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Computing

VR gaming appears to have hit an all-time high

VR gaming seems to have reached an all-time high, with a notable report suggesting a nearly four-times increase in users in the past month. Those figures come from a survey and might not be exact, but do indicate an ongoing trend of more and more people joining the VR gaming revolution.

It’s really not surprising since very affordable and solid VR systems have been around for several years. As early adopters help work out the bugs and introduce new players to the experience, virtual reality will undoubtedly continue to grow until it becomes another mainstream option.

The latest results recently came in from Steam’s Hardware & Software Survey, which is a monthly review of what types of computer hardware are being used. A list of VR headsets used with SteamVR is included in the data and the percentage of computers that are connected to Steam while using a VR headset is shown, and the results are pretty astounding.

What stands out is a huge increase in the use of VR headsets, climbing from an average of 1.87% to 6.67% of Steam players using a VR headset in July. Taken at face value, VR gaming just took a monumental step forward in terms of user base.

But as recently pointed out by UploadVR, there may be some problems with the numbers. A similar but lesser surge to 3.24% was seen in May before returning to about 2% in June. Since the survey is a random sample, it will vary over time and the overall average is a more useful number. A four-times increase in one month is highly unlikely; however, an overall rise does seem plausible.

Even if the size of the surge itself isn’t accurate, these results could show that the number of people that own VR headsets may be higher than what’s been previously reported.

Meta’s Quest 2 headset led the pack with a 50% share in July. It’s really a bit unfair to other manufacturers because Meta subsidizes the cost, giving this great quality headset an incredibly low price. Even with the recent price increase, it remains the most affordable, mainstream VR headset available.

Valve’s Index took the No. 2 position with 15%. Other Oculus (Meta) and HTC Vive VR headsets, having a wide variety of models, made up most of the remainder.

Meta Quest 2 makes virtual reality affordable

An overall increase in VR systems isn’t unexpected and follows the pattern of new technology, particularly in gaming. Arcade gaming inspired affordable, in-home console gaming which slowly got better and became more commonplace. Even early PC gaming was slow to get started since the internet didn’t exist and its lower-quality graphics couldn’t compete with well-established console gaming systems.

Now this story continues with VR headsets challenging the status quo as another fringe idea moves toward the mainstream. Virtual reality has had a particularly long incubation period, but it finally seems to slowly be winning people over.

Editors’ Choice




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Computing

Apple’s $19 Polishing Cloth Appears to Have Sold Out

Well, here’s a surprise. You know that new polishing cloth Apple quietly added to its online store after its Unleashed event earlier this week? It’s sold out until mid-December.

Within just a few hours of it landing on the store, the $19 cloth already had a three-week shipping time. But just a few days later that’s slipped to between two and three months, with customers ordering now expected to receive the item between December 20 and January 17.

Apple

So, either Apple has been overwhelmed by orders for the cloth, or it didn’t make many to begin with and they were quickly snapped up.

Either way, anyone ordering Apple’s cloth — or “Polishing Cloth” to give it its official name — will have to be patient. If your Mac display or Apple Watch or iPhone or even Android phone needs an urgent wipe while you wait for Apple’s cloth to show up, you may have to resort to one of these (more reasonably priced) options.

Apple’s online listing for the cloth doesn’t offer any details about the size of the product. We’ve reached out to the tech giant for what may be vital information for potential buyers and we will update this article when we hear back.

There have been suggestions that it’s the same cloth that ships with Apple’s Pro Display XDR. If that’s the case, then it’s a decent 7 inches by 7 inches, and, according to tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee, “really thick.” It has a small Apple logo in one corner, too.

On its online store, Apple also includes a list of compatible products for the cloth, though as it’s made with “soft, unabrasive material,” we’re pretty sure it’s safe to use on most displays on most products, whether or not they’re made by Apple.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, despite its simplicity, it seems that the Polishing Cloth is not the cheapest item currently available on Apple’s online store. That accolade is shared by two items — the Lightning to 3.55mm headphone jack adapter and the USB-C to 3.55mm headphone jack adapter — both of which cost $9.

Editors’ Choice




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AI

Have autonomous robots started killing in war? The reality is messier than it appears

It’s the sort of thing that can almost pass for background noise these days: over the past week, a number of publications tentatively declared, based on a UN report from the Libyan civil war, that killer robots may have hunted down humans autonomously for the first time. As one headline put it: “The Age of Autonomous Killer Robots May Already Be Here.”

But is it? As you might guess, it’s a hard question to answer.

The new coverage has sparked a debate among experts that goes to the heart of our problems confronting the rise of autonomous robots in war. Some said the stories were wrongheaded and sensational, while others suggested there was a nugget of truth to the discussion. Diving into the topic doesn’t reveal that the world quietly experienced the opening salvos of the Terminator timeline in 2020. But it does point to a more prosaic and perhaps much more depressing truth: that no one can agree on what a killer robot is, and if we wait for this to happen, their presence in war will have long been normalized.

It’s cheery stuff, isn’t it? It’ll take your mind off the global pandemic at least. Let’s jump in:

The source of all these stories is a 548-page report from the United Nations Security Council that details the tail end of the Second Libyan Civil War, covering a period from October 2019 to January 2021. The report was published in March, and you can read it in full here. To save you time: it is an extremely thorough account of an extremely complex conflict, detailing various troop movements, weapon transfers, raids and skirmishes that took place among the war’s various factions, both foreign and domestic.

The paragraph we’re interested in, though, describes an offensive near Tripoli in March 2020, in which forces supporting the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) routed troops loyal to the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (referred to in the report as the Haftar Affiliated Forces or HAF). Here’s the relevant passage in full:

Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2 (see annex 30) and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true “fire, forget and find” capability.”

The Kargu-2 system that’s mentioned here is a quadcopter built in Turkey: it’s essentially a consumer drone that’s used to dive-bomb targets. It can be manually operated or steer itself using machine vision. A second paragraph in the report notes that retreating forces were “subject to continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems” and that the HAF “suffered significant casualties” as a result.

The Kargu-2 drone is essentially a quadcopter that dive-bombs enemies.
Image: STM

But that’s it. That’s all we have. What the report doesn’t say — at least not outright — is that human beings were killed by autonomous robots acting without human supervision. It says humans and vehicles were attacked by a mix of drones, quadcopters, and “loitering munitions” (we’ll get to those later), and that the quadcopters had been programmed to work offline. But whether the attacks took place without connectivity is unclear.

These two paragraphs made their way into the mainstream press via a story in the New Scientist, which ran a piece with the headline: “Drones may have attacked humans fully autonomously for the first time.” The NS is very careful to caveat that military drones might have acted autonomously and that humans might have been killed, but later reports lost this nuance. “Autonomous drone attacked soldiers in Libya all on its own,” read one headline. “For the First Time, Drones Autonomously Attacked Humans,” said another.

Let’s be clear: by itself, the UN does not say for certain whether drones autonomously attacked humans in Libya last year, though it certainly suggests this could have happened. The problem is that even if it did happen, for many experts, it’s just not news.

The reason why some experts took issue with these stories was because they followed the UN’s wording, which doesn’t distinguish clearly between loitering munitions and lethal autonomous weapons systems or LAWS (that’s policy jargon for killer robots).

Loitering munitions, for the uninitiated, are the weapon equivalent of seagulls at the beachfront. They hang around a specific area, float above the masses, and wait to strike their target — usually military hardware of one sort or another (though it’s not impossible that they could be used to target individuals).

The classic example is Israel’s IAI Harpy, which was developed in the 1980s to target anti-air defenses. The Harpy looks like a cross between a missile and a fixed-wing drone, and is fired from the ground into a target area where it can linger for up to nine hours. It scans for telltale radar emissions from anti-air systems and drops onto any it finds. The loitering aspect is crucial as troops will often turn these radars off, given they act like homing beacons.

The IAI Harpy is launched from the ground and can linger for hours over a target area.
Image: IAI

“The thing is, how is this the first time of anything?” tweeted Ulrike Franke, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Loitering munition have been on the battlefield for a while – most notably in Nagorno-Karaback. It seems to me that what’s new here isn’t the event, but that the UN report calls them lethal autonomous weapon systems.”

Jack McDonald, a lecturer at the department of war studies at King’s College London, says the distinction between the two terms is controversial and constitutes an unsolved problem in the world of arms regulation. “There are people who call ‘loitering munitions’ ‘lethal autonomous weapon systems’ and people who just call them ‘loitering munitions,’” he tells The Verge. “This is a huge, long-running thing. And it’s because the line between something being autonomous and being automated has shifted over the decades.”

So is the Harpy a lethal autonomous weapons system? A killer robot? It depends on who you ask. IAI’s own website describes it as such, calling it “an autonomous weapon for all weather,” and the Harpy certainly fits a makeshift definition of LAWS as “machines that target combatants without human oversight.” But if this is your definition, then you’ve created a very broad church for killer robots. Indeed, under this definition a land mine is a killer robot, as it, too, autonomously targets combatants in war without human oversight.

If killer robots have been around for decades, why has there been so much discussion about them in recent years, with groups like the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots pushing for regulation of this technology in the UN? And why is this incident in Libya special?

The rise of artificial intelligence plays a big role, says Zak Kallenborn, a policy fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government. Advances in AI over the past decade have given weapon-makers access to cheap vision systems that can select targets as quickly as your phone identifies pets, plants, and familiar faces in your camera roll. These systems promise nuanced and precise identification of targets but are also much more prone to mistakes.

“Loitering munitions typically respond to radar emissions, [and] a kid walking down the street isn’t going to have a high-powered radar in their backpack,” Kallenborn tells The Verge. “But AI targeting systems might misclassify the kid as a soldier, because current AI systems are highly brittle — one study showed a change in a single pixel is sufficient to cause machine vision systems to draw radically different conclusions about what it sees. An open question is how often those errors occur during real-world use.”

This is why the incident in Libya is interesting, says Kallenborn, as the Kargu-2 system mentioned in the UN report does seem to use AI to identify targets. According to the quadcopter’s manufacturer, STM, it uses “machine learning algorithms embedded on the platform” to “effectively respond against stationary or mobile targets (i.e. vehicle, person etc.)” Demo videos appear to show it doing exactly that. In the clip below, the quadcopter hones in on a mannequin in a stationary group.

But should we trust a manufacturers’ demo reel or brochure? And does the UN report make it clear that machine learning systems were used in the attack?

Kallenborn’s reading of the report is that it “heavily implies” that this was the case, but McDonald is more skeptical. “I think it’s sensible to say that the Kargu-2 as a platform is open to being used in an autonomous way,” he says. “But we don’t necessarily know if it was.” In a tweet, he also pointed out that this particular skirmish involved long-range missiles and howitzers, making it even harder to attribute casualties to any one system.

What we’re left with is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the fog of war. Or more accurately: the fog of LAWS. We can’t say for certain what happened in Libya and our definitions of what is and isn’t a killer robot are so fluid that even if we knew, there would be disagreement.

For Kallenborn, this is sort of the point: it underscores the difficulties we face trying to create meaningful oversight in the AI-assisted battles of the future. Of course the first use of autonomous weapons on the battlefield won’t announce itself with a press release, he says, because if the weapons work as they’re supposed to, they won’t look at all out of the ordinary. “The problem is autonomy is, at core, a matter of programming,” he says. “The Kargu-2 used autonomously will look exactly like a Kargu-2 used manually.”

Elke Schwarz, a senior lecturer in political theory at Queen Mary University London who’s affiliated with the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, tells The Verge that discussions like this show we need to move beyond “slippery and political” debates about definitions and focus on the specific functionality of these systems. What do they do and how do they do it?

“I think we really have to think about the bigger picture […] which is why I focus on the practice, as well as functionality,” says Schwarz. “In my work I try and show that the use of these types of systems is very likely to exacerbate violent action as an ‘easier’ choice. And, as you rightly point out, errors will very likely prevail […] which will likely be addressed only post hoc.”

Schwarz says that despite the myriad difficulties, in terms of both drafting regulation and pushing back against the enthusiasm of militaries around the world to integrate AI into weaponry, “there is critical mass building amongst nations and international organizations to push for a ban for systems that have the capacity to autonomously identify, select and attack targets.”

Indeed, the UN is still conducting a review into possible regulations for LAWS, with results due to be reported later this year. As Schwarz says: “With this news story having made the rounds, now is a great time to mobilize the international community toward awareness and action.”



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Computing

The dream of dual-booting Windows 10 on Chromebooks appears dead

It sounded dreamy. Late last year, signs of an “AltOS” mode appeared in Google code, indicating that the company was working on a way to let you dual-boot into Windows 10 on high-end Chromebooks like the Pixelbook. It was apparently too good to be true, alas, as new developments suggest that Google abandoned the secretive “Project Campfire” months ago.

Poking around Chromium code, Redditor u/crosfrog noticed comments stating AltOS mode is now deprecated, as first reported by Kevin Tofel at About Chromebooks. Tofel says that active development on Project Campfire halted last December after an initial flurry of activity. The dream of dual-booting Windows on Chromebooks appears to be dead.  

Coaxing Windows into running on anything but the most premium Chromebooks seemed far-fetched in any case. Microsoft’s operating system demands significantly more storage space than Chrome OS, and while Google’s luxurious Pixelbook ships with 256GB-plus SSDs, the vast majority of Chromebooks available ship with far more limited capacities—as little as 16GB in ultra-budget models, and rarely more than 64GB in more mainstream options.

Microsoft recently boosted Windows 10’s minimum storage requirements to 32GB, as detailed by ExtremeTech. The operating system couldn’t comfortably sit beside Chrome OS in most dual-boot environments, especially if you hoped to install additional programs (which would be the main reason to install Windows 10 on a Chromebook).

It’s hard to call Project Campfire dead, as Google never formally announced the initiative. But the dream of running a more full-featured operating system on Chromebooks is anything but doomed, even if Windows never graces a Google-y laptop. Many Chromebooks play nice with both Android apps and Linux, and at this year’s Google I/O developer event, the company pledged that all future Chromebooks will support Linux software. It’s just one way that 2019 is shaping up to be the year of the Linux desktop.

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Game

eBay Pokemon and Magic card scanner appears to work with ease

A new tool for eBay card sellers was revealed for release in the month of April 2021. Using what eBay calls “computer vision technology”, the eBay Scanning Tool will allow users to both capture imagery of their trading cards and allow their device to instantly recognize the card they’re scanning. This should assist in streamlining the entire card selling process for the average user.

The scanning tool exists in the standard eBay app for both iOS and Android. When a user starts a listing for an item, the app will give the user the option to “tap to search with your camera.” This system will recognize Magic: The Gathering cards when launched in April. Other sorts of collectable cards will be added later in the year, 2021.

Starting in May of 2021, the eBay scanning tool will add Pokemon cards and Yu-Gi-Oh! Later this year, the tool will add sports trading cards and “other collective card games”.

This system was added after the eBay team saw “unparalleled demand for trading cards over the past year.” Per Nicole Colombo, Head of Trading Cards and Collectibles at eBay, “Our new listing feature will not only create a faster and more convenient experience for our sellers, but will also provide more robust trading card inventory for shoppers – all while ensuring that the information in card listings is more accurate.”

Above you’ll see the eBay card scanning tool in action. It’ll apparently match your scan with a card in the card library with the greatest of ease. Updates this year also point to the “eBay Standard Envelope” which allows users to print labels and ship raw trading cards (priced at $20 and under, and weighing up to 3 oz.) in an envelope with tracking for less than $1.”

Take a peek at the eBay app starting in April, (any time now,) to see if the Magic: The Gathering scanning feature is ready to roll. We’ll see the Pokemon CCG and others added soon.

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Tech News

Lenovo Demon Slayer gaming chair appears before US IMAX movie release

Today it’s become apparent that Lenovo designed* a gaming chair in collaboration with the folks who make Demon Slayer / Kimetsu no Yaiba. The design of the chair is the Lenovo All-Intensive Chair of Kimetsu no Yaiba, or Devil’s Blade x Lenovo Chair. Your eye will likely move immediately to the strangest element in the chair’s construction: the “blade” itself!

This design works with a lovely satin material and block design down the center, with the Lenovo logo at the head. Much like the gaming chair brand RESPAWN delivers here in the USA, this chair has a separate back support and head support cushion which can be adjusted independent of the chair. Also there would appear to be a sword involved.

The “sword” is mounted to the left-hand side of the chair with straps. Per Lenovo’s description of the chair, the sword “cannot be pulled out.” We can safely assume this means that there is no actual metal sword, as such, and that the design is only what we see on the outside.

*The gaming chair is a customized iteration of an “off-the-shelf chair.” According to Lenovo, There are “no plans for future sales.” They’ve also made clear that “for inquiries about this product,” an interested party should “contact the campaign secretariat.” They’ve also made some custom laptop sleeves here, too – wild and fun.

If you live in Japan and want to take a crack at attaining this chair, you’ll need to talk with Lenovo about it. If you live anywhere else, good luck to you! You’ll need to make your own!

MEANWHILE, Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba): Mugen Train, AKA the movie Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train, was given an official USA release date for IMAX theaters and digital streaming/download. The IMAX release date for Demon Slayer in the USA is April 23, 2021, and the digital release is set for June 22, 2021.

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Game

Xbox Series X mini-fridge appears chilling Dwayne Johnson’s new energy drink

For several days after the design of the Xbox Series X was revealed, comparisons between the console and a refrigerator were basically inescapable. Microsoft even leaned into the memes itself by teaming up with Snoop Dogg for a video featuring the Xbox Series X fridge. At the same time, Microsoft general manager of Xbox games marketing Aaron Greenberg was spotted on Twitter asking – seemingly seriously – if gamers would be interested in purchasing an Xbox Series X mini-fridge should Microsoft decide to make one.

It seems that Microsoft has indeed decided to make an Xbox Series X mini-fridge, though unfortunately for the serious gamers of the world, it looks like we can’t actually buy the thing – at least not yet. Instead, the Xbox Series X mini-fridge is being given away in a new promotion featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and his new energy drink ZOA.

Johnson is launching ZOA today, and he’s teamed up with Microsoft to give away what’s being called the “ZOA Xbox Package.” The package comes with the Xbox Series X mini-fridge (which also carries ZOA branding) that is “fully stocked with ZOA Energy products.” It also comes with a custom ZOA Xbox Wireless Controller that actually looks pretty cool in our professional opinion.

The sweepstakes is being run through Microsoft Rewards, and you’ll spend Rewards points to enter. The sweepstakes doesn’t kick off until March 25th, so at the moment, we’re not sure how many points it’s going to take to enter the giveaway. It’ll run until June 1st, 2021, and it’s open to legal residents of the 50 United States and Washington DC.

So, once the giveaway kicks off, you’ll have a little over two months to get your entries in. Aside from that package, Microsoft says that it will have other “fun surprises” available through its Rewards program, and though we imagine those will also be ZOA-themed, we’ll have to wait for more details on those. While we wait, you can check out the video above to see The Rock attempt sell you on his new energy drink.

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Game

Amazon Alexa Xbox app suddenly appears out of nowhere

Once the almost literal face of Microsoft’s AI endeavors, Cortana has slowly faded into the background. It’s still around, in one form or another, but even Microsoft has started to use its name less often. After a brief stint lasting almost three years, Microsoft removed Cortana from its Xbox consoles, and now, as if to add insult to injury, it is allowing Amazon Alexa to share its place as a virtual assistant you can use on the Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S.

Cortana wasn’t fully banished from the Xbox, of course. Microsoft simply made it less available directly, removing the ability to speak to the AI assistant via a connected headset. Instead, you’d have to go through the Xbox Skill for Cortana on other devices, something that Amazon Alexa can now do on equal footing as well.

It has been possible to control your Xbox console via Alexa for a few years now, but that went only one way. You couldn’t, for example, use your Xbox to access Alexa’s features, at least to some extent. The new Alexa Xbox app doesn’t turn your console into an Amazon Echo replacement, though, and, in fact, requires an Echo or compatible Alexa device to even work.

You might be wondering why bother using the app if you already own an Alexa-powered speaker anyway. For one, you could use Alexa to launch your game or even play a song but the more important feature is that you will be able to see your smart home cameras or even your shopping list right on your big screen. That could be handy for checking who’s at the door without having to get up first.

The Xbox does have support for other virtual assistants, including Google’s, but this new app almost gives Amazon an advantage. It does require a compatible Alexa device, much like Cortana or Google Assistant, but it also potentially makes it easier to install and use Alexa by having a dedicated Xbox app for it.

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Security

Judge in WeChat case appears unlikely to allow US ban to move forward

A judge in San Francisco said Thursday she’s not likely to lift a temporary block on the US government’s attempts to ban WeChat. US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler responded to the Trump administration’s request for a stay of her September 20th preliminary injunction, which prevents the government from halting new downloads of WeChat in the US and from blocking transactions related to the app.

Beeler did not issue a ruling Thursday but said the government had not presented new evidence to persuade her that there were significant national security concerns with allowing WeChat to remain active in the US. Beeler said in her September 20th order that a group of WeChat users had shown “serious questions” about whether the ban would potentially violate their First Amendment rights, even considering such concerns.

President Trump issued an executive order in August to ban WeChat, invoking the Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act. But a group of users calling themselves the WeChat Users Alliance — not officially connected to WeChat or parent company Tencent — says banning the app in the US would violate users’ free speech rights, and such a ban specifically targets Chinese Americans.

There is no alternative app that does everything WeChat does, the group argues, saying the “super app” is the primary way Chinese speakers in the US participate in social life, and receive news and information, conduct phone calls and videoconferences, upload documents and photos, and make payments. WeChat has 19 million US users and 1 billion users around the world. And amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been used by police departments in the US to inform users about testing locations, organize delivery of medical supplies, and allowed families to stay in contact with elderly relatives in nursing homes, the alliance says.

But the government considers WeChat parent company Tencent a security risk. Tencent can collect a “digital facsimile of a person’s life” on WeChat, Justice Department attorney Serena Orloff said at Thursday’s hearing, furthering the administration’s argument that Tencent is too closely aligned with the Chinese Communist Party. Orloff argued there are other apps that provide similar functions to WeChat that were widely available.

The previous order blocked the Commerce Department order that would have banned US transactions on WeChat. And while the US government says it has identified “significant” threats to national security, there is “scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all US users addresses those concerns,” Beeler wrote.

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