E3 2021 catch up

If you’re like me, you spent the weekend longing for the mixed bag that is downtown Los Angeles during E3. I’ve got fond memories of fish tacos, The Last Bookstore, watching playoff basketball in garishly lit hotel lobbies and, of course, video game press conference after video game press conference.

For a second year in a row, the show’s gone all virtual, owing to…well, you know, that pesky virus that has defined the past year and a half of our lives. Last year’s show was canceled altogether (though a handful of companies still kept to the schedule). Show organizers simply didn’t think they would be able to pull together a digital event — and frankly, it’s probably for the best that they understood those limitations.

The 2021 event, which kicked off on Saturday, marks the first all-virtual version of the event. For the time being, it’s also the last. Mayor Eric Garcetti kicked off the show by announcing that E3 would return to the LA Convention Center in 2022.

Gaming had a banner 2020, and while growth has slowed, as parts of the world look forward to a post-pandemic life, things are still growing. Some well-timed numbers from NPD this morning point to a 3% year-over-year growth for May 2021, as spending on gaming rose to $4.5 billion. Year-to-date, things are up 17%.

The timing of last year’s canceled event was certainly unfortunate from a hardware standpoint. Console refreshes are massive events at E3. 2020 gave us the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Announcements were relegated to Sony and Microsoft’s own events. That meant the companies were able to draw things out — revealing small details, piece by piece, rather than saving everything for the big show. It’s a strategy that lends itself much better to virtual presentations and blog posts than it does big conventions.

Sony is sitting this one out, too. While it’s entirely possible the company will be holding a big, virtual State of Play event at some point this summer, it won’t be tied to E3. Still, some Sony execs like PlayStation Studios head Hermen Hulst used the opportunity congratulate Microsoft on “a great showcase” on Twitter. So that’s a nice thing.

Thus far, Microsoft is the only one of the big three to present at the event. Nintendo will be holding a Treehouse event tomorrow. The Switch Pro could be on tap for the event, with an upgraded OLED display and internals. That would likely also mean a bunch of upgraded content for the new version of the four-year-old console.

Microsoft, meanwhile, went big on games. Understandable, given the recent launch of the Series X. And, let’s face it, these virtual events are perfectly suited for playing a whole bunch of trailers. The company showcased 30 games (and a fridge) in all. Of those, 27 will be part of the Xbox Game Pass, in case you had any doubt about what the future of gaming on the Xbox will look like. The event was framed as a combination Xbox and Bethesda showcase, having acquired the publisher earlier this year.

“Our growing family of 23 studios is devoted to advancing the medium we all love,” the company writes, “so we were happy to share that now through the end of the year, you can look forward to back-to-back monthly releases coming to Xbox Game Pass on day one, led by a record five new titles from Xbox Game Studios this holiday, including Halo Infinite.”

Highlights include:

Halo Infinite got a trailer and some in-game multiplayer footage. The latest version of the beloved Xbox mainstay is arriving this holiday season.

Starfield will be arriving November 11 [deep breath] 2022. The expansive space title will be an Xbox exclusive at launch.

Forza Horizon 5 will arrive in November. The latest installment of the popular racing series is set in Mexico.

In a no-brainer crossover event, Sea of Thieves will be teaming up with Pirates of the Caribbean for gameplay featuring Captain Jack Sparrow and others.

Age of Empires IV got an extended trailer and release date: October 28.

Battlefield 2042 got its first gameplay, including a sweet new wing suit.

Microsoft’s Flight Simulator will be hitting the new Xboxes on July 27th, along with a Top Gun expansion pack. That’s in honor of Top Gun: Maverick, which is apparently still coming out at some point.

Square Enix also held its customary big showcase on Sunday. The publisher will be releasing a bunch of new Marvel titles. Highlights include:

The long-awaited Guardians of the Galaxy. The adventure title is set to launch this October.

Marvel’s Avenger, meanwhile, will be getting the Black Panther-themed expansion pack, War for Wakanda. That’s arriving in August.

It wouldn’t be a Square Enix event without a Final Fantasy spinoff, right? The perennial favorite RPG is birthing Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin, which arrives on a slew of different platforms next year.

Ubisoft, meanwhile, made waves on Saturday with a first look at the new Avatar adaptation, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Extraction is due out on September 16. Originally titled Rainbow Six: Quarantine, the name was changed for obvious reasons.

Capcom and Take-Two will showcase tonight, followed by Nintendo Direct and Bandai Namco tomorrow. On Thursday, EA is set to hold its own Play Live event. Meanwhile, here’s some video of that new Xbox fridge. Who said there wasn’t any new hardware?

 

#e3, #events, #gaming, #microsoft, #nintendo, #sony, #square-enix, #ubisoft

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Sony sets a new standard with the WF-1000XM4 earbuds

It’s been just under two years since I reviewed the WF-1000XM3, and in that time, Sony’s earbuds never stopped being the reference point for high-end earbuds. Seriously, I reviewed a new pair like a month ago and still made the customary reference.

That’s a rarity in these days of the yearly upgrade cycle. And that goes double for the wireless earbud space. It already felt crowded when Sony entered it in earnest in mid-2019, and things have only gotten worse on that front. But the M3s were a breath of fresh air. With so many companies competing for the middle and low end of the spectrum, Sony dropped something truly premium.

Six months before the AirPods Pro arrived, the M3 hit the market with excellent sound and noise canceling. The latter has, of course, become standardized across the category, but when Sony brought it, it was nearly unheard of. In spite of the headphones’ warm reception, however, the company’s waited two years to deliver a proper follow-up. Understandable, I suppose. Improving on very good is difficult.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I’m happy to report that the WF-1000XM4 is worth the wait. Sony’s great at high-end headphones, and these are no exception. The new buds represent an improvement over their predecessors in a number of ways. Unfortunately, they’re priced to match. If you thought the M3’s were steep at $230, I’ve got some bad news for you, friend. The new ones run an additional $50.

The upshot is that new headphones means a price drop on the older units. A quick search shows them for around $178 from a number of places, putting them more in line with standard earbud pricing. At $30 more than the AirPods Pro, Sony’s really leaning into the premium end of the spectrum. If anyone has the resources and scale to keeping pricing down, it’s Sony.

Are the WF-1000XM4s worth the price? It’s a fairly subjective question, of course. What I can definitely say is that they’re among the best-sounding pairs of earbuds you can buy. I’m still not convinced that anyone can truly duplicate the over-ear headphone experience in a pair of buds — the form factor is just too limited for now. But there are definitely advantages to going with buds — namely portability and on these unspeakably hot summer days, a chance to let your ears breathe.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Buds are, of course, better suited to fitness, as well. Though if you’re specifically looking for a pair to work out in, these probably shouldn’t be your first choice. I mean, they’re IPX4 water resistant, which is plenty good for sweat, but these are more of a long plane ride or sitting at your desk and really enjoying the hell out of a jazz record kind of earbuds.

In part, because they’re big. Granted, they’re a fair bit smaller than their predecessors, and moving from a paddle design to placing the components above the ear canal is a net benefit, but they’re still a bit too large for a long run. And while this is one of those things that vary dramatically from person to person, I found that the buds tended to cause ear pain after wearing them for extended stretches. I found the pressure relieved a bit when I swapped the medium foam tips for a small (I’m a medium in virtually all variety of earbud tips), though the small were much worse at forming a seal in my ears — a necessity to really take advantage of the active noise canceling. And even still, the eventual dull pain was not non-existent.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It is also worth noting that I’ve had less than spectacular experiences with foam tips. They tend to be more prone to wear and tear than silicone and have a habit of getting a bit gnarly in the earwax department (look, this job isn’t always pretty). Though I understand why high-end manufacturers go this route, from a comfort perspective.

Also, hey, kudos to Sony for going with sustainable paper packaging. It’s not much to look at, but how often do you really look at the package your electronics came in? Anything that’s even slightly better for the planet is a net positive in my book. And besides, the charging case looks great.

It’s significantly smaller than the W3’s. These are a helluva lot more pocketable. It’s an understated matte black, albeit with a pretty loud white Sony logo on top. The magnets are strong and the buds snap into the case with authority — they’ll also attach to each other. A thin LED strip directly below the lid glows green or red, depending on charge. The case is wide enough to sit upright, so the USB-C port is located around the back — or you can charge it up wirelessly with a Qi pad.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Interestingly, the stated charging time is the same as the M3s, though the numbers have been shifted around. With the originals, you got six hours on the buds and another 18 from the case. Here it’s eight hours on the buds and 16 on the case. So, a full day, either way, but I certainly prefer the two added hours on the actual earbuds.

The buds themselves are a bit flashier than the case. The design features two intersecting circles, the upper most of which is designed to lie flush with the ear. The outside is accented with a metal microphone, with a second, flush microphone up top.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The sound of the buds is really excellent. It’s got the kind of instrument separation that opens up new details on familiar songs you missed with inferior buds. The default balance is terrific, as well. Sony doesn’t lean to heavily into the bass because it doesn’t have to. The headphones sound terrific across a wide range of music varieties, as well as podcasts.

The noise-canceling is, once again, industry leading. A simple tap on the left earbud cycles between ANC and ambient noise, and the difference is like night and day. I was really impressed by the sounds it was capable of blocking, including my extremely loud vegetable juicer. I was also impressed by the buds’ Bluetooth range.

With earbuds, it’s true that you often get what you pay for. That’s certainly the case here. Sony’s once again managed to set the bar for high-end buds with the WF-1000XM4.

 

#earbuds, #hardware, #reviews, #sony, #wf-1000xm4, #wireless-earbuds

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Atomic-backed Jumpcut uses data to advance diversity in film

Jumpcut founder Kartik Hosanagar is a professor at the Wharton School, but about ten years ago, he spent his summer in an unlikely way: he wrote a screenplay. Set in India, his script garnered some interest from producers, but no one took the plunge to fund a film by a first-time Indian director.

Now, films featuring diverse casts are gaining traction – this year, Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color, and only the second woman ever, to win the Academy Award for Best Director. At the previous ceremony, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Still, according to a recent report from McKinsey & Company, Hollywood leaves $10 billion on the table each year due to the industry’s lack of diversity.

“How do you make a bet on underrepresented voices or underrepresented stories?” asked Hosanagar. “While there’s awareness, there’s no action, because nobody knows how to do it. So that’s what got me into Jumpcut. It’s this rare company where 20 years of my work on data science and entrepreneurship meets with who I am outside of my work.”

At Wharton, Hosanagar is the Faculty Lead for the AI for Business program. He was a founder of Yodle, which was acquired by web.com for $340 million in 2016. But for this next venture, he wanted to tackle Hollywood’s homogeneity hands-on by using his experience with data science to de-risk media projects from underrepresented creators.

“The vision is to create a more inclusive era of global content creation,” he said to TechCrunch.

Hosanagar started working on Jumpcut in 2019, but today, the Atomic-backed company launches out of stealth as the first data science-driven studio working to elevate underrepresented voices in film. Already the studio has 12 TV and film projects in the works with partners like 36-time Academy Award nominee Lawrence Bender (“Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting”), Emmy Award-winning producer Shelby Stone (“Bessie,” “The Chi”), and showrunner Scott Rosenbaum (“Chuck,” “The Shield”).

Jumpcut models itself after Y-Combinator in its approach, pairing emerging talent with buyers and producers. First, Jumpcut uses an algorithm to scan hundreds of thousands of videos from platforms like YouTube, Reddit, and Wattpad to find promising talent. The algorithm narrows down the extensive field to locate creators who are consistently finding new audiences and increasing their engagement. Then, the Jumpcut team – including advisors and veterans from Netflix, Buzzfeed, CBS, Sony, and WarnerMedia – identifies who to connect with.

In one example of the algorithm’s success, Hosanagar pointed to Anna Hopkins, an actress who has appeared on shows like “The Expanse” and “Shadowhunters.” Though Hopkins has found some success in front of the camera, she also wants to write.

“We discovered some of her short films, and the algorithm identified it because people had strong emotional reactions in the comments, like, ‘heartwarming but in a positive way,’ or ‘give me a tissue,’” Hosanagar explained. Since Hopkins isn’t publicly known as a writer, she assumed that Jumpcut found her through a television network she had pitched a script to, but that wasn’t the case. “We said, ‘no, our algorithms found you.’”

Once a creator is identified by Jumpcut, they can A/B test their ideas with audiences of over 100,000 potential viewers, which helps the company prove to funders through data science that these ideas can sell.

“The idea there is that we don’t wait for creators to get discovered by the traditional Hollywood agencies, because that requires the creators to have access to the top agents, and that again brings you back to the old boys club,” Hosanagar said. “We’re automating a lot of that process and discovering these people who are creating great stories that are resonating with audiences, not waiting for some Hollywood agency to discover them.”

Once the creators have an idea that tests well with a wide audience, they’re invited to Jumpcut Collective, an incubator program that helps artists develop an idea from a concept to a pitch in 6 weeks. Then, Jumpcut helps match projects with producing partners and buyers.

So far, Jumpcut has hosted three incubator programs. Out of the twelve Jumpcut projects currently underway, Hosanagar says that nine or ten of them came out of the incubator. One project, for example, is now being developed in partnership with Disney’s Asia Pacific Division.

Jumpcut isn’t disclosing the amount raised in this round of seed funding, but confirms that Atomic is the only investor in their seed round.

Hosanagar is joined on the project by Dilip Rajan, his former student and a former product manager at BuzzFeed, and Winnie Kemp, a former SVP of Originals at Super Deluxe and CBS. There, she developed and executive produced “Chambers,” the first show with a Native American lead, and “This Close,” the first show with deaf creators and cast. Most of their funding will go toward payroll, which includes engineers, data scientists, and product managers on the product side of the company, as well as development executives on the creative side, who run the incubator.

#actress, #advisors, #artificial-intelligence, #atomic, #buzzfeed, #chuck, #director, #disney, #executive, #founder, #funding, #hollywood, #india, #jumpcut, #media, #netflix, #producer, #product-manager, #sony, #startups, #svp, #tc, #warnermedia, #wattpad, #writer, #youtube

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Record labels sue another ISP, demanding mass disconnections of Internet users

Illustration of a neon sign shaped like two musical notes.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Artur Debat)

The major record labels yesterday filed another lawsuit demanding that an Internet service provider terminate many more subscribers for alleged copyright violations.

Universal, Sony, and Warner sued Frontier Communications in US District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging that the DSL and fiber ISP with 3.5 million subscribers “received hundreds of thousands of copyright infringement notices from copyright owners” but “provided known repeat infringers with continued access to and use of its network and failed to terminate the accounts of, or otherwise take any meaningful action against, those subscribers. In reality, Frontier operated its network as an attractive tool and safe haven for infringement.” Frontier “chose not to act on those notices and address the rampant infringement on its network,” the companies claimed.

Frontier said it “has terminated many customers about whom copyright owners have complained” and will fight the lawsuit.

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#cox, #frontier, #policy, #record-labels, #sony, #universal, #warner

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Sony’s best-in-class noise-cancelling earbuds finally get a pricey upgrade

It’s been two years since Sony raised the bar for wireless earbuds. Six months before Apple upped its own game with the AirPods Pro, the WF-1000XM3 set a new standard for sound and active noise cancelation. Since then, few companies have been able to match – let alone surpass – their performance.

After several weeks’ worth of leaks, the electronics giant is back with the WF-1000XM4 – a pair of buds it claims will best both the sound quality and ANC of the originals. It’s a high bar with an equally lofty price tag. The pricing was steep with the originals at $230, and now it seems Sony is really leaning in here at $280.

The wireless earbud category was already feeling crowded in 2019, but that’s nothing compared to where we’re at in 2021. There are also plenty of sub-$50 options out (you can also pick up decent Sony earbuds for under $100). Rather than finding a way to drop the cost, however, Sony is looking to cement a place at the truly premium end of spectrum, at $30 more than even the AirPods Pro.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, given how high the company set the bar with the M3s, I’m definitely looking forward to testing these things out (a pair just arrived, so more soon). The M4s could well make a great pair of travel headphones – when we start doing that more regularly. The company says the secret sauce here is the V1, a newly designed processor that both enhances the ANC and the sound quality on the buds.

“Specially developed by Sony, the newly designed Integrated Processor V1 takes the noise canceling performance of Sony’s acclaimed QN1e chip and goes even further,” the company writes. “With two noise sensing microphones on the surface of each earbud – one feed-forward and one feed-back – the headphones analyze ambient noise to provide highly accurate noise cancellation.”

There are beam-forming mics on board, as well, to capture sound directly from the speaker’s mouth and reduce unnecessary ambient noise. Interesting tidbit here, too, “The new bone-conduction sensor only picks up vibrations from the user’s voice, enabling even clearer speech when making calls.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s automatic wind noise reduction for when you’re outside, coupled with a new 6mm driver. The redesigned system promises richer bass and better sound with less distortion. Naturally, Sony has also brought over its High-Resolution Audio Wireless technology, capable of transmitting 3x the data of standard Bluetooth with up to 990 kbps, according to the company.

The buds support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio – clearly something more manufacturers are looking at for high-end headphones, as they take small steps toward augmented audio. That feature needs to be enabled in the Sony app and naturally only works with select services. Adaptive Sound Control, meanwhile, adjusts playback volume based on ambient noise.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As mentioned above, I’ve got a pair sitting on my desk right now, and right off the bat, the charging case is significantly smaller than the M3, while still boasting a full 24 hours of life on a charge. The buds themselves get up to eight hours, which is around the industry standard for higher-end sets. Five minutes of charging the case should get you an hour of playback.

The shape has changed significantly from the M3. The long wings are now bulbous and sit above the ear canal. Curious to see whether this eases some of the pressure with long term use. The buds are rated IPX4 waterproof and work with both Google Assistant and Alexa. They’ll fast pair to Android devices and Windows 10 machines.

They’re available beginning today for $280.

#earbuds, #hardware, #sony

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The WF-1000XM4 is Sony’s noise-canceling answer to the AirPods Pro

Sony on Tuesday announced its latest pair of noise-canceling wireless earbuds, the WF-1000XM4.

This is the follow-up to the also-awkwardly-named WF-1000XM3 earbuds that Sony launched in 2019. Like that pair, the XM4 is aimed squarely at the premium end of the burgeoning true wireless market, with a loaded feature set packed into their diminutive frame.

Given that market, the XM4 is expensive: the earbuds are available to order today for $279.99. That puts them in line with competitors like the $279 Bose QuietComfort Earbuds but above other premium noise-canceling pairs like the $249 Apple AirPods Pro or $230 Jabra Elite 85t. For reference, the XM3 launched for $230.

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#noise-cancelling-headphones, #sony, #sony-wf-1000xm4, #tech, #wireless-headphones

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PlayStation users left out of Borderlands 3 cross-platform features

Borderlands 3 players on Xbox consoles, Windows, Stadia, and the Mac will soon be able to band together across platforms thanks to a coming cross-play update. But players on the PS4 and PS5 will be left out of that group and will be forced to play only with other users on the PlayStation Network.

Gearbox co-founder and CEO Randy Pitchford discussed the situation in a tweet Thursday morning, saying that “an update for Borderlands 3 has been prepared for release that includes full cross-play support across all platforms” but that “for certification, we have been required by the publisher [presumably Take Two] to remove cross-play support for PlayStation consoles.”

Sony, you may remember, consistently blocked cross-platform capabilities on PlayStation consoles for years before finally opening up its walled garden to cross-platform play in late 2018. Even after that, though, some developers publicly accused Sony of “playing favorites” regarding which specific games were allowed to use the feature.

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#borderlands, #cross-platform, #gaming-culture, #gearbox, #playstation, #sony, #take-two

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Sony lists PC version of Uncharted 4 in investor report

A PC port of 2016 PS4 exclusive Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End will be coming sometime in the future. That’s according to a Game & Network Services presentation made as part of Sony’s Investor Relations Day 2021. Uncharted 4 is listed in that presentation deck under the heading “more PC releases planned” alongside Days Gone, which launched on PC this month.

On the very same slide, Sony trumpeted the success of another recent PC port of a former PlayStation exclusive, Horizon: Zero Dawn. Despite some iffy performance issues at launch, that port had a 250 percent return on investment through March 2021, according to the presentation (i.e. it earned back its porting budget and an additional 2.5 times that amount). That’s not too surprising, considering previous reports that the PC port sold over 700,000 units in its launch month last August.

Last year, Sony said in a corporate report that it “will explore expanding our first-party titles to the PC platform, in order to promote further growth in our profitability.” And PlayStation boss Jim Ryan told GQ in February that more games would be coming to PC “to expose those great games to a wider audience and recognize the economics of game development… also, our ease of making [games] available to non-console owners has grown. So it’s a fairly straightforward decision for us to make.”

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#gaming-culture, #naughty-dog, #pc, #port, #sony, #uncharted, #uncharted-4

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Google updates its cross-platform Flutter UI toolkit

Flutter, Google’s cross-platform UI toolkit for building mobile and desktop apps, is getting a small but important update at the company’s I/O conference today. Google also announced that Flutter now powers 200,000 apps in the Play Store alone, including popular apps from companies like WeChat, ByteDance, BMW, Grab and DiDi. Indeed, Google notes that 1 in 8 new apps in the Play Store are now Flutter apps.

The launch of Flutter 2.2 follows Google’s rollout of Flutter 2, which first added support for desktop and web apps in March, so it’s no surprise that this is a relatively minor release. In many ways, the update builds on top of the features the company introduced in version 2 and reliability and performance improvements.

Version 2.2 makes null safety the default for new projects, for example, to add protections against null reference exceptions. As for performance, web apps can now use background caching using service workers, for example, while Android apps can use deferred components and iOS apps get support for precompiled shaders to make first runs smoother.

Google also worked on streamlining the overall process of bringing Flutter apps to desktop platforms (Windows, macOS and Linux).

But as Google notes, a lot of the work right now is happening in the ecosystem. Google itself is introducing a new payment plugin for Flutter built in partnership with the Google Pay team and Google’s ads SDK for Flutter is getting support for adaptive banner formats. Meanwhile, Samsung is now porting Flutter to Tizen and Sony is leading an effort to bring it to embedded Linux. Adobe recently announced its XD to Flutter plugin for its design tool and Microsoft today launched the alpha of Flutter support for Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps for Windows 10 in alpha.

#adobe, #alpha, #android, #bytedance, #caching, #chrome-os, #computing, #flutter, #google, #google-i-o-2021, #google-pay, #linux, #microsoft, #microsoft-windows, #operating-systems, #play-store, #samsung, #sony, #tc, #universal-windows-platform, #web-apps, #wechat, #windows-10

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Sony faces lawsuit over alleged “monopoly pricing” of PlayStation downloads

A gift card like this goes less far because of Sony's monopolistic control of the PlayStation downloads market, according to a new lawsuit.

Enlarge / A gift card like this goes less far because of Sony’s monopolistic control of the PlayStation downloads market, according to a new lawsuit.

In Apple’s opening statements in the Epic Games v. Apple trial on Monday, the company argued that “the law protects Apple’s choice to have a closed system, just as it protects Sony and Nintendo.” A new proposed class-action lawsuit against Sony’s alleged monopoly control over the market for downloadable PlayStation games seems set to test that argument in the near future.

The lawsuit, filed in Northern California federal court (first reported on by Bloomberg News and obtained by Polygon), alleges that Sony’s monopoly control over the PlayStation Store leads to “supracompetitive prices for digital PlayStation games, which are… [priced] significantly higher than they would be in a competitive retail market for digital games.”

No more retail code competition

Microsoft and Nintendo also maintain digital storefronts that provide the only legitimate way to download software on the Xbox and Switch platforms, of course. But the lawsuit says the PlayStation Store differs from its console competition for a couple of reasons.

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#class-action, #download, #gaming-culture, #lawsuit, #monopoly, #pricing, #sony

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If 12% is the new 30%, 4% is the new 12%

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

The whole team was aboard for this recording, with Grace and Chris behind the scenes, and Danny, Alex, and Natasha on the mics. We had to cut more than we included this week, which should give you a good idea of how busy the startup and VC worlds are of late.

Make sure that you are following the podcast on Twitter, where we post all sorts of memes and cuts and, perhaps, the occasional video here and there. That aside, here’s the rundown:

  • Investing legend David Swenson passed away.
  • Twitter is buying Scroll (neat, very cool) as part of its subscription push, but also killing Nuzzel in the process (bad, very uncool). Natasha and Danny fill us in on why Nuzzel will be missed. Alex has thoughts on why Twitter-Scroll is good.
  • Epic bought ArtStation and cut its marketplace take rate. This is the future, says Danny, who throws his own estimates in, too.
  • Sony and Discord are tying up after the Microsoft-Discord deal fell apart.
  • Edtech is doing the edtech thing in which it raises money and consolidates, as shown by Kahoot’s latest scoop.
  • A friend of the pod, Jomayra Herrera, is joining Reach Capital as its first ever outside-partner hire.
  • Uber is teaming up with Arrival for ride-hailing designed electric vehicles. We’re pretty bullish on the idea. Also Alex likes to say “microfactories.”
  • IVF startups are raising venture capital, and this time its Alife Health that we’re talking about. 
  • WorkBoard raised again. Alex once again made us talk about OKR-focused startups. He needs to get a life, and so does the rest of the Equity team which fought to do the transition into this segment.
  • To end, we spoke about Leda Health, a new startup focused on at-home rape kits for sexual assault survivors. It’s a controversial company, and we discuss critiques and opportunities,

And that’s our show! No private equity deal can slow the Equity team down, so we’ll see you Monday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

#alife-health, #arrival, #clever, #discord, #early-stage, #edtech, #electric-vehicles, #epic, #epic-games, #equity, #equity-podcast, #ev, #kahoot, #leda-health, #microsoft, #nuzzel, #okr, #reach-capital, #scroll, #sony, #tc, #twitter, #uber, #venture-capital, #workboard

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Sony announces investment and partnership with Discord to bring the chat app to PlayStation

Sony and Discord have announced a partnership that will integrate the latter’s popular gaming-focused chat app with PlayStation’s own built-in social tools. It’s a big move and a fairly surprising one given how recently acquisition talks were in the air — Sony appears to have offered a better deal than Microsoft, taking an undisclosed minority stake in the company ahead of a rumored IPO.

The exact nature of the partnership is not expressed in the brief announcement post. The closest we come to hearing what will actually happen is that the two companies plan to “bring the Discord and PlayStation experiences closer together on console and mobile starting early next year,” which at least is easy enough to imagine.

Discord has partnered with console platforms before, though its deal with Microsoft was not a particularly deep integration. This is almost certainly more than a “friends can see what you’re playing on PS5” and more of a “this is an alternative chat infrastructure for anyone on a Sony system.” Chances are it’ll be a deep, system-wide but clearly Discord-branded option — such as “Start a voice chat with Discord” option when you invite a friend to your game or join theirs.

The timeline of early 2022 also suggests that this is a major product change, probably coinciding with a big platform update on Sony’s long-term PS5 roadmap.

While the new PlayStation is better than the old one when it comes to voice chat, the old one wasn’t great to begin with, and Discord is not just easier to use but something millions of gamers already do use daily. And these days, if a game isn’t an exclusive, being robustly cross-platform is the next best option — so PS5 players being able to seamlessly join and chat with PC players will reduce a pain point there.

Of course Microsoft has its own advantages, running both the Xbox and Windows ecosystems, but it has repeatedly fumbled this opportunity and the acquisition of Discord might have been the missing piece that tied it all together. That bird has flown, of course, and while Microsoft’s acquisition talks reportedly valued Discord at some $10 billion, it seems the growing chat app decided it would rather fly free with an IPO and attempt to become the dominant voice platform everywhere rather than become a prized pet.

Sony has done its part, financially speaking, by taking part in Discord’s recent $100 million H round. The amount they contributed is unknown, but perforce it can’t be more than a small minority stake given how much the company has taken on and its total valuation.

#apps, #discord, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #gaming, #microsoft, #playstation, #playstation-5, #ps5, #recent-funding, #sony, #sony-interactive-entertainment, #startups, #tc, #voice-chat, #xbox

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U.S. video game spending increased 30% in Q1

Even as signs of hope for life after the pandemic have begun to emerge here in the U.S., increases in video game spending continue. There’s no doubt that much of last year’s big numbers were driven by stay-at-home requirements in much of the country and the world. All said, U.S. spending on the industry increased 27% for 2020.

There remains a broader question, however, around whether this momentum can maintain, as people start to, you know, leave the house more. For now, at least, things are continuing to look rosy for the industry. NPD noted this morning that U.S. spending on the category jumped 30% y-o-y for Q1 2021 to $14.92 billion.

When we break the number down a bit, however, it becomes clear that the driver goes beyond mere pandemic entertainment. Content was up 25% for the quarter, accessories jumped 42% and hardware went up 82%.

The motivator behind that last figure should be immediately obvious to anyone who follows the industry with any among of interest. Where Nintendo’s Switch dominated the conversation for most of 2020, Sony and Microsoft both launched their next gen consoles late-last year.

“While we are still seeing elevated rates of both engagement and spending resulting from changes in consumer behavior driven by the pandemic, we are also seeing cyclical gains from the November launches of both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles,” analyst Mat Piscatella said in a release The growth driven by these new platforms, combined with gains experienced in mobile, PC and VR content spending, as well as the continued strength of Nintendo Switch, have pushed the market to new highs.”

#gaming, #microsoft, #nintendo, #npd, #playstation, #sony, #switch, #xbox

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‘Returnal’ is a frantic, familiar pleasure — but spurns mainstream appeal to its peril

Returnal, released today for the PlayStation 5, is an action adventure that has you exploring an alien world that reconfigures itself whenever you die, bringing you back for another shot at escaping. It’s exciting, frustrating, and beautiful, though it isn’t particularly original. But while it is arguably the first game to be released that was designed and built for next generation consoles, it’s not the mainstream hit many gamers are waiting for.

First I should probably justify my “arguably.” The PS5 debuted with the impressive remake of Demon’s Souls, and while I enjoyed that greatly, it was only next-gen in its presentation; many dated aspects faithfully carried over from the original mean it can’t really be considered a fully next generation title. The pack-in Astro’s Playroom is a delight but doesn’t compare with full-scale games. Destruction All-Stars was something of a damp squib. And excellent games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla span the generations, playing best but by no means exclusively on PS5.

So Returnal really is, in a non-trivial way, the first really “next-gen” PS5 game — and it carries the “next-gen” PS5 price tag of $70, more in many regions. Can it justify this premium? In some ways yes, but like Demon’s Souls this is a difficult game that involves a potentially off-putting amount of repetition and failure for mainstream audiences.

The game starts with your character, a sci-fi space explorer working for a mysterious company called Astra (there are clear nods to Weyland-Yutani from Alien), crashing on a forbidden planet and finding herself — literally — stuck in a sort of time loop. (You’ll see what I mean by literally.)

The developers have obviously seen Prometheus.

Without getting into the specifics of the plot, which is slowly revealed through found recordings, exploration of ancient ruins, and decoding alien symbols, Selene is seemingly trapped on the planet until she can figure out what’s going on, and whenever she dies the world shifts around to provide new challenges and opportunities.

Each loop or “cycle” involves the player starting from the crash site and progressing through the world, different but familiar every time. You encounter enemies, collect power-ups like new weapons or artifacts that affect your abilities, and occasionally an item that will permanently augment your suit or open new paths to take.

To call any individual aspect of the game original would be inaccurate — it takes with a free hand from its august predecessors in both gameplay and presentation. Without spoiling too much I’d say its progression and design share the most with indie breakout hit Dead Cells, with a dose of Risk of Rain 2, and a setting lifted wholesale from elaborating on Alien and Prometheus. That said, the story and backstory owe more to Solaris. It wears its influences on its sleeve to be sure, but they come together as something cohesive, not a sloppy pastiche.

Run, gun, rinse, repeat

Returnal starts out almost frustratingly simple, but this is soon remedied as new abilities and layers of complexity are added to the mix; expect the “tutorial” to be meted out over a few hours as things are discovered organically.

You make your way through what amounts to arena after arena, sometimes large and multi-layered, sometimes confined, and fight whatever appears. Combat is frantic and high risk — monsters don’t telegraph ponderous swipes at you but rather spew dozens or hundreds of bullets in your direction, making you rely on smart anticipatory movement and the cluttered landscape to stay alive. As you defeat them you accrue increasingly powerful boons that only last until you get hit, at which point they all disappear, adding a layer of urgency to every encounter: you could gain a crucial edge for the next miniboss — or lose what you’ve built up over minutes of careful play. You can’t take any enemy lightly — those that don’t kill you will make you weaker.

The player moves forward by exploring and eventually defeating an area boss, encounters that are more than a little taxing and generally take a few tries. Then it’s on to a new, different “biome” to do it all again with a different color scheme (and new enemies, hazards and so on).

The look and feel of Returnal is what you might call “early next-gen.” It’s detailed, interesting looking and realistic in a sci-fi way, and it uses lighting and color well to create both a sense of place and gameplay objectives. It’s better in some ways than what you’d expect from a PS4 or Xbox One game but ultimately the advances here seem to be more on the side of “fewer limitations” rather than “new capabilities.” Load times are practically non-existent — a second or two at most — and in places where sightlines are farther than a room or two, the scale of what’s being drawn is impressive. The framerate is a steady 60, making combat fluid no matter how crowded and chaotic it gets.

As for the claim of a “living world” that’s truly different every time, you can pretty much ignore that. You’ll encounter the same rooms and structures repeatedly, maybe with different enemies or items, but don’t expect a wildly different experience every loop. Just enough that the repetition isn’t too repetitious.

Image Credits: Sony/Housemarque

Sound is solid and I’d definitely recommend headphones. Your number one issue is going to be getting blasted in the back and positional audio will help a lot with that, as each enemy has characteristic noises for its actions.

The PS5 controller’s advanced haptics are put to good use with two-stage virtual triggers and a lot of contextual vibrations. I do wish there was a way to control these with a bit more granularity, as the constant patter of rain in the first area was numbing my hands, but the other haptic cues were useful and quickly became second nature.

Games in the “roguelite” (i.e. you start from scratch every life like a roguelike, but occasionally gain permanent upgrades) genre can fall flat if your progression, either within a loop or over many of them, involves little more than “+4% pistol damage” or a few more hit points. Fortunately Returnal is well aware of this and its weapons, artifacts, perks and so on often confer interesting bonuses or risk/reward mechanics. And you only have one weapon at a time, meaning the choice between, say, an assault rifle with special ability A and a shotgun with special ability B is a complex and risky one.

Eventually you’ll be able to skip past certain areas, but you may not want to, preferring to scour side paths for resources so you’re not going into the next boss room naked and afraid. In general the game manages to keep a lot of interesting tensions going on with the player that make every decision consequential, not to say agonizing.

Next-gen price tag

Is Returnal worth its premium $70 asking price? For some people, yes. But this isn’t the kind of mainstream blockbuster that would ordinarily justify the increased cost.

So far I’ve played about 20 hours, done 30-odd runs, and based on what I know I’m about halfway through the game. Most of my progress was made on what I think of “prestige” runs, the handful where everything goes right and I get much further than before, making them tense and exciting. (Many ended within five minutes due to poor momentum or rage quits.) The game promises replay value past the credits, though, so a guess of 40 hours of content is more of a floor than a ceiling.

One of several trips to your house, inexplicably replicated on the alien planet…

The difficulty may present a barrier to many players. A dialogue at the start of the game warns you that the game is meant to be challenging and that death is part of the journey. Great, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you get ambushed by a dozen enemies, wiping out half an hour of of progress in an instant. While generally the game falls into the “tough but fair” category, there are spikes here and there that feel gratuitous, and loops where you feel unlucky or underpowered and have to fight the urge to reset.

I don’t mind personally — compared to the Dark Souls series it’s a cakewalk. I almost beat the first boss on my first encounter; good luck doing that with Ornstein and Smough or Father Gascoigne! But like those games it takes a certain type of player to want to power through the early hours and access the huge amount of value essentially locked behind repeated failure. Similar to how many Demon’s Souls players never progress past that game’s punishing first area, players not ready for the acrobatics and perseverance necessary to traverse the unforgiving bullet hell of Returnal may never escape its gloomy, restrictive first biome for the bright, open second one or glimpse its intriguing backstory. (I’ve included some tips below to help people get through the first hours.)

Compared with the steady progression and traditional storytelling of something like AC: Valhalla or Miles Morales this may put off less masochistic gamers or prompt more than a few controller-throwing, refund-requesting moments. After all, paying $70 for a game that slaps you in the face while you try to access the latter $50 worth of it can be justifiably frustrating.

With all that said, it is nice to see a AAA next-generation game that isn’t a sequel or franchise, and seeing the “roguelite” formula embraced seriously beyond the indie world. Returnal may not be for everyone, but for the subset of gamers who have embraced this genre for years, it’s an easy one to recommend.


Tips for playing:

If you do decide to dive in, here are a handful of non-spoilery “wish I’d known that” tips to get you on the right track.

  • There are lots of hidden rooms and items, so check your mini-map frequently for things you’ve missed in the chaos and peek in every nook and cranny.
  • When you’re undamaged, healing pickups contribute towards adding crucial max health — one more reason to not get hit.
  • New abilities create new opportunities in old areas — there’s a reason so much of the first biome is inaccessible at first.
  • You can get to those treasures behind bars. Look around carefully (and shoot everything).
  • “Malignant” treasure is usually more trouble than it’s worth and the debuffs can sink a run. Only do if desperate or you have a cure handy. (Parasites on the other hand can be very useful.)
  • There’s always a healing item for sale at the biome’s “shop,” so there’s no excuse for going into a boss room without one. (And self-healing artifacts will save your life five times over.)

#gaming, #playstation-5, #ps5, #sony, #tc

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PS4 owners lament the shutdown of beloved “Communities” social network

Don't cry for me, I'm already dead...

Enlarge / Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead…

In the world of social media, new networks are constantly popping into existence and then fading away when they fail to become the next Facebook (or Twitter, or TikTok, etc.). Still, last week’s shutdown of the PS4’s Communities features (and the lack of a suitable replacement on the PS5) has left many PlayStation fans bitter about the death of a vibrant space they used to connect with fellow gamers.

For those who never had a chance to join a PS4 Community, the groups served as a kind of player-created and moderated message board system, accessible directly via the PS4’s system menu (and through the PlayStation Mobile app, before that connection was shut off last year). Members could share text messages, screenshots, wallpapers, and more on a shared “Community Wall” or form parties to chat and play multiplayer titles together with other online members.

Specific PS4 Communities could form around a single game or series, a geographic area, a cultural grouping, or just shared general interests (“Smoke&Play” and “Vaping Gamers” were popular Communities at one point).

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#gaming-culture, #playstation, #ps4, #social, #sony

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Sony reverses course, keeps legacy PlayStation online stores open

playstation store logo

The store has received a stay of execution on the PS3 and Vita… (credit: Playstation)

Just three weeks ago, Sony announced its plans to shut down the digital stores for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and PlayStation Vita, effective this summer. Today, Sony partially reversed course, with Sony Interactive Entertainment President and CEO Jim Ryan writing in a blog post that “it’s clear that we made the wrong decision here.”

As such, the PS4 and Vita online stores will continue operations, Ryan said, while the PSP store will still shut down as planned on July 2. PS3 and Vita players will continue to be able to purchase games through the hardware itself, while web-based versions of those stores will seemingly remain closed following their shutdown last month.

“When we initially came to the decision to end purchasing support for PS3 and PS Vita, it was born out of a number of factors, including commerce support challenges for older devices and the ability for us to focus more of our resources on newer devices where a majority of our gamers are playing on,” Ryan wrote. “We see now that many of you are incredibly passionate about being able to continue purchasing classic games on PS3 and PS Vita for the foreseeable future, so I’m glad we were able to find a solution to continue operations.”

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#gaming-culture, #online, #ps3, #psn, #sony, #store, #turnaround, #vita

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The looming software kill-switch lurking in aging PlayStation hardware

These consoles could eventually be large paperweights if Sony doesn't fix a problem looming in their firmware.

Enlarge / These consoles could eventually be large paperweights if Sony doesn’t fix a problem looming in their firmware.

Unless something changes, an issue lurking in older PlayStations’ internal timing systems threatens to eventually make every PS4 game and all downloaded PS3 games unplayable on current hardware. Right now, it’s not a matter of if but when this problem will occur.

This ticking firmware time bomb has been known in certain PlayStation preservation and hacking circles for a while. But it’s gaining new attention amid Sony’s recently announced decision to shut down the online stores for PS3, PSP, and Vita software. While that impending store shutdown won’t impact players’ abilities to play and re-download previously purchased software for now, the eventual wider shutdown of PSN servers for these aging consoles could have a much more drastic effect on the playability of a wide swath of games.

What’s the problem?

The root of the coming issue has to do with the CMOS battery inside every PS3 and PS4, which the systems use to keep track of the current time (even when they’re unplugged). If that battery dies or is removed for any reason, it raises an internal flag in the system’s firmware indicating the clock may be out of sync with reality.

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#firmware, #gaming-culture, #history, #preservation, #ps3, #ps4, #sony, #time-bomb, #update

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Fortnite-maker Epic completes $1B funding round

How much is Epic Games worth? Well, we’ve long ago surpasses the realm of dollar figures regular humans can contextualize. With its latest round, the gamer hits an equity valuation of $28.7 billion. Yes, “b” for “billion.” That’s a lot of micro-transactions.

Time to start talking metaverse!

Best known for the wildly successful battle royale title, Fortnite, Epic just announced another $1 billion funding round, featuring a $200 million Sony Group Corporation investment. The rest of the list is, predictably, a long one, including [deep breath], Appaloosa, Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, GIC, T. Rowe Price Associates-managed accounts, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, BlackRock managed accounts, Park West, KKR, AllianceBernstein, Altimeter, Franklin Templeton and Luxor Capital.

“We are grateful to our new and existing investors who support our vision for Epic and the Metaverse,” CEO and founder Tim Sweeney said in a statement tied to the news. “Their investment will help accelerate our work around building connected social experiences in Fortnite, Rocket League and Fall Guys, while empowering game developers and creators with Unreal Engine, Epic Online Services and the Epic Games Store.”

Sweeney has plenty of reason to be grateful, as the controlling shareholder.

Developing…

#epic, #epic-games, #fortnite, #funding, #gaming, #sony

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After years on PlayStation, MLB The Show hits Xbox Game Pass at launch

It has been over a year now since Sony first announced it would be bringing the previously PlayStation-exclusive series MLB The Show to Xbox as early as 2021. Today, Microsoft announced even better news for Xbox-owning baseball fans: MLB The Show 21 will be included with an Xbox Game Pass subscription the day it launches on April 20.

The move means that over 18 million Game Pass subscribers will have free access to the game on Xbox One and the Xbox Series X/S, or on Android phones via xCloud streaming. That creates a bit of an awkward situation for PlayStation owners, who will have to pay individually for a Sony San Diego-developed and Sony-published game that many Xbox subscribers will get for free.

That’s especially notable because Sony has its own subscription service, PlayStation Now, which is not getting MLB The Show on launch day (as of now, at least). Then again, PlayStation Now has famously struggled to compare to Game Pass’ “day one” bluster for a while now, especially when it comes to first-party software. Sony’s recent “Play From Home” initiative and the PlayStation Plus Collection have opened up access to some Sony-published titles recently, but these, too, have revolved around dated software.

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#game-pass, #gaming-culture, #microsoft, #sony, #sports, #xbox, #xlb

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Manticore Games raises $100 million to build a ‘creator multiverse’

The gaming sector has never been hotter or had higher expectations from investors who are dumping billions into upstarts that can adjust to shifting tides faster that the existing giants will.

Bay Area-based Manticore Games is one of the second-layer gaming platforms looking to build on the market’s momentum. The startup tells TechCrunch they’ve closed a $100 million Series C funding round, bringing their total funding to $160 million. The round was led by XN, with participation from Softbank and LVP alongside existing investors Benchmark, Bitkraft, Correlation Ventures and Epic Games.

When Manticore closed its Series B back in September 2019, VCs were starting to take Roblox and the gaming sector more seriously, but it took the pandemic hitting to really expand their expectations for the market. “Gaming is now a bonafide super category,” CEO Frederic Descamps tells TechCrunch.

Manticore’s Core gaming platform is quite similar to Roblox conceptually, the big difference is that the gaming company is aiming to quickly scale up a games and creator platform geared towards the 13+ crowd that may have already left Roblox behind. The challenge will be coaxing that demographic faster than Roblox can expand its own ambitions, and doing so while other venture-backed gaming startups like Rec Room, which recently raised at a $1.2 billion valuation, race for the same prize.

Like other players, Manticore is attempting to build a game discovery platform directly into a game engine. They haven’t built the engine tech from scratch, they’ve been working closely with Epic Games which makes the Unreal Engine and made a $15 million investment in the company last year.

A big focus of the Core platform is giving creators a true drag-and-drop platform for game creation with a specific focus on “remixing” allowing users to pick pre-made environments, drop pre-rendered 3D assets into them, choose a game mode and publish it to the web. For creators looking to inject new mechanics or assets into a title, there will be some technical know-how necessary but Manticore’s team hopes that making the barriers of entry low for new creators means that they can grow alongside the platform. Manticore’s big bet is on the flexibility of their engine, hoping that creators will come on board for the chance to engineer their own mechanics or create their own path towards monetization, something established app store wouldn’t allow them to.

“Creators can implement their own styles of [in-app purchases] and what we’re really hoping for here is that maybe the next battle pass equivalent innovation will come out of this,” co-founder Jordan Maynard tells us.

This all comes at an added cost, developers earn 50% of revenues from their games, leaving more potential revenue locked up in fees routed to the platforms that Manticore depends on than if they built for the App Store directly, but this revenue split is still much friendlier to creators that what they can earn on platforms like Roblox.

Building cross-platform secondary gaming platforms is host to plenty of its own challenges. The platforms involved not only have to deal with stacking revenue share fees on non-PC platforms, but some hardware platforms that are reticent to allow them all, an area where Sony has been a particular stickler with PlayStation. The long-term success of these platforms may ultimately rely on greater independence, something that seems hard to imagine happening on consoles and mobile ecosystems.

#app-store, #ceo, #co-founder, #core, #correlation-ventures, #epic-games, #frederic-descamps, #funding, #gaming, #jordan-maynard, #online-games, #roblox, #softbank, #sony, #video-game, #video-games, #video-gaming

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Sony will shut down online stores for legacy PlayStation games this summer

This is probably our last chance to ever reuse this image.

This is probably our last chance to ever reuse this image.

If you’ve been waiting to purchase and download a game on your PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, or PlayStation Portable, you’d better do so soon. Sony has announced that new PlayStation Store game purchases on those consoles will be discontinued on the following dates:

  • PlayStation 3: July 2, 2021
  • PlayStation Portable: July 2, 2021
  • PlayStation Vita: August 27, 2021

After these dates, users of these older systems will still be able to re-download and play previous purchases, including videos and media. Continuing PlayStation Plus subscribers will also be able to download previously claimed games from that service.

But users won’t be able to make new game purchases, including purchases of in-game content or DLC on these systems after those dates. Existing funds in a PSN wallet on these consoles will still be redeemable on a PS4 or PS5, or they can be refunded at the user’s request.

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#gaming-culture, #playstation, #ps3, #psp, #sony, #vita

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New PSVR controllers suggest PS5 headset won’t need external sensors

One month after officially announcing a new generation of PlayStation VR hardware for the PS5, Sony today revealed additional details of the new handheld controllers designed to work with the upcoming unit.

As previously announced, the new controllers integrate some of the unique features of the PS5’s standard DualSense controllers. That includes adaptive triggers that can apply variable tension depending on the in-game situation, as shown off in PS5 games like Astro’s Playroom. The new PSVR controllers also feature haptic feedback that has been “optimized for its form factor.” That tech seems positioned to go beyond the generalized rumbling of earlier controllers to make “every sensation in the game world more impactful, textured, and nuanced,” as Sony puts it.

The new PSVR controller also mirrors features found on other virtual reality controllers like the Oculus Touch, including the “orb” shape created by the hand-circling tracking ring. The new controller comes with “finger detection” for the thumb, index, and middle fingers when they rest on the appropriate parts of the controller, no button-press necessary. A “grip button” on the inner edge of each handheld controller can also be accessed by the middle finger to pick up in-game objects. Sony also promises that the controller is “well-balanced and comfortable” in tests with “a range of hand sizes.”

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#gaming-culture, #playstation-5, #playstation-vr, #ps5, #psvr, #sony

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OctoML raises $28M Series B for its machine learning acceleration platform

OctoML, a Seattle-based startup that offers a machine learning acceleration platform build on top of the open-source Apache TVM compiler framework project, today announced that it has raised a $28 million Series B funding round led by Addition Captial. Previous investors Madrona Venture Group and Amplify Partners also participated in this round, which brings the company’s total funding to $47 million. The company last raised in April 2020, when it announced its $15 million Series A round led by Amplify

The promise of OctoML is that developers can bring their models to its platform and the service will automatically optimize that model’s performance for any given cloud or edge device. The founding team created the TVM project, which

As Brazil-born OctoML co-founder and CEO Luis Ceze told me, since raising its Series A round, the company started onboarding some early adopters to its ‘Octomizer’ SaaS platform.

Image Credits: OctoML

“It’s still in early access, but we are we have close to 1,000 early access sign-ups on the waitlist,” Ceze said. “That was a pretty strong signal for us to end up taking this [funding]. The Series B was pre-emptive. We were planning on starting to raise money right about now. We had barely started spending our Series A money — we still had a lot of that left. But since we saw this growth and we had more paying customers than we anticipated, there were a lot of signals like, ‘hey, now we can accelerate the go-to-market machinery, build a customer success team and continue expanding the engineering team to build new features.”

Ceze tells me that the team also saw strong growth signals in the overall community around the TVM project (with about 1,000 people attending its virtual conference last year). As for its customer base (and companies on its waitlist), Ceze says it represents a wide range of verticals that range from defense contractors to financial services and life science companies, automotive firms and startups in a variety of fields.

Recently, OctoML also launched support for the Apple M1 chip — and saw very good performance from that.

The company has also formed partnerships with industry heavyweights like Microsoft (which is also a customer), Qualcomm, AMD and Sony to build out the open-source components and optimize its service for an even wider range of models (and larger ones, too).

On the engineering side, Ceze tells me that the team is looking at not just optimizing and tuning models but also the training process. Training ML models can quickly become costly and any service that can speed up that process leads to direct savings for its users — which in turn makes OctoML an easier sell. The plan here, Ceze tells me, is to offer an end-to-end solution where people can optimize their ML training and the resulting models and then push their models out to their preferred platform. Right now, its users still have to take the artifact that the Octomizer creates and deploy that themselves, but deployment support is on OctoML’s roadmap.

“When we first met Luis and the OctoML team, we knew they were poised to transform the way ML teams deploy their machine learning models,” said Lee Fixel, founder of Addition. “They have the vision, the talent and the technology to drive ML transformation across every major enterprise. They launched Octomizer six months ago and it’s already becoming the go-to solution developers and data scientists use to maximize ML model performance. We look forward to supporting the company’s continued growth.”

#amd, #amplify, #amplify-partners, #artificial-intelligence, #brazil, #developer, #enterprise, #lee-fixel, #machine-learning, #madrona-venture-group, #microsoft, #ml, #octoml, #qualcomm, #recent-funding, #seattle, #series-a, #sony, #startups, #venture-capital

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The Roblox final fantasy

Hello friends, and welcome to Week in Review.

Last week, I talked a bit about NFTs and their impact on artists. If you’re inundated with NFT talk just take one quick look at this story I wrote this week about the $69 million sale of Beeple’s photo collage. This hype cycle is probably all the result of crypto folks talking each other up and buying each other’s stuff, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be lasting impacts. That said, I would imagine we’re pretty close to the peak of this wave, with a larger one down the road after things cool off a bit. I’ve been wrong before though…

This week, I’m interested in a quick look at what your kids have been talking about all these years. Yes, Roblox.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


David Baszucki, founder and CEO of Roblox - Roblox Developer Conference 2019

(Photo by Ian Tuttle/Getty Images for Roblox)

The big thing

Roblox went public on the New York Stock Exchange this week, scoring a $38 billion market cap after its first couple days of trading.

Investors rallied around the idea that Roblox is one of the most valuable gaming companies in existence. More than Unity, Zynga, Take-Two, even gaming giant Electronic Arts. It’s still got a ways to go to take down Microsoft, Sony or Apple though… The now-public company is so freaking huge because investors believe the company has tapped into something that none of the others have, a true interconnected creative marketplace where gamers can evolve alongside an evolving library of experiences that all share the same DNA (and in-game currency).

The gaming industry has entered a very democratic stride as cross-play tears down some of the walls of gaming’s platform dynamics. Each hardware platform that operates an app store of their own still has the keys to a kingdom, but it’s a shifting world with uncertainty ahead. While massive publishers have tapped cloud gaming as the trend that will string their blockbuster franchises together, they all wish they were in Roblox’s position. The gaming industry has seen plenty of Goliath’s in its day, but for every major MMO to strike it rich, it’s still just another winner in a field of disparate hits with no connective tissue.

Roblox is different, and while many of us still have the aged vision of the image above: a bunch of rudimentary Minecraft/Playmobile-looking mini-games, Roblox’s game creation tools are advancing quickly and developers are building photorealistic games that are wider in ambition and scope than before. As the company levels-up the age range it appeals to — both by holding its grasp on aging gamers on its platform and using souped-up titles to appeal to a new-generation — there’s a wholly unique platform opportunity here: the chance to have the longevity of an app store but with the social base layer that today’s cacophony of titles have never shared.

Whether or not Roblox is the “metaverse” that folks in the gaming world have been hyping, it certainly looks more like it than any other modern gaming company does.


SHENYANG, CHINA – MARCH 08: Customers try out iPhone 12 smartphones at an Apple store on March 8, 2021 in Shenyang, Liaoning Province of China. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Other things

Apple releases some important security patches
It was honestly a pretty low-key week of tech news, I’ll admit, but folks in the security world might not totally buy that characterization. This week, Apple released some critical updates for its devices, fixing a Safari vulnerability that could allow attackers to run malicious code on a user’s unpatched devices. Update your stuff, y’all.

TikTok gets proactive on online bullying
New social media platforms have had the benefit of seeing the easy L’s that Facebook teed itself up for. For TikTok, its China connection means that there’s less room for error when it comes to easily avoidable losses. The team announced some new anti-bullying features aimed at cutting down on toxicity in comment feeds.

Dropbox buys DocSend
Cloud storage giants are probably in need of a little reinvention, the enterprise software boom of the pandemic has seemed to create mind-blowing amounts of value for every SaaS company except these players. This week, Dropbox made a relatively big bet on document sharing startup DocSend. It’s seemingly a pretty natural fit for them, but can they turn in into a bigger opportunity?

Epic Games buys photogrammetry studio
As graphics cards and consoles have hit new levels of power, games have had to satisfy desired for more details and complexity. It takes a wild amount of time to create 3D assets with that complexity so plenty of game developers have leaned on photogrammetry which turns a series of photos or scans of a real world object or environment into a 3D model. This week, Epic Games bought one of the better known software makers in this space, called Capturing Reality, with the aim of integrating the tech into future versions of their game engine.

Twitter Spaces launches publicly next month
I’ve spent some more time with Twitter Spaces this week and am growing convinced that it has a substantial chance to kneecap Clubhouse’s growth. Twitter is notoriously slow to roll out products, but it seems they’ve been hitting the gas on Spaces, announcing this week that it will be available widely by next month.

Seth Rogen starts a weed company
There’s a lot of money in startups, there’s really never been a better time to get capital for a project… if you know the right people and have the right kind of expertise. Seth Rogen and weed are a pretty solid mental combo and him starting a weed company shouldn’t be a big shock.


A Coupang Corp. delivery truck drives past a company's fulfillment center in Bucheon, South Korea, on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang filed for an initial public offering in the U.S. and that could raise billions of dollars to battle rivals and kick off a record year for IPOs in the Asian country. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Coupang follows Roblox to a strong first day of trading
“Another day brings another public debut of a multibillion-dollar company that performed well out of the gate.This time it’s Coupang, whose shares are currently up just over 46% to more than $51 after pricing at $35, $1 above the South Korean e-commerce giant’s IPO price range. Raising one’s range and then pricing above it only to see the public markets take the new equity higher is somewhat par for the course when it comes to the most successful recent debuts, to which we can add Coupang.” More

How nontechnical talent can break into deep tech
“Startup hiring processes can be opaque, and breaking into the deep tech world as a nontechnical person seems daunting. As someone with no initial research background wanting to work in biotech, I felt this challenge personally. In the past year, I landed several opportunities working for and with deep tech companies. More

Does your VC have an investment thesis or a hypothesis?
“Venture capitalists love to talk investment theses: on Twitter, Medium, Clubhouse, at conferences. And yet, when you take a closer look, theses are often meaningless and/or misleading…” More


Once more, if you liked reading this, you can get it in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

#apple, #apple-inc, #china, #cloud-gaming, #computing, #coupang, #docsend, #dropbox, #electronic-arts, #epic-games, #extra-crunch, #facebook, #gamer, #getty, #getty-images, #iphone, #microsoft, #online-games, #roblox, #smartphones, #software, #sony, #tc, #technology, #twitter, #week-in-review, #zynga

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Will moving, ‘spacial video’ start to eat into square-box Zoom calls? SpatialChat thinks so

With most of us locked into a square video box on platforms like Zoom, the desire to break away and perhaps wander around a virtual space is strong. These new ways of presenting people – as small circles of videos placed in a virtual space where they can move around – has appeared in various forms, like ‘virtual bars’ for the last few months during global pandemic lockdowns. Hey, I even went to a few virtual bars myself! Although the drinks from my fridge could have been better…

The advantage of this spatial approach is it gives a lot more ‘agency’ to the user. You feel, at least, a bit more in control, as you can make a ‘physical’ choice as to where you go, even if it is only still a virtual experience.

Now SpatialChat, one of the first startups with that approach which launched on ProductHunt in April last year, is upping the game with a new design and the feature of persistent chats. The product debuted on ProductHunt on April 20, 2020, and rose to No. 3 app of the day. The web-based platform has been bootstrapped the founders with their own resources.

SpatialChat now adding a special tier and features for teams running town hall meetings and virtual offices, and says it now has more than 3,000 organizations as paying customers, with more than 200,000 total monthly active users.

The startup is part of a virtual networking space being populating by products such as
Teamflow, Gather, and Remo. Although it began as a online networking events service, its now trying to re-position as a forum for multi-group discussions, all the way up from simple stand-up meetings to online conferences.

SpatialChat uses a mix of ‘proximity’ video chats, screen sharing, and rooms for up to 50 people. It’s now putting in pricing plans for regular, weekly, and one-time use cases. It says it’s seen employees at Sony, Panasonic, Sega, LinkedIn, Salesforce, and McKinsey, as well as educators and staff at 108 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and MIT, use the platform.

Almas Abulkhairov, CEO and Co-founder of SpatialChat says: “Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams represent a virtual office for many teams but most of our customers say these apps aren’t a good fit for that. They don’t provide the same serendipity of thought you get working shoulder to shoulder and “Zoom fatigue” became a term for a reason. We want to bring the best from offline work.”

Konstantin Krasov, CPO at DataSouls, who used the platform, said: “We had 2500 people in attendance during a 2-day event that we hosted for our community of 50,000 Data Scientists. SpatialChat enabled us to make a cool networking event, Q/A and AMA with thought leaders in data science.”

#computing, #europe, #harvard, #linkedin, #mckinsey, #microsoft, #microsoft-teams, #mit, #panasonic, #salesforce, #software, #sony, #stanford, #tc, #web-conferencing, #workplace, #yale, #zoom

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Identiq, a privacy-friendly fraud prevention startup, secures $47M at Series A

Israeli fraud prevention startup Identiq has raised $47 million at Series A as the company eyes international growth, driven in large part by the spike in online spending during the pandemic.

The round was led by Insight Partners and Entrée Capital, with participation from Amdocs, Sony Innovation Fund by IGV, as well as existing investors Vertex Ventures Israel, Oryzn Capital, and Slow Ventures.

Fraud prevention is big business, which is slated to be worth $145 billion by 2026, ballooning by eightfold in size compared to 2018. But it’s a data hungry industry, fraught with security and privacy risks, having to rely on sharing enormous sets of consumer data in order to learn who legitimate customers are in order to weed out the fraudsters, and therefore.

Identiq takes a different, more privacy-friendly approach to fraud prevention, without having to share a customer’s data with a third-party.

“Before now, the only way companies could solve this problem was by exposing the data they were given by the user to a third party data provider for validation, creating huge privacy problems,” Identiq’s chief executive Itay Levy told TechCrunch. “We solved this by allowing these companies to validate that the data they’ve been given matches the data of other companies that already know and trust the user, without sharing any sensitive information at all.”

When an Identiq customer — such as an online store — sees a new customer for the first time, the store can ask other stores in Identiq’s network if they know or trust that new customer. This peer-to-peer network uses cryptography to help online stores anonymously vet new customers to help weed out bad actors, like fraudsters and scammers, without needing to collect private user data.

So far, the company says it already counts Fortune 500 companies as customers.

Identiq said it plans to use the $47 million raise to hire and grow the company’s workforce, and aims to scale up its support for its international customers.

#articles, #cryptography, #customer-data, #digital-rights, #entree-capital, #human-rights, #identity-management, #insight-partners, #marketing, #online-shopping, #online-stores, #peer-to-peer, #privacy, #security, #slow-ventures, #sony, #sony-innovation-fund, #startups, #terms-of-service, #vertex-ventures

0

Maestro nets $15 million for its interactive commerce, community and engagement tools for livestreams

Making money on livestreams has never been easier thanks to a suite of tools from the Los Angeles-based startup Maestro, which just nabbed $15 million in financing to grow its business.

As video commerce becomes the norm and entertainers, brands, businesses, and franchises of all sizes and stripes look to cut out the middle man, the array of services on offer from Maestro may be the scissors these entities need to cut the cord.

The company has already worked with names as diverse as the Golden State Warriors, the Dallas Cowboys, and pop sensation Billy Eilish on embedding its interactive tools into various live events and promotions.

Initially the LA-based company launched to the gaming community with interactive features that folks could use in-stream to create better engagement with fans. But what started in the gaming world quickly spun out as the company slashed prices to $500 per month for its services.

The pandemic also helped as artists who were cut off from their audiences began to explore alternative ways to reach fans — and make money.

We were targeted to a small number of very premier customers. It was around 50 to 60 and we grew to in the hundreds,” said Maestro chief executive, Ari Evans, said. “2020 was a blowout year… People needed an interactive streaming platform that they could spin up quickly that they could launch on their website.”

Celebrities from Katy Perry to Post Malone to Billie Eilish all turned to the service and so did other streaming platforms like the Los Angeles-based virtual concert platform, The Wave.

Now the company has $15 million in new financing to capitalize on its growth from investors including NetEase, Sony Music Entertainment, and Acronym Venture Capital, alongside a host of industry titans including Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin and Moonwell Capital, founded by former Activision Blizzard executives Michael and Amy Morhaime, the company said in a statement. 

Existing investors like SeventySix Capital, The Strand Partners, Stadia Ventures, Hersh Interactive Group, and Transcend Fund, as well as early Zoom employees Richard Gatchalian and Aaron Lewis, also participated. 

Since the launch of monetization tools in May of last year, Evans estimated that the platform has paid out at least $5 million to entertainers who used the service.

“We are pleased to be supporting the continued development of Maestro as part of our ongoing investment in new technologies that provide artists with cutting-edge tools and solutions for growing their careers. Maestro gives artists greater flexibility and control to build the most engaging and customized events for their fans, allowing creators at any stage of their career to put together a world class live stream event,” said Dennis Kooker, President, Global Digital Business and U.S. Sales, Sony Music Entertainment, in a statement. 

“Maestro is at the forefront of redefining the relationship of content owners and creators with their viewers. Instead of relying on incumbent distribution platforms, customers control the audience relationship directly and maximize engagement and monetization in a way that fits with their brand objectives. We are very excited by Maestro’s potential to be a fundamental driver in the growth of the creator economy,” said Joshua Siegel, General Partner, Acronym Venture Capital.  

“Maestro… started off with the content and now we’re adding membership and community management and ticketing and all that stuff,” said Evans. 

The next step, and a big part of what Evans and his team of 55 employees will work on building will be a developer ecosystem, so software designers can start building out new tools to sell through the Maestro platform.

“The third piece is a developer ecosystem,” Evans said. “We’re really copying Shopify, Squarespace for video or Shopify for video. It’s kind of strange that this has taken so long to develop.

The one thing that Maestro won’t do is discovery or search services, Evans said. “We’re helping creators make money and build a business on top of video. That’s something creators need to be aware of if they’re going to  build that direct to consumer channel,” he said. “If you do do that and you’re successful you’re in control over your audience.”

#activision-blizzard, #billie-eilish, #co-founder, #companies, #electronic-arts, #general-partner, #golden-state-warriors, #katy-perry, #kevin-lin, #los-angeles, #louisiana, #maestro, #michael, #musicians, #netease, #shopify, #sony, #sony-music-entertainment, #tc, #technology, #twitch, #united-states, #unity-technologies, #website

0

Sony’s brighter A90J OLED TV makes its way to living rooms this month

LG’s OLED TV lineup often gets the most press among its peers, but Sony’s high-end OLED TVs get positive reviews as well. Today, Sony announced pricing and release timing for its flagship 2021 OLED, the A90J.

Preorders have already started in Europe and the UK, and the US is expected to follow any time now. But regardless of the staggered preorders, the TVs will ship this month in both regions.

The A90J will be available in 55-, 65-, and 83-inch sizes. The 55-inch model will cost $3,000 in the US, while its 65-inch counterpart will cost a whopping $4,000. US and EU pricing haven’t been announced for the 83-inch model, but it costs £7,000 in the UK, so let that be your guide.

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#4k, #dolby-vision, #hdmi-2-1, #hdr, #oled, #sony, #sony-a90j, #tech, #tv, #ultrahd

0

Report: PS5 storage expansion will be available by summer

This style of PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSD should soon work with the PS5, though that massive heatsink won't fit inside the system's expansion bay.

Enlarge / This style of PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSD should soon work with the PS5, though that massive heatsink won’t fit inside the system’s expansion bay.

Bloomberg cites unnamed “people briefed on the matter” in reporting that PS5 owners will finally be able to expand the system’s built-in storage by this coming summer. The planned firmware update that will unlock this feature will also allow for higher cooling-fan speeds on the system to prevent overheating, Bloomberg reports.

For games designed for the PS5, owners are currently limited to 667GB of usable space on the system’s 825GB high-speed NVMe drive. That’s a pretty strict limit when individual PS5 games can be 50 to 100GB or more at the high end. PS5 owners can plug in a standard USB hard drive to store backward compatible PlayStation 4 games running on the system, though.

Almost a year ago, Sony announced that the PS5’s storage space would be expandable with certain standard M.2 solid state drives, which are shaped a bit like a stick of gum. Sony said it would be benchmarking a number of those drives to ensure compatibility with the PS5’s stated 5.5GBps data transfer spec. But Sony’s Mark Cerny said at the time that the announcement of these officially confirmed PS5-compatible drives would “likely be a bit past” the PS5’s launch.

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#gaming-culture, #m-2, #nvme, #pcie4-0, #playstation-5, #ps5, #sony

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Sony announces new PSVR hardware for PlayStation 5

You probably want to put the PlayStation VR headset on your head, not on top of a new PlayStation 5, for an ideal use case. But, hey, you do you.

Enlarge / You probably want to put the PlayStation VR headset on your head, not on top of a new PlayStation 5, for an ideal use case. But, hey, you do you. (credit: Sam Machkovech)

A new generation of PlayStation VR hardware, including a new controller designed specifically for VR, will be coming to the PlayStation 5 sometime after this year, Sony announced today.

The short announcement is light on details and doesn’t include any photos or prototypes of the new headset or controller. But it does mention that the next PlayStation VR will include a higher resolution and field of view than the 2016 original, which is stuck at a somewhat dated 1920×1080 resolution.

For context, last year’s $299 Oculus Quest 2 came in at a total resolution of 3664×1600, and that’s for an untethered standalone headset with much less horsepower than the PS5. Valve’s high-end Index headset, meanwhile, sports a 135 degree field of view, much wider than the ~100 degrees on PSVR (cheaper modern headsets generally have closer to 90 to 100 degree view fields, though).

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#gaming-culture, #playstation, #playstation-vr, #ps5, #psvr, #sony, #virtual-reality

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Chip shortage may threaten PlayStation 5 supplies at Christmas

To call Sony's PlayStation 5 "in demand" would be an understatement.

Enlarge / To call Sony’s PlayStation 5 “in demand” would be an understatement.

The global semiconductor shortage is threatening to constrain PlayStation 5 supplies throughout the rest of this year, even as Sony’s gaming chief insisted the company would be able to produce “decent numbers” of its new console in the second half of 2021.

The PS5 is one of the most sought-after tech products of recent months, with shipments selling out as soon as they reached stores when the console was launched in November last year.

Coronavirus lockdowns have only added to gamers’ demand for the latest consoles and software, fueling what are expected to be record profits for Sony’s gaming division in the financial year to March. Sony upgraded its gaming unit’s annual revenue forecasts earlier this month primarily thanks to improving sales of game software, services, and accessories.

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#arm, #chip-shortage, #gaming-culture, #playstation-5, #sony, #tech

0

Sony says semiconductor shortage makes increased PS5 production difficult

PlayStation 4 vs PlayStation 5 comparison pic, horizontal orientation

Enlarge (credit: Sam Machkovech)

Sony shipped 4.5 million PlayStation 5 consoles worldwide through the end of 2020, the company revealed in an earnings report Wednesday. The number is broadly comparable to the 4.5 million PS4 consoles shipped in that system’s 2013 holiday launch quarter. But potential PS5 customers shouldn’t expect the rate of production to increase, Sony said, despite widespread retail sellouts that have led to substantial secondhand markups.

“It is difficult for us to increase production of the PS5 amid the shortage of semiconductors and other components,” Sony CFO Hiroki Totoki said during a briefing accompanying the results. “We have not been able to fully meet the high level of demand from customers [but] we continue to do everything in our power to ship as many units as possible to customers who are waiting for a PS5.”

Overall, Sony’s Game and Network Services division saw its holiday quarter profits increase nearly 50 percent year over year. The company now forecasts the best fiscal year performance for the gaming division in company history, thanks in large part to an increase in PlayStation Plus subscriptions (which now sit at 47.4 million). A full 87 percent of PS5 owners so far subscribe to PlayStation Plus, Sony said, making those subscriptions key to the company’s profits going forward.

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#earnings, #gaming-culture, #playstation, #profit, #ps5, #sony

0

Sony’s tempts professionals with the top-shelf, top-tier Alpha 1

Sony is making a play for the top end of the professional digital camera world, where videographers and sports photographers demand immaculate image quality at high resolutions in short order. The new Alpha 1 beats pretty much everything on the market on paper, but it’ll set you back a cool $6,500.

This is, of course, well above the price range for ordinary consumers and even spendy enthusiasts and “prosumers.” It’s a professional tool, and in this range Canon has historically been the go-to with its 1D series, and more recently its R5, a full-frame mirrorless that leapfrogged the competition to great acclaim last year. But Sony clearly means to leapfrog the R5 in turn.

The Canon R5 ticked all the right boxes: full frame sensor, 45 megapixels at 20 frames per second, an excellent EVF, in-body image stabilization, and 8K video. Sony ticks them all too… but harder.

Rear view of the Sony Alpha 1 camera showing its screen and viewfinder.

Image Credits: Sony

The Alpha 1 will send down its 50 megapixel stills at 30 frames per second and with no viewfinder blackout (plus the backside-illuminated sensor will be more sensitive); its EVF has nearly twice the pixels and can refresh twice as fast, 240 fps; its 8K video is born at a higher resolution (the Sony uses the full 8.6K and downrezzes); it’ll shoot for half an hour without overheating (an R5 quirk); and so on and so forth.

Sony seems to have deliberately outdone Canon’s flagship in every way possible, though with no consideration for cost: the R5 goes for about $3800, while the A1 is $6500.

Yet photographers are no strangers to spending that kind of cash on a tool of the trade (a lens can run you as much or more). Anyone who shoots sports or nature knows that 30 fps instead of 20 fps may mean the difference between getting a cover shot and nothing at all. Visual effects artists who work closely with footage peep pixels all day will be able to tell an R5 8K from an A1 8K. Will it matter? Maybe, maybe not. Would you take the risk or pay extra to eliminate it?

Top view of the Sony Alpha 1 camera showing its controls.

Image Credits: Sony

If it’s merely a question of money to get the best instead of almost the best, there are a lot of people out there who will write that check without a second thought. Of course, the R5 was released half a year ago and its successor (the “Mark II”) may change that calculus again.

To be clear, the R5 and A1 are both far more camera than most people will ever need. They’re the bleeding edge of the industry — an industry that has been shrinking steadily for years. Battling fiercely now over professionals may have long-lasting effects as bit players get edged out, unable to compete. It’s an investment in the markets that they think will last despite the constant creeping encroachment of smartphones.

More importantly for the rest of us, competition like this in the camera industry is good because it produces advances that trickle down to the models we can actually afford. Not that anyone really needs 8K, but that improved sensor readout and EVF sure would be nice to have.

You can read more about the Alpha 1’s specs here.

#alpha-1, #cameras, #gadgets, #hardware, #photography, #sony, #sony-alpha

0

This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.