The UpStream

Epic Games grows its offerings, officially a multi-platform publisher

posted Saturday Mar 28, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Epic Games grows its offerings, officially a multi-platform publisher

Epic Games has made it clear that they want to grow to be a true competitor for the big boys. While the company has long produced the popular Unreal Engine, it wasn't until Fortnite that the brand became a household name. They have used that position, and the unreal income from the game, to grow their offerings. The Epic Games Store, launched just over a year ago, was the company's first major push. But, there is one aspect of the industry the company has been lacking: publishing.

That changed this week, as Epic Games officially announced Epic Games Publishing. But, announcing a new division is very different from being able to attract developers to publish through the company. The announcement, however, came along with a list of developers who have already signed on, and the list is not made up of unknown studios. The three most notable studios to sign on already are Remedy Entertainment, best known for Max Payne, Playdead, best known for the incredibly popular Limbo and follow-up Inside, and genDESIGN, best known for the Sony exclusive title Shadow of the Collosus.

Why would these well-renowned studios decide to change the way they've been doing business and sign on with Epic as their publisher? It has everything to do with the new division's publishing contract. The most attractive aspect of the contract is that the studios will retain 100% ownership of their intellectual property. This has become more common in recent years, but it wasn't long ago that a publisher got full or partial rights to the studio's game franchise.

In addition, the financial benefits are huge. A studio that signs on with Epic Games Publishing could get full funding of their title, though not guaranteed, and, following a break-even point, will receive at least half of all future profits. That is a great deal for small and large developers alike. There is no word on what these new contracts might produce, but with studios like these, we can be almost certain the games will be Epic.

Virtual Reality is seeing new displays and the end of Gear VR

posted Saturday Mar 28, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Virtual Reality is seeing new displays and the end of Gear VR

While virtual reality has gained some traction over the past few years, it has still struggled to gain significant consumer adoption. There have been several attempts made to find a sweet spot, but thus far, nothing has quite gotten the job done. From phone-based headsets to flagship products, no device has quite captured the imagination of consumers.

Phone-Based VR

The most popular of the phone-based devices has definitely been the Samsung Galaxy VR. Samsung partnered with Oculus to produce a platform that would give owners of Samsung Galaxy phones access to a large portion of the Oculus app and game catalog without the need to purchase an expensive headset. Samsung was so sure that the technology would take off that it included a free Galaxy VR headset with the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ phones. However, the company gave up on the technology shortly after. In fact, the company conveniently forgot to include support for the Galaxy S10.

While the newer phones have not been supported, the existing phones have maintained support for their existing features. Unfortunately, that is coming to an end next month. As of April 1, much of the app and game catalog will no longer be available to Gear VR devices. If you have the apps installed before that date, you will still be able to use them but will receive no future updates. If the publishers change backend capabilities, the apps may fail to function.

Flagship VR

On the other end of the spectrum, though, are the flagship devices. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have held the top spots in the industry for years, but new challengers have entered the arena in rent months. The Valve Index is the newest high-end entry on the Steam VR platform, but there is room for more competition. The newest headset on the Steam VR Scene is coming care of HP and Microsoft.

The new headset is currently being referred to as Next Gen HP VR Headset is likely to be known as the HP Reverb G2. The original device was met with indifference, but HP is wanting this model to be "the new standard in VR." The company has given very little information about the new HMD, but developed in partnership with Valve, who produces the Steam VR platform, and Microsoft, which makes Windows Mixed Reality, is likely to be a heavy hitter.

There is no indication as to a release date, though the listing on Steam says that it will be "coming soon."

Microsoft has divested from facial recognition startup AnyVision

posted Saturday Mar 28, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Microsoft has divested from facial recognition startup AnyVision

In the past few months, governments, companies, consumer advocates, and individuals have put an increasing amount of scrutiny on facial recognition companies. The concern arose because of Clearview AI, a previously secretive startup that was revealed to be mining data to identify people in public for law enforcement. During this time, companies with investments in other facial recognition startups have begun investigating whether or not they want to continue in those businesses. One of those companies is Microsoft, which had a minority investment in AnyVision.

AnyVision was an equally secretive startup that Microsoft invested in before the idea that facial recognition companies would violate the public trust. However, after Clearview AI came a report from NBC News that AnyVision was involved in a military contract to surveil Palestinians. That prompted Microsoft to do its own investigation into the company in order to determine whether or not the company violates Microsoft's ethics guidelines.

Microsoft hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to lead the investigation. This week, the results of the investigation were revealed. They showed that the NBC News report was mistaken and that AnyVision was not involved in Palestinian surveillance. However, Microsoft also announced that the end result of the investigation is that the company was divesting from its investment in AnyVision. In the statement, they said,

AnyVision technology has not previously and does not currently power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank that has been alleged in media reports.

They also intend to suspend any future investments in companies that focus on facial recognition. Both moves are not directly related to the actual investigation results, but more because of the fact that the investigation needed to be performed in the first place. Microsoft believes that there is no way to accurately monitor the culture and behaviors of facial recognition companies, and as such, there is no way to ensure that the companies align with Microsoft's ethics and corporate mission.

Entertainment companies are trying to make quarantine more enjoyable

posted Saturday Mar 21, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Over the past few weeks, the world has definitely changed. As the global outbreak of COVID-19 continues to worsen, more and more people are staying home, not just during their off-hours but during work hours as well. Non-essential businesses are closed worldwide, including all entertainment companies, such as movie theaters, venues, and bars. As the scenario worsens, the entertainment industry has made changes to the way it works in order to make the experience of living and working at home a little better.

Venues and Bars

Local artists, including musicians, dancers, and drag performers, rely on bars and local venues to pay their bills. With these locations being closed, the venues and performers are working together to bring unique experiences to their fans. Many of these groups are doing live streams, either from the venues themselves or remote locations, and making them available through the larger fanbase of the venues. They accept tips to help keep the local scene going.

Movies

Movie studios schedule their theatrical releases sometimes years in advance of the films' releases. For those who have films scheduled to release in the next few months, or that released just before the shutdown, decisions have had to be made. Without theaters to show the movies, they have looked at new ways to distribute those films. As a result, a number of high profile movies, including Pixar's Onward, DC Entertainment's Birds of Prey, and Disney's Frozen II are all releasing on digital well ahead of the planned schedule. Some are available for standard streaming, while others are available for rental or purchase on platforms like iTunes.

The Downsides

As more things move online, the internet's infrastructure and corporate infrastructures are seeing heavier than normal stresses. As such, the streaming companies, who are seeing the largest portion of the increase, are starting to throttle their output. This is happening for a variety of reasons, but mostly because their own networks are not designed for this load. These companies build their networks such that they can handle their customers' standard needs, but no one was prepared for this increase. As streaming companies are also the largest users of internet bandwidth, by reducing the stream quality, they can try and prevent interruptions to other systems being used to keep businesses online.

Facebook decides now is a good time to roll out new web interface

posted Saturday Mar 21, 2020 by Scott Ertz

Facebook decides now is a good time to roll out new web interface

A year ago, at Facebook's F8 developer conference, the company announced a major redesign of its desktop web experience. The new version of the application is the largest change since the update that moved the Facebook logo on the header and introduced the righthand panel years ago. A quick glance will make it clear that the new web experience is based on the mobile experience, with the site's content being broken into top-level content categories, each with its own tab across the top. These include the Feed, Videos (Watch), Marketplace, Groups, etc.

While a small group of users has had access to the new design for a little while, the majority of users have not had access to the new features. That changed this week, as the company has begun rolling out the new interface to a larger group of users. Some had it forced upon them, while others have the option to enable it manually. Either way, it appears that users will have the ability to swap back to the current interface - at least for a while.

This change is coming at a time when the web experience is being used more than usual, with more people working from home and using a computer during their day. With a captive audience, the company seems to have decided that it was a great tie to swap to the new experience. While this might be a strange choice for those who use the desktop experience on a regular basis as we do here in the office, it actually makes a lot of sense for those who are used to mobile. Having a more familiar look and feel to the desktop application could encourage people to use the web application more.

Of course, not everyone has been invited to test the application. Our team is mixed, with some seeing the option to change. If you are interested in trying out the new interface, check under the user menu (top-right corner) and look for "See New Facebook" under the Settings option.

GameStop changes stance, closes inside of stores amid pressure

posted Saturday Mar 21, 2020 by Scott Ertz

GameStop changes stance, closes inside of stores amid pressure

Companies across the globe have been changing the way they do business during this global viral outbreak. Many have shut down offices, allowing their employees to work from home (unless you're a Comcast employee). Many retailers have shut down entirely, while others have shut their doors to the public, allowing only curbside pickups. Even restaurants, who depend on on-site business, have shut their doors across the world. In this environment, only essential businesses, such as grocery and pharmacy, are still open to the public, and even they are looking for new ways to do business.

And then there's GameStop, the videogame retailer that has seen hard times in the last few years. As retailers have closed their doors, GameStop has taken a different strategy - claiming that they are essential retail. The reason they make this claim is that, in addition to videogames and toys, the company also sells computer accessories and peripherals that people who are working at home for the first time will be needing. The corporate office even sent a letter to store managers to provide to law enforcement in the case they tried to enforce store closures on GameStop locations. At least, in the midst of bad decision making, the company did decide to cancel its midnight events for the launch of Doom Eternal and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Fortunately, the national attention brought to the company because of its refusal to close stores has led to a change in policy. After California refused to allow GameStop to keep its doors open after a statewide shutdown, headquarters changed its position, closing all of its stores to the public. The stores will remain open, allowing customers to pick up online and phone orders. This move is finally a smart one, as employee health and safety were being put at risk in order to sell more videogames.

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