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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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New Star Wars 1313 footage reveals the (canceled) Boba Fett game we always wanted

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Enlarge / Nice splash of colors and reflection effects in this newly unearthed footage of Boba Fett as the star of canceled game Star Wars 1313.

A new YouTube video making the rounds reveals that a long-canceled Star Wars game would have been the first time that bounty hunter and fan favorite Boba Fett starred in his own game.

Long before Fett scaled the streaming mountain of Disney+, the game development teams at LucasArts began work on an action video game about bounty hunters and the planet Coruscant. As Jason Schreier reported in his games-industry book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, that project, dubbed Star Wars 1313, wildly morphed over a four-year span. 1313 was started in 2009 but was canceled after LucasArts shut down in 2013—a casualty of Disney’s acquisition of all things Lucasfilm and Star Wars.

While we’ve seen teases of Star Wars 1313 before—especially during its splashy debut at E3 2012—public footage thus far has been limited to the game’s brand-new bounty hunter heroes. This week’s video is the first to show what Boba Fett looked like as 1313‘s playable hero, a development shift mandated by George Lucas months before the E3 2012 reveal. Coincidentally, Lucas also demanded that Fett not appear in that public 2012 reveal.

Fett is finally seen taking Uncharted steps

The new video comes from The Vault, a YouTube channel that focuses almost exclusively on details and leaks surrounding the canceled Star Wars Battlefront III project. The channel’s first-ever video about Star Wars 1313 culls primarily from the portfolio of James Zachary, who directed 1313‘s animation team and led its motion-capture department.

Since Zachary’s Boba Fett videos are marked “private” and don’t have timestamps, we can’t be certain how long they’ve been hiding in plain sight on Zachary’s portfolio site. This footage shows 1313 at the point in which its development had shifted squarely into “Star Wars does Uncharted” territory, as opposed to an earlier state that reportedly borrowed from Gears of War.

Yes, every NPC looks identical—that's what pre-pre-alpha tends to look like. But as far as an atmospheric slice of an unfinished game, Boba Fett's stroll through a bar looks and sounds full of life. It cuts off before we see whether he faceplants into a Sarlaac pit, however.
Enlarge / Yes, every NPC looks identical—that’s what pre-pre-alpha tends to look like. But as far as an atmospheric slice of an unfinished game, Boba Fett’s stroll through a bar looks and sounds full of life. It cuts off before we see whether he faceplants into a Sarlaac pit, however.

Fett is framed in a three-quarters, third-person camera perspective, and The Vault video includes two discrete sequences: an atmospheric walk through a seedy bar, where he must contend with disagreeable patrons bumping into him, and an action-filled chase sequence complete with dramatic jumps, cliffside hangs, and downhill slides. While the video’s first half has a few clearly unfinished assets, the second half is all “gray boxes” and other rudimentary content.

Boba Fett, seen here scaling and climbing in an unfinished segment of canceled game <em>Star Wars 1313</em>.
Enlarge / Boba Fett, seen here scaling and climbing in an unfinished segment of canceled game Star Wars 1313.

Zachary describes the chase sequence as something “used to sell the ‘environmental interaction’ animation pillar” of Star Wars 1313. The Boba Fett we see may very well be a reskin of the game’s original brand-new bounty hunter protagonist, as the chase doesn’t include any of Fett’s signature jetpack moves—which, as Schreier reported, had evolved and become functional during development before the project was canceled. Instead, the chase looks like a Nathan Drake sequence with a Coruscant background, what with all the floating vehicles zipping across the horizon.

Boba Fett, seen casually sliding past a WALL or two (in clear pre-pre-alpha footage of <em>Star Wars 1313</em>).
Enlarge / Boba Fett, seen casually sliding past a WALL or two (in clear pre-pre-alpha footage of Star Wars 1313).

Coincidentally, Star Wars 1313 began life as a “connected universe” project. That means it would join the same gritty universe that George Lucas had been putting together for a planned, adult-focused Star Wars TV series dubbed Underworld. The game project continued moving forward even as its associated TV series descended into development hell before vanishing entirely.

With The Mandalorian, the Star Wars powers-that-be have carried on what Underworld began, at least on the TV front. And the success of The Mandalorian and the Book of Boba Fett TV series means we shouldn’t be surprised if one of the mysterious, recently announced Star Wars game projects from EA and Respawn follows a Fett-like bounty hunter.

Star Wars 1313 Boba Fett footage.

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Valve confirms Steam Deck shipment, review dates: By the end of February

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Enlarge / Starting on February 28, Steam Deck will finally leave Valve’s hands and (possibly) land in yours.

Aurich Lawson | DC

After delaying Steam Deck’s launch to a vague “February 2022” window, Valve has returned to keep its promise. Today, the company confirmed the date its portable, gaming-centric PC will begin shipping to some preorder customers.

Valve listed two key dates in its Wednesday announcement. The first date: Steam Deck will begin shipping February 28. This applies to customers who got their $5 preorder payments in at the earliest possible time, i.e., the first few minutes after the clock struck 1 pm EST on July 16.

Customers have a chance of being part of this shipment window if their order has an official Steam shipping estimate of “Q1 2022,” which they can check by loading the Deck store page while logged into Steam.

“Launching” on February 25 (but not really)

But there’s another crucial date for Steam Deck preorder customers to keep in mind: February 25. That’s when Valve will send emails to an unconfirmed number of preorder customers requesting that they pay the rest of the console’s asking price. That figure ranges from $399 for the 64GB storage model to $649 for the largest 512GB storage model.

Valve’s announcement clarifies that these email alerts—which essentially ask preorder customers to pay the rest of their tab—will land at 1 pm EST on that Friday afternoon. The alerts, says Valve, will be sent out in the order that successful preorders were made. Customers who receive the alerts have exactly 72 hours to pay, and if they miss the window, their reserved console will move down the list to the next slew of preorders.

The announcement also mentions that Valve will operate a “weekly cadence” of Deck preorder payment requests. This suggests that the full gamut of “Q1 2022” preorders will be broken up between February 25 and the end of March. In other words, if you didn’t lodge your Deck preorder within the first 45 seconds of the floodgates opening on July 16, you might have to wait a week or four.

Valve’s post doesn’t clarify whether quicker preorder payments will change the order in which these systems are shipped. But based on the language used in the announcement, it sounds like users won’t need to hover over their inboxes on that Friday to be part of the first shipping wave on February 28. Just, you know, maybe don’t pick that weekend to unplug from the Internet.

One way to check the Deck

What’s more, preorder customers will get a reason to wait a few hours before pulling the “rest of the Deck tab” trigger. Valve has confirmed that Deck systems are being mailed to members of the press “shortly,” and the systems have a review embargo of February 25.

This review date will follow Valve’s tease of “preview coverage and impressions before that” date. If Ars’ experience reviewing the Valve Index virtual reality system is any indication, fans might expect to see a specific system feature broken out into a preview article, much like how I posted about “living with Valve Index as a work monitor for a week” before the product’s formal June 2019 launch.

Related: the comments section of this article would be a great place to request specific tests, benchmarks, use cases, touchpad scrutiny, cloud-sync confirmation, emulation front-ends, OS installations, game compatibility, and other things that Ars Technica might apply to a Steam Deck review, should Ars indeed be among the members of the press invited to Deck’s upcoming review period. (As the first reporter to confirm Steam Deck’s existence, I’ve already been dreaming up coverage plans in the case of such a review opportunity.)

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Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a breath of fresh air for a stale franchise

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Enlarge / Pokémon Legends: Arceus is as close as we’ve ever gotten to an open-world Pokémon game.

Nintendo

Last year’s by-the-numbers Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remakes did even less than most Pokémon games to spruce up and modernize the series’ decades-old formula. That’s understandable for a remake of a 2006 Nintendo DS game, but the games were still disappointing follow-ups to the more adventurous Sword and Shield.

The good news is that if you’ve been waiting for Game Freak to really shake up Pokémon‘s gameplay without totally burning it to the ground and starting from scratch, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the game you’ve been waiting for. Part Pokémon and part Breath of the WildLegends takes the free-roaming “Wild Area” concept from Sword and Shield and updates the series’ catching and battling mechanics to match.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect fusion of those disparate elements. Its mission-based structure gets pretty fetch quest-y, it leans heavily on an over-familiar roster of existing Pokémon, and the aging Switch hardware sometimes struggles to make it look good, especially when docked. But despite those problems, the whole package works together surprisingly well, and it makes the Pokémon feel fresher than it has in quite a while.

Ancient history

<em>Legends</em> uses a pre-modern aesthetic for the Hisui region, loosely resembling Japan in the early 20th century.
Enlarge / Legends uses a pre-modern aesthetic for the Hisui region, loosely resembling Japan in the early 20th century.

Nintendo

Legends is set up as a distant prequel to Diamond and Pearl that takes place in the Hisui region, which will someday become the modern Sinnoh region. The decision to set Legends not just in the past but way in the past gives it a distinct flavor from main-series Pokémon games. You aren’t just putting together a Pokédex—you’re assembling the first Pokédex. Item shops exist, but you’ll need to craft the vast majority of Pokéballs and other items you use with found materials. And there are few cities, no gyms, and no Pokémon League, which lets the series experiment with new modes of character progression.

Hisui is split up into five different biomes—you can’t walk from one end of Hisui to the other as you can in BotW‘s Hyrule, but each of the five areas has distinct topography that keeps things from getting too samey as you progress. Each biome is inhabited by a rampaging Noble Pokémon who you must calm and befriend, which replaces gyms and badges as the main way the game marks your progress. There are also plenty of side quests to keep you distracted if you don’t want to rush right to the end.

Filling out your Pokédex helps you rank up, which gets you access to better items, additional side quests, and the later regions of the game.
Enlarge / Filling out your Pokédex helps you rank up, which gets you access to better items, additional side quests, and the later regions of the game.

Nintendo

Your character, a member of Galaxy Team, also has a rank within the organization. You rank up by filling out your Pokédex, and you won’t be allowed into the game’s later biomes if your rank isn’t high enough (your rank also affects the kinds of items you’ll be able to craft, among other things). In the main series, all you need to do to fill out a Pokédex is see and catch a single Pokémon of each species. But in Legends, filling out each entry is done by accomplishing a series of sub-tasks, involving everything from catching multiple Pokémon of a single species to seeing Pokémon use specific moves in battle.

Important items like Potions and Pokéballs can be bought pre-made, but you'll be making the vast majority of them yourself using found materials.
Enlarge / Important items like Potions and Pokéballs can be bought pre-made, but you’ll be making the vast majority of them yourself using found materials.

Nintendo

Catching and battling Pokémon in Legends is refreshingly fast and satisfying compared to the usual formula. There are no more random battles and no swirly time-consuming transitions between exploring and battling. All Pokémon are fully visible and walking around—if you want to catch one, the best way to do so is to sneak up on it and toss a Pokéball.

Some wild Pokémon will scamper away if they notice you getting near. Others will get mad and attack you directly. It’s possible to get totally knocked out by a wild Pokémon’s attacks, which will send you back to the nearest base camp with fewer items and a bruised ego. But you can defend yourself by tossing out one of your Pokémon, triggering an essentially traditional turn-based Pokémon battle.

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