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Game

New ‘FIFA Mobile’ mode puts the focus on strategy, not action

Would you rather oversee your FIFA Mobile team than control your players’ every last step? You now have your chance. EA has introduced a Manager Mode to the Android and iOS title that has you focusing on strategy and tactics rather than action. You choose the starting lineup, set the tactics in real-time (such as attacking or countering) and let your team play. You can even queue multiple matches as you climb the division ranks.

The corresponding game update also improves goalkeepers, adds player switching options and offers kits for 30 national teams. The upgrade is available now.

This doesn’t turn FIFA Mobile into a management sim like Football Manager. You aren’t scouting talent, shaping training programs or wrestling with the team’s board. Think of this more as the soccer equivalent to an auto battler like Auto Chess or Teamfight Tactics — it’s a slightly more relaxed experience that does more to reward situational awareness than fast reflexes.

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Game

HTC Vive Focus 3 gets more accurate hand tracking in new update

HTC has rolled out a firmware update for the latest standalone Vive Focus that greatly improves its hand-tracking capabilities. The company says firmware version 3.0.999.284 significantly improves the feature’s performance, stability and accuracy. HTC’s Vive Focus 3 launched with hand tracking back in July, allowing users to use their hands as controllers. With this software engine upgrade, HTC says the headset will be able to track fast hand movements more easily and recognize pinch-to-zoom gestures more accurately. 

Since the company opened the feature to developers, these improvements would translate to better hand tracking within applications. Developers can integrate the headset’s six current predefined hand gestures into their VR apps, and HTC previously said that additional gestures will be added in the future. 

HTC said in its announcement:

“Being able to navigate virtual environments naturally and intuitively will go a long way towards making VR more accessible to everyone, no matter their familiarity with technology. As we step into the metaverse era, we couldn’t be more excited to bring these quality-of-life improvements to all VIVE Focus 3 customers around the world.”

When the manufacturer launched the Vive Focus 3 back in July, we found it to be the best standalone VR headset yet. It’s not a direct competitor to the Quest 2, however, seeing as it costs $1,300. Unlike the Oculus (now Meta) headset, it targets business users and not ordinary consumers who want to enjoy VR experiences in their own home. 

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Computing

Microsoft Teases Gaming-Changing Focus Mode in Windows 11

Microsoft isn’t done yet with new Windows 11 features. A day after teasing a new Snipping Tool, Windows and Devices chief Panos Panay just revealed a new Focus Sessions feature for Windows 11 — hinting at new ways for the operating system to help you stay productive and creative.

The short 14-second Focus Sessions teaser clip highlights a completely redesigned clock app for Windows 11. In addition to the usual timers, alarms, world clock, and stopwatch, the clock app looks to now be the home to a special “Focus” section. These are where you’ll find focus-themed hubs for setting timers, checking tasks, checking your daily focus progress, and even listening to songs on Spotify.

Another first look from the team…#FocusSessions on #Windows11 coming soon. This has been a game-changer for me, especially with @Spotify integration #Productivity #Creativity #WindowsInsiders pic.twitter.com/HfJh4niDiS

— Panos Panay (@panos_panay) August 5, 2021

Judging from the video, Windows 11 users can begin Focus Sessions by selecting a task, a song from Spotify, and then setting a timed-focus mode goal with optional breaks in between. The session will then begin, show a countdown timer, and can be tracked against overall daily progress. That daily progress will show a daily goal, a streak, as well as focus minutes and hours from the day before.

Overall, this seems to be a very interesting new Windows 11 tool. Apple’s highly talked about Focus Mode in MacOS Monterey doesn’t seem nearly as complex. It doesn’t offer a Spotify integration, or the ability to track your focus goals. Rather, Apple’s implementation is all about syncing focus across devices and using A.I. to only allow notifications from different app types and different modes of work.

Microsoft didn’t share when this Focus Sessions feature will come to Windows 11. Panay mentioned that it would be “coming soon,” and Brandon LeBlanc, a Windows Insider Program manager, detailed in a Tweet that, “it is new and coming soon to Windows Insiders.”

Windows 11 is still in beta testing with Windows Insiders. Since this is the second tease from Panos Panay in two days, you can expect even more new features to be added to the operating system over time.

Microsoft is targeting a holiday 2021 release for Windows 11. The operating system can be installed on most devices right now in a few simple steps via either the “Dev” or the “Beta” channel of the Windows Insider program.

Editors’ Choice




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Game

The Vive Focus 3 is the best standalone VR headset and no, you should not buy it

Image Credit: Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

As far as VR technology goes, the Focus 3 has just about everything you’d want in a modern headset. But there are simple, less technical upgrades that I appreciated too, like its support for large 150mm-wide glasses. It usually takes a bit of effort for me to squeeze a headset over my frames, and they inevitably get yanked out whenever I step out of VR. But I never had to deal with that on the Focus 3, thanks to its roomy interior. There’s also an IPD adjustment dial to help you fine-tune exactly how its lenses hit your eyes; the Quest 2 only gives you a few options to adjust IPD. The elaborate padding around the front and rear also goes a long way toward making you forget you’re even wearing a VR headset.

Even the Focus 3’s controllers are better than anything we’ve seen from HTC Vive before. They look similar to Oculus’s, with a round tracking ring, face buttons, as well as the standard grip and trigger buttons. Clearly, they’re light years beyond the enormous controllers that the original HTC Vive came with. Still, Oculus has the edge when it comes to overall ergonomics. The Quest 2’s gamepads are contoured to better fit your hands, especially during fast-paced games. Holding the Focus 3’s controllers, meanwhile, feels more awkward during lengthy VR sessions.

HTC Vive Focus 3

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Thankfully, though, the headset itself is comfortable to wear for hours at a time, and it delivers the most immersive standalone virtual reality experiences I’ve seen yet. I wandered the Louvre in Mona Lisa Beyond the Glass, which let me get inches away from several classic da Vinci paintings. If I tried to do that in real life, I’m sure some security guards would swiftly kick me out. But in VR, I could admire the detail in every work of art. I was also surprised just how great everything looked in the Focus 3. There was more detail than in any Quest 2 experience I’ve seen, and the large field of view genuinely made me feel like I was walking through the Louvre’s ornate halls, instead of just peering in through a pair of VR binoculars.

Similarly, I had a genuine sense of walking through meadows and tropical beaches in the Nature Treks VR experience. The Focus 3’s sharp display once again shined when I peered at statues and wildlife up close, but the detail was limited by its mobile hardware. 360-degree YouTube videos also looked fantastic when I fired them up in Firefox VR, but the experience can be hit or miss depending on the quality of the source. And even though the headset doesn’t have beefy near-field speakers like the Valve Index and HP Reverb G2 .

I was surprised that the Focus 3 didn’t include any sort of built-in multimedia app for watching VR videos, but that really underscores one of its biggest problems: The Focus 3 has a far more limited software library than the Quest. While Oculus has pushed for high-profile exclusives and popular games, like Vader Immortal and Beat Saber, the HTC VivePort store feel practically anemic. There are a handful of shared titles across both platforms, like Last Labyrinth and Tokyo Chronos, but it’s clear they aren’t a big focus for HTC Vive.

HTC Vive Focus 3

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

At this point, even installing new experiences is more of a pain on the Focus 3, since you need to take off the headset to purchase apps and games from your web browser. Meanwhile, the Quest and Quest 2 let you buy things from within the headset and a mobile app. But I suppose that’s not a huge problem for HTC Vive, since the Focus 3 isn’t meant for consumers at all. Instead, IT departments will likely preload the software their workers actually need. (There’s also going to be a Vive Business App Store eventually, though it’s unclear if that will offer a better purchasing experience.)

That’s one reason why we’re not scoring this review. This $1,300 headset isn’t meant to be consumer friendly. And honestly, I couldn’t even test some of the more popular business apps, like Vive Sync’s virtual collaboration tool and Engage’s event app. HTC Vive’s previous Focus headsets also gained a reputation for being easy ways to train employees using apps like Virti. And while that app certainly looks cool in the Focus 3, I can’t exactly tell if it’s offering effective training or not.

There are also features I haven’t been able to effectively test out. The Focus 3 offers Vive Business Streaming, which lets you connect the headset to a VR PC over a USB 3.2 cable or Wi-Fi. But it’s apparently very picky, as none of the USB cables I used were even recognized by the software (and some would just throw an error saying they weren’t USB 3.0 capable, even though I knew they were). You can also stream PC VR over Wi-Fi, but that only works if your computer is connected directly to your router over Ethernet, and if you have a strong wireless connection with the headset. That just wasn’t possible in my basement office. I’m hoping HTC Vive works out its connection requirements, especially since Oculus Link on the Quest is far less demanding when it comes to cables.

HTC Vive Focus 3

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

No matter how you cut it, the Quest 2 is still the standalone VR headset most consumers should buy. But the Focus 3 is perfect for businesses looking for something a bit more sturdy and powerful. For them, a $1,300 device makes more sense than investing tens of thousands on more elaborate training tools.

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Game

Sony’s next State of Play will focus on ‘Deathloop’

Sony’s next State of Play showcase will focus on , the upcoming PlayStation 5 console exclusive from Arkane Studios. The stream will feature a nine-minute look at the first-person time-loop adventure, with the stealth and combat features getting some time to shine.

Following a couple of delays, Deathloop should arrive on PS5 and PC . Microsoft and Bethesda will be in an unusual situation where they’re releasing a game you can’t play on Xbox for an entire year.

Also on the docket for the 30-minute State of Play are updates on other third-party games, as well as some indie titles. What you won’t see during the showcase is anything about Horizon Forbidden West, or the . Even though Sony recently 19 minutes of Horizon Forbidden West gameplay, it’s smart of the company to set expectations about what won’t be featured to mitigate disappointment. That said, Sony urged fans to “stay tuned throughout the summer” as updates are on the way soon. 

Sony skipped once again this year, but PlayStation was announced as , which suggested a State of Play was imminent. You’ll be able to watch the stream on Thursday, July 8th, at 5PM ET on Twitch or YouTube.

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Game

Atari steps back from mobile games to focus on ‘premium’ PC and console titles

As part of its latest turnaround strategy, Atari is shifting its focus away from free-to-play mobile games to PC and console titles. In a statement released on Monday, the company said its board of directors had approved the new plan on July 1st after conducting an in-depth review of the Atari Gaming division’s “assets and opportunities.” 

The reorientation comes less than a month after the release of the oft-delayed Atari VCS console, which acts as both a retro gaming machine and PC. Atari said it would reach into its portfolio of 200 games and franchises — think Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command and Pong — to create new content for the VCS and other platforms. The first new releases are expected to arrive in the current fiscal year, which ends March 31st, 2022. 

At the same time, the reinvention spells trouble for some of its mobile games, several of which it plans to shutdown or sell off. Impacted titles include Roller Coaster Tycoon Stories, Crystal Castles, Castles & Catapults, Ninja Golf and Atari Combat: Tank Fury. Despite decrying the competitive nature of the free-to-play gaming market, the company isn’t giving up on those titles it deems successful. More broadly, it’s taking a more shrewd approach to free-to-play fare after diving into mobile games, along with MMOs, in conjunction with its turnaround plan in 2015. 

In addition, the company is also exiting its online Atari Casino in Africa — a social gambling play that included retro gaming-themed slots, poker and blackjack — and writing down its TV show assets with a renewed focus on licensing agreements.

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Computing

Microsoft Teams Brings Headspace Integration, Focus Mode

You’re likely spending more time in online meetings, and it can be quite a stressful experience. Microsoft is here to help with some new updates to the Viva Insights experience in Teams that should be coming later this month.

The first of those updates is a Headspace integration. It is designed to help decrease stress and stay focused after meetings. Coming at the end of June, you will be able to check through a list of guided meditations and mindfulness exercises from Headspace in Viva Insights in Teams. You can do things like jot down what you are feeling, relax before a presentation, or even disconnect from work before heading off for the evening.

Microsoft

The second new addition is Focus mode. This feature in Viva Insights with Headspace is designed to help you schedule a daily focus time through Teams. It even comes complete with music, and timers. Microsoft says it is also working to also port some of those features into the Viva Insights app itself, with the goal of helping you make progress on important tasks in regular intervals, with breaks planned in between.

Other than Focus Mode and the integration with Headspace, Microsoft is also planning on rolling out some updates for Viva Insights that will help you create a stronger boundary between work and personal time. Later in this year, you’ll be able to use Viva Insights in Teams to set a specific time to silence mobile notifications from both Outlook and Teams, outside of your working hours. There even will be some statistics on how well you are disconnecting.

The features are all part of Microsoft’s initiative to support what it calls the hybrid workforce — the mix of those in a company who are working from home, as well as in person.  The company notes that weekly meeting time in Teams has doubled since the start of the pandemic. Additionally, in a study of over 31,000 people in 31 countries, Microsoft says over half of the respondents reported feeling overworked.

Features in Viva Insights, the ability to pin and reply to specific messages in Teams desktop, and a “Front Row” feature in Teams Rooms all seek out to solve those pains. Microsoft also hopes it can build new ways for people to connect and collaborate from wherever they are working.

Editors’ Choice




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Tech News

GameStop SEC investigation outed as new meme stock CLOV takes focus

GameStop has revealed that the US SEC is investigating its highly volatile stock, confirming that the retailer received an official request for documents related to the wild rise and fall of $GME this year. The shares have been a key element of the so-called “meme stock” surge in 2021, where small investors – often led in packs by Reddit groups – target otherwise nondescript stock and attempt to squeeze short holders in the process.

It’s led to huge fluctuations in $GME, and the creation – and indeed destruction – of paper millionaires as the market tries to adapt. Earlier this year, popular trading platforms like Robinhood clamped down on meme stock trading, in some cases preventing customers from buying more GameStop shares.

Now, though those limits have since been lifted, the US Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the GameStop situation as part of a broader probe into meme stock activity. While the SEC has not detailed the investigation yet, GameStop confirmed this week that it had been approached with a voluntary request for documents and other information. The company says it is complying with the request.

“On May 26, 2021, we received a request from the Staff of the SEC for the voluntary production of documents and information concerning a SEC investigation into the trading activity in our securities and the securities of other companies,” GameStop said in a Form 10-Q filing this week. “We are in the process of reviewing the request and producing the requested documents and intend to cooperate fully with the SEC Staff regarding this matter. This inquiry is not expected to adversely impact us.”

GameStop, for its part, has been upfront about the fact that the surges and slumps in its share price have had little to do with actual business performance or practices. In a statement this week, added to its December 2020 Class A Common Stock prospectus, the retailer highlighted that forces beyond its operations were shaping its stock.

“Our common stock has recently experienced extreme volatility in price and trading volume,” GameStop acknowledged. “From January 11, 2021 to June 8, 2021, the closing price of our common stock on the NYSE ranged from as low as $19.94 to as high as $347.51 and daily trading volume ranged from approximately 1,790,000 to 197,200,000 shares. During this time, we have not experienced any material changes in our financial condition or results of operations that would explain such price volatility or trading volume.”

Currently, GameStop stock is priced at just above $247 at time of publication, down over $55 since the market opened on Thursday, June 10. Meanwhile, AMC’s popular share has dipped considerably since last week’s highs, down $9 today, while a new meme stock contender arose, with insurance seller Clover ($CLOV) seeing a surge in interest earlier this week, though a dip again as the markets opened today.

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AI

Go read this story on how Facebook’s focus on growth stopped its AI team from fighting misinformation

Facebook has always been a company focused on growth above all else. More users and more engagement equals more revenue. The cost of that single-mindedness is spelled out clearly in this brilliant story from MIT Technology Review. It details how attempts to tackle misinformation by the company’s AI team using machine learning were apparently stymied by Facebook’s unwillingness to limit user engagement.

“If a model reduces engagement too much, it’s discarded. Otherwise, it’s deployed and continually monitored,” writes author Karen Hao of Facebook’s machine learning models. “But this approach soon caused issues. The models that maximize engagement also favor controversy, misinformation, and extremism: put simply, people just like outrageous stuff.”

On Twitter, Hao noted that the article is not about “corrupt people [doing] corrupt things.” Instead, she says, “It’s about good people genuinely trying to do the right thing. But they’re trapped in a rotten system, trying their best to push the status quo that won’t budge.”

The story also adds more evidence to the accusation that Facebook’s desire to placate conservatives during Donald Trump’s presidency led to it turning a blind eye to right-wing misinformation. This seems to have happened at least in part due to the influence of Joel Kaplan, a former member of George W. Bush’s administration who is now Facebook’s vice president of global public policy and “its highest-ranking Republican.” As Hao writes:

All Facebook users have some 200 “traits” attached to their profile. These include various dimensions submitted by users or estimated by machine-learning models, such as race, political and religious leanings, socioeconomic class, and level of education. Kaplan’s team began using the traits to assemble custom user segments that reflected largely conservative interests: users who engaged with conservative content, groups, and pages, for example. Then they’d run special analyses to see how content-moderation decisions would affect posts from those segments, according to a former researcher whose work was subject to those reviews.

The Fairness Flow documentation, which the Responsible AI team wrote later, includes a case study on how to use the tool in such a situation. When deciding whether a misinformation model is fair with respect to political ideology, the team wrote, “fairness” does not mean the model should affect conservative and liberal users equally. If conservatives are posting a greater fraction of misinformation, as judged by public consensus, then the model should flag a greater fraction of conservative content. If liberals are posting more misinformation, it should flag their content more often too.

But members of Kaplan’s team followed exactly the opposite approach: they took “fairness” to mean that these models should not affect conservatives more than liberals. When a model did so, they would stop its deployment and demand a change. Once, they blocked a medical-misinformation detector that had noticeably reduced the reach of anti-vaccine campaigns, the former researcher told me. They told the researchers that the model could not be deployed until the team fixed this discrepancy. But that effectively made the model meaningless. “There’s no point, then,” the researcher says. A model modified in that way “would have literally no impact on the actual problem” of misinformation.

The story also says that the work by Facebook’s AI researchers on the problem of algorithmic bias, in which machine learning models unintentionally discriminate against certain groups of users, has been undertaken, at least in part to preempt these same accusations of anti-conservative sentiment and forestall potential regulation by the US government. But pouring more resources into bias has meant ignoring problems involving misinformation and hate speech. Despite the company’s lip service to AI fairness, the guiding principle, says Hao, is still the same as ever: growth, growth, growth.

[T]esting algorithms for fairness is still largely optional at Facebook. None of the teams that work directly on Facebook’s news feed, ad service, or other products are required to do it. Pay incentives are still tied to engagement and growth metrics. And while there are guidelines about which fairness definition to use in any given situation, they aren’t enforced.

You can read Hao’s full story at MIT Technology Review here.



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AI

Blue Prism 7 shifts focus from RPA to programmable digital workers

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Blue Prism, a pioneer provider of automation tools, announced a major overhaul last week as part of Blue Prism Version 7, which supports a new digital worker architecture and deeper cloud integration. This move highlights the company’s transition beyond robotic process automation (RPA) into the anticipated larger market for intelligent process automation tools.

The company saw 46% growth overall last year and 147% growth in demand for Blue Prism Cloud, its SaaS product.

“Scaling intelligent automation within the cloud and enabling increased demand will be the ultimate differentiator in a year of significant growth for the market,” Blue Prism CEO and chair Jason Kingdon told VentureBeat.

While other RPA vendors have aimed to improve the technical characteristics of RPA infrastructure, Blue Prism has focused on improving the programmability, manageability, and integration of RPA infrastructure.

Technical infrastructure efforts are important, as RPA’s original focus on making it easier to simulate user interaction with applications often incurred infrastructure scaling liabilities. Focus is shifting, however, as the major RPA vendors explore different approaches to scaling people’s ability to quickly create new automations with appropriate guardrails. That is key to Blue Prism’s recent efforts.

RPA puzzle: Task versus process

A pointed criticism of traditional approaches to RPA — despite what the name implies — has centered around their focus on automating tasks rather than processes.

“We looked at how to automate the process of programming not just tasks, but an entire digital workforce end-to-end, and that guided our redesign of Blue Prism’s platform for V7,” Kingdon said.

“Rather than in a bot constrained on every desktop, the future of RPA and intelligent automation is in centralized cloud platforms that seamlessly interconnect with all business systems, regardless of where or how they are deployed: on-prem, hybrid, or cloud.”

The company has also been shifting its description of these automations from “bots” to “digital workers.” This is not just a semantic revision. A traditional bot is a desktop automation that essentially copies and pastes data between apps. Blue Prism’s notion of a network of digital workers connotes more.

Blue Prism also made major improvements to Blue Prism Capture, its task capture tool. It uses machine vision to auto-generate screenshots, step descriptions, process data, and process flows from a process owner’s demonstration of an existing process.

A process expert further refines this into a process definition document (PDD) that is ready for developers. Kingdon estimates that this new implementation can reduce the time to produce a PDD by 25%, and he believes it can reduce this time 75% by the end of 2021.

Deeper cloud integration

Another key innovation is the release of the new Blue Prism Service Assist, which provides deeper integration into native AWS services like Amazon Connect (call center) and ElastiCache (data sharing). Blue Prism took a thoughtful approach around an architecture that could improve various call center workflows through a combination of attended and unattended automation.

Telefonica Spain used Service Assist to handle 3 times as many calls and reduce the average handling time by 80%.

To date, most RPA applications have focused on unattended automations running in the background. In contrast, attended automation focuses on how to run processes that augment human agents engaged with a customer. Service Assist makes it easier to multitask many digital workers in parallel in order to process work more quickly. It uses a centralized queue that intelligently orchestrates work across the digital workers, multiple inbound channels (calls, IVR, chatbots, and webforms), and systems of record or engagement (CRM, ERP, and ITSM).

One of the key innovations underneath this networked worker approach is a direct integration between AWS ElastiCache-based digital workers completing tasks in parallel and other AWS services. This makes it easier to kick off different processes simultaneously and coordinate communication through ElastiCache.

These data transfers also integrate with AWS’ own compliance tools to ensure each digital worker has visibility into the exact level of data required for efficient task completion, without creating consumption issues across the cloud. These and other updates provide a view of the path development may take as RPA evolves into intelligent process automation.

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