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Game

Move Over, Twitch: Facebook Gaming is Steadily on the Rise

The world of video games and game streaming exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stuck inside and far away from friends, many gamers made new acquaintances in streamers and their communities, joining together virtually as the outside world remained dangerous. Others began their streaming career from their bedrooms, hoping to find a way to pass the time, make a little money, and play the games they love for an audience.

This boom resulted in an explosion in the growth for streaming platforms. The biggest streaming platform, Twitch, raked in money as viewers subscribed to their favorite personalities and an increasing number of streamers started their own channels.

At the same time, Twitch was dogged with a variety of accusations and problems ranging from insufficient moderation to the proliferation of hate raids and other targeted attacks on minority streamers to a lack of backend tools for all streamers. These issues prompted third-party companies to come up with solutions to issues it seemed Twitch was not committed to solving. During the resulting boycott, titled “A Day Away From Twitch,” streamers and viewers alike began looking for alternate platforms to build their communities and interact with fans.

Enter Facebook Gaming. Though Facebook’s homemade streaming platform has been around since 2018, it’s received a recent boost in both viewership and hours streamed due to the pandemic and the widespread fallout at Twitch. While Facebook Gaming is undoubtedly growing in size and scope, can it hold a candle to established streaming titans like Twitch and YouTube Gaming and carve out its own niche in a crowded industry? The answer is yes — with an asterisk.

By the numbers

Last month, third-party software maker Streamlabs and data analytics company Stream Hatchet released a report detailing viewership and streaming data from Twitch, YouTube Gaming, and Facebook Gaming for the third quarter of 2021. One of the biggest takeaways is that the total amount of hours watched on Facebook Gaming was higher than the total amount of hours watched on YouTube Gamin, Viewers watched 1.29 billion hours of live content on Facebook Gaming versus 1.13 billion hours of live content on YouTube Gaming. Note that this only accounts for livestreams and does not include other video viewership on either platform.

Twitch still holds the crown with a total of 5.79 billion hours watched in the third quarter, though it’s interesting to note that this number fell from 6.51 billion hours watched in the second quarter. Facebook Gaming was the only platform of the three that increased in total hours watched during the third quarter. It represents a staggering amount of live content across all platforms.

On the streaming end, more hours were streamed on Facebook Gaming during  the third quarter of 2021 than on YouTube Gaming. Creators streamed 17.1 million hours of content on Facebook Gaming, while only 8.4 million hours were streamed on YouTube Gaming (Twitch sits at 222.9 million hours streamed). Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet also reported that the number of hours streamed on Twitch during the third quarter fell by the largest percentage in the platform’s history. While Facebook Gaming’s amount of hours streamed in the third quarter was less than in the second quarter, the company still saw a year-over-year increase in hours streamed compared to the third quarter of 2020.

It’s worth noting that Facebook Gaming had a sharp drop in unique channels streaming in 2021, from 1.538 million in the first quarter to 440,000 in the third quarter, likely due in part to the easing of pandemic restrictions.

As these numbers stand, Facebook Gaming has 13.8% of the streaming market share between the three companies in terms of hours watched and 6.9% of the market share for hours streamed. While that seems like a pittance next to Twitch’s lion’s share of the market, it’s important to note the trends in data. The fact that Facebook Gaming overtook YouTube Gaming in both hours watched and hours streamed, combined with Twitch’s losses in some areas, could mark the beginning of a new era for the platform.

In an email interview, Amanda Jefson, director of product at Facebook Gaming, told Digital Trends that the platform is “looking at sustained growth in the number of channels” despite the decrease noted above. Though it’s hard to go toe-to-toe with Twitch right now, it seems that Facebook Gaming is playing the long game, which could help both streamers and viewers over time.

Features for the discerning

Since its launch, Facebook Gaming has released a variety of quality of life and monetization features to develop the platform further. Last month, Facebook Gaming announced co-streaming, which allows streamers to stream with one another and lets viewers choose which stream they want to view. Twitch has a similar feature, but only Partners, defined as content creators with large followings and individual contracts with the company, can use it. Facebook Gaming has also introduced other features and programs, like the ability to use certain background music in streams without having to worry about copyright issues, a frequent complaint on Twitch.

Facebook is also expanding its commitment to diversity with the Black Gaming Creator Program, an effort to “help fund the next generation of Black gaming creators and provide mentorship, training, and early access to new products and features,” according to Jefson. The spirit of Facebook Gaming is “a welcoming space where anyone can play, watch, or connect around their favorite games,” she added.

Most notably, Facebook Gaming has created a variety of mental health workshops that give its content creators access to counselors and therapists, as well as resources and additional assistance when needed. “They’ve … put together wellness events to talk about the pressures of the industry and how to take care your mental health while navigating this career,” said Facebook Gaming streamer Michael “The Fierce Diva” Reynolds in an email interview.

A content creator co-streaming on Facebook Gaming.

Facebook has been in the news for a while after the release of a bombshell report concerning internal company knowledge that its platforms promote unhealthy atmospheres for teenagers and young people. While the company grapples with the ramifications of the report, Facebook Gaming at least appears to be trying to help its creators on the mental health front.

The company also has immunity in one area that has plagued Twitch for several months now: Hate raids. Part of the issue with hate raids on Twitch was that spammers and malicious users could make as many accounts as they wanted to under different usernames, allowing them to jump back onto the platform after one account was banned. These users frequently remained anonymous because of Twitch’s username system. On Facebook Gaming, viewers chat and interact with their real names because the platform’s logins are synonymous with those of Facebook, which requires the use of a first and last name. This makes it more difficult for spammers and hate raiders to harass content creators. If they can’t hide behind anonymous accounts and usernames, they’re less likely to rain hate on an unsuspecting streamer.

While these changes and high points are ostensibly meant to help both streamers and viewers, increasing viewership and streaming on the platform will ultimately make Facebook significantly more money. Though Facebook Gaming has pledged to give streamers 100% of the revenue from subscriptions — Twitch only gives a percentage — and announced a $1 billion “commitment” to creators, the ultimate goal is undoubtedly to make the platform more attractive to streamers and viewers and therefore increase ad revenue for the company. It’s also notable that many of these Facebook announcements are coming on the heels of widespread negative press and boycotts around Twitch, as well as the departure of several of the streaming giant’s biggest personalities.

Laser focus

The sense I got from speaking with Jefson and Reynolds was that Facebook Gaming is aiming to be a one-stop shop for everything that content creators want to do: Play games, engage with their community, and build a social media following. Rather than having to direct viewers to a Discord server for chatting or a social media page for curated content, Facebook Gaming streamers can interact directly with their followers and post recorded content on Fan Groups.

“My favorite part of Facebook Gaming is that social media is embedded into the foundation of everyone’s page,” said Reynolds. “I think this ultimately allows those that use the platform to connect with their audience more meaningfully.”

“Streamer Fan Groups allow for a community to connect and talk with each other and stay engaged before and after streams …,” adds Jefson.

Content creators laugh together at Facebook Gaming's PLAYLOUD event.

Facebook Gaming is also popular in countries outside of the U.S., including Thailand, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico. It’s noted in the Streamlabs report that only one of the top 10 Facebook Gaming content creators by follower count speaks primarily English. According to Indian finance website Moneycontrol, over 207 million Indian users, or about 15% of the country’s population, watched “live gaming videos on Facebook” during the third quarter of 2021. While Facebook is simply one of many social networks used in the U.S., to many other countries, it’s an essential method of communication and information sharing. Tying Facebook Gaming to an already successful social network is one of the ways that Facebook Gaming has been able to grow its platform.

As a result, Facebook Gaming’s most popular titles are a little different than Twitch’s and YouTube Gaming’s. Facebook Gaming allows content creators to easily stream mobile games from their phones or tablets, which leads to generally higher popularity for mobile-only titles on Facebook’s platform than on competitors’. Games that have found success outside of the U.S. are also more popular on Facebook Gaming than they are elsewhere, which speaks to a truly international audience with a broad range of interests, rather than the usual North American- and European-centric streaming focus.

Is Facebook Gaming a viable alternative to Twitch and YouTube Gaming? Yes, if you have specific aims and goals for your stream. If you’re sick of the restrictions and lack of moderation that Twitch has thrown onto the shoulders of its content creators, you’ll no doubt be attracted to Facebook Gaming’s more deliberate commitment to its streamers. The company also offers more transparent pay schemes and a variety of other features that Twitch and YouTube Gaming could do well to implement. If you primarily stream mobile titles and are bilingual or are aiming for an international audience, Facebook Gaming seems like great place to start.

At the same time, it’s not clear whether streaming as a whole will be able to regain the soaring heights of popularity that the industry reached during the worst of the pandemic. Content creation has become a busy, crowded field — it’s no longer possible to simply stream yourself playing Call of Duty and instantly make money. Knowing this, it will be interesting to see what streaming companies and platforms do in the future if unique accounts continue to wane and the hype dies down just a little bit.

Will companies like Facebook Gaming be able to retain their commitment, both financial and otherwise, to streamers if the field doesn’t maintain its glamour in the future? It’s unclear. For now, though, the streaming waters are warm, so you may as well swim.

Editors’ Choice




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Tech News

Turning my office into an art gallery was a weirdly good business move

I came into the office completely drained after a difficult meeting. But when I looked up I stopped awestruck: someone had hung a painting on the wall. Suddenly the boring hallway had been turned into a room with personality and mood.

My business partner had decided to hang up an abstract painting by modern Ukrainian artist Anton Popernyak he owned. The painting undeniably brightened up the space, but its real value was the course it put us on — turning our office into an art gallery.

Putting on an art exhibition in your office might sound like an indulgent thing to do for a startup, but we discovered that it actually led to a lower turnover rate and increased offer acceptance among candidates we interviewed. 

So here’s how we came up with this idea and what results we got from it. Hopefully, it inspires you to do the same!

Why we did it

My business partner is an experienced patron of the greatly underappreciated Ukrainian art scene. He’s always been keen on bringing art closer to people and wanted to help introduce the team to their local culture. I wasn’t as involved in art as he was, but I’ve always cared about making our workplace an inspiring creative space where people would want to come back, not be obliged to come in.

So when we saw our business would be expanding, we decided to combine our interests when designing a new office. 

Credit: SupportYourApp

We invited ten muralists, graphic designers, and calligraphists and gave them carte blanche — a censorship-free opportunity to use our office walls as a canvas. Five months later, our 350-person office space had turned into a modern art gallery. 

Now what did our team think? They loved it.

Of course, we had hoped for the project to be a morale boost for the team and maybe increase people’s interest in their local art scene. But in the end, what we got was so much more. 

office workers in front of art
Credit: SupportYourApp

Decreased turnover rate

We work in the customer support industry which has one of the highest employee turnover rates of any field. While the average rate for companies in general is 15 percent, for customer service centers it can reach 30-45 percent.

This is a big problem for businesses as the cost to replace a person varies between $10,000 to $15,000 and can add up to a lot of money for big call centers. 

But since we gave our office an art makeover, our turnover rate dropped by 16 percent. All of a sudden our fun art initiative had a real measurable impact on our bottom line. 

Increased number of job applications

happy office workers
Credit: SupportYourApp

As a customer support company, our recruiting process is continuous and requires a huge pool of specialists who speak foreign languages. Just last year, during the challenging 2020, we hired 658 people. 

Most of our candidates come from job searching sites or are referred by current team members. But after we introduced art to the office, the word got out and the number of organic job applications increased 1.5 times.

When asked, people said that they’ve seen the photos of our office on the job sites, on their friends’ social media, or in the press, and it made them want to apply. To them, our company seemed interesting and innovative and stood out among other offers.

Judging by the incredibly positive results we’ve gotten, I believe that our investment into the space paid off with increased interest among potential candidates. 

Increased offer acceptance rate

We have three-stages job interviews and in the case of a local hire, the last stage is an in-person conversation in the office. We noticed that an average acceptance rate is 50 percent higher among the candidates interviewed in our new ‘art office’ in comparison to the old one.

And it’s clear why from the feedback we’ve gotten from newcomers:  “The minute I saw this, I knew I wanted to work here.”

floral mural
Credit: SupportYourApp

To give you a bit of perspective on why this has been so successful, I think it’s good to note that 42 percent of our applicants are millennials.

Since 78 percent of them consider the quality of the workspace important when choosing an employer, it’s not surprising that a creative workplace attracts candidates’ attention.

However, they are not the only ones who care about it: 81 percent of all applicants would reject a job offer if they didn’t like the workplace. That’s why I consider resources put in the office a long-term investment into our recruiting efforts. 

Increased brand awareness

Introducing an art project like this also drew the attention of local media and put us on a map of global office spaces. It helped us reach a new audience outside our traditional channels and cement a reputation as a responsible employer. 

A lot of factors contributed to getting us there. Team members shared photos of the office on social media and brought their relatives to our corporate Family Days. I also found employees were also more willing to promote the company among their friends.

And because of all this interest, we introduced tours of the office for the public so more people could come to see the murals. All of this combined increased interest among potential candidates and, subsequently, clients.

fun stairway
Credit: SupportYourApp

Clients’ recognition

Since we’re in a competitive sector of the B2B industry, relationships and reputation are crucial for us.

Before signing a contract, clients sometimes go on a tour checking out different service providers. Before COVID-19, we hosted on average four client visits per month. Having a unique office makes a memorable impression and lets us stand out among the competitors. 

The contact center industry is stereotypically perceived as a toxic work environment with gray open-space and no air conditioning. We bust that myth and make our clients see how their money is spent: on happy representatives which means happy customers.

Clients, who value commitment to the team’s wellness, appreciate our efforts and tend to choose us as a partner. 

mural meeting room
Credit: SupportYourApp

Of course, we can’t credit all the above-mentioned achievements solely to art in the office. You can’t just hang a painting on the wall and expect the turnover rate to go down — that’s not how it works. It has to be a part of and supported by other strategic efforts to improve the overall employee experience.

However, the massive introduction of art into our space definitely played a key role in how our team perceives its workplace and the company. Still, one of the less visible yet priceless benefits I love the most is when I overhear two people chatting in the kitchen… about which mural they liked more — the one by Manzhos or by Kondakov.

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Computing

New Google Move Might Complicate Android Apps in Windows 11

Running Android apps via the Amazon App store is one of the biggest features of Microsoft’s new Windows 11 operating system, but Google might have just complicated things a bit.

In a change of policy, Google is requiring app developers to embrace the new Android App Bundle standard, and move away from the APK file format that otherwise could have been used to sideload Android apps in Windows 11.

Although the change only applies to new apps listed on the Google Play Store starting August 2021 (and not third-party or private apps,) Google runs through some important notes in its announcement of the change. The first of those is that the new Android App Bundle format will replace APK as the standard publishing format. In fact, over 1 million apps are already using the Android App Bundle format, per Google.

This is great in the long term for Android. In the other note, Google mentions the new format allows for smaller app sizes, as well as security features — but this could still pose a bit of a problem in Windows 11.

That’s because the Amazon App Store’s catalog of apps is limited in scope. Many users are already hoping to sideload otherwise unavailable and popular Android apps by using APK files on Windows instead — which Microsoft said would be possible.

Of course, sideloading APKs poses security risks and other issues, but the reaction to the news seems to be upsetting Windows and Android fans. With APKs on the way out, it could be harder to sideload popular Android apps in Windows 11 come the time when the feature is available. The Android App Bundle format only works with Google Play, which depends on Google Play services, which appears to not support Windows 11.

Windows 11 will be coming this fall, and it comes with some new features other than the Android app support via the Amazon App Store. A visual redesign and multitasking features are two features. The new Widgets section, an improved tablet mode, redesigned File Explorer, and a new settings app are just some of the other changes.

You can beta test Windows 11 for yourself now via the Windows Insider Program in  just a few steps — without the Android app support, of course. Microsoft mentioned that this feature would be coming at a later point this year.

Editors’ Choice






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Computing

Windows 11 to Move to Annual Update, Borrowing the Mac Model

Matching MacOS standards, Microsoft has announced that Windows will now release major updates once a year, ditching its tradition of delivering two feature updates per year. This new release cadence will be kicked off by the release of Windows 11, which was officially announced this week by Microsoft, later this year.

There have been multiple complaints about Windows 10’s updates since day one. Microsoft has been releasing two major updates every year and users have been annoyed with their frequency and quality. The company’s two major feature releases each year push the operating system to force update some of the devices that may be running on a version that’s not meeting the end of service.

Daniel Martin/Screenshot

Many Windows 10 users have had to face inconvenience due to Windows 10 releasing updates every few months. They have long been suggesting fewer updates with better stability. If the company releases fewer updates a year, it will have more time to work on them and enhance their design and stability. In tuen, people would have to deal with fewer updates and not go through the time-consuming process of upgrading their system every few months. They’ll also face fewer compatibility issues that arise as a result of the upgrades demanding different system settings as necessary prerequisites.

Thankfully, the company has listened to these demands. It will now be shifting to the once-a-year update cycle, just like Apple does with its MacOS updates. Our hope is that Microsoft will also resolve the performance and stability issues that its updates were often plagued by. We’re also hopeful that the updates will be more meaningful after a long history of mediocre ones. Another piece of good news is that, according to Microsoft, updates on Windows 11 will be 40% smaller, which means they’ll hopefully take less time to download and install.

We can expect the new Windows 11 to ship in the second half of this year and for updates to arrive yearly around the same time. Microsoft said it will continue to update the operating system by releasing small, cumulative updates like it always has, except it will now happen yearly.

For eager users who wish to take a sneak peek at the new version of the OS beforehand, the Windows Insider Program is always ready to be installed. The program receives new builds almost every week.

Editors’ Choice




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Tech News

Amazon’s Halo fitness wearable wants to watch you move

Amazon’s Halo fitness band will soon be able to assess how you move, with a new – and somewhat confusing – tracking feature for the controversial wearable. Launched last year, Halo aims to bring AI and machine learning to bear on individual fitness, though concerns around just what data was being shared with Amazon as part of that led to a troubled debut.

Rather than just logging exercise, steps, and other metrics like other fitness wearables do, Halo also promised to make individual body assessments. To do that, users were asked to take photos of themselves – while wearing tight underwear or workout clothes – that were uploaded to Amazon’s servers. Its machine learning then figured out things like body fat percentage and other metrics.

It was a clever system, but unsurprisingly ran into discomfort about putting uploading such images online – even if Amazon promised to delete them once the analysis had been made. Now, this new Movement Health feature for Halo once again wants to use your smartphone’s camera to share with the AI, only this time Amazon is asking for video too.

Movement health, Amazon says, is based on three factors: posture, stability, and mobility. It’s basically our ability to undertake everyday motions – like carrying items, reaching for things on high shelves, or running – along with our tendencies to slump while sitting at a computer or lean one way or another while standing. That, Amazon argues, is just as important as being able to run 5 miles.

Halo’s answer starts with a video assessment, your smartphone recording you doing five movements: single leg balances, forward lunges, overhead squats, overhead reaches, and feet-together squats. It then calculates body position and any issues with the three movement categories, and boils all that down to a Movement score out of 100. You’ll also get a report on your performance in those categories, plus details on four key areas of the body: the trunk, hips, lower body, and shoulders.

After that, Halo will serve up “corrective exercise videos” focused on your individual trouble spots. That could include stretches, balances, or breathing exercises; a set takes 5-10 minutes, Amazon says, and it recommends they be completed at least three times a week. Repeat assessments every 2-4 weeks track progress, and there’ll be more workout recommendations for an exercise-focused add-on if you want to include calorific burn as well.

Obviously the efficacy of all this depends on a number of factors, not least Amazon’s core model of Movement Health itself. The accuracy of that, and what you’re being compared to, will clearly have an impact on how realistic your score out of 100 is. There are also legitimate questions around how useful, or reasonable, expressing something so broad as movement as a numerical score actually can be.

Indeed, the privacy issue is arguably the least of the concerns here. Amazon says that its movement assessment videos are encrypted as they’re uploaded, “processed within seconds,” and then promptly deleted. Nobody sees them, and you can’t even keep copies yourself for later review.

Movement Health will be added to Amazon Halo in the coming weeks, the company says. The Halo wearable itself is $99.99, including six months of membership; after that it’s $3.99 per month, though the band does offer basic tracking with no subscription fee.

Disclosure: SlashGear uses affiliate links, If you click on a link in this article and buy something we’ll get a small cut of the sale.

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Tech News

Boston Dynamics’ latest robot doesn’t do backflips — and that’s a smart move

Boston Dynamics has made a name for itself through fascinating videos of biped and quadruped robots doing backflips, opening doors, and dancing to Uptown Funk. Now, it has revealed its latest gadget: A robot that looks like a huge overhead projector on wheels.

It’s called Stretch, it doesn’t do backflips, it doesn’t dance, and it’s made to do one task: moving boxes. It sounds pretty boring.

But this could, in fact, become the most successful commercial product of Boston Dynamics and turn it into a profitable company.

What does Stretch do?

Stretch has a box-like base with a set of wheels that can move in all directions. On top of the base are a large robotic arm and a perception mast. The robotic arm has seven degrees of freedom and a suction pad array that can grab and lift boxes. The perception mast uses computer vision–powered cameras and sensors to analyze its surroundings.

While we have yet to see Stretch in action, according to information Boston Dynamics provided to the media, it can handle boxes weighing up to 23 kilograms, it can make 800 displacements per hour, and it has a battery that can last eight hours. The video posted by Boston Dynamics on its YouTube channel suggests that the robot can reach the 800-cases-per-hour speed if everything remains static in its environment.

Traditional industrial robots must be installed in a fixed location, which puts severe limits on the workflows and infrastructure of the warehouses where they are deployed. Stretch, on the other hand, is mobile and can be used in many different settings with little prerequisite beyond a flat ground and a little bit of training (we still don’t know how the training works). This could be a boon for many warehouses that don’t have automation equipment and infrastructure.

As Boston Dynamics’ VP of business development Michael Perry told The Verge, “You can take this capability and you can move it into the back of the truck, you can move it into aisles, you can move it next to your conveyors. It all depends what the problem of the day is.”

A boring but useful robot

At first glance Stretch seems like a step back from the previous robots Boston Dynamics has created. It can’t navigate uneven terrain, climb stairs, jump on surfaces, open doors, and handle objects in complicated ways.

It did manage to do some amusing feats on its intro video, but we can’t expect it to be as entertaining as Spot, Atlas, and Handle.

But that’s exactly what real-world applications of robotics and artificial intelligence are all about. We still haven’t figured out how to create artificial general intelligence, the kind of AI that can mimic all aspects of the cognitive and physical abilities of humans and animals.

Current AI systems are robust when performing narrow tasks in stable environments but start to break when they’re forced to tackle various problems in unpredictable settings. Therefore, the success of AI systems is to find the right balance between versatility and robustness, especially in physical settings where safety and material damage are major concerns.

And Stretch exactly fits that description. It does a very specific task (picking up and displacing boxes) in a predictable environment (flat surfaces in warehouses).

Stretch might sound boring in comparison to the other things that Boston Dynamics has done in the past. But if it lives up to its promise, it can directly result in reduced costs and improved production for many warehouses, which makes it a viable business model and product.

As Boston Dynamics’ vice president of business development Michael Perry told The Verge last June, “[A] lot of the most interesting stuff from a business perspective are things that people would find boring, like enabling the robot to read analogue gauges in an industrial facility. That’s not something that will set the internet on fire, but it’s transformative for a lot of businesses.”

boston dynamics stretch spot robots

The competitive edge of Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics is not alone in working on autonomous mobile robots for warehouses and other industrial settings. There are dozens of companies competing in the field, ranging from longstanding companies such as Honeywell to startups such as Fetch Robotics.

And unloading boxes is just one of the several physical tasks that are ripe for automation. There’s also a growing market for sorting robots, order-picking robots, and autonomous forklifts.

What would make Boston Dynamics a successful contender in this competitive market? The way I see it, success in the industrial autonomous mobile robots market will be defined by versatility/robustness threshold on the one hand and cost efficiency on the other. In this respect, Boston Dynamics has two factors working to its advantage.

First, Boston Dynamics will leverage its decades of experience to push the versatility of its robots without sacrificing their robustness and safety. Stretch has inherited technology and experience from Handle, Atlas, Spot, and other robots Boston Dynamics has developed in the past years. It also contains elements of Pick, a computer vision­–based depalletizing solution mentioned in the press release that declared Hyundai’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics. This can enable Stretch to work in a broader set of conditions than its competitors.

Second, the company’s new owner Hyundai is one of the leading companies in mobile robot research and development. Hyundai has already made extensive research in creating autonomous robots and vehicles that can navigate various environments and terrains. Hyundai also has a great manufacturing capacity. This will enable Boston Dynamics to reduce the costs of manufacturing Stretch and sell it at a competitive price. Hyundai’s manufacturing facilities will also enable Boston Dynamics to deliver new parts and props for Stretch at a cost-efficient price. This will further improve the versatility of the robot in the future and allow customers to repurpose it for new tasks without making large purchases.

boston dynamics stretch robot depalletizing

The future of Boston Dynamics

Stretch is the second commercial product of Boston Dynamics, the first one being the quadruped robot Spot. But Spot’s sales were only covering a fraction of the company’s costs, which were at least $150 million per year when Hyundai acquired it. Stretch has a greater potential for making Boston Dynamics a profitable company.

How will the potential success of Stretch affect the future of Boston Dynamics? Here’s an observation I made last year after Hyundai acquired Boston Dynamics: “Boston Dynamics might claim to be a commercial company. But at heart, it is still an AI and robotics research lab. It has built its fame on its advanced research and a continuous stream of videos showing robots doing things that were previously thought impossible. The reality, however, is that real-world applications seldom use cutting-edge AI and robotics technology. Today’s businesses don’t have much use for dancing and backflipping robots. What they need are stable solutions that can integrate with their current software and hardware ecosystem, boost their operations, and cut costs.”

How will Stretch’s success affect Boston Dynamics’ plans for human-like robots? It’s hard to remain committed to long-term scientific goals when you’re owned by a commercial enterprise that counts profits by the quarter.

But it’s not impossible. In the early 1900s, Albert Einstein worked as an assistant examiner at the Swiss patent office in Bern because physics research didn’t put food on his family’s table. But he remained a physicist at heart and continued his research in his idle time while his job as patent clerk paid the bills. His passion eventually paid off, earning him a Nobel prize and resulting in some of the greatest contributions to science in history.

Will Stretch and its successors become the norm for Boston Dynamics, or is this the patent-clerk job that keeps the lights on while Boston Dynamics continues to chase the dream of humanoid robots that push the limits of science?

This article was originally published by Ben Dickson on TechTalks, a publication that examines trends in technology, how they affect the way we live and do business, and the problems they solve. But we also discuss the evil side of technology, the darker implications of new tech and what we need to look out for. You can read the original article here.



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Computing

Acer Aspire 5 A515-54-30BQ review: A dual-core laptop that’s slim, light, and priced to move

It won’t win any speed records, but the Acer Aspire 5 A515-54-30BQ makes for a compelling bargain-priced laptop all the same. This $400 model of the Aspire 5 packs a roomy full-HD display and a solid dual-core Intel CPU into a slim chassis that weighs less than four pounds. Its smooth day-to-day performance and long battery life should keep productivity-minded users happy. You’ll have to settle for some compromises, however, including a cramped 128GB solid-state drive and just 4MB of RAM.

Price and specifications

Acer offers at least 22 configurations in its budget Aspire 5 line, ranging from $350 for a dual-core AMD Ryzen 3 3200U-powered model with a bare-bones 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive, all the way to $850 for a far beefier quad-core Core i7-8565 model with a healthy 12GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and dedicated Nvidia GeForce MX250 graphics. Most Aspire 5 versions boast a 15.6-inch display (although I spotted at least one 14-inch model), with a mix of 1080p and 720p resolutions.

This $400 model that we’re reviewing comes with a dual-core Intel Core i3-8145U CPU, a Whiskey Lake processor that offers a slightly higher boost speed while trimming the base clock speed of its predecessor, the Core i3-8130U (Kaby Lake Refresh) CPU from 2017. Minor differences aside, both of these low-power, dual-core processors deliver solid performance for mainstream computing tasks like web browsing and working with Office documents, although they’ll have a tough time keeping pace with CPU-intensive tasks like video editing. If you’re looking for a laptop that can help you cut together your 4K video masterpiece, consider a system with at least a quad-core processor.

acer aspire 5 30bq profile Ben Patterson/IDG

This sleek, Core i3-powered Aspire 5 boasts a slim profile and an aluminum lid.

Also inside this budget Aspire 5 is 4GB of DDR4 RAM, which is…not great, but not terribly unusual for such an inexpensive laptop. Just be aware that the Acer may start to chug if you’ve got too many programs or browser tabs running at once.

Similarly constrained is the mere 128GB of storage in the laptop’s solid-state drive, which leaves you a scant 90GB of free space once Windows and other various pre-installed apps are accounted for. You might be able to make that work if you rely on Dropbox, Google Drive, or other cloud-based storage services, but know that the Aspire’s 128GB SSD will fill up quickly if you install too many programs or try to transfer your playlists and photo albums.

Back on the plus side is the Aspire’s roomy 15.6-inch display with Full HD (1920×1080) resolution. Its integrated Intel UHD Graphics 620 can handle some casual gaming, although not much beyond Microsoft Mahjong.

If you’re looking for a laptop with a little more storage and power, consider the quad-core, Core i5-enabled version of the Aspire 5 with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, which we’ve reviewed here.

Design

Generally speaking, the laptops in Acer’s Aspire 5 line feel thinner and lighter than they really are, and this Core i3 model of the Aspire 5 follows in the same footsteps. At just 0.7-inch thick and a shade under four pounds, the Aspire 5 manages to feel reasonably light, particularly given its substantial 14.3-by-9.9-inch footprint.

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Tech News

MacBook butterfly keyboard class-action lawsuit will move forward

Apple has had several high-profile issues with its popular MacBook line of notebook computers in recent years. One of the biggest issues was with the so-called “butterfly” keyboard design. Those keyboards regularly failed during use due to the ability of dirt and debris to get under the keys rendering them useless. Apple was slow and, in some cases, refused to repair the keyboards leaving owners with expensive laptops that were unusable.

A judge has now granted class-action status to a lawsuit against Apple over its allegedly defective butterfly keyboard designed. The ruling allows any owners of impacted laptop models in seven states to qualify for the class-action case. Defective keyboard suits began going to court in 2018, with owners in seven states filing lawsuits individually against Apple.

The suits claim that the butterfly-style switches were defective. On Friday last week, Judge Edward J. Davila of the US District Court for the Northern District of California granted class-action status for the suit. Owners of defective MacBooks in California, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, or Washington state who purchased 2015 through 2017 MacBook, 2016 through 2019 MacBook Pro, or 2018 through 2019 MacBook Air qualify for the class.

The butterfly-style keyboard Apple designed was meant to be thinner and provide a shorter return, saving space inside the computer case and making typing faster. From the beginning, some users disliked the feel of the keyboard. The real problem with the design was the fact that the thinner keys were more susceptible to failure.

One failed switch meant that the entire keyboard had to be replaced. The suit alleges that internal documents and Apple’s action confirm that the company knew the design was defective. The lawsuit also alleges that Apple violated consumer protection laws in several states when it continued to sell the defective products. Apple admitted problems with the keyboards in June 2018, and by 2019 the keyboards were being redesigned. They were completely phased out in 2020.

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Security

Move over, SolarWinds: 30,000 orgs’ email hacked via Microsoft Exchange Server flaws

Four exploits found in Microsoft’s Exchange Server software have reportedly led to over 30,000 US governmental and commercial organizations having their emails hacked, according to a report by KrebsOnSecurity. Wired is also reporting “tens of thousands of email servers” hacked. The exploits have been patched by Microsoft, but security experts talking to Krebs say that the detection and cleanup process will be a massive effort for the thousands of state and city governments, fire and police departments, school districts, financial institutions, and other organizations that were affected.

According to Microsoft, the vulnerabilities allowed hackers to gain access to email accounts, and also gave them the ability to install malware that might let them back into those servers at a later time.

Krebs and Wired report that the attack was carried out by Hafnium, a Chinese hacking group. While Microsoft hasn’t spoken to the scale of the attack, it also points to the same group as having exploited the vulnerabilities, saying that it has “high confidence” that the group is state-sponsored.

According to KrebsOnSecurity, the attack has been ongoing since January 6th (the day of the riot), but ramped up in late February. Microsoft released its patches on March 2nd, which means that the attackers had almost two months to carry out their operations. The president of cyber security firm Volexity, which discovered the attack, told Krebs that “if you’re running Exchange and you haven’t patched this yet, there’s a very high chance that your organization is already compromised.”

Both the White House National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, and former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Chris Krebs (no relation to KrebsOnSecurity) have tweeted about the severity of the incident.

Microsoft has released several security updates to fix the vulnerabilities, and suggests that they be installed immediately. It is worth noting that, if your organization uses Exchange Online, it will not have been affected — the exploit was only present on self-hosted servers running Exchange Server 2013, 2016, or 2019.

While a large-scale attack, likely carried out by a state-run organization may sound familiar, Microsoft is clear that the attacks are “in no way connected” to the SolarWinds attacks that compromised US federal government agencies and companies last year.

It’s likely that there are still details to come about this hack — so far, there hasn’t been an official list of organizations that have been compromised, just a vague picture of the large scale and high-severity of the attack.

A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company is working closely with the [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency], other government agencies, and security companies, to ensure we are providing the best possible guidance and mitigation for our customers,” and that “[t]he best protection is to apply updates as soon as possible across all impacted systems.”



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Security

How to leave LastPass and move to another password manager

Ever since LastPass announced that it was tweaking its free tier to only allow a single category of device — mobile or computer — there’s been a lot of interest in finding alternatives among LastPass users. Luckily, once you do find an alternative, it’s pretty easy to pull your data from LastPass and upload it to another password manager.

What follows are instructions on how to download your LastPass data, and where to find instructions from several popular password managers that will help you upload that data to their services.

Export your LastPass data

LastPass allows you to export your data as a CSV or an XML file. If you’re planning to move that data to another service, then CSV is the far better choice. Since CSV stands for comma-separated values and is a plain text file, it’s a good idea not to hold on to it once you’ve moved your data to another password manager — or to put that file in a secure place where it can’t be easily read by someone else.

Before you start, you should be aware that the best (and really only way) you can export your data from LastPass is from its browser extension on a desktop or laptop computer. (You can technically do it from LastPass’ website, but as I’ll explain, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.) If you haven’t downloaded the extension for your browser (links for which are at the bottom of the LastPass webpage), go ahead.

Ready?

  • Click your extension icon and proceed to “Account Options” > “Advanced” > “Export” > “LastPass CSV File”
  • You’ll be asked to put in your master password to continue. If you think you may be interrupted at some point, and you’re working in a safe place (like a home office), feel free to ask it not to prompt you again for up to 24 hours.

Fill in your master password to download your data.

Fill in your master password to download your data.

That’s it! LastPass will immediately download your CSV file.

If you really, really don’t want to install the browser extension, here’s how you can get your info from the LastPass website”

  • Go to LastPass.com and sign in to your account.
  • Click on “Advanced Options” in the left-hand menu.
  • Click on “Export” and enter your Master Password if asked.
  • If your experience is anything like mine, you should then see a comma-delimited list of all your passwords on a separate webpage. You can select all the content of the page by going to your top menu and selecting “Edit” > “Select All.” You can then copy the data and paste it to a text page using a word processor or other text app.

Once you’ve downloaded your info, you can upload it to the password manager of your choice. There are a variety out there, free and otherwise, and we’ve included a sampling below, along with their starting prices (if any) and links to their instructions on how to import your data. But first, we’re assuming that you’ll want to eventually delete your passwords from LastPass. Here’s how.

Delete your LastPass account

Once you’ve chosen your new password manager (and we strongly success you live with it for at least a week or so first), you can delete your account and data from LastPass.

The LastPass “Delete Your Account” page

The LastPass “Delete Your Account” page.

  • Click on the red “Delete” button.
  • Where you go from here depends on whether you remember your master password. If you do remember it, click on “Yes.” You’ll be given one last chance to download your data, will be asked to enter your master password, and asked why you are deleting your account. Then click on Delete.

Before you delete your account, you get a last chance to download your data

Before you delete your account, you get a last chance to download your data.

  • If you don’t remember your master password, click on “No.” You’ll be given a chance to download your data and asked for your email address. You’ll be sent an email with a link that will let you delete the account.

In either case, remember there is no rush to delete your account. Make sure that you have a useable copy of your passwords and a new password manager that you’re satisfied with first.

Alternative password managers

What follows is a list of some alternative password managers and where you can find instructions for importing your LastPass data.

Bitwarden

KeePass

LogMeOnce

  • Free version? Yes
  • Paid features start at $2.50 / month and include encrypted storage, additional password sharing, emergency access, live password tracker, others.
  • Instructions for importing from LastPass

NordPass

1Password

RoboForm

  • Free version? Yes
  • Paid features start at $23.88 / year and include syncing across devices, cloud backup, two-factor authorization, shared folder, and others.
  • Instructions for importing CSV files. (Note: RoboForm has specific instructions for importing LastPass files to Windows and Mac systems; however, they include statements that separate apps are needed to export data from LastPass, which is no longer the case.)

Zoho Vault

  • Free version? Yes
  • Paid features start at $10.80 / year and include secure password sharing, password expiration alerts, cloud backup, and others.
  • Instructions for importing CSV files

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