Start up: Oculus delays, CGI plastic surgery, the drone tractor, Buzzfeed misses, PCs keep dropping, and more

Lots of people do it. But to what value? The Guardian tried analysing them. Photo by Pixel Fantasy on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Now count them. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Oculus’ botched launch harms the VR ecosystem » Forrester Blogs

JP Gownder:

»While my personal Rift delay [of around a month] is merely an annoyance, the botched launch has real repercussions for the VR ecosystem. Oculus’ delay:

• Hurts developers of games and apps. The diversity and depth of the VR developer ecosystem is impressive. While many developers focus on games – logically enough, since that’s a key early adopter demographic – others offer applications ranging from clinical treatments for PTSD to collaboration in virtual spaces. The common denominator? None of these developers are making money if there are no headsets available. And while many apps can be ported to other platforms, Oculus has been the centerpiece of many developers’ high-end VR efforts.

• Hurts media startups and innovations. Media, too, sees a potential loss. While some media companies go the route of the New York Times and focus on Google Cardboard phone-based VR, others are counting on developing truly immersive experiences that simulate presence. Studio Jaunt VR has an Oculus app that, again, won’t be addressable until customers receive their Rifts.

• Helps HTC Vive. On the flip side, Oculus’ main competitor in high-end VR, the HTC Vive, faced minor launch problems of its own. But these were based in payment processing, not hardware problems. Why? HTC is a well-established hardware vendor with many smartphone, wearable, camera, and tablet product releases under its belt. Though priced $200 higher than the Rift, both devices require a ~$1,000 PC…

In fact, the Rift launch fiasco should never have happened. The official statement cites an unspecified “component shortage,” but usually such contracts are locked down many months in advance. Oculus has had 2.5 years to plan for this launch, so there’s really no excuse.

«

Seems overdone to me. The idea that a potentially world-changing technology like VR will be derailed by a month’s delay doesn’t make sense.
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BuzzFeed missed 2015 revenue targets and slashes 2016 projections » FT.com

Matthew Garrahan and Henry Mance:

»BuzzFeed missed its revenue target for 2015 and has slashed its internal projections for 2016 by about half, raising questions about whether the online news and entertainment network can meet the sky-high valuations put on new media groups by investors.

The company, known for its lists, irreverent content and fast-growing editorial operation, had projected about $250m in revenues for 2015 but generated less than $170m, according to three people with knowledge of the situation.

The company has halved its internal revenue target for 2016 from $500m to $250m, the people said.

BuzzFeed disputed the figures but declined to give its own numbers. “We are very pleased with where BuzzFeed is today and where it will be tomorrow,” the company said. “We are very comfortable with where the digital content world is going and think we are well-positioned.”

«

Hmm. My spidey sense is tingling.
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Saving money by blocking ads » Optimal

»Do you have an iPhone and ever go over your carrier’s data plan allowance? (over 30% of us do!). Mostly unbeknownst to us, video and banner ads and hidden tracking URLs are using a lot of our mobile data plan and draining our battery. Use this calculator (defaults are typical for US users) to estimate how much you could save by installing an iOS 9 content blocker, and how many unnecessary URLs are loading on your phone.

«

Only tricky thing is knowing how much browsing you do when not on Wi-Fi. I don’t think most people would have a clue.
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JBL headphones first to use USB Type-C with HTC 10 » Phonescoop

Eric Zeman:

»HTC and JBL today announced a pair of headphones optimized for the HTC 10 smartphone. What’s unique about these headphones is they are among the first to use the USB-C connector, rather than standard 3.5mm headphone jack, to connect with the HTC 10. Since they use USB-C, the JBL Reflect Aware C headphones are able to provide active noise cancellation without internal batteries; they draw power from the HTC 10 itself. Users can customize the level of background noise so they may remain aware of their environment. The headphones are sweat-proof and come with three sport ear tips and three regular ear tips.

«

Neat idea.
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15: Please don’t enter the iCloud password » picomac

Ed Cormany:

»With TouchID, unlocking my phone is something I do dozens of times per day without thought. Even when I have to fall back to a passcode — it gets cold outside in places other than California! — it’s seamless. Most importantly, it’s predictable; I only have to authenticate in response to my own action of turning on the phone’s display.

I can’t say the same for iCloud authentication. In theory, I should only have to enter my iCloud credentials at device setup, or when performing specific actions like confirming a purchase. Yet most of the time I’m presented with an iCloud password dialog, it’s out of the blue, with no explanation: simply “Please enter the iCloud password for…” my Apple ID. It’s frustrating, sure, but more than that it’s troubling. Because I respond to that dialog differently than the vast majority of iCloud users.

I always click Cancel.

My iCloud credentials are the key to my digital life across several devices. I don’t give them away without an explanation, just as I wouldn’t give my Social Security number to someone who stopped me on the street randomly. But if the person behind the counter at the bank asked me for my SSN, even if I’d never seen them before in my life, I would give it over — it’s all about context.

«

This tweet from Ben Thompson is relevant. Apple really is not implementing this well.
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Worldwide PC shipments declined 9.6% in 1Q 2016 » Gartner

»Worldwide PC shipments totaled 64.8m units in the first quarter of 2016, a 9.6% decline from the first quarter of 2015, according to preliminary results by Gartner, Inc. This was the sixth consecutive quarter of PC shipment declines, and the first time since 2007 that shipment volume fell below 65m units.

“The deterioration of local currencies against the U.S. dollar continued to play a major role in PC shipment declines. Our early results also show there was an inventory buildup from holiday sales in the fourth quarter of 2015,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner.

“All major regions showed year-over-year shipment declines, with Latin America showing the steepest drop, where PC shipments declined 32.4%. The Latin American PC market was intensely impacted by Brazil, where the problematic economy and political instability adversely affected the market, Ms. Kitagawa said. “The ongoing decline in U.S. PC shipments showed that the installed base is still shrinking, a factor that played across developed economies. Low oil prices drove economic contraction in Latin America and Russia, changing them from drivers of growth to market laggards.”

PCs are not being adopted in new households as they were in the past, especially in emerging markets. In these markets, smartphones are the priority. In the business segment, Gartner analysts said the Windows 10 refresh is expected to start toward the end of 2016.

«

IDC puts the figure even lower, at 60.6m units. Basically, it’s the lowest figure since 2006. Never heard oil prices blamed for PC sales before.
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PC sales: the five stages of grief and the comeback that never comes » Forbes

Mark Rogowsky does a smart take on IDC’s repeated insistence that yeah, the PC business is just about to come back, real soon now:

»the PC has hit hard times in the era of both the iPad and the smartphone. While the former has itself seen sales falling, its impact on the PC is still real. Apple sold 48m last year and if you believe even 10-20% of them were purchased by someone who might have bought a PC instead, that’s potentially 3% of the decline in the PC market right there. (Chromebooks, based on Google’s ChromeOS, now account for nearly 3% of PCs as well, but IDC actually counts those as laptops so they are masking the decline in Windows.)

But a much more important factor has been the rise of smartphones, which are now used by more than 1 in 3 people on earth. While Americans who grew up on PCs have a tough time imagining computing as something other than a traditional laptop or (gasp!) desktop, many in emerging markets don’t know it as anything but what one does on the device they carry with them all the time. This will continue to confound the same kind of people who believe “real work” can’t be done on an iPad until the generation raised on tablets starts running the world without any real comprehension of what it means to use a PC.

«

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iPhone SE early statistics » Naofumi Kagami

Kagami looked at data from carriers, Amazon and big retailers in Japan:

»The interesting observation is that unlike the iPhone 6s where the 64GB model sells better than the 16GB model on all carriers, the reverse is true for the iPhone SE; on all carriers, the 16GB iPhone SE model sells better than the 64GB model. This suggests that iPhone SE users intend to use their phones more casually, and are more driven by price. Importantly, we have to understand that the data is only for the opening weekend which is typically skewed towards early adopters, who we would expect to prefer higher capacity models. It seems that the trend for iPhone SE users to be casual owners might be very strong.

Of course, we do not know the product mix of the items in stock, so this might simply be a result of inventory skew. However, assuming that this trend holds true, then we can make the following tentative conclusions;

• The iPhone SE appeals more to users who are more considerate of price, and who do not intend to use their smartphones very heavily.
• These users would typically only replace their current smartphones after they have completed their 2-year contract. A strong opening day turnout of this segment suggests that these users were holding onto old phones (either old iPhones or Androids).

«

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The dark side of Guardian comments » The Guardian

Becky Gardiner et al:

»New research into our own comment threads provides the first quantitative evidence for what female journalists have long suspected: that articles written by women attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men, regardless of what the article is about.

Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10”, one was Muslim and one Jewish.

And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.

How should digital news organisations respond to this? Some say it is simple – “Don’t read the comments” or, better still, switch them off altogether. And many have done just that, disabling their comment threads for good because they became too taxing to bother with.

But in so many cases journalism is enriched by responses from its readers. So why disable all comments when only a small minority is a problem?

«

Analysis of 70m comments since 2006. Also (if you go through) has a “play being a moderator!” quiz with various comments.

And is it really only a small minority who are a “problem”? It’s more that only a vanishingly small minority improve on what you’ve read. That’s not a surprise, because generally the writers have been trained and paid to write. Not so commenters.
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Autonomous tractor brings in the harvest » Hackaday

Jenny List:

»Matt Reimer is a farmer in Southwestern Manitoba, Canada. It’s grain country, and at harvest time he has a problem. An essential task when harvesting is that of the grain cart driver, piloting a tractor and grain trailer that has to constantly do the round between unloading the combine harvester and depositing the grain in a truck. It’s a thankless, unrelenting, and repetitive task, and Matt’s problem is that labour is difficult to find when every other farmer in the region is also hiring.

His solution was to replace the driver with a set of Arduinos and a Pixhawk autopilot controlling the tractor’s cab actuators, and running ArduPilot, DroneKit, and his own Autonomous Grain Cart software. Since a modern tractor is effectively a fly-by-wire device this is not as annoying a task as it would have been with a tractor from several decades ago, or with a car. The resulting autonomous tractor picks up the grain from his combine, but he reminds us that for now it still deposits the harvest in the truck under human control. It is still a work-in-progress with only one harvest behind it, so this project is definitely one to watch over the next few months.

«

Trucks, tractors… this stuff all happens quietly around the edges, and then suddenly you notice that the edges are a lot closer than you used to think.
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LG’s G5 B&O Hi-Fi DAC: thoughts from an audiophile sceptic » Android Police

David Ruddock looks at the Bang & Olufsen certified digital-to-analogue converter that LG offers as an add-on for its G5 flagship smartphone:

»The Hi-FI DAC G5 was clearly and noticeably shaping and processing audio differently than any other device I tested. I’m not sure what effects are being applied, but I would guess it’s some sort of suite of adjustments B&O have made to deem the accessory acceptable to the B&O “signature sound.” The problem for me is that, as someone trying to just let the components be transparent and produce flat, unshaped sound, the Hi-Fi DAC is actually doing a worse job at being a piece of audiophile equipment than the G5’s standard headphone jack! Sure, you’ll hear a difference going from the G5’s headphone jack to the Hi-Fi’s DAC, but that’s literally because LG and / or B&O have gone out of their way to make certain you hear a difference, whether you like it or not. After all, if the average Joe bought a G5 and the Hi-Fi and used the bundled earbuds, do you think LG honestly wants to be in a situation where the customer says they can’t hear the difference? They have to be able to hear it, or LG would be openly mocked for selling an overpriced, ineffectual witchcraft box.

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How actors get plastic surgery with a click » Vulture

Logan Hill:

»Recently, after shooting three episodes of the WGN America drama Salem, an actor in a prominent role left the show for personal reasons. A few years ago, such a major switch would have been a costly debacle requiring expensive reshoots. But “we didn’t have to reshoot at all,” says veteran showrunner Brannon Braga. “We’re replacing his face with a new actor’s face.”

Today, digital face replacement is just one technique at Hollywood’s disposal. Braga regularly uses CG to retouch actors, “whether it’s a pimple, or an actress who has bags under her eyes on that particular day, or painting out a nipple in a sex scene.” When an actress got a nose ring without telling him, his postproduction team removed it at a cost of “tens of thousands of dollars.” Such work can get expensive, but it’s industry standard. “Look, we re-created the whole Library of Alexandria,” he says, referring to his work on the Neil deGrasse Tyson documentary series Cosmos. “Why wouldn’t we get rid of a cookie crumb on Neil’s mustache?”

But Braga is no trailblazer. “I do television,” he says, “not $300 million movies.” He’s just using digital techniques that have become ubiquitous over the last decade — even though they are largely invisible to most audiences, rarely discussed by creators, and usually hidden behind nondisclosure agreements.

«

Plus a slideshow. Truly fascinating; and invisible.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none noted.

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