The UpStream

Microsoft Reveals Details of Project xCloud Videogame Streaming Platform

posted Saturday Oct 13, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Microsoft Reveals Details of Project xCloud Videogame Streaming Platform

It has long been known that Microsoft was working on an Azure-powered Xbox streaming platform. At E3 this year, the project was confirmed, with a promise of further details to come. Following Google's Project Stream going into beta last week, Microsoft has made good on that promise, with new details released this week.

The project is currently known as Project xCloud, likely a combination of Xbox and Azure Cloud, being as those are the platforms being combined to make it possible. The project represents the next generation of Microsoft's Play Anywhere initiative, which brought Xbox games to PC, and vice versa. That feature required a game to be built using Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform, which is a platform designed to allow software to run on a variety of devices, including PC, Xbox, Hololens, embedded systems (like an arcade cabinet), and more, or have a special relationship with Microsoft. UWP has its limitations, though, and has not gotten complete buy-in, which has meant that the catalog is not huge.

The thing that makes Project xCloud a step forward is the fact that developers need to do absolutely nothing special to make their games compatible with the platform. Any game that can run on the Xbox One can be streamed to devices. That means that the catalog at launch could be massive: far larger than any other game streaming platform.

Another thing that sets Project xCloud apart is the platforms that it will support. In essence, if the device can pair a Bluetooth Xbox controller, it is likely going to be able to stream games. Microsoft is also testing touch input, so that could expand the lineup of devices. This means that nearly any phone or tablet, provided it has enough resources, will be able to play any of the games. This is because of the way game streaming works: the game does not actually run and render on the device but instead is run and rendered on a server, and only the video is streamed to the device. This has been a technological concern for other companies that have tried it, but Microsoft has ideas to overcome the downfalls.

Developers and researchers at Microsoft Research are creating ways to combat latency through advances in networking topology, and video encoding and decoding. Project xCloud will have the capability to make game streaming possible on 4G networks and will dynamically scale to push against the outer limits of what's possible on 5G networks as they roll out globally. Currently, the test experience is running at 10 megabits per second. Our goal is to deliver high-quality experiences at the lowest possible bitrate that work across the widest possible networks, taking into consideration the uniqueness of every device and network.

Being as Microsoft has Azure datacenters across the globe, they might be the first company that can actually overcome the biggest issue: latency. Pressing a button on your controller and having to wait an extended period of time to see a result prevents quick action gaming, which is required for most big titles. The fact that they are already working to eliminate the problem on only a 10Mbps connection (just barely above 1 MB per second) is impressive.

Microsoft will begin public trials of the technology in 2019, testing capabilities, stress and more. As the tests get closer, we will make sure to keep you updated on the development.

Amidst Fresh on the Mind Privacy Problems, Facebook Announces Controversial Video Device

posted Saturday Oct 13, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Amidst Fresh on the Mind Privacy Problems, Facebook Announces Controversial Video Device

Anyone who is unaware of Facebook's privacy and security violations does not live in the same century as the rest of us. Between major controversies like Cambridge Analytica and their recent data breach, faith and trust in the company is not in a great place. All of that makes this week's announcement even more surprising: Facebook is launching Portal: an Alexa-powered smart display and video chatting device.

These new devices, dubbed Portal and Portal+, are, on the surface, pretty standard fare. They have a screen, a camera, and a microphone array. They respond to a voice command, in this case, "Hey Portal," and theoretically ignore all other content. They have video calling built-in, using Facebook Messenger, and use the microphone array to minimize background noise. Even the body of the base device looks nearly identical to an Echo Show Gen 2.

While the basics are pretty generic, there are some distinguishing features. For example, using some AI features, the camera is capable of some interesting tricks. As people move around in the frame, or people enter and exit the frame, the field of view can be adjusted automatically. It's like having a director of videography living in your kitchen. This is far from the first consumer product to offer a feature like this - even Skype offers a version - but none of them work quite as seamlessly as the Portal.

The really interesting aspect of the Portal has nothing to do with the product, and more to do with the timing and marketing. With such a low level of trust in the company and their handling of data, bringing out what amounts to a spy device right now has created an interesting scenario for the company: getting people to want a Portal in their home. They've gone to a lot of trouble in their marketing material to create a feeling of privacy. In fact, more of their website is dedicated to privacy than any other feature. Privacy seems to be the only feature that has a sub-page on the domain.

From little things like a camera cover to big things, like locally-running AI, they are talking a lot about privacy. They make one claim that others have made in the past, "Facebook doesn't listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you're calling." Usually, when other companies have made a big deal about this, it has turned out to be misleading at best, and an outright lie at worst. Facebook's track record makes me lean more to the latter than the former.

Are you interested in a Facebook Portal? Let us know in the comments.

As Streaming Exclusivity Raises, So Does Media Piracy

posted Friday Oct 5, 2018 by Scott Ertz

When Netflix started its transition from DVD to streaming (and finally making their name make sense), they were really the only game in town. That meant that any studio that had content they wanted to make available only had a single choice through which to distribute. It also meant that consumers only had a single place to go to see if a certain piece of content was available to stream. Today, the market is beyond fragmented, with general purpose services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video, plus network-specific services like CBS All Access, HBO NOW, and more. In addition, DC just launched a service, and Disney is looking at as many as 3 separate services.

As the number of distribution platforms increases, so does the number of pieces of content that sign exclusivity deals with a particular platform. The platforms believe that locking content in as an exclusivity to their service, it essentially holds consumers hostage to paying for their platform. On F5 Live: Refreshing Technology, we have discussed several times that the fragmentation of the industry has caused a new problem for consumers: too much cost. For example, if you want to watch Futurama, you have to pay $8 per month. If you also want to watch Disenchantment, also from the same team, you need to also pay $8 per month for Netflix. So, just to watch the two shows, it's $16 per month.

As the cost of streaming options increases, due to too many choices, customers have another choice to make: whether or not to pay. However, the internet generation is not going to be dissuaded from watching the content they want. If you need any proof, ask the music industry how preventing streaming has worked for them (hint: it created Napster). As it turns out, the choice they are making is to pirate the content.

According to a new report from Sandvine titled Global Internet Phenomena, as streaming availability raised, the use of services like BitTorrent decreased. However, as the industry has continued to fragment, the use of BitTorrent has increased once again. In 2011, the report showed that 52% of all upstream traffic in the Americas was BitTorrent traffic. In 2015, only about 28% of all traffic was BitTorrent. This year, however, usage shows a reversal of the trend, and exclusivity deals are likely a cause.

Unfortunately, this report is unlikely to make any changes in the industry. There is a certain amount of content piracy that is expected and, if the companies are smart, planned for. Until that loss is exceeded, the industry won't look at its behavior and begin to make changes. However, if the wireless industry is any indication, they will eventually discover that exclusivity is not good for business.

Facebook Hacked, 90 Million Users Affected

posted Friday Oct 5, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Facebook Hacked, 90 Million Users Affected

It is no secret that 2018 has not been Facebook's year. Between illegal data collection lawsuits and of course Cambridge Analytica, which landed CEO Mark Zuckerberg in front of Congress, this is almost certainly a year the company wishes it could do over. Unfortunately, last week added to the company's difficulties, this time care of a data breach.

This breach, which affected only about 50 million of the site's 2.23 billion active users (or about 2%), took advantage of a bug in the altered upload process introduced in mid-2017 and a bug in the "View As" profile feature. By using the bug in the View As feature, attackers were able to get access to external access keys, used to connect to applications like Hootsuite and MissingLettr, or for logging into applications via the Facebook login process.

By using these keys, an attacker could, potentially, be able to make whatever changes or access whatever data that key gives access to. For example, if you used to login process, they might be able to access your name, email address and possibly your contact list. If the key was for an application like Hootsuite, they attacker could have access to a ton of data, including all of the pages you manage and would be granted access to post to your profile and pages as you.

Fortunately, once Facebook became aware of the issue, they patched the vulnerabilities and expired every exposed access key, plus keys for another 40 million users who had used the View As feature in the last 12 months. Those 90 million users started their Friday being asked to login to a variety of applications, including the website, mobile apps, Messenger, and more. While it might be an inconvenience, it's better that Facebook revoked all of the tokens rather than leaving it up to the users to figure out some revocation process.

Your next steps, whether or not you were forcibly logged out, should involve a thorough review of the apps that you give access to your information. You might even want to consider not using the Login with Facebook feature in the future, if that is an option. Some popular applications do not allow you to skip the Facebook Login, but most allow you to create a platform-specific login. When that is an option, use it. If you were logged out, you might also want to change your Facebook password, although the company says there is no indication that password information was made available.

Google Announces Project Stream with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

posted Friday Oct 5, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Google Announces Project Stream with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Earlier this year, we learned about Project Yeti, Google's attempt to create a game streaming service. Over the years, various companies have attempted game streaming systems with varying results. OnLive failed miserably in the market, while Sony's purchase of Gaikai, which ultimately became PlayStation Now, has been a success. Even Microsoft is working on a game streaming system to enhance the Xbox One and PC gaming space. So far, the only real successes or potentials for success have come from companies already established in the gaming world.

This week, Google, who has no real place in the gaming industry, announced and launched the first test of what we assume to be their Project Yeti, which is currently being called Project Stream. The system allows people to stream a AAA title, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, directly to their browser. Unfortunately, the system only works in Chrome for Desktop, meaning anyone using Edge, Firefox or Safari, or anyone on a mobile device, is currently out of luck, though Windows, macOS, Linux, and Chrome OS are all valid options.

All from within the browser, you can play the game with keyboard and mouse or with a wired controller. For whatever reason, Project Stream cannot use Bluetooth controllers, although as far as the computer is concerned it should be the same. Google says that both modern console controllers, both Xbox One and PlayStation 4, work just fine when wired. It should also work with controllers from Logitech and Razer. You'll also need a recommended 25Mbps internet connection, though a faster connection will likely work better.

As is fairly normal for Google product launches, the system is invite-only. To get an invitation to the system, you can visit the Project Stream website and fill out a simple form. Filling out the form does not guarantee that you will get an invitation, but it's the only way to get started. Invitations are available to anyone in the US 17-years-old or older.

Apple Preventing People From Repairing Devices They Own

posted Friday Oct 5, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Apple Preventing People From Repairing Devices They Own

Over the past few years, the trend of electronics companies preventing consumers from making alterations to their devices has been on the rise. When it came to videogame consoles, one of the early implementors, it made some sense: altering a console could cause cheating, which is no fun for those who play legitimately. But, as the trend left gaming consoles, it went from a policy to protect a community to a policy to protect corporate profits.

We've seen phones and laptops seal their bodies, even preventing their owners from changing something as simple as a battery - a capability that both had previously had for decades. All of these changes have been made difficult or nearly impossible, but if you had the determination, you could make the repair and continue to use your device. All of that is about to change, however.

This week, it was revealed that Apple has made a change to its 2018 MacBook Pros and iMac Pros, updating a piece of hardware included in their computers specifically to punish people who want to fix a product they own. The new version of the chip, the T2, will temporarily self-destruct the computer if certain repairs or upgrades are performed without authorization. These actions include anything involving the display assembly, logic board, keyboard or trackpad, or Touch ID board. These are some of the most common and most expensive repairs, which causes owners to look for less expensive options. Unfortunately, to get the computer back up and running after a repair, Apple's Toolkit 2 has to be run to unlock the device.

In addition to being a downer to owners themselves, this policy change is going to add several new complications to the macOS ecosystem. First and foremost is computer repair stores. Most are not able to get certified Apple Authorized, which means that these companies will no longer be able to repair or upgrade these computers for their customers without making things worse.

This will also create a new complication for people looking to purchase a used Mac. Similar to Xbox, PlayStation, iPhone, and other devices, there is now a risk of purchasing a used Mac that is theoretically fully functional and even potentially upgraded, but which doesn't work.

This policy has nothing to do with security and everything to do with greed on Apple's part. Apple wants you to bring your computer to an Apple Store or an authorized repair center (which pays for that right), rather than taking it to your local computer shop, so that they can charge customers far above market rate for repairs. Hopefully, other manufacturers won't follow Apple's terrible lead in this area.

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