Wednesday, April 20, 2016

New Streaming Services for...everything

Sean Parker’s streaming service will change movies, 
and theaters can’t stop it
Neither can James Cameron...

Going into this year’s CinemaCon, the annual Las Vegas trade show for movie exhibitors, studios, and vendors, the biggest question wasn’t whether some company was going to pull a blockbuster announcement out of its hat. It was what kind of impact The Screening Room, Sean Parker’s recently-revealed service that will stream first-run movies to the home, would have on the proceedings. It was directly mentioned by name only once during the main studio presentations, but that didn’t really matter: from the tenor of the conference, it was clear The Screening Room’s threat of technological disruption is poised to change the movie business forever.

Word first broke about The Screening Room back in March, and Parker’s pitch is said to be relatively simple: consumers buy a $150 box that lets them watch first-run movies, starting the same day they appear in theaters, for $50 each. It would effectively collapse the theatrical window — the period of time in which new films are available only in movie theaters — and to compensate for fears over lost revenue, exhibitors would get up to $20 of that rental price. Parker had already lined up some heavy hitters before the news went public, with J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Ron Howard all proponents of the system, seeing it as an opportunity to grow the movie business. Other heavyweights like James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, and Todd Phillips (not to mention most theater chains), were less than enthusiastic. Given that The Screening Room planned to hold closed-door meetings at CinemaCon — traditionally a show that plays directly to the wants and needs of theater chains — the stage was set for an ideological war.


Every single studio that presented to exhibitors during CinemaCon took time to proclaim their love and commitment to the theatrical window, and while none mentioned Parker’s service by name, the implication was clear. (Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara, for example, told the audience that "we are not going to let a third party or middle man come between us.") It wasn’t until Cameron (above) came onstage during Fox’s presentation that The Screening Room was directly name-checked, with the writer-director stating that "I think it’s absolutely essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theaters on their initial release."

The audiences cheered, of course, but that’s what you’d expect them to do. CinemaCon is a trade show for exhibitors, and when Cameron made his statements, he was talking directly to the people whose financial interests would be threatened by an exodus to at-home viewing. But if you drilled down in the comments a little further, most were less hard-line stances than gentle reassurances. After his initial statement, Tsujihara went on to tell exhibitors that when new services emerged, "We will explore them with each of you" — more of "Let’s see," than a "Hell no, we won’t go."

The ambiguity makes sense; ultimately studios have to chase the money, whether that means defiantly sticking with theaters or supporting some hybrid option. What they know they can’t do is stick their heads in the sand the same way the music business did, and for that reason alone it was J.J. Abrams who delivered the most honest comments of the conference. Receiving CinemaCon’s Showman of the Year award at the opening-night presentation, he took the stage clearly knowing that his support for The Screening Room needed to be addressed. And while he celebrated the benefits of the theatrical experience — "There is nothing better than going to the movies, and there never will be" — he also nodded to the inevitability of technological progress, stating that "We have to adapt" if the industry at large was going to remain viable.


Perhaps not coincidentally, during CinemaCon Abrams’ production company announced that it was going to be releasing Star Trek Beyond in the new high-end Barco Escape format, which uses three separate screens to create one massive, ultra-widescreen image. It’s yet another example of the many new theatrical technologies that are being used to help differentiate movie theaters from home viewing, but it also underscored the problematic dynamic that’s facing the industry — the same one that will make the success of services like The Screening Room inevitable.

According to the National Association of Theater Owners, movie theater attendance peaked in 2002, and while there have been periodic bumps they’ve been steadily declining ever since. To compensate, theaters have rolled out new technologies like 3D, IMAX, and more recently, premium large format theaters — all of which command a more expensive ticket price. As a result, box office grosses are growing year over year, but it’s actually just less people paying more money. The whole system has turned into a feedback loop: 3D and IMAX prices make up for declines in attendance, but those same prices make watching at home more attractive, so theaters roll out even more new formats that cost more, and so on.


The end game is all too easy to see, and it’s something that George Lucas was predicting years ago. "What you’re going to end up with is fewer theaters," he said during a panel at the University of Southern California in 2013. "Bigger theaters, with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies is going to cost you 50 bucks, maybe 100." It will take time to get there, to be sure, but things like The Hateful Eight’s recent roadshow presentation, or the "gourmet" dining from the iPic theater chain are already laying the groundwork that will help transform movies into more of an exclusive, high-end experience.

But all of these advances are ultimately defensive measures meant to stop the bleeding, and none address the needs of people that simply aren’t going out to the movies as much these days. Those potential customers, put off by mediocre theaters and expensive tickets, are the ideal market for The Screening Room. But like the music labels before them, most major theater chains are stubbornly holding on to their traditional model, convinced that as long as they keep any reasonably-priced service from launching — $35,000 options like PRIMA Cinema already do this for the comically wealthy — that they’ll be able to bend consumers to their will.

But technological progress doesn’t stop out of respect for existing business models, no matter how disruptive the consequences, and on the surface, the applause from exhibitors at CinemaCon this year reeked of one thing: arrogance. The kind of arrogance that keeps an industry from realizing that its rising prices are encouraging people to watch things at home; that its over-reliance on tentpole franchises have already trained millions that, unless they like one specific type of film, theaters aren’t for them; and that an entirely new generation of movie lovers are growing up watching movies on computers, tablets, and smartphones, and don’t feel nearly as compelled to trek out to a multiplex.


But beneath that arrogance was something even more palpable: fear. Chains know the above numbers as well as anyone, and despite all the theatrics The Screening Room still gave its closed-door demos and met with MPAA chairman Chris Dodd. When everyone in a business is spending their time addressing a new player, it’s clear who is setting the agenda, and by the end of the show it seemed obvious that the emergence of a first-run rental service wasn’t a matter of if, but when.

If movie theaters — and the industry at large — act, they may be able to assist in the way The Screening Room develops. They could ensure it’s something that complements traditional theatrical viewing, as part of a holistic first-run movie ecosystem that everyone profits from. If they don’t, either because of ignorance or because they refuse to face competition, the current cycle will continue. Theater attendance will continue to slowly decline, despite the influx of new Marvel, DC, and Star Wars movies, until they lose the commanding power they currently hold. With The Screening Room, Parker is giving movie theaters the opportunity that record stores never had, but it’s up to them to take it.

Disney wants to invest in Major League Baseball’s video streaming company


Disney is in talks to invest in pro baseball’s video streaming business — a sign that the media giant wants to own the technology to help it power direct-to-consumer video services.

Sources say Disney is in advanced talks to take an equity stake in BAM Tech, the video technology business MLB Advanced Media has been looking to spin off into a separate company for some time.

MLBAM, which is jointly owned by pro baseball’s 30 teams, runs pro baseball’s Web video subscription service. It also handles video streaming for many large clients, including WatchESPN, the streaming service Disney’s ESPN already operates.

People familiar with the proposed transaction say talks are in advanced stages, but could still fall apart. Sources say Disney is one of multiple bidders who want to invest in MLBAM.

Disney and MLBAM reps declined to comment.

Disney and ESPN in particular have been under pressure from investors since last summer, when Disney CEO Bob Iger acknowledged that ESPN has been losing pay TV subscribers.

An ownership stake in a Web video operation could help the company launch and operate new digital services aimed at replacing some of the pay TV revenue that’s at risk from cord-cutters and people who never sign up for pay TV. Industry sources speculate that a Disney investment in BAM Tech would include an option to eventually buy a controlling stake in the company.

ESPN’s WatchESPN service, which replicates what’s available on conventional ESPN channels and also offers more games and shows, is available to ESPN’s pay TV customers. ESPN has tinkered with the idea of selling additional Web video subscriptions services directly to consumers, like a cricket offering it launched in 2015 and will sell again this year; the company has also talked about selling a package of NBA pro basketball games but hasn’t done so yet.

Iger has also floated the notion that ESPN may eventually sell its core service directly to consumers, over the Web, as HBO has started doing, with help from MLBAM. But ESPN President John Skipper has said the company won’t sell a direct service anytime soon.

“That’s not what we’re going to do,” Skipper said at the Code/Media conference in February. “We don’t sell it alone right now because we generate more revenue by being in a larger package, being ubiquitous across the households in this country, in which we can sell advertising. That simply works better for us.”

Disney itself has already launched a consumer subscription service in the U.K., and plans to expand its operations in Europe this year. People familiar with the company say it has previously contemplated launching Web subscription services in the U.S.

MLBAM’s Bob Bowman has spent years trying to figure out how to turn his video operation into a standalone company. Last summer he started a new push, by acquiring streaming video rights from the National Hockey League and hiring bankers to find investors for the company.

Last August, MLBAM sources said the company expected to get a value of at least $3 billion from investors. Industry sources say it has subsequently tried to get a much higher valuation from investors, but has run into skepticism about the value of its core Web streaming business.

Last summer Time Warner, which uses MLBAM to handle back-end operations for its HBO Now video service, bought  iStreamPlanet, a company that provides similar services to MLBAM, for less than $200 million. Executives at Time Warner’s Turner, which is operating iStreamPlanet as a separate company, say they could eventually move Time Warner’s streaming operations there.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

This Device Could Provide a Third of America's Power (BW)

The Triton is designed to harvest wave energy without using moving parts that can break down in the brutal ocean.

Tapping into the Ocean's Energy

There are 332,519,000 cubic miles of water on the planet. That's 352,670,000,000,000,000,000 gallons just sloshing around out there. 

Anyone who's ridden or been tossed by a wave has a sense of the kinetic energy contained in our perpetually moving oceans. If we could harness it, it could provide a clean, renewable source of energy. But efforts to turn our oceans into power generators—often in the form of "aqua-mills," windmill technology adapted to water—have foundered on the complexity of their many moving parts in the corrosive and remote environs of the sea. 

A new approach, developed by a company called Oscilla Power, applies all that kinetic energy to a solid piece of metal instead of using it to turn the blades of an impeller. That creates an alternating magnetic polarity in the metal that can be converted into electrical current. 

Oscilla's technology, which is nearly solid-state, may prove far more durable than any other ocean-power project, increasing the chance to draw power from our oceans cleanly, meaningfully, and endlessly.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Airbus Loses Order for 840-Seat ‘Flying Sardine Can’ Superjumbos

Day Two Of The 51st International Paris Air Show
An Airbus A380 super jumbo performs a flying display during the 51st International Paris Air Show, on June 16, 2015.
  • Air Austral contract for two A380s finally struck from backlog
  • Planemaker has new, unspecified buyer for same number of jets
Airbus Group SE lost an order for two A380 superjumbos from Indian Ocean carrier Air Austral, which had aimed to fit the planes with the highest-capacity seating layout in the history of civil aviation.

The aircraft, whose planned 840-seat configuration had led them to be widely labeled by the media as “flying sardine cans,” were removed from Airbus’s order backlog in a monthly update published Monday, confirming a cancellation that had seemed likely after Air Austral repeatedly delayed their delivery.

Based on the island of La Reunion, Air Austral ordered the double-decker A380s in 2009, saying they’d be used for single-class budget flights on the “heavy-traffic route” to Paris. It didn’t reveal an exact seating plan -- or specify how many galleys and bathrooms the planes would need for their mammoth passenger load.

While the A380 was certificated for a maximum 853 people based on evacuation trials, most airlines operate the model with 450 to 550 seats in three or four classes, with Dubai-based Emirates, the biggest operator, introducing a two-class 615-seat version.

Even with the density that had been planned by Air Austral, the A380 would still have wider seats and wider aisles in economy class than Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner and the planned 777X, Airbus has said.

Airbus’s website also showed new orders for two A380 superjumbos, though the identity of the operator wasn’t revealed.

Emirates, which has ordered a total of 140 A380s, or 40 percent of the total, has stepped in to take planes when other buyers have encountered issues in the past, with the Gulf carrier swapping delivery slots with Amedeo after the leasing firm struggled to find operators for the planes.

As of the end of the first quarter, Toulouse, France-based Airbus’s overall order tally for 2016 stood at just 10 aircraft, or less than one-tenth of the 122 planes sold by rival Boeing Co. through April 5 on a net basis.

The European company won contracts for 14 jets in March but suffered 15 cancellations. As well as the Air Austral A380s, Czech carrier CSA dropped orders for seven A320 narrow-bodies and Taiwan’s TransAsia Airways decided not to take six re-engined A320Neos, according to its website.

Airbus delivered 125 aircraft in the first three months, barely 70 percent of the 176 handed over by Boeing. The U.S. company was the No. 1 planemaker for the third year running in 2015, delivering 723 planes versus 629 at Airbus.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How Ford's autonomous cars can see in the dark...

...even without headlights...!
In a recent test, Ford's self-driving Fusion was able to use LiDAR technology and 3D maps to successfully navigate in total darkness.


Ford's autonomous car can officially see in the dark. On Monday, the automaker released the results of recent research showing how a Ford Fusion with self-driving capabilities was able to navigate a test course at the Ford Arizona Proving Ground in complete darkness, without the help of headlights.

The vehicle used Velodyne LiDAR technology and 3D maps to accomplish its drive. It should be noted that there isn't a reason that the LiDAR wouldn't be able to perform in a no-light situation, as it uses self-emitted lasers to illuminate and map its surroundings.

However, many self-driving cars also rely on special cameras and radar technologies as well. Ford acknowledged this, saying that having all three technologies present is the best option, but the research shows that LiDAR "can function independently on roads without stoplights." It is important to note the "without stoplights" clause, as this severely limits night driving in most instances.

That said, it is still an important accomplishment in the autonomous car market to have a vehicle able to operate in complete darkness. The main marketing push for autonomous vehicles from automobile manufacturers and tech companies alike is the perceived increase in safety that comes with a car that can drive itself. If a company is able to confirm that there will be no change in performance regardless of the time of day or available light, it could be one more step forward for these vehicles.

As mentioned in Ford's press release, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that vehicle fatalities three times more often when it is dark outside than when it is light. If Ford's Fusion can truly "perform beyond the limits of human drivers," it could potentially lessen that ratio, or eliminate it altogether.

"Thanks to LiDAR, the test cars aren't reliant on the sun shining, nor cameras detecting painted white lines on the asphalt," says Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. "In fact, LiDAR allows autonomous cars to drive just as well in the dark as they do in the light of day."

In addition to the LiDAR technology, the test car also used 3D maps of the surrounding area to get where it was going. The pulses from the LiDAR, which happen about 2.8 million times a second, helped the car understand where it was on the map as it was driving.

To chart the vehicle, Ford researchers monitored its performance from both inside and outside of the automobile, using a light grid to see if the car would stay on course. Ford researcher Wayne Williams said the Ford Fusion moved "precisely" along the desert roads it was tested on.

Ford has recently been testing its autonomous fleet in other hazardous conditions such as snow, earlier this year. Additionally, Google added rain to its testing conditions in February as well. It's clear that accounting for non-standard driving situations will be a key hurdle to making autonomous vehicles ready for general public use.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Is the Chevy Bolt a Tesla Killer? (Shelly Palmer)

Chevy Bolt vs. Tesla Model 3

Elon Musk recently announced the Tesla Model 3, a sub-$40k, 5-seat plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) with a ~200-mile range that is well positioned to change the world. It should be available sometime in late 2017. Don’t count on the ship date; Tesla has never shipped any product when promised. That said, as of this writing, the company received over 325,000 deposits ($1,000 each). In fact, there were lines outside many Tesla dealerships evoking images of fanboys lining up to preorder iPhones.

Sometime in late 2016 (a year earlier than Tesla is scheduled to launch the Model 3), GM is going to launch the Chevy Bolt, a sub-$40k, 5-seat PEV with a ~200-mile range that is also well positioned to change the world. As of this writing, GM has received approximately zero deposits to reserve the Bolt. And there’s a reason.

If Tesla = Apple, GM = Who?

Continuing the smartphone metaphor, GM may equal Samsung or HTC or any Android handset maker, but the answer to this question is not important. That people are asking questions such as, “Is the Chevy Bolt a Tesla killer?” positions Tesla as a company that has transcended the metrics of its industrial-age competitors. Tesla is playing by rules that simply don’t apply to the auto industry writ large, and it and other tech startups such as Google and Apple (car division) and LeEco’s Faraday Future are all going to benefit from Tesla’s tech roots.

Tesla Is a Tech Company Having a Go at Cars; GM Is an Automaker Having a Go at Tech

The numbers tell the story. GM is a venerable automotive company founded in 1908. It has a market cap of ~$44.5 billion. Tesla is a tech startup founded in 2003. It has a market cap of ~$32 billion. Clearly, Wall Street values tech startups and venerable automotive companies differently. But this is a crazy metric. Tesla has never made a deadline or shown a profit. It has delivered under 100,000 vehicles. According to an auto industry veteran I spoke with, GM has over 150 million cars and trucks on the road and has produced over 500 million vehicles over its 108-year life.

People who know the auto industry have no idea why Tesla is valued the way it is. This lack of understanding adds color and context to the tale of two automakers. Tesla is valued partly on its promise, its business model, its culture and its visionary leadership. GM is too, but Wall Street knows much, much more about GM’s capabilities than it knows about Tesla’s.

Is There a PEV in Your Future?

If you’re like 75 percent of Americans, you drive less than 40 miles per day, so a PEV with a ~200-mile range removes the range anxiety barrier. In practice, there are a significant number of American drivers who could use a Bolt or a Model 3 as a primary car, and both make an extraordinary second car or commuter car. Both the Bolt and the Model 3 will net out between $42k and $45k after the end of government subsidies, and including the options you will probably choose (dual motors, extended batteries, etc.). This price range puts both cars in a competitive price range with traditional gas-powered vehicles and hybrids. Several market analysts have said that ~$40k is a magic number that takes PEVs out of the “lifestyle choice” category and puts them in the consideration set for “my next car.”

Model 3 vs. Bolt

The Model 3 is sexy. It’s stunning, actually. When you look at it, you want it. I don’t have any way to charge it, but I still want it. It’s cool looking! In fact, the Model 3 is not a PEV at all; it’s a fashion accessory in the tradition of Apple products, not a car in the tradition of Detroit. Elon Musk is the “Tony Stark” of our time. You won’t drive your Tesla; you will wear it, just like you wear your clothes, your jewelry, your hard liquor and your beer. A Tesla will say something about you that you want said.

The Chevy Bolt is utilitarian. It is huge inside. Gets to 60 mph about two seconds slower than the Model 3, but it is still fast. The Bolt will handle better, especially in bad weather because it features front-wheel drive. Of course the Bolt also looks like what it is: a hatchback. The thing is, the Chevy is probably a more useful PEV at a better price. Feature for feature, the Chevy Bolt is a technological wonder. It was designed from the ground up as a PEV, and GM put a team of seasoned automotive designers with hundreds of years of driving experience on this project. It is not sexy; it is not “cool.” It does say something about you, but the question is, do you want it said? The car is going to be awesome. But — it won’t be a Tesla.

So which should you buy? That is the greatest question of all! The idea that we are thinking about PEVs as a choice is fantastic. I’ve decided that my first PEV will be a 2020 model year. I’ve already asked my parking garage to prepare for it. There are all kinds of issues getting electricity to where I park my car, but the wheels are in motion.

Your wheels should be in motion too. 2017 is the transitional year. It’s the year America has a real choice. Model 3 or Chevy Bolt? I don’t care – just order one of them!

IMPORTANT NOTE: A number of extremely credible individuals have admonished that I neglected to mention significant problems with PEVs, such as:

If coal is used to generate the electricity for the vehicle, the carbon footprint of a PEV may be worse than that of a vehicle powered by a small, efficient internal combustion engine.
Battery disposal is going to be an ecological nightmare.

I did not address the fact Tesla has its own “plug” and it is not compatible with other EV plugs, nor did I mention the issue of actually charging a large number of vehicles in the wild.
The bottom line as told to me by Robert C. Atkinson, Director of Policy Research, Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI), Columbia Business School is, “Buy a Tesla or Bolt because they are good cars, you like their features, etc. — but don’t buy one because you think they are environmentally better.”

Friday, April 8, 2016

Meet the new ransomware that knows where you live

The carefully-crafted and user-specific emails contain links and personal information to trick victims into installing a new kind of malware.

There's a new malware attack in town, and it's designed to hit a little too close to home.

A new phishing campaign is sending thousands of ominous-looking emails that contain the recipient's home address.

The well-worded email appears to come from a legitimate email address and domain name, and raises very few irregularities. The email comes with an demand for money for an arbitrary service, along with a link that purports to be an "overdue invoice."

Click that link and open the file (which looks like a Word document), and you'll become the latest victim of ransomware -- that is, malware that encrypts your files and locks you out of your computer until you pay a ransom.

The longer you wait, the larger the ransom you have to pay.

We received an email on Wednesday, which included my home address from some eight years earlier. Besides a tweet noting the phishing effort, we didn't think much more of it.

Clicking the link will install Maktub Locker, a kind of Windows-based ransomware

But then the BBC News also reported that some of their staffers had also received similar looking emails.

We contacted the company named in our email which demanded money that was purportedly owed.

"We're just as much victims as those who got the emails," said a person at the company who we spoke with on the phone. The Ludlow, UK-based company said that they began receiving phone calls and emails earlier this week, but stressed that the phishing emails were not from the company.

A number of other companies were implicated by the scam. BBC reports that other companies had "more than 150 calls from people who don't owe us money."

The company said it had no idea how the scammers got people's home addresses, but said they had reported the incident to police.

Rahul Kashyap, executive vice-president and chief security architect at security firm Bromium, said in an email that the scammer was using a "classic social engineering" technique by trying to "gain credibility by providing some reliable data that the potential victims can relate to."

"It appears that the scammers are leveraging some sort of database that has home addresses publicly available and using this for the scam," said Kashyap.

Scammers are increasingly moving away from enticing victims into entering their username and passwords on fake websites in order to take over accounts.

They're now turning to ransomware which has a much higher return.

In tests in CNET's lab in New York, we verified that the malware used in this ransomware attack is a variant called Maktub Locker, described as a "beautiful and dangerous" kind of ransomware.

Yonathan Klijnsma, a senior threat intelligence analyst at Dutch security firm Fox-IT, said that the fact the malware doesn't need an internet connection is "pretty significant," not least because network detection systems wouldn't be effective.

"It means you can retrieve your mail, step on a plane, open your mail and still get hit," he explained.

Ransomware is increasingly becoming problematic for private companies and citizens alike.

The FBI said last year that one popular variant of ransomware has cost businesses tens of millions in damages for lost files.

Many hospitals, in particular, have faced shutdowns and declared emergencies when their systems were hit by file locking malware. More recently, the federal agency called on US businesses in a flash advisory to help agents investigate the ever-growing kind of malware.

Thursday, April 7, 2016


Standing on the desert surface of Tatooine, you instinctively duck as the Millennium Falcon swoops in for a thunderous and dramatic landing beside you. Through the lenses of your virtual-reality headset, it looks real. That’s because it is, in the sense that it’s the same 3D computer model that appeared in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After you help Han and Chewie complete an urgent repair, R2D2 presents you with a lightsaber. A squad of Stormtroopers appears on the distant ridge. Not to worry, the Force is strong with you.

This is Trials on Tatooine, a new virtual-reality demonstration from Industrial Light & Magic’s Experience Lab (ILMxLAB), the supergroup of artists, engineers, sound designers, and storytellers prototyping the future of interactive, immersive cinema. The ILMxLAB is Lucasfilm’s research and development arm, leveraging graphics technology invented for traditional filmmaking and applying it to virtual reality, augmented reality, and theme park attractions. (The latter is no surprise given that Walt Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012.)

“The vision is to design, produce, and release story-based immersive entertainment experiences,” says Vicki Dobbs Beck, ILM’s executive in charge of strategic planning.

Vicki Dobbs Beck and some members of Industrial Light & Magic’s Experience Lab
Dobbs Beck (center) with (from left) Rob Bredow, John Jack, Diana Williams, Tim Alexander, Mark Miller, Hilmar Koch, Daniel Aasheim, John Gaeta, and Wayne Billheimer of Industrial Light & Magic’s xLAB.

ILM announced its skunkworks last year and made a scene at January’s Sundance Film Festival with Holo-Cinema, an augmented-reality experience where participants wore motion-tracked 3D glasses in a room of projection screens to step into Jurassic Park or meet the beloved droids of Star Wars. While the demos are new, the underlying technology had gestated at Lucasfilm for more than a decade.

As far back as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. in 2001, ILM has worked to provide directors on-set with a real-time preview of scenes that meld live action and computer imagery without having to wait for the digital images to be added later. It built the tools atop a heavily modified game engine, commercial software that brings computer game graphics to life rapidly enough that the player can interact with them.

“When there was a resurgence in interest in virtual reality, we already had this long history with real-time graphics tools, high-end filmmaking, and storytelling,” says Rob Bredow, Lucasfilm’s chief technology officer who helped launch the xLAB. “All of it was actually coming together in this new medium.”

“We want to make it plausible for storytellers to imagine allowing the audience inside these worlds as if they exist for real”

The core xLAB team consists of a dozen creatives and engineers but draws talent from across the Lucasfilm universe depending on each project’s needs. It’s a culture of constant collaboration. The master storytellers from the Lucasfilm Story Group run into the engineers from the Advanced Development Group at the Javva the Hutt cafe on the main Lucasfilm campus. The audio wizards of Skywalker Sound are just across the bridge.

“The way we do technology development here is really hand-in-hand with the creative goals,” says Bredow, who was formerly Sony Pictures Imageworks’ chief technologist. “The R&D is always in service to the story.”

For example, to port the Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars film universe into the interactive realm, the Advanced Development Group engineers first had to figure out how the VR hardware could render the massive 3D model in just milliseconds, compared with hours or days for a film shot. Then Skywalker Sound built a surround system that realistically rumbles and whooshes as a Corellian starship should. Meanwhile, game designers and the storytellers hashed out the most compelling way for a Jedi-in-training (you) to battle an army of Stormtroopers with a lightsaber.

“We are a technology company, but we'll sit an engineer next to a game designer next to a writer and in that loop is where we get the kind of invention that can only happen here,” Bredow says.

The ILMxLAB leverages the tools of traditional filmmaking and the principles of game design, but are wedded to neither, or perhaps both. John Gaeta, the group’s executive creative director who is best known for his dazzling special effects work on the Matrix trilogy, frames their efforts as first-person immersive storytelling, in which the story itself, not the gameplay, sucks you in. Sure, there may be some game-like challenges to face as you move through the experience, but they’re driven by the story, not the other way around as in most video games.

“If the director has created a good story, you’ll know if that person in your space is a friend or there to kill you”
“We want to make it plausible for storytellers to imagine allowing the audience inside these worlds as if they exist for real, not limited to fantasy,” Gaeta says.

“If the director has created a good story, you’ll know if that person in your space is a friend or there to kill you”

To do that requires rethinking a century of film techniques. Consider the frequent camera pans in most movie scenes, which are a standard way of surveying a scene or following a character.

“If the scene shifts like that in virtual reality, you’ll wonder why you’re being moved against your will,” Bredow says.

Even something as simple as a close-up shot that in a regular movie focuses the audience’s attention on the actor’s emotional state needs to be reconsidered in VR. An unexpected close-up when you’re wearing VR goggles gives the distinct feeling that someone is invading your personal space. That’s why every possible moment needs to be in service of the story, says Lucasfilm Story Group’s Diana Williams.

“Yes, a close-up in VR can be jarring, but if the director has created a good story, you’ll know if that person in your space is a friend or there to kill you,” says Williams, who launched her career producing immersive (and, according to her, classified) experiences for the Department of Defense.

Discovering the grammar of what works in immersive entertainment—whether it’s delivered via a Valve VR headset, a smartphone, or some future Disneyland ride—will certainly take time and technology. But it’s a sure bet that no auteur or engineer will figure it out alone. And that’s what sets the xLAB apart, says Dobbs Beck.

“We’ve assembled an extraordinary group of dreamers and rocket builders,” Dobbs Beck says. “The dreamers are constantly thinking about what’s possible and the rocket builders figure out how to get us there.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Google’s removal of Taliban app ...

...won’t stop the spread of terrorist propaganda online
Google’s removal of Taliban app won’t stop the spread of terrorist propaganda online
Terrorists are no strangers to using social media for recruiting and spreading propaganda. Google, however, is trying to curb that tactic and has removed an app created by the Taliban from the Play Store for spreading hate speech.

The app, Alemarah, was being used by the group to publish propaganda, news and videos. Discovered on Friday, Google was quick to remove the app by Sunday evening but this surely won’t be the end of the group’s online efforts.

Google’s policies explicitly state that apps are not allowed to “advocate against groups of people based on their race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, nationality, veteran status, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” which is what Alemarah was doing.

Speaking to TNW, a Google spokesperson said: “While we don’t comment on specific apps, we can confirm that we remove apps from Google Play that violate our policies.”

The app was just one part of the Taliban’s digital campaign, which it is using to target a worldwide audience and gather support. It already has a website available in five languages and active accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They have had these taken down before but the group has always managed to get back online.

Of course, it had probably hoped the app would provide them with a more stable outlet.

Like the arguably more visible ISIS, the Taliban has a channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, but with the likes of Anonymous keeping a close eye and disrupting the terrorist groups’ online plans, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to remain active.

ISIS also has its own Android app, which doesn’t appear to have been removed from the Play Store just yet. Perhaps this is because the ISIS app, Alrawi, is a messaging platform, so it’s technically not broadcasting hate speech or propaganda in the same manner as the Taliban’s news app.

However, a reporter from Bloomberg has said that a representative for the Taliban has confirmed to him that the app went offline because of technical issues and will be live again soon.

Social networks are often criticised for not doing enough to cull the accounts of terrorists as they become more and more sophisticated on the Web, and it really is a growing problem.

Earlier this year, heads from Apple, Facebook and Twitter, among others, attended a meeting with federal policymakers in the US to address the issue. Short of being vigilant and removing everything as it crops up, it’s going to remain a longstanding issue for tech companies to curb this kind of use of its platforms.

If it was possible for larger organizations like Facebook or Google to intercept terrorists before they manage to get posts online, it would require mass surveillance, which isn’t likely to be successful without snooping on pretty much everyone.

So, despite Google’s best efforts, this isn’t the last we’ll see of the insurgent groups’ app or any others. As it stands, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, YouTube, WhatsApp, Telegram, Tumblr and many others, are unwillingly facilitating the global spread of terrorism.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Stop the Obama administration from surrendering authority over the Internet

The "IANA Transition" took a big step forward this month and we are one step closer to the US government handing control over the DNS and IP numbering to a vaguely-defined group accountable, effectively, to nobody.

What with the weirdest Presidential election in my lifetime going on it's easy to imagine important public policy events going unnoticed. One of them is that the Obama administration is moving closer to surrendering the US government's stewardship of the Internet's numbering and naming systems.

To put it bluntly, I don't understand why we would do this. The only changes it could bring are bad ones. Once our authority over the parties administering core Internet infrastructure is gone, ultimate political control over it is gone. I think this is a bad thing. The US has done an admirable job of supervising the development of the Internet and there's no evidence that it has ever exerted untoward influence over the processes. I like the idea that the administrative bodies are clearly accountable to some clearly independent body.

We all know now that the Internet began as a US government project. Administration of parts of it was eventually outsourced, first to Network Solutions Inc and then to a non-profit corporation created just for the task: ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). ICANN operates autonomously, but under a contract from the US government, specifically from the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) in the US Department of Commerce.

In early March Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator, reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to transfer their authority over the IANA, the part of ICANN which controls the numbering system, to "the global multistakeholder community." The community he names, in the form of the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG), has delivered to the NTIA a formal proposal for the transition. Strickling says that the NTIA will be reviewing the proposal to make sure it meets their requirements, some of which are pure bureaucratic blather and some uncontroversial niceties.

This particular agreement deals only with the numbering system, not naming. Naming, in the form of control of the DNS root zone, is run by Verisign under a separate agreement with the NTIA, in cooperation with ICANN. But the administration has also announced their intention to surrender that authority.

The NTIA is much more directly involved in the DNS administration process (see image below). All changes to the root zone, the zone, and the root hints file must be approved by the NTIA acting as Root Zone Administrator.

The processes shown in the diagram have been significantly modernized in recent years, and public input is always sought when changes are proposed.

The NTIA function as Root Zone Administrator is just an extra check and so Verisign's proposal is simply to remove it. As a test, parallel authentication processes would be run for a time and compared for consistency. If there are none for some agreed period of time , success is declared and the new system goes hot.

This leaves ICANN and Verisign as the authoritative bodies controlling the DNS. A new agreement would be needed between ICANN and Verisign or, theoretically, whatever other body ICANN and the vaunted global multistakeholder community choose to operate as Root Zone Maintainer. No such agreement has yet been revealed.

Who is the "global multistakeholder community" to which the NTIA refers? It's basically the same shifty technocracy that has been running ICANN for a while, the one that makes gobs of money for themselves by creating top-level domains like .christmas and .florist. To replace the NTIA oversight functions they will create new entities, all part of ICANN. In other words, ICANN will police itself. The supervisory bodies will, in theory, have the ability to change operators for the numbering or naming systems, but I'm skeptical.

There are potential legal problems with the proposed transition. See section 539(a) of the "Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016" (i.e. the Federal budget), which forbids funds from being used "to relinquish the responsibility of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, during fiscal year 2016..."

Then there's Article IV, Section 3 of the US Constitution: "The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States." Is the NTIA's authority over the naming and numbering systems on the Internet "Property belonging to the United States?" To my mind, obviously yes. It's certainly valuable and there are plenty of parties who would pay a lot of money to have it.

But I'm not a lawyer. Internet law scholar and retired law professor David Post, blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy, disagrees with me, basically arguing that this authority is not "property" in any relevant sense. Obviously there is more than one way to look at this.

Many of you non-Americans are wondering why the US gets such authority. Easy. We made the Internet. We've made sure that it could be as free and open as it is. Don't like it? Call your congressman. It's a good thing that the US government and not (oh, for example) the United Nations, has been in charge. The plan is not to put them in charge, but once clear authority is gone, who knows where it will end up.

Monday, April 4, 2016

WiFi distance detector could shut out router invaders

Researchers from MIT have figured out how to detect the distance between WiFi users and a single router, a feat that could make drones safer and public internet more secure. They did it by measuring the "time of flight" of WiFi signals between the transmitter and receiver, and multiplying by the speed of light to calculate distance. That concept isn't new, but MIT's CSAIL team, which has already looked through walls using WiFi, managed to build a working prototype.

During tests, the device calculated time-of-flight down to 0.5 nanoseconds, making it 20 times more accurate than other systems. In a four-room apartment, researchers picked out a user's correct room location 94 percent of the time, and figured out if someone was using WiFi inside a cafe with 97 percent accuracy. They also tested it on a drone, keeping it a set distance away from the operator with a 2-inch margin of error.

Previous attempts at WiFi user calculation required multiple routers for triangulation, but MIT's system works with a single access point. There's no word on plans to commercialize the product, but the fact that the CSAIL team made a working prototype is always a promising sign. If the tech was incorporated into a router, it could shut out snoopers or internet thieves in many circumstances, making public and private WiFi much less of asecurity crapshoot.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Apple demands to know how FBI cracked San Bernardino iPhone

The FBI recently dropped its case against Apple after a third-party was able to break into the iPhone used by Syed Farook. Now, Apple is demanding to know how they did it.

In the Apple vs FBI controversy, the roles have officially been reversed.
On Monday, the Justice Department dropped its case against Apple after it was able to unlock the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter, Syed Farook, with the help of an "outside party." Now, Apple wants to know just how they did it.
The controversy around the phone began when Apple refused a court order to unlock the phone for the FBI to assist with their investigation. Apple would have been required to rewrite its OS with fewer security measures in place so that it could be accessed by the authorities.
However, a filing posted by the FBI on Monday stated: "The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook's iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc. mandated by Court's Order Compelling Apple Inc. to Assist Agents in Search dated February 16, 2016."
"It's the best and worst case scenario for [Apple]," said John Pironti, of IP Architects. "The best case scenario is that they can continue to say that they're doing everything they can do, and that they did not support law enforcement in this way."
Apple didn't have to create any custom code to help the authorities, nor did it have to violate its own ethical standards. But, the fact that the FBI and its unknown partner were able to unlock the phone means that there is a security flaw that Apple may be unaware of.
The FBI has yet to disclose who helped them crack the iPhone's security, or what measure was used to accomplish the task. And, if the potential vulnerability goes unchecked, it could be leveraged by malicious hackers to steal information from other iPhones.
So far, most people can only guess how the phone was unlocked. Some reports have indicated that Israeli company, Cellebrite, may be the unknown party that assisted the FBI. Others have speculated that the limit on incorrect password guesses was lifted, allowing the FBI to run software that eventually guessed the correct passcode. Another method, Pironti said, would be through using copied images on an emulator.
"You would take an image of the actual device, recreate the image into an emulator and then, using the emulator, you would run permutations against emulated devices," Pironti said.
The core device would still be safe and you would just keep making copies and running number combinations on those copies—almost like a virtual machine. At the time of this writing, though, nothing has been confirmed.
So now, Apple needs the FBI's help. Or, at least, its sympathy. Although, that it may be difficult for Apple to convince the FBI of its plight, as it continually pushed back against the FBI's orders—going as far as to increase the encryption on their devices in light of the FBI's original case.
This brings a new question, will the FBI ever help Apple out? If we are simply counting an eye for an eye, there is no reason for the FBI to explain its tactics. But, there are also more strategic reasons for refusing Apple's request.
ZDNet's Zack Whittaker recently pointed out a tweet by the ACLU's Christopher Soghoian that read: "The [government] doesn't disclose security flaws to firms like Apple if useful to law enforcement."
It makes sense that the FBI would like to keep its method under wraps. For one, if they disclose the method (and subsequently, the flaw it exploits) Apple will remedy the issue, and the FBI will no longer have a way into future iPhones. And, as some have pointed out, the FBI's current contention with Apple involve about 15 other iOS devices that they want access to. So, if they found a way in, why would they give it up?
Also, the U.S. government has a history of keeping these kinds of capabilities hidden.
"The Snowden releases released ways that the NSA had been able to compromise iPhones for years, and that was never disclosed to Apple, at least that I know of, until the Snowden releases," Pironti said.
Apple took direct action immediately after the Snowden releases to improve the iPhone's security, and their stance has continued to focus heavily on encryption.
The LA Times reported that Apple's attorneys are researching ways that they could legally compel the FBI to reveal the method used to hack the phone, but no updates have been released. Benjamin Wright, an attorney and instructor at the SANS Institute, isn't convinced that Apple would have much of a case if they did pursue a legal avenue.
"It just feels like quite a stretch for Apple to use some mechanism of law to force the police to reveal what they did, when Apple wasn't involved," Wright said.
At the time of the investigation, the phone was owned by the county of San Bernardino, and the county gave permission to the FBI to do whatever they needed to do in order to gather evidence. There could be some language in the end-user license agreement regarding IP or reverse engineering, that could potentially be used in a legal case, but Wright said that would likely be a stretch as well. There's also another option, Wright said.
"To get information about how the FBI cracked the iPhone, Apple might allege that the third party who did the work violated an Apple patent or stole a trade secret from Apple," Wright said. "A substantiated allegation like that might justify a lawsuit by Apple against the third party. Such a lawsuit might justify legal discovery of the technique used by the third party."
Jay Edelson of Edelson PC, which does privacy class action work in the tech sector, said that the legal situation shouldn't be taken lightly by either party.
We do not believe the government has a legal duty to tell Apple the details about the backdoor it found. However, we believe it is in the nation's security interests that the government start working with the private sector to identify and close cyber vulnerabilities. Right now, the government has inconsistent interests. On the one hand, it doesn't want to see companies get hacked, and knows that cyber terrorism is aimed at private companies, along with the government. On the other hand, it does not tolerate the idea that systems are totally secure because it always wants to maintain the option of gaining access for law enforcement, anti-terrorism, or other purposes. We believe the government cannot straddle the fence on this issue—it should be helping companies prevent hacks, even if it means that increased security will make their job harder in certain instances.
Additionally, Wright said, the timing for the news about the iPhone being unlocked was a little suspicious. Wright said he felt the FBI's original legal case was weak, and its agenda wasn't so much to procure specific data from one phone, but to set precedent for law enforcement to force Apple to cooperate. However, the FBI didn't realize how weak its case was until Apple pushed back as hard as it did.
"The FBI realized it was about to get a judge ruling against the FBI, and they didn't want that precedent so, magically, they produced some other third party who's come out of nowhere to save the day," Wright said.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. The FBI has officially unlocked the iPhone 5C of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, with the help of an unknown third party. Now, Apple is working to find out how they were able to access the information.
  2. There is no official statement on exactly how the phone was unlocked, or by whom, but some reports indicate that Israeli company Cellebrite helped the FBI bypass the number of passcode attempts on the phone.
  3. The FBI has many reasons to keep its methods secret, if it can. By not disclosing the flaw that allowed access to the phone, the FBI has a better chance of unlocking iPhones in the future if the need arises.