new web technologies

Here's A New Way To Step Into A Virtual World

When you strap on an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, you're free to look up, down and around. But as soon as you try to explore the virtual world further, you're stuck. You can't interact with your surroundings or walk across the room.

New controllers and sensors hitting the market are built to solve this problem, whether by tracking the precise location of your fingers so you can grab that virtual gun or giving you a simple joystick so you can "walk" from place to place. The HTC Vive, one of the highest-profile new headsets, lets you move around a real room and incorporates your motion into VR.

See also: 6 Ways The HTC Vive Will Freak Out Virtual-Reality Geeks

The startup Occipital thinks there's a simpler way. Up until today, its candy-bar-shaped Structure Sensor, an accessory for mobile devices, has mostly been used for 3D scanning of physical objects—for instance, in order to create 3D-printable virtual models. Now, though, Occipital wants to expand into virtual and augmented reality by giving its sensor the ability to map entire rooms and incorporate a user's actual movement onto a screen, and thus into a virtual world.

Mixing Virtual Reality And Reality Reality

At the Occipital office in San Francisco's Mission Bay neighborhood, I recently rambled around with an Pad in my hands and a Structure Sensor strapped to its back. On its screen, I explored a Portal-esque room in hopes of opening a door to move on to the next level. I noticed a laser crossing the room; blocking it would open the door. But to do so I needed a few of the cubes circulating on a line by the ceiling.

I walked over to a coffee machine in the game, which is called S.T.A.R. Ops, by actually walking down the long row of desks in the Occipital office. I moved through the virtual room in much the same way. I tapped one corner of the screen to grab a coffee cup and moved the tablet away from my body as if I was sticking the cup into the machine. Coffee poured in.

I powered up a nearby gun by tipping the iPad to pour the coffee into a grate. I shot down some cubes and then stacked them in front of the laser, the iPad once again serving as a physical representation of the blocks. The door opened.

It's a funny mix of the virtual and real worlds. Most virtual reality experiences are seated and don't incorporate the tipping and reaching motions calls S.T.A.R. Ops calls for. While the movements are fairly intuitive, it takes a while to get used to them. But the learning curve is quick—on my second run through the level, I cut my time by two thirds.

Positional Tracking Gone Wild

The Structure Sensor works by projecting infrared dots across everything in a room. It can sense depth and motion based on the dots' behavior and build a map of them that updates at 30 frames per second. Occipital calls it "unbounded positional tracking."

There are lots of sensor systems already available in the virtual reality space. Many, like Leap Motion, are more focused on hand tracking—an area with which Occipital is not currently concerned. CEO Jeff Powers related it more to the Kinect sensor, which VR companies have been hacking to incorporate into their demos, except that the Structure Sensor doesn't need any tricky setup to be used with iPads, iPhones and Android devices.

Powers noted that high-end VR headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift also use sensors to incorporate movement, and said he believes sensors incorporated directly into the VR device are the only way to go. Though the Structure Sensor doesn't currently deliver the precise hand tracking that Vive does, it allows users to move beyond a predetermined area if they want to walk around in a virtual world.

See also: Google's Project Tango: What You Need To Know

Eventually, Powers sees Sensor-like systems being incorporated into our mobile devices. Google's Project Tango phone will be an early example. But beyond that, he said the ultimate form will be wearable devices that constantly read and make sense of our surroundings. That's the vision of augmented reality at which Google Glass hinted. 

True augmented reality is years, if not decades away. But beginning today, Structure Sensor owners can play S.T.A.R. Ops and think about the virtual-reality experiences they would like to see built in the near-term.

Lead photo courtesy of Occipital

Date: Fri, 27 Mar 2015 13:38:16 -0700
Author: :: Category: Web

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Your "Strong" Password May Be Weaker Than You Think

If you've been relying on password meters to determine how strong your passwords are, we've got some bad news. Their strength measurements are highly inconsistent and may even be leading you astray, according to a new study from researchers at Concordia University:

In our large-scale empirical analysis, it is evident that the commonly-used meters are highly inconsistent, fail to provide coherent feedback, and sometimes provide strength measurements that are blatantly misleading.

Researchers Xavier de Carné de Carnavalet and Mohammad Mannan evaluated the password strength meters used by a selection of popular websites and password managers. The sites surveyed included Apple, Dropbox, Drupal, Google, eBay, Microsoft, PayPal, Skype, Tencent QQ, Twitter, Yahoo and the Russian-based email provider Yandex Mail; the researchers also looked at popular password managers including LastPass, 1Password, and KeePass. They added FedEx and the China Railway customer-service center site for diversity.

De Carné de Carnavalet and Mannan then assembled a list of close to 9.5 million passwords from publicly available dictionaries, including lists from real-life password leaks, and ran them through those services to what kind of job their password-strength meters were doing.

Ineffective Rules

Password strength meters typically looked for length, a variety of character sets (such as upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols). Some tried to detect common words or weak patterns.

However, the strength meters that looked at password composition often ignored other easy-to-crack patterns, and didn't take "Leet" transformations—which replace the letter l with the number 1, for example—into account. Hackers, of course, often try these variations when trying to crack passwords.

Inconsistent Results

Confusingly enough, nearly identical passwords provided very different outcomes. For example, Paypal01 was considered poor by Skype’s standards, but strong by PayPal’s. Password1 was considered very weak by Dropbox but very strong by Yahoo!, and received three different scores by three Microsoft checkers (strong, weak, and medium). The password #football1 was also considered to be very weak by Dropbox, but Twitter rated it perfect.

In some cases, minor variations changed the assessment as well due to an overemphasis on minimum requirements: password$1 was correctly assigned very weak by FedEx, but it considered Password$1  very strong. Yahoo considered qwerty to be a weak password, but qwerty1 was strong.

Similar problems emerged with Google, which found password0 weak, but password0+ strong. False negatives turned up as well—FedEx considered +ˆv16#5{]( a very weak password, apparently because it contains no capital letters.

"Some meters are so weak and incoherent (e.g., Yahoo! and Yandex) that one may wonder what purpose they may serve," the researchers wrote.

Black Boxes, Black Boxes

De Carné de Carnavalet and Mannan argue that the opacity of password checkers works to their detriment. That could also be a problem for users confused by oddly inconsistent password-strength results.

“Except Dropbox, and KeePass (to some extent), no other meters in our test set provide any publicly-available explanation of their design choices, or the logic behind their strength assignment techniques," the researchers wrote.

With the exception of Dropbox and KeePass, the password meters appeared to be designed in an ad hoc manner, and often rated weak passwords as strong. As the researchers wrote: “Dropbox’s rather simple checker is quite effective in analyzing passwords, and is possibly a step towards the right direction (KeePass also adopts a similar algorithm).”

De Carné de Carnavalet and Mannan recommend that popular web services adopt a commonly shared algorithm for their password strength meters. In particular, they suggest using or extending the zxcvbn algorithm used by Dropbox or the KeePass open-source implementation of it.

Lead image by nikcname

Date: Fri, 27 Mar 2015 07:00:00 -0700
Author: :: Category: Web

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Why Facebook Messenger Is A Platform—And WhatsApp Isn’t

WhatsApp doesn’t want to be a platform. Co-founder Brian Acton, on a panel Wednesday at Facebook’s F8 developer conference, made that very clear. Unlike its sibling service Messenger, which has started courting outside developers and businesses, all that matters to WhatsApp is that the service remain stable, simple and unfettered for its worldwide audience of 100 million monthly active users.

That matters to parent company Facebook too, but likely for different reasons.

See also: Looks Like Facebook Messenger Is Pulling Up To The Platform

WhatsApp—which sold to the social network last year for $19 billion dollars—offers an interesting counterpoint to Facebook's big Messenger push. Because with less redundancy between the two, the company could essentially own a decent chunk of the world’s conversations. 

The Network Effect

Imagine what it’s like using some of the most robust, dynamic mobile applications available today—complete with the sort of images, animated GIFs, music and videos that will assault Facebook’s Messenger app soon enough. Now imagine running that on a slow cellular Edge network straight out of 1995.

That’s precisely the patience-stretching scenario Acton imagines all the time, and it serves as a guiding principle for his work with the service.

In that regard, WhatsApp’s moves seem obvious. It became popular because it was built on some key fundamentals—namely no-fuss messaging that’s reliable, works in different languages and on as many gadgets as possible. Adding the complexity of outside integrations to the mix would only complicate things for a widespread service that has to work over a variety of networks all over the world—some of which can only muster rudimentary connectivity. 

KPCB's Mary Meeker and WhatsApp's Brian Acton

“The world is a very diverse place,” Acton told panel moderator and analyst Mary Meeker, "and networks can have any number of configurations and problems that impede or get in the way with messaging.” One of those problems, for a globally available texting service, is dealing with systems and networks in emerging markets—a key area for tech companies, including Facebook.

With Acton’s motto being “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” he can leave the complexities of media messaging to sibling services Instagram and Messenger.

The Big Picture

On Wednesday, an audience member asked when WhatsApp would release APIs (application programming interfaces) to let developers tie their apps to the texting service. Acton had bad news for him: "The answer I have is ‘not today’,” he said, later elaborating that APIs are not even on the road map for the foreseeable future.

But that’s not to say WhatsApp will stagnate. "This year, we’re focusing on voice, [and] we’re focusing on the Web product,” he said. "David [Marcus] is really championing the APIs.”

If WhatsApp leaves Messenger to handle Facebook's platform ambitions, that likely suits the parent company just fine. 

From left: Brian Acton (WhatsApp), Mike Krieger (Instagram) and David Marcus (Messenger)

Messenger—Facebook’s other, homegrown messaging service—just unveiled a plethora of developer tools covering embedded videos, embedded posts, app linking and more. Marcus wants to give partners and other app makers the "opportunity to build on these platforms,” he said. And not just once, but often. 

“You want to build an app that will be there to stay," he said, "and you want to build creative tools that people will want to use repeatedly.” 

Some of those people will actually be businesses. Messenger looks intent on pushing its new vision of customer service that replaces logging into websites, punching through automated phone menus or waiting on hold, with chat threads. People could buy products, see their transaction info or receipts, shipping details, individualized promotions and other customer relations messages, all in a Messenger window. 

For now, Messenger doesn’t support cross-border transactions, so it's currently confined to the U.S. But consider it a first step in Facebook's larger ambitions. 

The two messaging services look like perfect foils for each other. While WhatsApp handles the fundamentals—making sure that anyone anywhere, regardless of phone or network, can use its service—Messenger can take on the more complex messaging tasks to satisfy users and companies on advanced networks. Between that and all the sharing that Facebook itself naturally manages, the company could have its fingerprints on an awful lot of conversations all over the world. 

"Build better" may be one of Facebook's F8 slogans, but it's the other one that suddenly has some extra context now: "This is only the beginning." When it comes to messaging, it certainly seems like it. 

Photos by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

Date: Thu, 26 Mar 2015 15:35:28 -0700
Author: :: Category: Social

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Oculus Rift Is Coming, And Facebook Wants It To Be Your New Reality

A wise man once said that reality is "simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." Oculus, the virtual reality harbinger now owned by Facebook, agrees. And it wants you to believe it too, so you can accept virtual reality as a new form of reality.

"VR is more than just another platform," Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash said at the F8 conference Thursday. "In the long run it has the potential to create the whole range of human experience. Virtual reality done right truly is reality as far as the observer is concerned."

Like the series of optical illusions Abrash showcased on stage, virtual reality works because of our brain's stubborn quest to make sense of the world. Feed a slightly different image into each eye, and it will gladly decide you are seeing depth and motion. It will gladly process virtual images as real, giving you a sense of actual presence. 

It's this model of the world, filtered through our brain's limited sensors, that we experience as "real" and trust implicitly, Abrash said. It's a model built by millions of years of human evolution that is based on assumptions that are almost always right. Virtual reality works because it feeds the brain enough matching information that the brain assumes what it is seeing is real. That's presence.

Merging The Virtual Into Reality

Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash speaks at F8. The Crescent Bay prototype is shown on screen.

VR is only in the beginning stages. Abrash said over and over that it just just now reached that minimal level or presence. By adding haptics—physical feedback that corresponds to the virtual world—better screens and improved audio, virtual reality can become even more lifelike. The hardware itself will get smaller, lighter and more powerful.

Abrash also talked about bringing the real world into the virtual. For example, you should be able to look down and see your own body. If you want to reach out and grab your coffee, there's a virtual representation you can pick up without taking off your mask. It sounded like a hybrid form of augmented reality, a different way of experiencing the real world.

Oculus didn't make any announcements about the long-awaited release of Oculus Rift. Abrash did say it will be "shipping in quantity before long." Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer showcased a video game and said, "You're going to be able to do this this year in VR. You're going to be doing it in something shipped by Oculus."

Both Schroepfer and Abrash threw up images of Crescent Bay, the latest publicly-shown Oculus prototype. Schroepfer was quick to clarify on Twitter that he wasn't talking about an actual Rift release, and never mentioned Gear VR, the mobile headset slated for a broad consumer availability later this year. 

In my reality, I'm going to go ahead and envision a 2015 Rift ship date. 

Photos by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite

Date: Thu, 26 Mar 2015 13:40:03 -0700
Author: :: Category: Wear

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It May Have A Billion Users, But YouTube Isn't A Sure Thing Just Yet

Since it launched to the public at the end of 2005 (the very first video is still online), YouTube has come to dominate online video in a way that few businesses manage to dominate anything on the Web. Today, it boasts more than a billion users, who are uploading more than 300 hours of video every minute and generating billions of views every single day.

So far, so rosy—but YouTube isn't exactly the home run that these figures might suggest it is, and it's facing increasing pressure from all sides. Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that YouTube was only just breaking even; this month, Facebook unveiled a host of new video features designed to steal away a large chunk of YouTube's share of the market.

See also: Facebook Is Coming After YouTube With Embeddable Videos

Mark Zuckerberg isn't the only one who wants some of those YouTube eyeballs, either.

A Changing Landscape

Mark Zuckerberg is coming for YouTube

The 360-degree, 4K video uploads YouTube allows today are a world away from the grainy, blocky, buffering clips that appeared in the early days of the site. But it's not just the technical aspects of online video that have come on in leaps and bounds.

We're all watching more video than ever before, for example; movies and television shows are available on-demand over the Web in ways that would have been hard to envisage a decade ago; and services like Spotify (launched in 2008) have changed the way we think about content streaming.

Music is an interesting case study for those looking to chart the evolution of YouTube. It was something the video site stumbled into almost accidentally, providing an online, instant access, personalized version of MTV that connected with music lovers (especially younger ones). Before YouTube, there wasn't really a way to find good-quality music videos online in any great number—today it hosts audio and video for millions of tracks.

Along the way, music on YouTube has become a professional, money-making business through partners like Vevo. But is it making enough? Bar an advert or two, all this content is free to access, and as rumors circulating around Spotify suggest, that's not a model the record labels are particularly keen to see continue.

Enter YouTube Music Key, which provides ad-free tunes with a few extras thrown in if you pony up $9.99 a month for a Google Play Music subscription (you get both services whichever one you sign up for). From free to ad-supported to subscription in the space of ten years—that's a substantial evolution, and one that makes you wonder how many more subscription services YouTube has up its sleeve.

See also: YouTube May Be Winning The World And Losing Its Soul

YouTube personalities who produce videos about tech, make-up, cooking, video game  and just about any other topic under the sun are another booming area of business for the channel. That's no doubt why big names like Facebook and small startups such as small startups such as Vessel are looking to prise these stars (and their audiences) away from Google's grip.

In the coming years, any big name video personality or successful music artist is going to have more choices than ever for hosting their material. So what does YouTube do next?

A Changing YouTube

Hits like Gangnam Style took off on YouTube.

Google faces a battle to both hang on to the core pillars of YouTube's popularity as well as expand into more lucrative areas. One of those areas is likely to be video-game streaming and e-sports, a part of the market YouTube has yet to make a mark in (largely thanks to Amazon's Twitch game-streaming site).

See also: Video Games As Spectator Sport—Why Twitch Is Booming

The Daily Dot reported this week that YouTube is preparing to dust off its live streaming ambitions and make esports the focus. Insider sources suggest Google has already started putting together a team and working on preparing the ground for such a move, with an announcement expected in June.

Live streaming of traditional sports could also be a potential goldmine—this is an area YouTube has dabbled in before, but most of the key events and leagues are tied up in several layers of television rights contracts. It seems it will take a TV-to-online shift in mindsets, like we saw with music, before live broadcasts of the NFL and its ilk can become a reality.

Then there's the idea of YouTube pulling a Netflix. This is an idea often rumored and half-confirmed by YouTube's head of content, Robert Kyncl, last month. In short, pay a monthly fee and never see an advert again—presumably a very good deal from YouTube's perspective as it looks to finally get in the black and stay there. There's potential too in a closer relationship with Google Play, providing a Web-based streaming equivalent to iTunes.

What's certain is that YouTube can't stand still, even with a billion user accounts to its name. If it's going to be prospering at 20, then it's will have to be significantly different from the YouTube of today.

Mark Zuckerberg photo by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite; other images courtesy of Google

Date: Thu, 26 Mar 2015 13:24:30 -0700
Author: :: Category: Web

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