Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

Facebook Gets Real About Broadening Virtual Reality’s Appeal

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to be realizing a sobering reality about virtual reality: His company’s Oculus headsets that send people into artificial worlds are too expensive and confining to appeal to the masses.

Zuckerberg on Wednesday revealed how Facebook intends to address that problem, unveiling a stand-alone headset that won’t require plugging in a smartphone or a cord tethering it to a personal computer like the Oculus Rift headset does.

“I am more committed than ever to the future of virtual reality,” Zuckerberg reassured a crowd of computer programmers in San Jose, California, for Oculus’ annual conference.

Facebook’s new headset, called Oculus Go, will cost $199 when it hits the market next year. That’s a big drop from the Rift, which originally sold for $599 and required a PC costing at least $500 to become immersed in virtual reality, or VR.

Recent discounts lowered the Rift’s price to $399 at various times during the summer, a markdown Oculus now says will be permanent.

“The strategy for Facebook is to make the onboarding to VR as easy and inexpensive as possible,” said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “And $199 is an inexpensive entry for a lot of people who are just starting out in VR. The problem is you will be spending that money on a device that only does VR and nothing else.”

Facebook didn’t provide any details on how the Oculus Go will work, but said it will include built-in headphones for audio and have a LCD display.

Other headsets

The Oculus Go will straddle the market between the Rift and the Samsung Gear, a $129 headset that runs on some of Samsung’s higher-priced phones. It will be able to run the same VR as the Samsung Gear, leading Blau to conclude the Go will rely on the same Android operating system as the Gear and likely include similar processors as Samsung phones.

The Gear competes against other headsets, such as Google’s $99 Daydream View, that require a smartphone. Google is also working on a stand-alone headset that won’t require a phone, but hasn’t specified when that device will be released or how much it will cost.

Zuckerberg promised the Oculus Go will be “the most accessible VR experience ever,” and help realize his new goal of having 1 billion people dwelling in virtual reality at some point in the future.

Facebook and other major technology companies such as Google and Microsoft that are betting on VR have a long way to go.

About 16 million head-mounted display devices were shipped in 2016, a number expected to rise to 22 million this year, according to the research firm Gartner Inc. Those figures include headsets for what is known as augmented reality.

Zuckerberg, though, remains convinced that VR will evolve into a technology that reshapes the way people interact and experience life, much like smartphones and social networks already have. His visions carry weight, largely because Facebook now has more than 2 billion users and plays an influential role in how people communicate.

But VR so far has been embraced mostly by video game lovers, despite Facebook’s efforts to bring the technology into the mainstream since buying Oculus for $2 billion three years ago.

Facebook has shaken up Oculus management team since then in a series of moves that included the departure of founder Palmer Luckey earlier this year.

Former Google executive Hugo Barra now oversees Facebook’s VR operations.

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California Moves Toward Public Access for Self-driving Cars

California regulators took an important step Wednesday to clear the road for everyday people to get self-driving cars.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles published proposed rules that would govern the technology within California, where for several years manufacturers have been testing hundreds of prototypes on roads.

That testing requires a trained safety driver behind the wheel, just in case the onboard computers and sensors fail. Though companies are not ready to unleash the technology for regular drivers — most say it remains a few years away — the state expects to have a final regulatory framework in place by June.

That framework would let companies begin testing prototypes with neither steering wheels nor pedals — and indeed nobody at all inside. The public is unlikely to get that advanced version of the technology until several years after the deployment of cars that look and feel more like traditional, human-controlled vehicles.

Consumers probably won’t be able to walk into a dealership and buy a fully driverless vehicle next year. Major automakers like Mercedes, BMW, Ford, Nissan and Volvo have all said it will be closer to 2020 before those vehicles are available, and even then, they could be confined to ride-hailing fleets and other shared applications.

Tesla Inc. says the cars it’s making now have the hardware they need for full self-driving. The company is still testing the software and won’t make it available to owners without regulatory approval.

Still, Wednesday’s announcement puts California on the verge of finalizing rules for public access, which were due more than two years ago. The delay reflects both the developing nature of the technology as well as how the federal government — which is responsible for regulating the safety of the vehicles — has struggled to write its own rules.

Legislation intended to clear away federal regulations that could impede a new era of self-driving cars has moved quickly through Congress. The House has passed a bill that would permit automakers to seek exemptions to safety regulations, such as to make cars without a steering wheel, so they could sell hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars. A Senate committee approved a similar measure last week by a voice vote.

California’s proposed rules must still undergo a 15-day public comment period, which could result in further changes, and then a protracted review by other state attorneys. Department of Motor Vehicles attorney Brian Soublet told reporters that the rules should be final before June, if not before.

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Half of US, Japan Teens ‘Addicted’ to Smartphones

About half of teenagers in the United States and Japan say they are addicted to their smartphones.

University of Southern California (USC) researchers asked 1,200 Japanese about their use of electronic devices. The researchers are with the Walter Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. Their findings were compared with an earlier study on digital media use among families in North America.

“Advances in digital media and mobile devices are changing the way we engage not only with the world around us, but also with the people who are the closest to us,” said Willow Bay, head of the Annenberg School.

The USC report finds that 50 percent of American teenagers and 45 percent of Japanese teens feel addicted to their mobile phones.

“This is a really big deal,” said James Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, an organization that helped with the study. “Just think about it, 10 years ago we didn’t even have smart phones.”

Sixty-one percent of Japanese parents believe their children are addicted to the devices. That compares to 59 percent of the American parents who were asked.

Also, more than 1-in-3 Japanese parents feel they have grown dependent on electronic devices, compared to about 1-in-4 American parents.

Leaving your phone at home is ‘one of the worst things’

“Nowadays, one of the worst things that can happen to us is, like, ‘Oh, I left my phone at home,’” said Alissa Caldwell, a student at the American School in Tokyo. She spoke at the USC Global Conference 2017, which was held in Tokyo.

A majority of Japanese and American parents said their teenagers used mobile devices too much. But only 17 percent of Japanese teens agreed with that assessment. In the United States, 52 percent of teens said they are spending too much time on mobile devices.

Many respond immediately to messages

About 7-in-10 American teens said they felt a need to react quickly to mobile messages, compared to about half of Japanese teens.

In Japan, 38 percent of parents and 48 percent of teens look at and use their devices at least once an hour. In the United States, 69 percent of parents and 78 percent of teens say they use their devices every hour.

Naturally, that hourly usage stops when people are sleeping, the researchers said.

The devices are a greater cause of conflict among teens and parents in the United States than in Japan. One-in-3 U.S. families reported having an argument every day about mobile device use. Only about 1-in-6 Japanese families say they fight every day over mobile devices.

Care more about devices than your children?

But 20 percent of Japanese teens said they sometimes feel that their parents think their mobile device is more important than they are. The percentage of U.S. teens saying they feel this way is 6 percent.

In the United States, 15 percent of parents say their teens’ use of mobile devices worsens the family’s personal relationships. Eleven percent of teens feel their parents’ use of mobile devices is not good for their relationship.

The USC research was based on an April 2017 study of 600 Japanese parents and 600 Japanese teenagers. Opinions from American parents and teenagers were collected in a study done earlier by Common Sense Media.

Bay, the Annenberg School of Communications dean, said the research raises critical questions about the effect of digital devices on family life.

She said the cultural effects may differ from country to country, but “this is clearly a global issue.”

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Facebook’s Zuckerberg Apologizes for Virtual Tour of Devastated Puerto Rico

Mark Zuckerberg has apologized for showcasing Facebook’s virtual reality capability with a tour of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The Facebook founder and another executive discussed the platform’s virtual reality project through avatars in a video recorded live Monday.

The video begins with the avatars pictured on the roof of Facebook’s Mountain View, California, headquarters before heading to Puerto Rico by using a 360-degree video recorded by National Public Radio as a backdrop.

Zuckerberg later responded to critics, writing that his goal of showing “how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world” wasn’t clear. He says he’s sorry to anyone who was offended.

Facebook is also working to restore internet connectivity on the island and has donated money to the relief effort.

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US Researchers Genetically Modify Corn to Boost Nutritional Value

U.S. researchers said this week they have discovered a way to genetically engineer corn, the world’s largest commodity crop, to produce a type of amino acid found in meat.

The result is a nutritionally rich food that could benefit millions worldwide, while also reducing the cost of animal feed.  The breakthrough came in a report in the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal. 

Researchers say the process involves infusing corn with a certain type of bacteria in order to produce methionine, an amino acid generally found in meat.

“We improved the nutritional value of corn, the largest commodity crop grown on Earth,” Thomas Leustek, professor in the Department of Plant Biology at Rutgers University and co-author of the study, told VOA. “Most corn is used for animal feed, but it lacks methionine — a key amino acid — and we found an effective way to add it.”

The new method works by adding an E. coli bacteria into the genome of the corn plant, which then causes the methionine production in the plants leaves. According to the study, methionine in the corn kernels then increases by about 57 percent.

The scientists fed the genetically modified corn to chickens at Rutgers University in order to show it was nutritious for them, co-author Joachim Messing said.

Normally, chicken feed is prepared as a corn-soybean mixture, the authors said in a press release, but the mixture lacks methionine.

“Methionine is added because animals won’t grow without it. In many developing countries where corn is a staple, methionine is also important for people, especially children. It’s vital nutrition, like a vitamin,” Messing said.

If the genetically modified corn can be successfully deployed, those who live in developing countries “wouldn’t have to purchase methionine supplements or expensive foods that have higher methionine,” Leustek said.

Victor Beattie contributed to this report.

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