrote to Apple’s legal counsel on September 16, stating that, while Epic was appealing the court’s decision, the developer had paid Apple the court-ordered $6 million in damages required by the September 10 ruling. He said that his company had disabled the server-side software required for in-game payments for players who still had Fortnite installed on their iOS devices. He also alleged that Apple lied about its intentions to work with Epic to bring the developer back to the App Store.

“Apple lied,” Sweeney said. “Apple spent a year telling the world, the court, and the press they’d ‘welcome Epic’s return to the App Store if they agree to play by the same rules as everyone else.’ Epic agreed, and now Apple has reneged in another abuse of its monopoly power over a billion users.”

While the September 10 ruling went in Apple’s favor, the company was not granted everything it sought in its legal defense. Judge Gonzalez Rogers gave Apple a victory in ruling it had not violated antitrust law, though the company lost the ability to prevent developers from including and advertising their own in-game app purchase payment systems. That ruling could lead to greater repercussions for Apple from other game makers or subscription service providers in the future.

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