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Unity acquires Vivox, which powers voice chat in Fortnite and League of Legends – TechCrunch

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Game engine maker Unity believes voice communications are going to grow to become a critical part of gaming across platforms, and it’s buying one of the top companies in the space to bolster what its customers can build on its platform.

Unity has acquired Vivox, a company that powers voice and text chat for the world’s most massive gaming titles, from Fortnite to PUBG to League of Legends. The company’s positional voice chat enables gamers to hear other players chatting around them directionally in 3D space. The company also provides text-based chat. No details on deal terms.

“We thought, I thought, that voice is just one of those things that we should offer our customers,” Unity CEO John Riccitiello tells TechCrunch. “There are just a lot of places to innovate there and I was excited by the roadmap of Vivox .”

Unity plans to use its cross-platform support expertise to make it easier for developers on platforms traditionally underserved by voice chat tools, like mobile, to take advantage of the deeper communication that’s made possible by Vivox. As Unity looks toward new customers beyond gaming, this acquisition has broader reach, as well.

“We’re increasingly supporting industries like architecture, engineering, construction and the auto industry and they talk a lot about collaborating and communicating,” Riccitiello says.

Vivox was founded in 2005 and raised more than $22 million in venture funding from firms like Benchmark and Canaan Partners before it struck hard times some time after its last reported funding in 2010. The startup’s name and some of its assets were acquired by a new entity, Mercer Road Corp, we are told. The company has maintained much of the original leadership during this time; founder and CEO Rob Seaver will continue on with the company after its acquisition.

For his part, Riccitiello doesn’t seem to have immediate plans to shake things up at the Massachusetts-based company, which will maintain its offices and 50+ employees situated in The Bay State. Seaver will report directly to Riccitiello.

Though the company’s previous customers include studios like Unity-rival Epic Games that used the tool to bolster voice chat in Fortnite, there don’t seem to be any plans to cut off non-Unity customers from using the service. “Nothing is changing,” Riccitiello tells TechCrunch.

“It can be nerve-racking to count on something from a smaller company when they might get acquired by a competitor or might go out of business,” he says. “I don’t think anyone is worried about Unity going out of business and I don’t think anyone is worried about Unity being bad hands, we’re sort of Switzerland in our world, we support all platforms and virtually every publisher in the world.”

Asked whether he felt the company’s status as an open platform had been harmed by recent feuds with U.K.-based cloud-gaming startup Improbable, Riccitiello minimized the issue, saying it was a skirmish based on “them claiming a partnership that didn’t exist,” reiterating that “relative to developers, I think they can count on us morning, noon and night to do the right things for them.”

Unity has raised more than $600 million and is valued at north of $3 billion.

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Lunar war brews and NASA gets militarized in For All Mankind S2 trailer

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The space race in an alternate timeline continues in the second season of For All Mankind, returning to Apple TV+ in February.

Apple TV+ has dropped the trailer for the second season of For All Mankind, its science fiction drama about an alternate history where the space race never ended. The series was the linchpin of the Apple TV+ launch in 2019, and proved popular enough with viewers to warrant a second season.

(Some spoilers for the first season below.)

Series creator Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) has made a point of trying to keep the show reasonably close to reality, despite the science fiction concept, often consulting the original NASA plans for guidance, and incorporating archival footage throughout the season. Moore said the following during a 2019 panel Q&A after an IMAX screening of the first two S1 episodes at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC:

Our production designer, Dan Fisher, who designed all the sets of the show, recreated Mission Control in such exacting detail that even the ceiling tiles [are] the same as the ceiling tiles in the original mission control. When we were on set, we had technical consultants and former astronauts who were actually there, who would walk the cast through how to operate the command module and the lunar module. We had people that would talk to the background players in Mission Control, so that people weren’t just randomly pushing buttons—they knew exactly what the console did and who they were talking to on those headsets, and that permeated the entire production.

The first season centered on an astronaut named Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), standing in for Thomas Stafford, the Apollo 10 commander in our real-world timeline. His foil is fellow astronaut Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), the stereotypical hard-drinking, womanizing fighter pilot to Baldwin’s All-American “right stuff” persona. As Ars Tech Policy reporter Kate Cox noted in her S1 review, Apollo 10 was the “dress rehearsal” for the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, when American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

But in this alternate timeline, the decision not to land on the moon with Apollo 10 meant the USSR beat America to the punch. Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov made history instead. (The real Leonov made his own mark in our timeline: he was part of the Voskhod 2 mission, and was the first man to perform a 12-minute spacewalk on March 18, 1965.) The US must then work to catch up in the space race, with an eye toward establishing a lunar base.

With the Soviets now the world leaders in space, America struggles to catch up, even recruiting a team of female astronauts after the first female cosmonaut lands on the moon. Over the course of the season, both countries find water on the moon and America sets up the first moon base in 1974, followed shortly thereafter by a Soviet lunar base eight miles away. There was a lot of interpersonal drama on both Earth and the Moon in S1, and a couple of tragic losses. The season ended with a complicated two-part episode involving a desperate launch of Apollo 25 to conduct an Apollo 24 relief and rescue mission. A post-credits scene et in 1983 featured a sea launch of large rocket with a plutonium payload for the US Jamestown colony on the moon.

The second season picks up that same year. Per the official premise:

It’s the height of the Cold War and tensions between the United States and the USSR are at their peak. Ronald Reagan is president and the greater ambitions of science and space exploration are at threat of being squandered as the US and Soviets go head-to-head to control sites rich in resources on the moon. The Department of Defense has moved into Mission Control, and the militarization of NASA becomes central to several characters’ stories: some fight it, some use it as an opportunity to advance their own interests, and some find themselves at the height of a conflict that may lead to nuclear war.

The trailer opens with the ominous news that the Soviets might be trying to develop a new weapon as a fresh class of candidate astronauts is introduced. The US can’t let that slide, because “it would set a dangerous precedent.” Also, that weapon would be able to drop munitions pretty much anywhere on Earth, so it’s a big threat to national security. As the Eurythmics play in the background, we meet Pathfinder, a new, more powerful space shuttle, and it looks like Kinnaman’s Ed Baldwin will be tapped for its first mission. Will war break out on the moon, or will the US live up to its declaration that it came in peace, “for all mankind”?

For All Mankind returns to Apple TV+ on February 19, 2021.

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Review: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ends run with disappointing finale

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Our favorite half-human/half witch teenager took on eight timeless menacing entities to avert the apocalypse (again) in the final season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I’ve championed this weirdly captivating supernatural horror show from the beginning, and for three seasons the strengths have always outshone the occasional weakness. Unfortunately, S4 turned out to be the weakest of all, despite including one of the best episodes of the entire Netflix series, and what should have been a strong unifying narrative arc. It’s still pretty entertaining, but there was just a little too much pointless fan service and sloppy plotting this time around for S4 to really work.

(Spoilers for prior seasons below. Major spoilers for the series finale are below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads up before we get there.)

As we’ve reported previously, the show was originally intended as a companion series to the CW’s Riverdale—a gleefully Gothic take on the original Archie comic books—but Sabrina ended up on Netflix instead. The show retains some of the primetime soap opera elements of Riverdale, but it incorporates more full-blown horror without bowing to the niceties imposed by network television. As I wrote last year, “Ultimately, the best thing about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is how gleefully and unapologetically the show leans into its melting pot of the macabre. It’s quite the high-wire act, exploring serious themes while never, ever taking itself too seriously—and never descending into outright camp.”

In the S3 finale, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) transformed a trio of unholy artifacts into a medieval spiked ball and chain known, appropriately enough, as a morning star. She used this to create a time loop, enabling her to go back and correct the grievous errors she made over the course of the season. So there are now two Sabrinas. The original Sabrina Spellman returned to her life in Greendale, while her alternate self, Sabrina Morningstar, took up her rightful throne as Queen of Hell. They’re supposed to always stay within their respective realms, but, well, what are the odds of that happening with such a headstrong heroine? Meanwhile, in the final scene, a now-mad Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) performed a summoning ritual to call forth the “Eldritch Terrors” and told his loyal acolyte Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) that they will bring about “the end of all things.”

Showrunner Roberto Aguirra-Sacasa hinted that S4 would go full-blown Lovecraft. It’s really more of a fun Lovecraftian-influenced homage, starting with the title of the first episode: “The Eldritch Dark.” That’s an allusion to sci-fi/horror writer and H.P. Lovecraft contemporary Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote a 1912 poem with that title, although Lovecraft himself included a similar entity in his group of Outer Gods. Sabrina‘s version is a strange darkness (and accompanying sense of despair) called The Darkness that descends on Greendale and begins to spread—the first of eight Terrors called forth by Blackwood, each the focus of a separate episode. It takes both Sabrinas, plus the full coven, to defeat The Darkness.

Next up is The Uninvited, an entity that emerged during the creation of all things when he was turned away from a warm fire. Now he wanders through Greendale, knocking on doors, and ripping out the hearts of anyone who doesn’t invite him into their homes (because they’re heartless, get it?).  It seems to be loosely based on Lovecraft’s short story, “The Outsider.” When The Uninvited crashes Aunt Hilda’s wedding to Dr. Cerberus after being excluded from the festivities, the two Sabrinas defeat the entity through trickery. I honestly felt a little sorry for this Eldritch Terror, but you can’t have a zombie-like figure ripping people’s hearts out all over the place just because they failed to show a bit of hospitality.

The rest of the Terrors make their appearance one by one: The Weird—an octopus-like entity likely inspired by Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Cthulhu—who is a parasite with a collective consciousness that takes over Sabrina’s body; The Perverse, whose reality-warping powers are called forth by a gold imp statue (a nod to the Edgar Allan Poe short story, “The Imp of the Perverse”); The Cosmic, in which the various realms start to merge, with disastrous consequences; The Returned, in which departed loved ones return from the dead; The Endless, possibly inspired by the Lovecraftian deity Thasaidon; and finally, The Void, which existed at creation and will bring about the end of all things.

(Warning: major spoilers below the gallery. Stop now if you haven’t finished the season.)

Let’s start with what worked this final season. The cast remains phenomenal, with everyone turning in exceptional performances despite being given some very silly material to work with at times. In particular, Michelle Gomez as Lilith/MadamSatan, and Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis as Aunt Zelda and Aunt Hilda, respectively, have long anchored the show, and continue to do so in S4. The aunts even get to play opposite their counterparts from the 1996 TV series, Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick, in the penultimate episode, “The Endless”—the aforementioned standout in the series,

In order to keep the realms from colliding, the two Sabrinas agree to inhabit separate realms. Sabrina Spellman remains in Greendale, while Sabrina Morrningstar goes through a mirror portal to a parallel universe, and finds herself on the set of a popular TV sitcom. The entire realm is comprised of the set, and everyone is in service to the star: Sabrina’s feline familiar, Salem, aka The Endless. Sabrina’s aunts are played by Rhea and Broderick, with Otto and Davis playing their understudies, reduced to sleeping under the beds of their counterparts at night.

The set is a nightmare realm of the longest-running sitcom in the universe, where people can be fired after three slight missteps, and sent to the “green room,” never to return. The entire episode is deliciously meta and very clever about weaving in industry in-jokes and poking fun at the Netflix series’ more ludicrous elements. Case in point: Sabrina Morningstar’s former consort, Caliban (Sam Corlett), prefers to work backstage in props where he won’t be so gratuitously objectified—and then proceeds to remove his shirt, because it’s “his choice.” But even The Endless will be wiped out by The Void, which soon arrives and consumes this alternate world. Sabrina Morningstar barely manages to escape, plunging through the mirror back to Greendale to warn Sabrina Spellman of the imminent threat. The effort costs her life. At least there’s now only one Sabrina again.

As for the cons, did we really need a hellish “battle of the bands” where every cast member has to perform a pop song? That reeks of fan service and a rather crass marketing ploy. Some plot developments just seem like lazy writing: Mambo Marie (Skye Marshall), the Haitian voodoo witch who’s romantically involved with Aunt Zelda, is actually Baron Samedi; Roz doesn’t just have the Sight, she’s been a witch all along; and Robin Goodfellow (Jonathan Whitesell) abandons Theo (Lachlan Watson) to return to the faerie realm, but then changes his mind and comes back. Don’t even get me started on Lilith’s baby. None of these developments seem to serve any real purpose, other than give the relevant characters something to do.

Furthermore, most of the Eldritch Terrors don’t come off as particularly terrifying, perhaps because they are so easily defeated. These are supposed to be incredibly powerful, timeless entities. Yet we’re supposed to believe that Sabrina and her pals can drum up sufficiently powerful spells and magical objects to counter each Terror, like they’re some paltry second-tier demon. I mean, The Uninvited gets tricked into being imprisoned in Sabrina’s enchanted childhood dollhouse. An Eldritch Terror should really be a little more savvy than that.

“The Endless” set up what should have been an equally sharply focused and emotionally powerful finale, particularly in light of Sabrina Morningstar’s demise. Instead, the plotting flounders, reeling from one implausible moment to another and never quite meshing in a satisfying way. Unlike some fans, I have no issue with the controversial decision to kill off Sabrina Spellman as well; the character has been associated with reverse Christ-like imagery from the beginning, so of course Sabrina would end up sacrificing herself to save the world. A similar plot line worked spectacularly well in the S5 finale (“The Gift”) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy sacrifices herself to save her sister (and the world).

But Sabrina’s sacrifice just doesn’t pack the same emotional punch. It feels rushed, like the writers were in a hurry to wrap things up, so we never really get to linger on the enormity of the loss and its impact on Sabrina’s friends and family. There’s a perfunctory funeral, and then we cut to Sabrina in the Sweet Hereafter, where she is soon joined by her boyfriend, Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood), who went swimming in the “Sea of Sorrows” so he could be with her for eternity. Translation: he committed suicide because his girlfriend died. That’s an oddly distasteful note on which to end.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been a wild and crazy (if uneven) ride. As I’ve noted before, the show’s strategy of throwing every mythological figure and literary trope into the mix and seeing what sticks, works more often than not—in large part because of the gifted cast. It’s too bad that even such an amazing cast couldn’t rescue the series finale.

The final season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is currently streaming on Netflix (along with all the preceding seasons).

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The local politics of AirBNB’s ban on DC rentals

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Enlarge / Airbnb said it will refund guests who had booked stays in Washington next week and reimburse hosts for lost income.

Bonnie Jo Mount | Washington Post | Getty Images

On January 9—three days after supporters of President Trump started a riot at the US Capitol—Sean Evans decided it was time for action. Evans had seen a post on Nextdoor about neighbors running into hostile Trump supporters the night of the riot, leading to a verbal altercation that had left residents of his corner of Northwest DC on edge. Now, rumors flew online that the upcoming inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden would bring more protesters and more armed violence to the streets of his city. “I don’t want them in my neighborhood,” Evans thought to himself. In fact, he didn’t want insurrectionists in the city at all.

So on Nextdoor, Evans asked his neighbors to stop renting out their properties via Airbnband VRBO. A few hours later, another neighbor devised a hashtag: #DontRentDC.

Separately, a group called ShutDownDC gathered 500 volunteers to message DC area Airbnb hosts. The group sent messages to the managers of 3,400 properties in the region—polite ones, according to ShutDownDC organizer Alex Dodd. The messages alerted the Airbnb hosts to an upcoming threat and asked them to please refrain from booking anyone in their homes in the days surrounding the inauguration.

It worked. On Wednesday, Airbnb said it would cancel and block all Washington area reservations next week. Guests who had booked reservations would be refunded; if hosts had reservations or had canceled them recently, they would be reimbursed for the lost income. Airbnb spokesperson Ben Breit said the company “came to this decision following dialog with Washington, DC, officials, the Metro police department, and members of Congress.” (Earlier in the week, DC’s mayor had asked people not to travel to the inauguration; many customary inaugural events will happen online.)

For Airbnb, the incident is a reminder that all its politics is local. The company, now publicly traded with a value of more than $100 billion, has made its reputation on selling visitors on neighborhood authenticity. But its business model has at times made it a lightning rod for local affairs, and left it scrambling to solve social ills. Airbnb has battled with local governments to allow short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. It has tussled with local officials over taxes and data sharing. It has reshaped the economies of tiny vacation towns. It has tried to prevent big parties in rentals, which have sometimes led to violence. More recently, it has met with the ire of neighbors who don’t want virus-stricken out-of-towners filling up their overloaded ICUs.

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