The UpStream

Microsoft and Xbox are all about the games in 2019 and beyond

posted Sunday Jun 9, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Microsoft and Xbox are all about the games in 2019 and beyond

While we never know exactly what to expect from an E3 presentation, we always know we'll see new games. Microsoft decided to dedicate as much time to that endeavor as possible, exhibiting 60 games, including 14 from Xbox Game Studios, and 34 titles which will premiere on the company's Xbox Game Pass subscription service. The presentation included a number of world premieres, both from first-party and third-party studios. Plus, we got a better look at Project xCloud and the next Xbox platform.

Games

A highly anticipated game coming into E3 was Cyberpunk 2077. Xbox showed off a very long trailer for the game, ending with the inclusion of Keanu Reeves. Immediately following the trailer, Keavue Reeves himself came on stage to discuss the details of the game. You play as an outlaw, a role Keanu knows well, in a futuristic civilization where cybernetic body modification has become not just the norm, but an obsession. The game looks both beautiful and engaging, with visuals that are simply stunning. The game, which is based on the 1980s-era tabletop game Cyberpunk 2020, is slated for release in April 2020.

One of the surprise titles was Blair Witch, obviously based on the film. The game seems to take the responsibility of the title seriously, bringing some unique gameplay and storytelling features into the game. Just like the film, it uses a camcorder to help narrate the story, as well as help the player discover not easily seen content.

The highly anticipated Gear 5, the newest game in the Gears of War franchise was also shown off. The new Escape mode is what we got to learn about, care of a trip under the stage. This new mode is similar to the popular "zombie mode" in other games, but taking place within the Gears of War universe. It is very reminiscent of Left4Dead, but only 3 survivors instead of 4. The big twist is that you can create your own hives and challenge your friends to survive. The game releases on September 10, 2019, but will release to Xbox Game Pass 4 days early.

The company also wanted to spotlight ID @ Xbox, the indie developer network at Xbox. Xbox showed off a sizzle reel featuring dozens of new indie games, all coming to the Xbox. More importantly, all of the game featured in the reel will also premiere in Game Pass on launch day, making them available to all Game Pass subscribers.

Double Fine

The newest member of the Xbox Game Studio family is Double Fine, the studio behind the cult classic Psychonauts. Personally, this game is one of my all-time favorites and is a game I go back to every couple of years. As the company's first official announcement as part of XGS, Double Fine showed off a trailer for Psychonauts 2. It maintains all of the weird, dark humor of the original while picking up the story right where it left off.

Xbox Game Pass

While tons of new games will be premiering on Xbox Game Pass for Console, Xbox Game Pass for PC is official and available in open beta RIGHT NOW. The platform is launching with over 100 titles available for play. To join the beta, simply download the new Xbox app for Windows. In addition to the solo service, the company is announcing Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which includes Xbox Game Pass Console, Xbox Live Gold, and Xbox Game Pass PC for $14.99 per month. You can try the whole thing right now $1.

Project xCloud

We've talked at length about the possibilities that Project xCloud could bring about. The problem has been, how will it work, and how close is it to market? At E3 this week, Microsoft is giving the first hands-on with the platform. So, it's close to market, but how will it work? Project xCloud will have 2 modes: full cloud and hybrid cloud. The full cloud version will use hardware in a data center to stream to wherever you are. The hybrid model, however, will use your existing Xbox hardware to stream to your games to your devices. While there is no public pricing on the full cloud option, the hybrid model will be available starting in October and will be entirely free to use.

Project Scarlett

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that Xbox should be the center of the living room. While that was a great goal, not all gamers were into it. The feedback has been to focus the console on the gaming experience, and that is exactly what the next generation of Xbox hardware is all about.

A new AMD-powered processor is designed to make everything run faster. It is 4x more powerful than the Xbox One X, which is already the most powerful console on the market. Adding faster RAM and an SSD allows for 8K video, little to no load times, and significantly more engaging content. Studios are already working on content for this new console, and the reviews are in: it's going to make games far better. The new hardware will be available Holiday 2020, and it will launch with the definitive Xbox title: Halo Infinite.

Apple's big day: The ups and downs from the WWDC 2019 keynote

posted Sunday Jun 9, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Apple's big day: The ups and downs from the WWDC 2019 keynote

Apple has a small collection of annual announcement events. In September, the company tends to show off consumer hardware, including the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook line. In June, however, the company holds its annual World Wide Developer Conference, or WWDC, where they tend to show off software and professional hardware. WWDC 2019 was no different, with new operating system information, updated platforms, and a new Mac Pro model, plus a return to monitors. While the announcements received the mandatory applause from those in attendance, the general response was not entirely positive.

iOS (iPhone and iPod Touch)

The biggest change coming to iOS 13 (which is now only available on iPod Touch and iPhone), is not something that consumers will know about but is a big deal for developers: SwiftUI. SwiftUI is a replacement for the disastrous UI designer that app builders have had to contend with for the past decade. SwiftUI brings to the Apple development platform features that Microsoft developers have had for over a decade, whether building for Windows, Xbox, Android, or iPhone: a visual designer. Developers can now build interfaces and see what they will look like, and even make live adjustments directly in Xcode, which is Apple's development tool.

For consumers, the biggest change will be the addition of dark mode, another feature that has been part of the other platforms for years. For some, dark mode is an always-on feature, while for others it is a great way to ease the screen strain on their eyes in the evening. Either way, a dark background with light text is a feature that Apple fans have been asking for over the years, and they finally have it.

Another big addition that will make using iOS apps easier is multi-window support. The best example of this feature is being able to have more than one browser window open, each with its own set of tabs, or each with a single active tab. It is also a popular feature on other platforms for messaging, whether it be email or text. It will be interesting to see where Apple adds the feature, as well as where 3rd party developers see the benefit.

iPadOS (iPad)

Since its inception, the iPad has run on the same operating system as the other handheld mobile devices: iOS. Starting this generation, a fork of iOS will be used for the iPad, creatively called iPadOS. While nearly identical to the core mobile operating system, forking the development will allow Apple to more easily add features such as split screen on the iPad Pro, without having to worry about unintended consequences on the other devices. It's important to note that, as of today, it will not affect any app deployment, but it is always possible that this will change at some point in the future.

watchOS

The biggest change to watchOS is the ability to use it on its own. The App Store is now available directly on the Apple Watch, meaning that you can install apps without the need for an iPhone attached. This will make the untethered mode, such as when using it on LTE, far more useful. However, the biggest benefit for Apple Watch owners is not needing to clutter up your iPhone with apps, just because you want something on your Watch. Direct app installation will mean smaller, more focused Watch apps, and less clutter on your phone.

macOS Catalina

The next version of macOS, Catalina, will bring with it some new features. The most exciting is probably Sidecar. This feature allows Mac and iPad owners to use the iPad as an additional monitor for their Mac. This is not a new capability to the platform, as there have been a number of apps that have allowed for this feature for years. However, Apple's embracing of the technology likely means better stability.

Another feature is Find My, the extension of Find My Phone onto MacBooks. While a lost MacBook probably means that you should focus more on what you're doing, having this feature is a benefit for those who can't do that. It sounds like the feature works like Tile, meaning that other devices will report encountering the laptop, when and where.

In addition, there are a number of app redesigns. As we reported last week, iTunes is dead (on Mac), being replaced instead by Apple Music, Apple TV, and Apple Podcasts. The Photos, Notes, and Safari have also brought about updates.

Mac Pro and Pro Display

The Mac Pro received a much-needed refresh. The new model uses Intel Xeon server processors, which is an interesting choice for a non-server device. However, what Apple has accomplished with the Mac Pro is truly impressive: rendering of 3 separate 8K video feeds at once, without the computer simply melting into a puddle is not something you would expect from a pre-built computer. However, for the estimated $45k for the top-level model, you could likely build several computers of equal or greater capacity.

The product that received the most coverage, however, is the Pro Display. This screen is equal or better than a $40k broadcast-quality reference monitor but runs only $6k. However, the real focus here has been the fact that this expensive display does not come with a stand. Instead, the company offers a VESA mount for $200, or a tabletop stand for $1000. Yes, you read that correctly: $1000 for a monitor stand, something that comes with monitors. Add to it that the monitor and stand carry with it the incredibly ugly cheese grater design of the new Mac Pro, and it has been met with a lot of negative sentiment, even from diehard Apple fans.

Ding dong, the witch is dead: iTunes is being replaced... sort of

posted Saturday Jun 1, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Ding dong, the witch is dead: iTunes is being replaced... sort of

Though theoretically a successful platform, iTunes has always been a hated part of the Apple ecosystem. It was introduced in 2001 as the legal alternative to Napster - a way to purchase and listen to digital music. It was the companion product to the first iPod devices, which were limited in capabilities and availability. As the platform grew, so did the capabilities of iTunes. Over time, they introduced podcasts to the platform, then videos. With the release of the iPhone, the company decided to incorporate all of the phone's capabilities into the same application. This has made it a very large, bloated piece of software that requires constant updates to support unrelated products and services.

Over the past few years, Apple has begun to spin out the capabilities of iTunes into individual mobile applications, like Apple Podcasts, Apple Music, and Apple TV. Unfortunately, on the computer, iTunes has continued to exist as an unwanted and necessary application. All of that is about to change, however, as Apple is expected to announce at WWDC that they have done the same to the computer that they have to mobile. There will be individual applications for Music, Podcasts, and Video, making each application theoretically easier to navigate.

When the context is lost in an application like iTunes, it makes it nearly impossible to find your way around. For example, the process of syncing music, photos, and ringtones to an iPhone are all different, despite being part of the same application. By giving each task its own dedicated context, it should make using those platforms easier. Plus, it means that adding support for a new model of iPhone, for example, should no longer require an application update, unlike today.

Some possible screenshots have leaked, suggesting that the applications will retain the ugly and outdated user interface that iTunes currently uses, though that might have been for a prototype version, a temporary launch version, or even a complete fake. We don't have long to wait, as WWDC 2019 starts Monday morning.

Wikipedia's double-edged sword: The North Face uses it for advertising

posted Saturday Jun 1, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Wikipedia's double-edged sword: The North Face uses it for advertising

It was only a matter of time before Wikipedia's popularity and crowdsourced content encouraged a large company to use the platform for advertising. While companies have used the platform to increase their own Wikipedia page's visibility, The North Face took a unique approach to the goal. Rather than worrying about their own ranking, they used Wikipedia's own ranking on Google Image Search to place their brand all over the world.

The company, with the help of marketing agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made, decided to own adventure photography on the internet. They traveled around the world, taking photos in high profile locations, with their models wearing or carrying The North Face products, highlighting the logo. They then replaced existing photos of those locations on Wikipedia with their own photos. On its face, it seems semi-trivial, as the photos themselves were still of the locations in question. However, it meant that the first photo on Google Image Search for those locations was often the one from the company, meaning a highly increased presence of their logo for travelers.

The move was clever, but unfortunately for The North Face, is completely against the terms of service for Wikipedia. Because of the high number of changes to Wikipedia pages every day, they might have gotten away with it, save for one big mistake: they produced a video promoting their scheme, which was published publicly. In addition, they claimed in the video that they had collaborated with Wikipedia, which they had not.

Wikimedia, the organization behind Wikipedia, responded, claiming that the companies had defaced Wikipedia.

Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation did not collaborate on this stunt, as The North Face falsely claims. In fact, what they did was akin to defacing public property, which is a surprising direction from The North Face. Their stated mission, "unchanged since 1966," is to "support the preservation of the outdoors" - a public good held in trust for all of us.

The company has publicly apologized for the stunt in a tweet issued on Wednesday, saying,

We believe deeply in @Wikipedia's mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we'll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies.

Clearly, Wikipedia's moderators will be on the lookout for this type of behavior going forward, meaning that we are unlikely to see anyone else try this again any time soon. Do you think that what The North Face did was unethical, or was it a clever usage of Wikipedia's search position? Let us know in the comments.

Microsoft commits itself to PC gaming with Steam and Game Pass

posted Saturday Jun 1, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Microsoft commits itself to PC gaming with Steam and Game Pass

It's no secret that Microsoft's relationship with PC gaming has been questionable over the years. More than once, the company has brought about a way for gamers to interact with their games and one another, only to see the closure of the platform. The Games for Windows Live platform was closed in 2013, to be replaced by Xbox for Windows, which Phil Spencer promised would not go the same way.

So far, the company has managed to live up to that promise. In fact, over the years, the Xbox platform for PC has expanded, bringing with it new features baked right into Windows. The Xbox Game Bar has Mixer streaming, sound controls, PC performance, and even social features available at your fingertips. After months of rumors, Microsoft has announced officially that they will be bringing another big Xbox feature to Windows: Game Pass. This service allows you to access tons of games for a single monthly price. It has been limited to the Xbox One, but will soon be coming to the PC. We know very little about the service as of now but will learn more details at the company's E3 2019 presentation on June 9th.

Xbox is not the only way that Microsoft is showing its commitment to PC gamers. Following in the company's current cross-platform push, Microsoft has also announced that all future Xbox titles released on PC will also be available for purchase through Steam. They have also been adding back catalog titles to the platform, with the number growing throughout the week. While this might not seem like a big deal, it means that gamers can purchase their favorite Xbox Game Studios games from their platform of choice, instead of being locked into the Microsoft ecosystem. So, if Microsoft changes their direction for their PC ambitions again in the future, gamers will still have a way forward.

New York school district is embracing facial recognition technology

posted Saturday Jun 1, 2019 by Scott Ertz

New York school district is embracing facial recognition technology

Over the past few months, the public sentiment about facial recognition has shifted from neutral to against. This has been even more prominent in the public sector, as the public and employees alike have asked companies like Amazon to discontinue sales of their technology to the government. Despite these trends against trust in the government using facial recognition technology, Lockport City School District in New York has begun implementing facial recognition in their schools.

The plan is to use the recognition tech to identify issues before they arise, such as child predators and potential attacks. The district is the first in the country to implement the tech in schools and recognizes that, despite the possible benefits, there are some drawbacks, as well. Superintendent Michelle Bradley, said,

I would say for the Lockport City School District, while it's controversial, it's not prohibited and the most important thing is we believe we've established boundaries in the use of this. We have a policy that intends to protect privacy. We have identified a small group of individuals who will be placed in a database.

She is taking her guidance not from public opinion or potential social or legal obstacles, but instead from the fact that it is not expressly prohibited anywhere. Of course, despite not being prohibited, the technology allows for a lot of problems. The largest, of course, is the security of the database itself. For the technology to work effectively, it would require a whitelist of people who are permitted. That means a database of faces of children in the school district. A database like that, especially attached to controversial technology, is like a welcome mat for hackers and hacktivists.

There is also the issue that facial recognition technology is far from infallible. Apple and Samsung technology have been tricked by photos. In response to this criticism, the district's director of technology, Robert LiPuma, said,

We did have one incident where the board member came in and was identified on the first camera as the teacher and then it made a mistake, but it was an odd angle picture. But the second camera picked her up as who she actually was. It was actually a good test for me.

So, a single test was conducted, and it was tricked by a twin. Not a great start to the usefulness of this particular system. In addition to the privacy issues and technological hurdles, there will be legal issues to contend with. The New York Civil Liberties Union has already responded to the move, with education counsel Stefanie Coyle saying,

Facial recognition technology does little to protect students and poses serious risks for both privacy and civil rights. It is a shame that Lockport school administrators have decided to deploy this technology regardless of these concerns, making their students, parents and faculty into guinea pigs to test the use of this software in school contexts. We continue to believe that this type of invasive and inaccurate technology does not belong in schools.

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