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“Netflix crosses $100 billion market cap after adding more subscribers than expected” plus 28 more VentureBeat

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“Netflix crosses $100 billion market cap after adding more subscribers than expected” plus 28 more VentureBeat


Netflix crosses $100 billion market cap after adding more subscribers than expected

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 01:50 PM PST


(Reuters) — Netflix Inc added more global subscribers than expected in the fourth quarter, as the video streaming service provider kept viewers hooked with critically acclaimed shows such as "The Crown" and "Stranger Things," sending its shares up 7 percent in aftermarket trading to a record.

Netflix added 8.33 million total subscribers globally in the quarter. The company had forecast total subscriber additions of 6.3 million for the three months ended Dec. 31.

Analysts' on an average were expecting subscriber additions of 6.39 million, according to data and analytics firm FactSet.

The company's profit and revenue also rose in the quarter. The stellar results pushed its shares to an all-time high and gave Netflix a market capitalization of more than $100 billion for the first time.

Netflix has been pouring money into new original shows and acquiring the rights to other TV series to beef up its overseas presence and counter new rivals in the video streaming market.

The company signed up 6.36 million subscribers internationally and 1.98 million subscribers in the U.S. during the fourth quarter. (bit.ly/2ruVUHk)

Netflix, which has chalked out a content budget of between $7.5 billion to $8 billion for 2018, faces intense competition from Amazon.com Inc's (AMZN.O) Prime Video, Hulu and Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) which is launching its own online offering.

In October, Netflix raised prices for two of its three main subscription plans to help fund the substantial content investment.

Netflix also forecast subscriber additions of 6.35 million for the first quarter, above analysts' expectations of 5.01 million, according to FactSet.

Netflix said revenue rose 32.6 percent to $3.29 billion in the quarter.

Net income rose to $185.52 million, or 41 cents per share, from $66.8 million, or 15 cents per share, a year earlier.

The Los Gatos, California-based company's shares, which touched a record at $227.79 during regular trading on Monday, rose 7.3 at $244.30 percent after-hours.

Friendly ghosts haunt PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 01:27 PM PST


I love running custom games of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Even when I die during one of these matches, the fun isn’t over, because I can go into a spectator mode and watch the rest of the fight as a free-floating camera. The best part about this is that I can use the in-game proximity chat to speak with the remaining players. On Friday, I used this power to help build a team of survivors from beyond the grave.

On Friday nights, I get together with some viewers on Twitch.tv/jeffgrubb to run the PUBG Family Dinner livestream. Folks from a variety of fandoms and communities get together to fight with and against one another. To mix things up last week, I tried some new rules: everyone would go in solo, but everyone was also encouraged to use their in-game voice to team up with other solo players.

This created scenarios where people would hesitate and try to talk their way out of confrontations instead of shooting their way out. Of course, I would just panic and start shooting and then try to talk, and that never really worked.

After getting eliminated early in one of the last matches of the night, I decided to try to use my unholy spectator powers to control the living. Now, this did work.

As I flew over the woodsy Erangel map, I noticed that a group of five solo players had already teamed up. Everyone else, however, was on their own or in a two-person squad. To help even up the fight, I began frantically flying around and giving these lone wolves information about where they could find a team.

Communicating through the spectator mode is kinda stressful. Everything is based on proximity, so I had to get close enough for each of the players to hear me. This required me to zoom my camera around while repeating myself over and over to ensure that everyone was getting the same instructions.

But, eventually, I was able to bring two solo players together, and then the two small squads joined up. Eventually, we had six players listening to an invisible apparition versus five players that were likely working together in a Discord channel.

Here’s what that all looked like:

Once the two teams were actually engaged, I decided to back off to keep things fair. But also, the fun part was already over for me. The most exciting part was getting trigger-happy PUBG players to work together in situations where they would normally never think twice about shooting first.

But everyone listened, and team ghost ended up winning.

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®'s Game Dev program.

Android 8.1 Oreo now shows public Wi-Fi network speeds before you connect

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 01:12 PM PST


Google started rolling out Android 8.1 Oreo in December 2017. One feature, however, was only turned on today: Wi-Fi connection speeds under the names of public networks.

Mobile devices already show Wi-Fi signal strength via an icon with four or five bars. The more bars, or the fuller the icon, the stronger the signal.

Google is now taking this a step further by adding connection speed ratings, which can change with signal strength, but also depend on the original source of internet speed, among other factors. The speed ratings are only available on public Wi-Fi networks — private networks (those that require a password) do not display a speed rating since they’re, well, private.

Google has decided to separate Wi-Fi speeds into four categories:

  • Slow: If you can use Wi-Fi calling, you can make phone calls and send texts.
  • OK: You can read webpages, use social media, and stream music.
  • Fast: You can stream most videos.
  • Very Fast: You can stream very high-quality videos.

A Google Community Manager shared the specific speed ranges when Android Police asked on the company’s product forums:

  • Slow: 0 – 1 Mbps
  • OK: 1 Mbps – 5 Mbps
  • Fast: 5 Mbps – 20 Mbps
  • Very Fast: 20 Mbps+

If, for whatever reason, you don’t want to see network speeds in your Wi-Fi connection settings, you can turn this feature off. Open your device’s Settings app, navigate to Network & Internet, Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Preferences, and then finally Advanced. Under “Network rating provider” choose None.

As someone who regularly connects to public Wi-Fi networks, I think this is a great addition to Android — it certainly will help me decide which network I should try first when I’m on the go. Unfortunately, Android Oreo is on very few Android devices so far — version 8.1 specifically hit just 0.2 percent adoption earlier this month.

If you were considering upgrading to the latest and greatest, these Wi-Fi speed ratings are unlikely to win you over, but they certainly can’t hurt. In other words, if you can get Android 8.1 without having to buy a completely new device, this feature should convince you.

Google forms AI team in France for health, science, and art research

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 01:09 PM PST


Google today announced plans to expand its investments in France, including its intention to create a new AI research team, its second such research initiative in two months after opening an AI center in China.

“Our new research team will work closely with the AI research community in France on issues like health, science, art and the environment. They will publish their research and open-source the code they produce, so that everyone can use these insights to solve their own problems, in their own way,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post today.

The new research team accompanies plans also announced today to open four Google Hubs to provide free online skills courses or retrain workers. Google aims for its courses to be within reach for 100,000 people a year, Pichai said.

Google plans to grow its French workforce by 50 percent in the year ahead, for a total 1,000 employees.

Google’s announcements come just hours after Facebook released plans to step up its digital skills training initiatives in parts of Europe and a €10 million ($12.2 million) investment in its AI research facility in France. Facebook said it plans to deliver training to 1 million people by 2020.

The competition for hearts and minds like the sort that took place in France today has happened before as tech giants attempt to position themselves among governments, researchers, and businesses around the world.

Between late 2016 and late 2017, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft made the news after opening AI research offices or expanding their footprint in Montreal, a city well known for AI innovation and education institutions like Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) and McGill University.

AI assistants are poised for major growth in 2018

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 12:10 PM PST


Artificial intelligence assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have been a major topic of discussion over the past few months. From the release of the Google Home smart speaker to huge sales of Amazon Echo devices over Christmas, there’s been a buzz in the air for months — and that buzz is still building in 2018.

Rumor has it Apple will release the HomePod smart speaker soon. This has prompted a flurry of speculation about how it’s too little, too late for the company to jump into the AI-enabled smart speaker sector. Meanwhile, experts point to these assistants as the next big boom in consumer tech and AI.

So what do AI assistants have in store for us in 2018? Read on to find out.

AI assistants will be the next big thing in tech

2018 is shaping up to be a big year for smart speaker adoption and, as a result, AI assistant adoption because these digital assistants power devices including the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

IDC Canada thinks smart speakers will be in over one million Canadian households by the end of 2018. If those numbers look hot, look at the stats for the United States: 1 in 6 adults in the US now owns a voice-activated smart speaker — that’s 39 million people.

Smart speaker adoption is now outpacing that of smartphones, according to an NPR and Edison Research study. And people aren’t using smart speakers once or twice and then forgetting about them. 65 percent of those surveyed said they wouldn’t want to go back to a life without these devices.

Apple will finally release the HomePod

Apple plans to release its own smart speaker this year. The device, called the HomePod, is like the Amazon Echo and Google Home in that it’s a big speaker powered by an AI assistant. But the similarities stop there. The HomePod will retail for $349 — three times the cost of a full-sized Echo. Initial demos indicate it features some impressive sound quality.

Unfortunately for Apple, Amazon has already gained significant market share. Alexa has become a household name, and many consider Siri to be inferior to both Alexa and Google Assistant. In Apple’s defense, though, the tech giant isn’t known for doing things first — it’s known for doing things better.

That said, it’ll be interesting to see how the HomePod fares. While there are sure to be some Apple fans holding out for the new device, the price point may hurt the device’s adoption in homes.

Digital assistants will be in everything

Get ready for voice control to be everywhere. Amazon and Google allow third parties to tap into their assistants, making voice control easier to implement with any task. Samsung, which is working on its own service, will start integrating this aspect of AI into more household appliances.

AI assistants currently work with smart home devices such as light bulbs, thermostats, and some home security systems like ADT Pulse and Vivint. This year, we might see digital assistants and voice control also function with larger appliances, like washers and dryers. The living room won’t be exempt, either — tech companies will likely update smart TVs to include voice assistants and enhance the entertainment experience. Alexa is even coming to cars this year.

Adding assistants to devices through software updates is a perfect way for companies to drive the tech’s adoption because it keeps consumers from having to go out and buy a whole new device to access the AI. Any device with a microphone, speaker, and internet connection could have an assistant added. Look at Cortana — Microsoft added the AI to millions of computers when Windows 10 launched in 2015.

Companies will dramatically improve assistants

AI assistants are likely to gain new abilities and get better at the ones they already have. Expect a lot of branded skills to come to the various assistants that use this function. Amazon and Google, for example, allow third parties to build skills that function like apps for their digital assistants. Apple, on the other hand, has historically limited what developers can do with Siri, and it’s still unclear whether that trend will change with the release of the HomePod.

The assistants themselves will also continue to improve. Siri and Google Assistant both received new voices in 2017, making them sound much more realistic, and the tech that powers those voice improvements is getting really good. Google’s got a new system called Tacotron 2 that is amazing at mimicking actual speech. It may not be long before we can’t tell the difference between an AI voice and a human one.

That’s good news for AI companies, though it may be a little scary for the rest of us. Jokes about robots taking over the world aside, not being able to tell if it’s a bot or an actual person on the phone may cause some interesting customer service issues for companies. It’ll take time to gauge how the public reacts to bots being so smoothly integrated into everyday life.

AI has some exciting developments on the horizon, and 2018 is shaping up to be an amazing year in the industry. But no matter what happens with AI assistants, one thing is for sure: The future has never sounded better.

Scott Bay is a digital journalist who reports on the latest technology trends, focusing specifically on travel, security, and AI.

Indianapolis’ Springbuk raises $20 million for its employer-facing health analytics software

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 11:30 AM PST


Springbuk, an Indianapolis-based provider of health intelligence software, announced today that it has raised a $20 million series B round. The round was led by HealthQuest Capital and Echo Health Ventures. St. Louis-based Lewis & Clark Ventures and Indianapolis-based Elevate Ventures also participated in this round.

According to Crunchbase’s data, Springbuk’s series B is the largest raised by an Indianapolis company since media startup The Odyssey raised a $25 million series B in 2015. It’s a positive development in an area (the Midwest) where scale-up capital has traditionally been hard to come by.


VentureBeat’s Heartland Tech channel invites you to join us and other senior business leaders at BLUEPRINT in Reno on March 5-7. Learn how to expand jobs to Middle America, lower costs, and boost profits. Click here to request an invite and be a part of the conversation. 


Springbuk, which launched its software in 2015, targets employers that are looking to assess how effective the various benefits services they offer are.

“There’s a lot of software that's solving the provider and payer side of the equation,” Springbuk cofounder and vice president Phil Daniels told VentureBeat. “But it’s the thesis of our business that that the employer has so much at stake — it’s their dollars, their population, and they’re the ones that really benefit the most from a healthy productive workforce. So Springbuk helps them see what the biggest risk and opportunities are.”

Here’s how it works: Employers pay for a monthly subscription to Springbuk, based upon how how many employees they have. The type of data Springbuk can help employers analyze includes medical bills, pharmacy sales, and payroll data, including how many sick days an employee takes. Daniels says that executives such as the human resources chief or the chief financial officer can only view data in aggregate — not how much an individual employee spent on medical bills or what kind of medicine they are purchasing.

But these executives can then use Springbuk’s software to determine what gaps in care their employees are experiencing, and offer services that might alleviate that. For example, according to a case study on Springbuk’s site, a Goodwill office in Michigan started used Springbuk’s software to start offering services including “lunch-and-learns focusing on cholesterol, diabetes, and financial stability, gym partnerships that include discounts and on-site classes, the opportunity for biometrics screenings, and wellness awards for tracked activity levels.”

More than 1,000 employers use Springbuk, Daniels told VentureBeat. Springbuk also works with vendors such as onsite clinics and benefits consultants to help them gauge how effective employers are finding their services, though Springbuk declined to say how many vendors it works with.

Springbuk also announced today that it would be adding 100 jobs in Indianapolis by 2020. The company had 49 employees at the end of 2017. Daniels said that the majority of these jobs would be on the data science and engineering side.

According to Daniels, Springbuk met with 75 venture capitalists across the country while raising the company’s series B round.

“The feedback we got was that [from venture capitalists] was that in the Midwest we knew how to build real businesses, with real models and realistic goals.”

Kony Introduces New Base Camp Community to Bridge the Skills Gap for Digital App Developers

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 11:26 AM PST


Kony Base Camp Provides a Comprehensive Resource for Developers to Access Kony Resources, Training, and Expertise to Deliver Apps Faster

AUSTIN, Texas–(BUSINESS WIRE)–January 22, 2018–

Kony, Inc., the leading enterprise mobility and digital applications company, today announced the launch of Kony Base Camp, a curated online community designed to empower both professional and citizen developers to gain the modern IT skills needed to accelerate the development and delivery of omnichannel apps.

The pace and demands of today’s digital business environment has resulted in an increasing IT skills gap – one that hinders professional opportunities for developers. The lack of skilled digital app developers also slows overall business innovation for companies. Connecting tens of thousands of developers, including top architects and developers from Kony, Base Camp offers a central location for developers to access useful tutorials, training and certification opportunities to build the modern IT skills sought out by employers in today’s highly competitive job market. In addition, users can exchange knowledge with other developers, download prebuilt components from the Kony Marketplace, and contribute input for consideration into the Kony product roadmap.

“Kony provides the best-in-class platform for digital applications, and developers with Kony expertise and certification is in high demand. In fact, Kony is ranked among the top 5 certifications in the industry,” said Wayne McCulloch, executive vice president and chief customer officer, Kony, Inc. “Kony Base Camp provides developers with access to a comprehensive ecosystem of experts, tools and professional resources. By bringing together the power of leading-edge technologies and best practices, we are able to equip developers with competitive skills needed to fully unlock the power of today’s modern omnichannel applications.”

With Base Camp, Kony is removing a barrier for developers to gain critical digital skills, by offering a number of training courses for developers at no cost. Upon successful completion, developers are awarded credentials that are based on the Open Badge framework. People can display these verifiable skills and accomplishment across the web and share them with their network and potential employers. In addition, the Kony Base Camp community of developers and experts from around the world offer developers support throughout the app development cycle.

Kony Base Camp is immediately available to all app developers who want to:

  • Prepare with webinars, forums, release readiness modules, and product discussion groups to Get Started
  • Embark with Kony Marketplace, tutorials, documentation and user guides
  • Summit with enterprise-level training and certification and Premier Success access

For more information: Watch the Kony Base Camp video

Kony is a recognized leader in the enterprise mobility space. Recently, Kony was named the only Leader in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Mobile App Development Platforms Report for five consecutive years. In addition, Kony was named a “Leader” and earned the highest score in the current offering category in Mobile Infrastructure Services by independent research firm Forrester Research, Inc., according to The Forrester Wave™Mobile Infrastructure ServicesMobile Development Platforms, and Mobile Low-Code Development Platforms reports. Kony has also been named a “Leader” in the IDC MarketScape: 2017 North American Mobile Banking and Payments report, with the highest rating for Mobile Banking capabilities.

About Kony, Inc.

Kony is the fastest growing, cloud-based enterprise application and mobility solutions company, and a recognized industry leader among mobile application development platform (MADP) providers. Kony helps organizations of all sizes drive business ingenuity by rapidly transforming ideas into innovative and secure omnichannel applications. Built on the industry’s leading digital platform, Kony provides the most innovative and secure omnichannel applications, with exceptional user experience and app design. Kony’s cross-platform, low-code solution also empowers organizations to develop and manage their own apps to better engage with their customers, partners and employees. By seamlessly leveraging and connecting apps to all types of data sources and information, Kony also enables organizations to transform their business processes and gain valuable insight. Kony was named the first place winner in CTIA’s MobITs Awards in the Mobile Applications, Development & Platforms category and included on the Inc. 500|5000 list of fastest growing private companies in America.

For more information, please visit www.kony.com. Connect with Kony on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

Kony, Inc.
Jean Kondo, 510-823-4728
Jean.kondo@kony.com
or
Blanc & Otus
Danielle Tarp, 415-856-5182
Kony@blancandotus.com

SpecialEffect charity raises $621,777 to help disabled people play games

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 11:11 AM PST


The U.K.-based charity SpecialEffect received $621,777 (£446,000) in donations from game companies during its annual One Special Day event in September. The charity focuses on making games more accessible to folks with disabilities. It runs other fundraisers throughout the year, and this one particular is structured so that developers and publishers can contribute 100 percent of their games’ sales on the day of the event. This year’s One Special Day will take place on September 29.

Traditional gamepads like Sony’s popular DualShock for the PlayStation 4 can be difficult for people with disabilities to use. SpecialEffect offers individualized support by creating alternative controllers to enable people who may not have use of their hands to play the games they want. Some of the equipment it gives out are modified gamepads that utilize features like voice control or eye-tracking.

Companies that participate in One Special Day commit to contributing 100 percent of their U.K. or global sales that day. The list of partners who donated in September include Codemasters, Double Fine, Electronic Arts, Playdemic, Rovio, Supercell, Sega, and Unity Technologies.

“The money raised from One Special Day 2017 will go toward employing two additional clinical staff to join our growing team of occupational therapists and technology specialists,” said SpecialEffect founder and CEO Mick Donegan in a statement. “It will also help pay for vital modifications to SpecialEffect's national accessible games room where people with disabilities can visit to try out a huge range of hardware and software modifications.”

SpecialEffect isn’t the only charity that focuses on accessibility in games. The U.S.-based AbleGamers also gives players modified controllers, along with financial aid for folks who need help affording special game equipment. It also offers consultation to developers who want to make their titles accessible. To that end, it has put together a free 50-page document called “Includification” that contains tips like featuring customizable fonts or a colorblind mode for folks who are visually impaired.

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®'s Game Dev program.

Deutsche Telekom predicts 5G will integrate carriers closer into public and private sectors

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 11:00 AM PST


If your city’s old parking garage needs upgrades, a 5G-focused mobile phone carrier could pay to improve it — and share the fees with the city, Deutsche Telekom’s CEO Tim Hoettges suggested in a wide-ranging Bloomberg interview. Carriers’ evolution from selling data packages to offering larger solutions will kick off a “revolution” in 5G services, Hoettges said, ultimately benefiting consumers, cities, companies, and carriers alike.

As Germany’s largest mobile carrier — and owner of T-Mobile-branded carriers throughout Europe and the U.S. — Deutsche Telekom might not seem like it needs to share parking fees to keep afloat. However, Hoettges explained that the revenue-sharing concept is pragmatic, enabling carriers to directly repay their soon-to-be-massive 5G infrastructure investments. Financing 5G network growth is of particular concern to European carriers, which can’t rely on American- or Chinese-sized customer bases to provide economies of scale.

As 5G deployment takes place, Hoettges expects that carriers will offer new 5G services to cities and companies, jointly delivering superior experiences that can be monetized. Carriers will supply everything necessary to add modern wireless features to an existing business, including 5G networking hardware and IoT devices. For instance, a parking garage could be equipped with 5G-connected vehicle sensors and a payment system, providing drivers with better park-and-pay experiences while compensating the garage owner and carrier. But once the carrier has a significant role in public or private infrastructure, it might be difficult to dislodge.

5G mobile is being touted as society-transforming, thanks to a combination of ultrafast data, nearly zero network latency, and enough capacity to service millions of devices in small geographic areas. Deutsche Telekom’s U.S. arm T-Mobile US has committed to starting its 5G rollout in 2019, while its parent company expects 5G to be widely available in Germany in 2020. Hoettges believes that the average person will own six internet-connected devices by 2020, and that Germany alone will have millions of connected cars, machines, and factories by then.

Epic acquires Cloudgine so Unreal devs can offload game processing to servers

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 10:16 AM PST


Epic is unlocking the power of the cloud for its Unreal Engine 4 game-development tools. The company has acquired Cloudgine, a startup that enables Unreal Engine 4 to run certain game computations in the cloud, for an undisclosed amount.

Cloudgine’s tech uses cloud servers to enable console, PC, and virtual reality games to render content and interactive objects without worrying about the platform. This is a concept that has shown up in a handful of games, like Titanfall and Forza Motorsport 7. In those online shooters and racing games, the developers offload artificial intelligence routines to the cloud.

But cloud computing is capable of a lot more than sending swarms of enemies at you. For example, Cloudgine was working with Microsoft on its upcoming Crackdown 3 open-world crime game. In Crackdown 3’s online mode, players can destroy massive structures. To ensure the Xbox One can handle all of that action, Microsoft is running the calculations for that destruction in the cloud.

“Since its inception, Cloudgine's research and development has been based on Epic's Unreal Engine 4,” Epic marketing boss Dana Cowley said. “Cloudgine's cloud computing and online technologies will enhance the UE4 feature set to help developers push the creative and technical limits of games, film, animation and visualization through advances in physics simulation and networking.”

You can see an example of Crackdown 3 running on Cloudgine’s tech in the video below:

I’ve asked Epic and Microsoft if Crackdown 3 is still using Cloudgine now that the company is under new ownership.

But this deal means that Epic should integrate cloud computing options into its Unreal Engine. This will enable the studios that use this tool to unlock new A.I. and physics options in their projects. This is especially useful as more publishers and developers embrace service games that require an online connection to a remote server.

Cloudgine also represents the technologies that enable developers to do more with older hardware. That is important as the aging Xbox One and PlayStation 4 systems continue to sell well alongside the less powerful Nintendo Switch and affordable video cards. Cloud computing can deliver equivalent gameplay experiences across all those platforms even if games are still rendering most visuals on the local processors.

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®'s Game Dev program.

Global Insurance Leader AXA Acquires Maestro Health

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 09:26 AM PST


Strategic investment positions AXA to accelerate its payer-to-partner strategy

CHICAGO–(BUSINESS WIRE)–January 22, 2018–

Maestro Health, a leading all-in employee health and benefits company, today announced it has taken a major step forward in its strategy to make health and benefits people-friendly again. Maestro Health will join forces with AXA Group and continue to empower people in the U.S. and abroad to live better lives. Together, they will take steps to transform the U.S. healthcare market by simplifying and personalizing how people shop, enroll and live with their health benefits.

The move comes at a tipping point in the U.S. healthcare market as cost, complexity and consumer engagement come to the forefront-inspiring the changing landscape of industry players. AXA’s acquisition of Maestro Health and its all-in benefits platform, maestroEDGE™, supports AXA’s payer-to-partner strategy in line with its “Ambition 2020” corporate initiative. Once the acquisition is final, Maestro Health will maintain its identity, mission and team, while operating as a wholly-owned subsidiary of AXA.

“Not only is this the optimal step into the next phase of Maestro Health’s history, it’s also the ideal partnership to reinforce our all-in, continuum of care model-and ultimately transform healthcare as we know it today. With the scale and resources of one of the most recognizable brands in the world, we are well positioned to expedite our mission to lower healthcare costs, reduce complexity and empower the consumer more than ever before,” said Rob Butler, CEO and Founder, Maestro Health. “It was critical for us to maintain our culture, brand and innovative identity, yet find a true partner with the unique combination of AXA’s scale, like-mindedness and industry prowess-a synergy that can appeal to all of our current customers and channel partners.”

With AXA, Maestro Health customers will see enhancements in their experience and access to leading product offerings. Additionally, Maestro Health will continue to focus on delivering new and improved solutions and services to the market, designed to further reduce healthcare costs and improve engagement for constituents across the entire continuum of care.

“We are excited about this strategic investment, which reflects the Group’s ambition to dedicate Euro 200 million per year towards innovation. It provides an attractive opportunity to build our presence in the U.S. healthcare market with a new business model that has the potential of improving healthcare quality for millions of employees,” said Guillaume Borie, Chief Innovation Officer, AXA. “Maestro Health has outstanding technology, assets and people, an agile organization and a close-knit culture, providing exciting prospects for our population health management strategy in the U.S. market and beyond.”

With its extensive health plan, care management, and benefits administration experience, Maestro Health has become known across the industry as ‘the most experienced startup.’ Founded in 2013, the company has worked with leading employers of all sizes, in addition to brokers and insurance carriers. Maestro Health currently serves more than 500 groups and 1 million lives on its maestroEDGE™ platform. With more than 300 employees, it has also been recognized with some of the industry’s most prestigious awards and accolades, including Great Places to Work Institute’s “Great Place to Work,” and ChicagoInno’s “Coolest Companies.” It was also named bronze winners in the American Business Awards “Most Innovative Company of the Year” and “Tech Startup of the Year.”

maestroEDGE™ is an all-in, technology-meets-service platform built to simplify, personalize and optimize how people shop, enroll and live with their benefits. The platform, which supports the entire continuum of care to treat the whole member, integrates Maestro Health’s owned and operated solutions across the complete benefits ecosystem. This enables Maestro Health to create an environment that empowers the consumer from the day they on-board at an organization through the entire year, to live healthier and better lives.

“Joining forces with AXA will undeniably make us a better and stronger company not only for our customers, but also for our employees,” added Rob Butler. “People and culture are at the core of what we do, and I am thrilled about this next chapter as it is the perfect long-term scenario to keep the team together and accomplish our mission in the U.S. healthcare market and beyond.”

Triple Tree acted as the exclusive financial advisor to Maestro Health for this transaction.

Maestro Health previously received growth capital financing by lead investor Oak HC/FT and SV Health Investors.

Completion of the acquisition is subject to customary closing conditions including the receipt of regulatory approvals.

For more information on our innovative solutions in the U.S. healthcare market, please visit maestrohealth.com/axa-acquires-maestrohealth. For more information about AXA, please visit https://group.axa.com/en/, or for more information about Maestro Health, its management team, culture and its all-in technology platform please visit www.maestrohealth.com.

About Maestro Health™
Maestro Health makes employee health & benefits people-friendly again by delivering an all-in platform that meets todays needs of employers, employees, brokers and carriers. Maestro Health owns and operates six core solutions: (me)BENEFITS ADMIN 2.0™, (me)BENEFIT ACCOUNTS™, (me)SELF-FUNDED BENEFITS™, (me)PEOPLE MANAGEMENT™, (me)BILLING ADMIN™ and (me)ACA SERVICES™. The flexible solutions are designed and unified on a tech-meets-service platform so customers can customize their own HR suite based on what works best for their organization’s unique needs-all to optimize and simplify the way employees and employers shop, enroll and live with their benefits.

To learn more, visit: www.maestrohealth.com.

About AXA
The AXA Group is a worldwide leader in insurance and asset management, with 165,000 employees serving 107 million clients in 64 countries. In 2016, IFRS revenues amounted to Euro 100.2 billion and IFRS underlying earnings to Euro 5.7 billion. AXA had Euro 1,429 billion in assets under management as of December 31, 2016.

The AXA ordinary share is listed on compartment A of Euronext Paris under the ticker symbol CS (ISN FR 0000120628 – Bloomberg: CS FP – Reuters: AXAF.PA). AXA’s American Depository Share is also quoted on the OTC QX platform under the ticker symbol AXAHY.

The AXA Group is included in the main international SRI indexes, such as Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) and FTSE4GOOD.

It is a founding member of the UN Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) Principles for Sustainable Insurance and a signatory of the UN Principles for Responsible Investment.

PAN Communications for Maestro Health
Matthew Briggs, 617.502.4300
maestro@pancomm.com
or
Maestro Health
Lauren Metsig, 312.517.3521
lmetsig@maestrohealth.com

Google extends Hangouts Meet video call support to tablets

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 09:01 AM PST


Google has announced that its enterprise-focused Hangouts Meet app is now officially supported on iPads and Android tablets.

The news comes almost a year after the internet giant revealed it was splitting the Hangouts platform into two core services: Hangouts Chat is all about bringing instant messaging to teams, while Hangouts Meet is focused on videoconferencing.

In the intervening months since launch, Google has iterated the Hangouts Meet product — it extended support from 30 to 50 participants, for example, while it also now allows users to record meetings and save them directly to Google Drive. And a few months back, Google launched the $2,000 Hangouts Meet kit, which includes high-quality hardware for professional-grade videoconferencing.

Tablet support was a requested feature in the Hangouts Meet community, so this latest announcement should go down well.

Techstars’ Chris Heivly to talk startup growth beyond Silicon Valley at VentureBeat’s Blueprint event

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 08:45 AM PST


Chris Heivly, the entrepreneur-in-residence at international startup accelerator Techstars, is one of the speakers at VentureBeat’s inaugural Blueprint conference, happening on March 5-7 in Reno, Nevada. At Blueprint, speakers including Heivly will discuss how tech companies can create higher paying jobs across America and expand economic opportunity for all.

As entrepreneur-in-residence, Heivly is working with Techstars — which now operates more than 36 accelerator programs in 30 cities around the world — to develop a model to help startup ecosystems grow.

Ahead of the conference, VentureBeat spoke to Heivly about how to accelerate startup growth in Middle America. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

VentureBeat: In your role, you’ve traveled around the country for the past year, meeting with entrepreneurs in a variety of cities. What are some of the biggest challenges they are facing right now?

Chris Heivly: Founders everywhere are challenged by the same set of constraints: access to the resources they need to grow their business.

Resources can be defined from abstract to specific. For example: Awareness of what it takes to build a large growth company. Being the biggest company in “fill-in-the-blank-metro” can be a dangerous point of view, because it creates a false sense of progress about what it takes to establish a growth company.

Other resources that can be difficult to access include an available customer base that will work with them through the beta/iteration phase, experienced talent to materially and directly move the company forward, and capital to scale a validated business model.

Most communities today have available seed capital — but most communities do not possess series A (and beyond) capital. This is an obvious constraint that is slowly being addressed, but until then it requires that the local community have an established network of investors outside of their metro who are willing to invest in their metro.

VB: Techstars’ Brad Feld categorizes the people involved in building a startup community into one of two groups: leaders (entrepreneurs) and feeders (government agencies, lawyers, accountants, local universities, and angel investors). What advice do you have for the feeders about how they can best support the leaders?

Heivly: We are working on fleshing this out a little more than the simplistic, two-prong leader-feeder approach. But we have a few notions.

Feeders can be leaders if they leave their business agenda to the side and sign up for the greater mission of building the community. This is difficult for many, but absolutely required for feeders to play a productive role in community building.

“No entrepreneurs equals no community” is something that many government or quasi-government actors forget or miss. To that end, feeders can be most successful when they put the needs of the entrepreneurs first.

Non-founders (feeders) should also wake up every day thinking, “How can I help a local entrepreneur be more successful today?” Do that and the community will grow and prosper.

VB: What are some of the startup communities in the U.S. that have done the best job of facilitating a strong, effective relationship between the leaders and feeders?

Heivly: Boulder has certainly done a great job at this, as Brad shared in his book Startup Communities a few years back.

I am very familiar with the Raleigh/Durham region and the work we have done with the local Chambers of Commerce [and] universities, and a great group of lawyers and their offices has served the community well.

Seattle, Minneapolis, and Chicago are other communities that continue to work together and establish great startup community culture.

UberEats will be the ‘largest food delivery company in the world this year’, says CEO

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 08:27 AM PST


For all the problems Uber is facing, at least one thing appears to be going fantastically right: its food delivery business.

During an appearance today at the DLD Conference in Munich, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he was confident that the company’s UberEats food delivery business was in a strong position to trounce rivals such as the U.K.’s Deliveroo and Germany’s Delivery Hero.

“UberEats is absolutely exploding,” he said. “I think we’ll be the largest food delivery company in the world this year.”

At the same time, Khosrowshahi didn’t offer any details to back up that claim, and Uber faces a tough field of well-funded rivals in a space that has been brutally competitive and spectacularly unprofitable. He also didn’t address a report from earlier in the day that Uber had acquired, Ando, a delivery-only restaurant that makes its own food, for an undisclosed sum.

“We've worked with Uber to power our delivery from the start, and we're excited our team and technology will play a role in their vision of building the world's leading food delivery service going forward,” Ando wrote on its website.

The report on Uber’s overall business isn’t quite as good. When asked what’s not going well, Khosrowshahi replied:

“The part that is not going well is the profitability part. This has been a business tuned for growth, and not for efficiency.”

He declined to put a timetable on when Uber might reach profitability. But he emphasized that as part of his push for slower, more responsible growth, getting to break even would be a higher priority than it was in the past under founder Travis Kalanick.

Khosrowshahi also noted that while he was excited about autonomous vehicles, it would be 10 to 15 years before they became a substantial part of Uber’s business. For now, expect some semi-autonomous vehicles to be “feathered” into the Uber fleet, but not in large numbers, as there are still far too many technical and regulatory challenges.

Uber CEO slams founders’ ‘pirate’ culture, pledges to grow ‘responsibly’

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 07:47 AM PST


In one of his first public interviews since becoming Uber CEO last year, Dara Khosrowshahi offered a brutal critique of the runaway company culture he inherited from founder Travis Kalanick.

“There is a rebel in every startup. I just think that Uber took it too far,” he said. “There was a bit of a pirate mentality. Pushing the boundaries doesn't mean overstepping the boundaries.”

Khosrowshahi made his remarks on stage during an appearance at the DLD Conference in Munich.

Kalanick was ousted last year by the company’s board following an extraordinary series of complaints about Uber’s handling of sexual harassment complaints, as well as its reputation as a competitive bully that would fight any attempt at regulation. Throw in accusations of stealing corporate secrets and spying on users via their data, and the company’s reputation was in tatters.

Indeed, when first approached about the job, Khosrowshahi said “No, thanks.” But it was a conversation with Spotify founder Daniel Ek that changed his mind. Khosrowshahi said he was comfortable in his previous gig running Expedia, but Ek offered him a challenge.

“Life isn’t about being comfortable,” Khosrowshahi recalled Ek telling him. “It’s about doing something great. Go to a place where you can make a difference as an individual, and go to a place that’s making a difference in the world.”

Khosrowshahi is optimistic that Uber can still be great. But he made it clear time and time again just how bad things were when he arrived.

“Wining as Uber did covers lots of faults inside the company,” he said. “We’re going to shift from growing at all costs to growing responsibly.”

If there was good news, it was that no one on the team needed to be convinced that a massive course correction was needed, he said.

“The company knew it was in such trouble,” he said. “It was thirsty for leadership and was hungry for change.”

Regarding the problems the company had with regulators in Germany, Khosrowshahi said it was a good example of how Uber’s bullying mentality backfired. Going forward, Uber wants to partner with cities and regulators to create a more constructive relationship, he said.

“Germany is a market with enormous promise,” he added. “We stepped into Germany and we behaved in a way that was inappropriate and wrong. Our relationship with Germany is in need of a total reset. And it deserves to be a total reset … We're bullish on the German market, but we want to be patient.”

Finally, in terms of fixing Uber’s culture, he said he’s not looking to be a savior.

“In Silicon Valley, there’s a cult of personality,” he said. “That there's this single person who's going to solve everything. I think that's B.S. I think it's about building a team. What we need is a team. It's not about me. If Uber's about me, it's in trouble.”

He added: “There is a lot of good in Uber. It is the most passionate set of employees who want to change the world. Things went wrong, but these are good people who are passionate. This a company that’s going to grow, and it's going to do so responsibility. I think this is going to the one of the greatest comebacks in technology.”

Telefónica will bring 5G to Spain this year, kicking off EU’s next-gen cellular race

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 07:37 AM PST


Telefónica, Spain’s largest mobile carrier, announced today that it will begin the 5G rollout process this year by transforming two Spanish cities into “5G living laboratories.” Under the 5G Technological Cities Project, Nokia and Ericsson will work with Telefónica from 2018 through 2020 to develop initial 5G capacity, deployments, and use cases to benefit both citizens and companies.

Segovia and Talavera de la Reina will be the lucky early recipients of 5G technology; each is notably much smaller than Spain’s best-known cities and thus more manageable for full-city testing. Telefónica notes that its rollout will give priority to citizens — rather than companies — by deploying 5G throughout urban centers in a way that will help the cities develop new industries and increase tourism.

Telefónica expects its 5G implementation to include 1-10Gbps speeds, 1-5ms latency, and up to 100 times more connected devices on the network. The wireless performance is expected to surpass in-home fixed fiber broadband by up to 3 times current speeds. Some of Spain’s expected benefits from 5G are connected vehicles, VR/AR tourist services, improved gaming, popularization of IoT, improved rural access, telemedicine, industrial automation, and remote control of everything from drones to mission-critical equipment.

Bowing to the reality that 5G standards are still in the process of being finalized, Telefónica says it will begin by introducing 5G hardware and services that depend on a 4G infrastructure, and then move to a standalone 5G network. Consequently, some of the improvements will boost performance of existing 4G/LTE consumer hardware, as they will be optimizations to the existing 4G network, while others will require and demonstrate larger gains on completely new 5G hardware.

Nokia will work with Telefónica in Segovia, and Ericsson will partner with Telefónica in Talavera de la Reina. Ericsson notes that it’s already working with over 35 partners across the world to prepare for connected cities in the future.

Telefónica’s announcement in Spain comes only days after Japan’s largest carrier, NTT Docomo, set a 2020 rollout date for 5G. It’s the latest sign that cellular providers around the world are all officially firming up their 5G plans; South Korea’s top carrier, SK Telecom, is reportedly “vying to be the first with a 5G service … as soon as possible,” while second-place rival KT is planning a 2019 commercialization of 5G. By contrast, the rollout of 5G in Malaysia — a country that has not yet laid the groundwork for the new technology — is now expected in 2022 or 2023.

European 5G announcements are anticipated at and ahead of next month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Germany’s Deutsche Telekom expects to have a full 5G network available in 2020 and is starting to lay the foundation this year. It is already planning to offer 5G services in conjunction with businesses and governments, paying for new 5G infrastructure hardware such as parking lot sensors in exchange for a cut of the fees generated.

Oculus VR spinoff Fable Studio makes big debut at Sundance

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 07:30 AM PST


Fable Studio debuted its new virtual reality experience Wolves in the Walls this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, and it also took the lid off its other projects that combine interactivity, VR, and cinema.

Fable Studio was born after Facebook closed its Oculus Story Studio in May, and it received funding for Wolves in the Walls from Oculus. It's an adaptation of a story from Neil Gaiman, creator of landmark comics and books such as The SandmanCoraline, and American Gods. Edward Saatchi, executive producer of the VR project, told me in an interview that the story will be told in three chapters, with the first one debuting at Sundance.

The ambition is to push VR storytelling in new directions, like Oculus Story Studio’s earlier projects such as Lost and Henry. The latter won an Emmy award for best VR animated short. Saatchi said that the main character of Wolves in Walls, Lucy, has eyes that follow your movements. She needs your help, since no one else in her home believes that there are really wolves inhabiting the walls.

Fable is also working on a number of “Made in VR” experiences that are interactive cinematic projects. They include Origin, Ten, Magic River Yacht Club, and Derailed. That’s a lot of work under way, and Saatchi believes that 2018 is the year when the new company will start to monetize its work. Besides Saatchi, the team includes Pete Billington, Jessica Shamash, Chris Wheeler, and others.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Fable Studio consists of former Oculus Story Studio members.

GamesBeat: Have you been able to gauge the interest in VR at Sundance?

Edward Saatchi: This section sold out I think every single—you buy tickets for an hour, and this section sold out. From the point of view of attendees it seems like interest is pretty high. As far as the more mainstream press – the New Yorker, the Times – it's becoming a beat for folks beyond just the tech space. But at the same time, there's an element of it being the same people. There are a few new players each year, but clearly there aren't as many VR devices as there are smartphones. It's still very nascent.

To give you a sense of the backstory of Wolves in the Walls, have you seen a VR movie called Henry? The hedgehog one.

GamesBeat: Yes, I have.

Saatchi: We started production on Wolves as production on Henry was wrapping up, before we released it. That was in 2015. We loved the idea that Henry looked at you, and we wanted to explore further how an interactive character would work. We found a Neil Gaiman story we loved called Wolves in the Walls. Gaiman wrote Coraline and American Gods and the Sandman comics, just a really cool writer. We wanted to adapt that story, which is about a young girl who thinks she sees wolves behind the walls of her home. You are her imaginary friend, and you have to help her convince her family that there are really wolves in the walls.

GamesBeat: In the book, is there a person that's like you, the imaginary friend?

Saatchi: No, we created that completely, because we didn't want you to be Lucy. One of the cool things for us was, we always felt here that VR movies should be the intersection of narrative games and immersive theater and cinema. For this project we got to hire on people from BioShock and a really cool immersive simulation that Doug Church and Steven Spielberg worked on called LMNO, which was very character-based. We loved the Elizabeth character from BioShock Infinite. She was very inspiring. We bought on Jordan Thomas as the lead design consultant, who was the creative director of BioShock 2 and worked a lot on Elizabeth from Infinite. We loved Ellie from The Last of Us as well, so brought on people from those teams.

We also brought on people from immersive theater. The two founders of Third Rail Projects, which created several immersive theater pieces in New York, like Then She Fell, which is an Alice in Wonderland one—they actually choreographed the experience, the first thing we mocapped, which gave us the ability to have Lucy, the main character, be mocapped and try out hundreds of responses to what you do or don't do. She can react to you differently.

Above: Edward Saatchi is a cofounder of Fable Studio, a new VR film studio.

Image Credit: Fable Studio

Going back to your question, I think if we were making a game, we might have thought, "Okay, you'll be Lucy." But we wanted you to be an imaginary friend, so that she could still be the protagonist of the story. You are her companion. It's different from a game, where normally you're the protagonist and you have companions. We thought, for this, it would be in between a movie and an immersive theater piece and a game, so the main character should be the protagonist and you would help her. You have hands. She gives you hands and draws you into the experience. But you aren't the main character of the story. We thought that was really important, because the goal for us was that you would feel a deep emotional connection to Lucy.

Once we saw Touch, a couple of years ago, we were several months into Wolves, and we knew it should be a Touch experience. We added in the ability—you take a Polaroid picture to capture evidence of the wolves. You work with her to move through the story. For us, we can see a future – Henry was the genesis of it – where the studio we launched yesterday, which we call Fable—basically we spun out Wolves in the Walls from Oculus Story Studio and started Fable, with funding from Oculus. As we think about what Fable's vision would be, it's not a two-hour VR movie. We think it's a persistent AR/VR character.

You saw Blade Runner 2049? Think about Joi from that movie. Instead of building a 19-minute VR movie one day, it's more like, how do we make a character that's as convincing as her? I think it goes way beyond AI or voice recognition. We might put it another way and say, there are a lot of smoke and mirrors that come from storytelling that we can use to make you care about Lucy in a similar way to how you care about Joi. That's where we think it might go when there are VR/AR glasses – not a big industry of VR feature movies, but instead persistent interactive characters.

Maybe storytelling is more like—I don't know that Pokemon Go is storytelling, but it's persistent, right? It's with us all the time. From our point of view it's a friend, a friend who might be in AR with our kids, playing an AR game or reading a story. Maybe we sit and watch TV together. Maybe we got into VR and go to the Himalayas together with this VR/AR character, or maybe we go and watch a Wolves in the Walls type of experience where she's on a journey and we're accompanying her. We're building a bond with the character.

There might even be interactive characters that form the core GUI for spatial computing. Instead of the mouse and keyboard and MacOS, or touch and iOS, when you go full 3D, I don't think there's any need for windows or screens. Three-dimensional characters feel like something I'm very used to getting information from, when I talk to people. That's the long-range vision for the studio: using storytelling techniques to build out interactive characters, like we have with Lucy.

GamesBeat: Where are you guys based?

Saatchi: We're still in San Francisco. We've taken the majority of the team from Story Studio and moved about 10 blocks down.

GamesBeat: How many people are in the studio now?

Saatchi: It's about 15 people. The majority are Story Studio folks.

Continue Reading ...

How Cargo is helping Uber drivers earn extra cash by selling stuff to passengers

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 06:01 AM PST


What do you do if you’re a cash-strapped Uber driver looking to make a few extra bucks without putting in extra hours? Why, you sell goods to passengers, of course. And that is exactly what New York-based Cargo is setting out to enable with its in-car commerce platform for the ride-hailing industry.

Cargo partners with brands across confectionery, electronics, cosmetics, and more to offer riders access to goods such as chocolate bars and USB cables. The company sends a transparent case to drivers, along with the goods, which they place in the vehicle’s front compartment, allowing passengers to see at a glance what’s on offer. The traveler can then make payment using PayPal, Apple Pay, Android Pay, or their credit card through Cargo’s mobile website, using a unique code to ensure payment goes to the right driver.

Though Cargo is available to most rideshare drivers, Uber represents the majority of Cargo’s fleet, followed by Lyft and Via. Indeed, Cargo actually has access to Uber’s driver API, which allows Cargo to collect insights on things like location and passenger count — data that could be used to inform future product decisions.

Above: Cargo: Transaction

The story so far

Founded in 2016, Cargo launched last summer in New York and Boston, and later expanded to Chicago before landing in Minneapolis last week. Today, the company announced a $5.5 million follow-on seed funding round from CRCM Ventures, Kellogg’s VC fund Eighteen94 Capital, Techstars Ventures, and a host of other VC firms.

Prior to now, Cargo had raised around $2 million, and with its latest cash injection it said that it plans to expand across the U.S., with a focus on the Midwest and West Coast. The company said that it also has global markets in its sights, having garnered 19,000 “signups” (interested parties) across 23 countries.

The ride-hailing industry is estimated to be a $285 billion market by 2030, and there is plenty of room for growth in this one segment for Cargo. However, there is nothing really stopping it from expanding into other transport verticals, including traditional taxis and maybe even buses or trains. And although its technology just now is based around drivers physically handing goods to passengers, there is surely nothing to stop this becoming an automated process — just in time for the self-driving car revolution.

“The rise of rideshare and fleets of autonomous vehicles create a new class of real estate,” noted Cargo founder and CEO Jeff Cripe. “Our mission is to develop that real estate for car owners and consumers, and to become their go-to provider for all in-car services.”

Above: Cargo CEO Jeff Cripe

Cargo earns money through selling the products, while paying drivers a flat 25% commission on each paid sale, plus a $1 base commission for every passenger that orders from a Cargo box. So this means that drivers can receive payment even when passengers order free samples. Indeed, the company also works with brands such as Mars and Wrigley, which pay Cargo to distribute their products and drive exposure. So Cargo is as much a marketing company as it is an auto-focused commerce upstart — this is evidenced with this year’s Super Bowl partnership, whereby Cargo is providing in-car product sampling on behalf of Red Bull.

“Cargo’s in-car and digital platform introduces a new consumer touch point for brands,” added Sabina Rahaman, director of brand partnerships and merchandising at Cargo. “Our goal is to identify brands and products that resonate with passengers so that we can deliver the best in-car experience.”

According to Cargo, drivers can earn up to $500 extra per month via commissions, referrals, and bonuses, though the average earned is closer to $130, it said. At a time when many Uber drivers reportedly struggle to make ends meet, any conduit that bumps up their pay will surely go down well. And for companies keen to get their goods front and center in passengers’ lines of sight, it’s a good way to market a brand, which is why Kellogg’s has elected to invest through its Eighteen94 Capital fund.

“Cargo represents Eighteen94 capital fund’s first channel investment,” said Simon Burton, managing director at Eighteen94 Capital. “We see huge potential in the new consumer touchpoint within the passenger economy that Cargo is developing. Cargo provides brands with innovative opportunities to connect to the consumer in their moment of need. This platform will allow us to gather useful transactional data and collect permission-based consumer insights in real time.”

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2017 tech salaries: Silicon Valley slowed, Philadelphia had highest YoY growth

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 06:00 AM PST


Generally speaking, the paychecks for tech workers in places like Silicon Valley, Seattle, and New York continue to be vastly larger than the paychecks of workers located outside of a major tech hub, even when adjusted for cost of living. However, there are signs that as the cost of living continues to rise in these places, wages may not be able to rise with them.

According to a survey from tech hiring platform Dice, of 10,705 tech workers in the U.S., Silicon Valley offered the highest average wage for tech workers in 2017. Respondents who worked in tech in Silicon Valley reported an average salary of $114,654 for the year. The cities with respondents reporting the next-highest wages were, in order: Boston, New York, San Diego, and Washington, and D.C/Baltimore.

 

But Silicon Valley also saw an unusually small year-over-year increase in tech wages — 0.4 percent. According to Dice CEO Mike Durney, Silicon Valley tech wages have grown each year since 2006 and have seen a 4 percent year-over-year increase during the past few years that Dice has administered this survey.

On the flip side, many places where tech wages are seeing the highest levels of growth are the areas that aren’t typically thought of as tech hubs in the U.S. The average tech salary in Philadelphia grew by 7.7 percent from 2016 to 2017, while wages in Portland and Tampa grew by 6.5 percent.

Even with that burst of growth, Philadelphia respondents reported an average wage of $97,415 — nearly $17,000 less than the average wage in Silicon Valley. And there’s no sign that the growth will continue — according to Dice, the average tech salary in Philadelphia declined by 5 percent from 2015 to 2016. There are a couple of possible explanations for this year’s increase — one is that more high-paying jobs were added in Philadelphia last year as tech startups in the area have grown. There’s also a possibility that this increase was driven by more tech professionals working remotely from Philadelphia.

“As more companies consider offering the ability to telecommute, Philly is a less expensive option where tech talent may be able to swing working at a company with headquarters in the New York Tri-State area and a home office in Philadelphia,” said Durney.

Dice’s survey indicates that there are some perks tech professionals are willing to take a pay cut for. For example, more than half of the tech professionals surveyed said that they would take a pay cut if they could telecommute.

“Not all employers can compete on pay, especially in hot markets like Silicon Valley, Seattle, or New York,” Dice EVP George McFerran wrote in the report. “For those companies who might not be the cool kid on the block, other factors like good benefits, challenging projects, and flexible work schedules can be as rewarding as compensation to tech pros.”

 

Vungle launches self-service ad platform despite CEO turmoil

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 06:00 AM PST


Vungle has had a rocky few months. The mobile video ad company was thrown into crisis in October when its founder and CEO, Zain Jaffer, left after being arrested on charges that he sexually assaulted a child. Rick Tallman, chief operating officer, was appointed the new CEO, and while the whole staff was stunned at the incident, they went to work reassuring customers that the company would continue to operate as a major player in the video ad market.

Today, San Francisco-based Vungle is launching a major new platform for mobile advertisers — such as app makers and game developers — so that they can create advanced advertising campaigns on a self-serve basis and evaluate how those ads perform. Martin Price, Vungle’s chief product officer, told me in an interview at the Casual Connect game event that the Vungle Self-Serve platform puts small or large advertisers in control of setting up campaigns and automatically creating videos while managing assets and targeting the right audiences. This kind of tool could democratize ad monetization for apps, which are headed toward generating $201 billion in revenue by 2021, according to market researcher App Annie.

“The app store revenue continues to grow, and there are great companies that are building a lot more titles,” Price said. “And there is a second trend toward more AI and automation. We want to do something that helps with discovery, as it is becoming harder to find quality users.”

Above: Vungle Self-Serve platform can automatically create video ads.

Image Credit: Vungle

He added, “We can help with faster campaign creation. You can zero in on groups that you want to target. We started out last year with auto-bidding technology, where you set your goals and target and take actions toward it. What we have built out is a tool that can quickly spin up your creative assets for your ad. You can put in a video file and get up and running with a Vungle creative. Then you can A/B test and figure out which one works best.”

The platform lets Vungle’s customers create campaigns, set optimization targets, and upload images and videos to automatically create a variety of ads, based on Vungle’s best-performing creative formats. Vungle’s algorithms then test each creative asset and optimize for ads that best meet performance metrics, whether those are cost per install (CPI), cost per action (CPA), or overall return on ad spend (ROAS). With these different measures of an ad’s success, Vungle thinks smaller advertisers will now have a great shot at being successful.

“We think that giving you quick access to data and performance makes it all much simpler,” Price said. “If a creative is not performing, we’ll stop showing it. For those that are working, you can double down on it.”

The self-serve platform provides the same kind of transparency and control that the largest and most sophisticated performance advertisers can get. Marketers can use the tool to see real-time campaign performance by publisher, creative, and territory. They can adjust bids and targeting options or rely on Vungle’s automated systems. So far, 20 beta users have been testing the product, and now the open beta is available.

“We really appreciate Vungle’s new self-service platform," said Viktoriia Kuksa, user acquisition specialist at Pretty Simple Games, in a statement. "It offers more flexibility to create and optimize campaigns and creatives with ease.”

Above: Vungle Self-Serve platform automates the ad creation process, and then it tests how well those ads work.

Image Credit: Vungle

In the past, Vungle focused on premium advertisers. Price and Tallman both said that the new platform could vastly expand the number of app and game publishers who could create high-quality video ads and launch user acquisition campaigns. Vungle is already used by 50,000 mobile apps, and it serves 3 billion video views a month on 850 million unique devices. The smaller companies have been handicapped because they often have to create very different kinds of ads for platforms such as Snapchat. They can’t afford to put such time into every single major platform, and so automation is key, Price said.

“We think this will help Vungle scale its business worldwide,” Price said. “It will open us up to new advertisers. It democratizes a little bit.”

The Vungle platform will give ad creators access to premium in-app inventory, regardless of the budget level for the ads. Vungle makes money as advertisers buy ads on its platform, and it takes a share of the revenue based on how well the ads perform.

"Vungle's new Self-Serve platform levels the playing field in terms of access to high-value consumers for any advertiser," said Price.

Meanwhile, Jaffer no longer has a role in the company and was terminated by the board. Jaffer has pleaded not guilty to charges related to the alleged sexual assault. Price said that the company’s 200 employees spoke to all customers about the situation and reassured those clients that it would remain resilient.

“It was a stunning event in a bad way, but we acted quickly to make changes,” Price said. “And we’ve seen the company come together. We explained how we are moving forward. We continue to grow. Rick helped us keep our continuity. And we built a lot of products last year that will be coming out this year. We’ll make more noise this year and keep growing.”

Vungle is backed by Google Ventures, Thomvest Ventures, and Crosslink Capital.

Disclosure: The organizers of Casual Connect paid my way to Anaheim, California. Our coverage remains objective.

Microsoft unveils Windows 10 S laptops starting at $189 and new Office 365 tools for students

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 06:00 AM PST


Microsoft today unveiled new Windows 10 S devices from Lenovo and JP, starting at $189, aimed at the education market. The company also announced new Office 365 learning tools for students.

The news mirrors Microsoft’s firstline workers push in September, which saw new Windows 10 S devices starting at $275. The company is now simply doing the same as part of its latest EDU push, and it’s not mincing words when it comes to explaining its target audience: “schools who don’t want to compromise on Chromebooks.”

Above: Lenovo 100e

In fact, Microsoft’s pitch is all about not compromising:

Affordability is the top priority for many schools. Shrinking budgets can lead schools to choose devices with a stripped-down experience and a limited lifespan, unfortunately costing more over time and offering less to students.

Microsoft unveiled four new Windows 10 devices that are all supposed to offer more than Chrome OS. Two are standard laptops: the Lenovo 100e powered by Intel Celeron Apollo Lake for $189 and JP’s Classmate Leap T303 with Windows Hello for $199. The other two are 2-in-1s: the Lenovo 300e convertible with pen support for $279 and the Trigono V401 with pen and touch for $299. All four are spill resistant, ruggedized for students, and promise long battery life to avoid having wires all over the classroom.

Above: JP Classmate Leap T303

Microsoft is also offering professional development to train teachers to get the most out of the devices, but this is only available in the U.S. The training is included with the purchase of Microsoft 365 Education, as long as at least 30 A1 licenses are purchased between February 1 and December 31, 2018.

Office 365

In addition to devices, Microsoft is adding new capabilities to Office 365 for Education. In the coming months, the suite will get a dictation feature so students can write papers using their voice. Dictation will be available across Word, Word Online, PowerPoint, Outlook Desktop, OneNote for Windows 10, and OneNote online in more than nine languages.

Next month, Immersive Reader functionality will be expanded to support 10 new languages. More platforms will also be added: Word for Mac, iPhone, and Android; Outlook for Windows and Mac (which is also getting Read Aloud support in more than 30 text-to-speech languages over the coming months); OneNote for iPad; and OneNote for Mac.

Speaking of OneNote, the OneNote Class Notebook is getting assignment and grade integration with the most widely used School Information Systems in the U.K. (SIMS Capita) and the U.S. (PowerSchool), available next month. Teachers will be able to lock pages as read only in the coming months (their most-requested feature, Microsoft says). Desmos interactive math calculators, a set of popular applications for STEM teachers, have been integrated right into OneNote and are available today.

Next up, Microsoft Teams is getting more education-specific features. Except for two of the updates, you can expect these to arrive in Spring 2018:

  • Assignments support for Android and iOS is available today. Students can access upcoming assignments, receive new assignment notifications, and turn in their work from their mobile phone or tablet. Teachers can create new assignments, as well as reviewing and making edits to existing assignments on the go. The search function on mobile is now better at finding individual assignments.
  • On Demand Translation will soon enable users to turn content in a chat or in a team channel into the language that their tenant is configured in.
  • Assignment Analytics will now allow teachers to track assignment engagement in real time to see who’s viewed and turned in their work.
  • Join Codes saves teachers valuable time by allowing them to simply invite students (or other staff) to a class.
  • Templates will assist teachers in creating a new team by replicating an existing one before customizing channels, tabs, team settings, apps, and even users.
  • Decimal Grading, available today, allows teachers to provide feedback with more precision.

Last, but not least, PowerPoint now allows teachers to record their lessons — including slides, interactive ink, video, and narrations. They can also publish videos to their Stream channel in Teams classrooms so students can view content outside the classroom. Stream is also getting automatic captioning so videos are accessible for all learners.

Microsoft is not going to let Google take over schools without a fight. The company is firing on all cylinders — it even briefly touched on a Chemistry update coming to Minecraft: Education Edition this spring, as well as new mixed reality and video curricula from partners like BBC Worldwide Education, LEGO Education, PBS, NASA, and Pearson.

Diversity needs to be an inside job

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 05:00 AM PST


Disneyland was a good place to check out the diversity of the game industry. I attended the Casual Connect game conference last week at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California. The event had a whole track dedicated to diversity issues in partnership with groups that included United in Diversity, Leadership for Diversity, and Contagious Creativity.

The sessions were lightly attended, but I thought they were loaded with powerful and moving messages for the leaders of game companies. The gaming, tech, and film industries have had huge wake-up calls on the issue of sexual harassment in recent months, but the main diversity panel argued that corporations need to address the root causes of the problem with authentic and creative leadership. The panel focused on how to transform a company’s culture from within to be more inclusive.

The panel was moderated by Nicole Lazzaro, CEO of XEO Design, and it included former Microsoft Game Studios head Ed Fries; Jon Ramer, CEO of Compassion Games; Carrie Dieterle, chief people officer at Insomniac Games; Rob Peloquin, agency director at Nielsen; and Megan Gaiser, principal of Contagious Creativity. Elizabeth Olson, PR consultant, served as the emcee for the diversity track.

Here’s an edited transcript of the panel.

Nicole Lazzaro: Leading for diversity is an inside job. It's becoming aware of our inner selves, because that's where leadership starts. How many people have known someone that's in transition between male and female, or Muslim to Catholic, or Orthodox to atheist? We're all in transition, in a sense, as leaders. We're always in transition from the leaders we were to the leaders we want to be. I'm honored to share the stage with five leaders dedicated to transforming the people and the culture around them to be more inclusive.

We all have unconscious bias. As good as any of us are in this room, we all have these unconscious biases. These are the enemies of diversity and inclusion. Today we'll share some of our stories of identifying and working with unconscious bias to create cultures and results that are more diverse and inclusive.

We have Jon Ramer from Compassion Games, who is leading, around the world, an effort to make the world a more compassionate place. We have Carrie Dieterle from Insomniac Games. She's a head of HR there. Ed Fries from, formerly, Microsoft, and now working with the IGDA Leadership Foundation. And we have Robert Peloquin from Nielsen, who's going to talk to us about how Nielsen is creating a diverse culture.

For the panelists, if you could each share for a moment — what makes you so passionate about being on this panel today?

Above: Diversity panelists Jon Ramer and Carrie Dieterle.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Carrie Dieterle: We were having breakfast this morning, and this group had not met yet, but we were starting to share some stories. In preparation for this panel, I was really thinking about why I'm so passionate that we are treating one another as human beings, with kindness and respect. It goes back to before I had a career in HR. My family owned a business. It dealt with the public. I joked with the group — or not joked — I was 30 years younger and 30 pounds lighter, and yet my uncle, who was part of the business, didn't think I was attractive enough to be in front of customers.

That stuck with me for the rest of my life, because he didn't judge me on my capabilities. He looked at what his ideal was, in terms of my physicality, and that was going to dictate my role in my family's business. I think that even from that beginning, I realized that I wanted to do things differently, and I would never look at anyone based on their appearance and make that judgment. That inclusivity has stuck with me through my career.

Jon Ramer: I woke up today and I realized that I'd never been in a world like this. I mentioned to you, in the news — Laurence Fink, from Blackrock — if you haven't seen this yet you will, sending a message out to all the companies that Blackrock invests in, that making money is no longer enough for business. Business has to take responsibility.

We're in a new world. I feel like we're in the middle of a cultural earthquake. How men and women relate to each other, how we deal with diversity in a different way, how we celebrate our difference. The Chinese say that if we don't change our direction, we're likely to wind up where we're heading. For myself I remember—there was a person I hired years ago, and I remembered she came for the interview with a see-through blouse on. I was thinking, my God, is this why I hired women all these years ago? No longer is it okay to operate in this kind of ignorant space.

Talking for myself, I'm grateful for the fact that we have such a topic at a conference like this. But then, when you see how many people show up, it's a tough subject. How do we make these choices and recognize that our choices really do matter, and have an impact on people's lives? I'm here as part of a conversation I think all of us are in. It's a blessing. I thought I would be here one day, but until yesterday I didn't know it would be here today. I'm grateful for the fact that this is happening and that I'm with a remarkable group of folks that I want you to get to know better, who've been in leadership positions.

One of the things we recognize is that leadership isn't just C-level leadership. We're talking about leadership from within. I've been fortunate, working with indigenous population, where they say that authenticity grants authority. The guiding principles in all the work we've done with Compassion Games is that, starting from within, working in a circle, in a sacred manner, we heal and develop ourselves, our relationships, and the world.

We need a new world, especially for future generations looking to us, who have the influence and authority to make choices. We need to think differently about how we relate to each other. I'm humbled by the fact that we see these changes happening right now.

Ed Fries: Listening to you talk reminds me that I'm optimistic about the progress we're making. I'll maybe talk later about my mom and the influence she had on me, but in response to what you're saying — I just feel like we're making progress. Games are getting better. They're reaching out to a more diverse group of people. I think some of the negative stuff we're seeing is a reaction to the progress we're making. Some of what we've seen in the last election is a reaction to the progress we were making so quickly.

You see that same thing in games. Games are getting many more diverse characters, and so we get the natural pushback of Gamergate and things like that. But that just shows we're headed in the right direction. I'm optimistic about where we're going.

Above: (Left to right) Carrie Dieterle, Ed Fries, and Rob Peloquin.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Robert Peloquin: I think I'm passionate about this topic because of how my attitudes have changed. Growing up in a small town, and then moving out and traveling the world, I saw my attitudes completely change as far as the way I saw the world.

I think we all live in a bubble. Some of us have a small bubble and some of have a giant bubble and some of us are medium-sized. I noticed that the bigger my bubble got, the more diverse my bubble got, I felt like I became a better person, a more empathetic and happier person. I'm really passionate about this. Nielsen has done a lot to show how much diversity can affect a company and organization.

To your point about leadership, I really think it is, whether you're C-level or just an employee who's not managing anybody, everyone can lead. Everyone you speak to, how you treat people, that can have profound effects. To Carrie's point, a conversation 30 years ago can still be significant now.

Continue Reading ...

Elliot Schrage on Facebook backlash: ‘We have not done as good a job as we need to do’

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 04:18 AM PST


As Facebook faces a growing wave of criticism across a wide range of issues, the person in charge of crafting the company’s communications strategy wants you to know that executives understand they’ve messed up.

“This last year, it would be an understatement to say, has been a great challenge for those of us at Facebook,” said Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications at Facebook. “Candidly, we have not done as good a job as we need to do because there is clearly an environment today of skepticism, anxiety, and concern over how we operate.”

Schrage made his remarks this weekend at DLD, a technology conference in Munich, Germany. While Facebook has faced a mounting backlash in the U.S. over fake news and hate speech, the outcry is even more acute in Europe. Over the past year, Facebook has encountered growing skepticism and tough questions from regulators across Europe who worry that the social network has become too powerful. Regulators have confronted the company over its taxes, its failure to block hate speech, how it handles users' data, and its role in spreading fake news.

The company has launched a bit of a charm offensive by announcing today that it is expanding a digital skills program to train individuals and small businesses. Schrage’s appearance was also intended to make it clear that Facebook is hearing its critics’ message loud and clear, even as Schrage tried to argue against the need for regulation.

“Where it's concerns about global connections and the economic risks of great global integration, the whole world seems to be spinning apart,” he said. “And it's clear that many people believe that technology has been a force for accelerating that division … We want to demonstrate that we can bring people closer together.”

Schrage cited Facebook’s own shortcomings when he said: "We have over-invested in building new experiences and under-invested in preventing abuses.”

However, he said many moves to regulate the company present new dangers. He cited a new law in Germany that he argued would make Facebook the judge and jury of what constitutes fake news. “I’m not sure that the political discourse in Germany should be judged by any platform company,” he said.

Instead, Schrage said Facebook favored regulatory approaches such as the E.U.’s proposal for a code of conduct that requires companies to respond to notifications about illegal content in a timely fashion.

Russia’s Mail.ru acquires esports company ESforce for at least $100 million

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 03:13 AM PST


Russian internet giant Mail.ru has announced that it’s acquiring esports company ESforce in a deal worth at least $100 million.

ESforce is the holding company for a number of esports-related brands, including esports communities SK Gaming and Virtus.pro, of which the latter received a $100 million investment from one of Russia’s richest oligarchs a few years back.

Esports, or video game competitions that are often streamed online to the world, is a $700 million industry, with reports indicating that it could become a $2.5 billion market by 2020. As such, Amazon snapped up game-streaming platform Twitch for around $1 billion back in 2014, while a few weeks ago Google announced it had invested in Chinese esports company Chushou.

Mail.ru’s deal involves the company paying out $100 million in cash, less any outstanding debt, with an additional performance-related payment to come at the end of 2018, according to a press release.

ESforce claimed that it had 116 million users in 2017, with an estimated revenue of around $19 million — up 150 percent from the year before.

Facebook plans European AI investment and digital training programs amid growing regulatory scrutiny

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 02:15 AM PST


Trying once again to rehabilitate its reputation in Europe, Facebook today announced a wide-ranging training program to help small businesses and provide individuals with critical digital skills.

In addition, the company said it would expand its artificial intelligence investments in France by hiring new engineers and expanding its scholarship program there, according to a post penned by Ciaran Quilty, Faceook’s vice president of small businesses for Europe, Middle East, and Africa.

The announcement comes after a year in which Facebook has faced growing skepticism and tough questions from regulators across Europe who worry that the social network has become too powerful. Regulators have confronted the company over its taxes, its failure to block hate speech, how it handles users’ data, and its role in spreading fake news.

In the latest announcement, Facebook sought again to highlight its positive economic impact. The company noted that its platform is used by 35 percent of small businesses in Europe’s largest countries, which it claims has led to increased sales and hiring.

To further boost that growth, Facebook said it would open community skills hubs in Spain, Poland, and Italy. Those hubs would partner with local groups to offer training in “digital skills, media literacy, and online safety to underrepresented groups.” It has also set a goal of training 1 million people and business owners in Europe by 2020.

In addition, Facebook said it would spend $12.25 million via its French AI research center to increase its scholarship program in that country. The number of PhD fellows in the Facebook AI Research Paris program will increase from 10 to 40. The money will also be used to fund 10 servers to host open data sets for public agencies. And the company plans to double its AI research team in Paris from 30 to 60.

Iconoclasts review — a mechanic’s guide to saving the world

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 12:30 AM PST


Iconoclasts feels like a classic. It’s brimming with callbacks to an older era of games, but with an updated look and style. It’s an incredible feat that Joakim Sandberg (aka Konjak) was the sole developer, artist, and composer on this game, because it achieves such a high level of polish.

Ten years after Sandberg embarked on his development journey, he and publisher Bifrost Entertainment are debuting the game on January 23 on PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. I played it on the PS4, and though I don’t often partake in platformers, I found it to be thoroughly charismatic and visually stunning with solid gameplay. Its boss battles are frenetic, challenging but not impossible, and its puzzles are clever and make good use of mechanic protagonist Robin’s trusty wrench.


Check out our Reviews Vault for past game reviews.


What you’ll like

Rich world and narrative

Iconoclasts is that rare platformer where story, not actions, takes the lead. The narrative felt tightly constructed and meaningful, hitting emotional beats that I expected but still managed to surprise me with how evocative they were.

You play as Robin, an outlaw mechanic who flouts official edicts by picking up a wrench to help people. In this world, the planet’s government is both cult and dictatorship, a theocratic ruling body called One Concern that claims divinity and threatens citizens with heavenly punishment if they should sin. And one of the big taboos is taking up a job that hasn’t been assigned to you.

Iconoclasts’s science fiction setting comes with plenty of its own distant-future jargon — Ivory, for instance, is a precious substance that is used to fuel everything in the world. Penance is some mysterious force that strikes people down in their houses if they should go against One Concern. And the enigmatic Mother and the occasionally referenced Starworm are powers on high that pass judgment and make rules based purely on ineffable mystic reasons.

Though we don’t get too much of the world’s lore, enough of it is there to give Iconoclasts depth and make the characters’ actions matter. You glean the reasons and consequences of the war of ideologies and basic survival between the renegade pirates and the sovereign One Concern. You meet folks from various strata of society. Even the way the world looks has something to do with the dystopian story. It all comes together for a satisfying narrative with substance.

Terrific aesthetic and presentation

Just by looking at the screencaps, you can already tell that Iconoclasts is beautiful. It looks fantastic, popping with bright colors and textures. Each zone has its own unique personality, populated with geometric trees and plants. The characters themselves feature charming details as well. For instance, our plucky protagonist Robin’s hair is actually shaped like a wrench.

When you wander through the neon shocks of blue and purple grass in the electric forest and swim past the snaking right angles of coral and gem tones of the underwater pirate city, it really feels like exploring a wondrous alien world. And you’re accompanied on your journey by an energetic soundtrack that never gets tired and fits the occasion. One of my favorite moments is when you learn more about One Concern’s purported divine providence and the music cues up, filled with an eerie reverence and solemnity.

Battles and bosses

When it comes to mechanics, Iconoclasts doesn’t screw around. To solve puzzles, you’ll tighten bolts, grind gears, and zip across electric lines to reach new areas of the map. The puzzles are intuitive, the battles are challenging, and progress is immensely rewarding. In other words, the game feels fantastic.

I don’t frequently play platformers, and Iconoclasts reminded me of how fun they can be. Even though I died while traversing a few of the treacherous dungeons as well as during a few of the boss battles, the gameplay was addictive enough that I immediately wanted to take on the challenge again. It never felt like a chore, nor did it talk down to the player and hold your hand.

I played Iconoclasts on Standard mode, but there are different difficulties for those who are looking for a more challenging experience. After beating the final boss, you unlock New Game Plus mode as well as Challenge mode.

What you won’t like

Hit-or-miss characters

Iconoclasts’s emotional core is about faith and personal choices. Though it largely succeeds, and some of the characters are real standouts — Black, for instance, embodies tragedy without melodrama — it can also be a little heavy-handed. These characters are supposed to be flawed, projecting their own insecurities, needs, and desires onto Robin, who never speaks throughout the game nor expresses displeasure at being spoken for.

Robin serves as a source of hope who somehow emerges in a world that’s downtrodden with ecological, financial, and spiritual ruin. She’s a counterpoint to the people in her life who urge caution and self-preservation. However, some of these characters are just grating. In particular, I had a hard time sympathizing with Robin’s brother Elro and the divine progeny Royal.

Even though the game was really pushing for me to feel the emotional brunt of what Elro has gone through, I found him to be selfish, stubborn, and unapologetic about both. Similarly, Royal’s arc was unappealing and I felt that he never showed any actual growth as a character.

Character switching

This is a bit of a minor gripe because it doesn’t happen very frequently. However, I really just didn’t care for playing as some of the other characters in the game. For most of the experience, you’re fleet-footed Robin, pressing ever forward against whatever challenges that may lie in wait. But occasionally, you’ll have to take control of the pirate Mina, whose arsenal is a lone shotgun that she uses as both a range and melee weapon.

I don’t mind Mina as a character, but playing as her felt sluggish. You can’t dodge attacks right after you fire a shot because of her reload animation, which I found frustrating — though I admit that perhaps that was done on purpose as one of her quirks. The toughest sell for me was that you don’t play her often enough to get really good at her style of combat, which made her segments feel incidental and not terribly fun to play.

Conclusion

The game isn’t a perfect narrative experience, but to me, the story comes second to the gameplay in a platformer. And the mechanics in Iconoclasts are fantastic. I always felt like I had enough information, and searching for solutions to puzzles in the beautiful environment felt like an adventure. I could easily see this game becoming a beloved retro-inspired title, much like Shovel Knight.

Most impressively, Iconoclasts evokes nostalgia without feeling derivative. It hits a lot of character tropes, but it manages never to feel stale thanks to fantastic visuals, a memorable world, and solid gameplay.

Score: 90/100

Iconoclasts is out on January 23 for PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. The publisher sent us a code for review.

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®'s Game Dev program.

Batman: The Enemy Within Episode Four review — setting up a tense showdown

Posted: 22 Jan 2018 12:01 AM PST


Telltale Games’s Batman: The Enemy Within has been uneven so far, but fortunately Episode Four breaks from the previous entry’s stagnation. Titled “What Ails You,” it’s action-packed and simmering with tension, winding the players up for the next episode, which will be the conclusion of the series. As always, the proto-Joker John Doe is the star of the show, and his relationship with Bruce Wayne reaches new heights of uncomfortable camaraderie.


Check out our Reviews Vault for past game reviews.


What you’ll like

Disquieting consequences

What would a Telltale Game be without one of your decisions coming back and ruining your life? In The Enemy Within, the stakes are highest when those choices have to do with John Doe. And he’s never been as unhinged or volatile as he is in this episode.

The plot moves along at a fast clip and it’s filled with plenty of action moments, all focused on making sure a deadly virus is locked safely away. Just as tense, though, is when John pleads with Bruce and asks him if you ever were his friend. It’s a little heartbreaking and very disturbing to witness him veer from fury to despondency and back again. The effects of your duplicitous relationship with him are laid bare. He throws your words back at you. You feel sorry for him. And you’re scared, because you know just what he’s capable of.

This episode makes it plain that he has the capability for senseless violence, but a strong case can still be argued for his value as a strategic ally. Whatever you decide to do in conversations with him truly feels like you’re aiming a gun and pulling the trigger, and you have no idea whom the bullet will hit.

Explosive battles

Adrenaline-fueled quick-time events are back, and they’re tenser than ever. In one battle, Batman faces off against Bane and Mr. Freeze at the same time, forcing you to choose how to engage them and which one to prioritize. Aside from Telltale’s titles, I don’t actually remember the last time I was presented with a quick time event (QTE), and the way this episode uses them is optimal.

The scenery factors into some of the fights, ramping up the urgency of landing your hits. These battles were a welcome addition to what felt like a tightly edited down episode. Some of Batman’s moves are fairly vicious, and it just adds to the feeling that all of this is coming to a head in the next episode.

A change of scenery

Not that I didn’t particularly like the Pact’s emo subway hangout spot or Batman’s broody cave, but John’s new psychedelic funhouse is so much cooler. The Enemy Within has been fairly drab so far in terms of aesthetics. This all changes when Bruce goes to the carnival to meet with John. It’s filled with sinister swirls and dripping with acid-trip neon colors.

We haven’t spent much time in any of the new locations that have been introduced, and we likely won’t return to John’s funhouse. But it was a neat addition to Telltale’s world, invoking the specter of the Joker’s madness and the horrors of The Killing Joke graphic novel, which features another, more gruesome tour of the carnival.

What you won’t like

Linear storytelling with some loose threads

Like in previous episodes, I still felt like I was being ferried from location to location. Very little investigation was required, and often an item I needed to move forward was only a click away. Bruce can’t even walk around most of the time, because he’s locked into certain camera angles of the environment. However, this wasn’t really one of my main concerns from this episode.

I still feel like some of the elements are disparate. For instance, Alfred’s health problems and the question of Lucius Fox’s daughter Tiffany. I’m glad both of these characters are in the game, but the conversations with them don’t feel very impactful. When it comes to Alfred, he may possibly be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the events of the first game and Lucius Fox’s death. However, you’re never truly offered the option of prioritizing Alfred over your mission, so it seems like he only serves as an allegory for how vigilantes always hurt those closest to them.

As for Tiffany, it seems like she may exist simply as a potential casualty of Batman’s quest for justice — and that’s about the extent of it. She may become more important in the last episode, or perhaps she’ll have a bigger role to play in the sequels. It’s a minor quibble, but I’d like to see her used to better effect.

Conclusion

What Ails You is the strongest episode so far, giving Batman: The Enemy Within a much-needed injection of verve as it speeds toward the conclusion of the series. In all the previous entries, John has always been the most fascinating character, and it will be interesting to see what kind of ending Telltale has in store for him. In the standoff between Harley Quinn, Batman, and the Agency, he’s the unknown factor that always keeps things exciting. However it shakes out, I’m looking forward to seeing whether he becomes the villain Joker after all — and what role Batman plays in that transformation.

Score: 80/100

Batman: The Enemy Within Episode 4 comes out for PC, Mac, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, iOS, and Android on January 23. Telltale Games sent us a code for this review.

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®'s Game Dev program.

Amazon set to open doors on AI-powered grocery store

Posted: 21 Jan 2018 04:54 PM PST


As the rest of us wait in checkout lines while stocking up on groceries for the week, folks in Seattle are eagerly gearing up for the launch of the first store to eliminate cashiers. The much-anticipated Amazon Go grocery store will open its doors to the public on Monday, having weathered challenges that delayed its launch by almost a year. After working through the kinks and successfully testing the store’s AI-driven technology with reviewers and employees, it seems Amazon is finally ready to open its automated storefront to the masses.

How does it work?

Before entering the Amazon Go store, a shopper must download the free Amazon app and link it to their Amazon shopping account. The app launched today and is available for iPhone and Android. Once a shopper has the app, they can use their mobile device to check in using a QR code at the storefront before entering the sales floor. Checking in using the app allows the store’s AI to track the items a shopper picks up. When their shopping is complete, a customer can simply walk out of the store, and the total value of their purchases will be charged to their Amazon account.

Although the company has kept the inner workings of the sophisticated AI software under wraps, Amazon Go's vice president of technology, Dilip Kumar, provided Fast Company with a general explanation of how it works. Kumar said, “You use machine learning and use computer vision in a way that makes this experience completely seamless. We have spent a lot of time figuring out how to make our algorithms and our sensors reliable, highly available, and very efficient so that you get things right and we're very accurate."

Despite Amazon’s attempts to veil the presence of the store’s consumer-tracking AI, those who participated in the testing and reviewing processes say the ceiling full of black cameras offers a not-so-subtle reminder of the technology running behind the scenes.

What can you buy?

The goal of Amazon Go is to provide fast, fresh, and affordable food for busy shoppers. The company hopes to help consumers move away from processed and frozen goods when they’re in a time crunch. This is why the current selection of items for purchase is limited relative to what you’d find in a standard grocery store. For example, you’ll find staples like bread and milk in Amazon’s storefront, but not a full bakery or dairy aisle.

Convenience lies at the core of Amazon Go, but not in the form you’d expect from a gas station or a corner store. Go shoppers can browse a variety of ready-made meals and Amazon Meal Kits to take home everything they need to enjoy quality, chef-prepped food in 30 minutes or less.

What’s next?

The launch of the first Go store represents the beginning of Amazon’s first round of consumer testing. As of now, the retailer has no plans to expand the technology into Whole Foods stores. In an interview with Reuters, Amazon VP Gianna Puerini said “We’d love to open more,” but Amazon has yet to announce additional locations.

It seems fitting that the Seattle-based company would launch its first automated grocery store in its hometown. The question now is: Which city will be next to move into the future of automated grocery shopping?

Show me your data — the new precondition to M&As

Posted: 21 Jan 2018 12:10 PM PST


In 2017, the total value of merger and acquisitions (M&As) exceeded three trillion dollars. Some of the more notable M&As in the past year include Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods, Intel's purchase of autonomous vehicle tech firm Mobileye, and Verizon's acquisition of Yahoo, which became a high-profile example of the cost undisclosed data breaches have on valuations — in this case a $350 million drop in the final price tag.

To better prepare for the growing threat against corporate, customer, and employee data, companies are enforcing new data management and protection practices. One such change is the practice of requiring that each party in an M&A transaction demonstrate compliance with industry privacy and security standards before finalizing a deal. Under the new precondition, buyers and sellers are making more granular requests for visibility into the other side's entire information repository and lifecycle to safeguard their own business assets and brands.

While the extent of required compliance varies with each buyer, seller, and deal, it is a key component now nonetheless. From pre- to post-M&A, all parties should consider how their privacy and data security posture could have a material effect on the proposed deal. To that end, here are a few key points to consider when you’re entering a deal:

  • Visibility into the entire information life cycle – How does a company that is contemplating an M&A collect, store, encrypt, and destroy personal data? What information is stored on what systems, and for how long? How is the information inventoried, mapped, and categorized? How, and with whom, is data shared? These are threshold questions for which any acquirer or target company should have answers.
  • What types of data – What types of personal data would potentially be involved in the transaction? For example, does the deal involve direct marketing contact information, personal data originating from new markets, or sensitive data that could subject the company to new, industry-specific laws?
  • Merging corporate data – Is it a transactional goal that one company will become fully incorporated into another, thereby merging the two distinct data sets, or will the target remain a standalone unit that continues to operate as a discrete division with segregated personal data?
  • International data transfers – What are the parties' legal transfer mechanisms for cross-border personal data transfers? Would the merger itself lead to a cross-border transfer of personal data and, if so, would any country-specific laws then come into play, such as from China or Russia?
  • History of data breaches and the risk of compromised data – Are all transactional parties prepared to provide a history of any known or suspected data incidents or cyberattack attempts, and the responses to all? Beyond just corporate reputation, compromised data could mean any underlying intellectual property's value has been diminished or that other vectors of attack may exist.
  • Breach response plans and encryption – Are data security plans such as breach response, disaster recovery, and business continuity in place and tested? What levels of encryption are used throughout the organization and how is this determined and monitored?
  • C-suite buy-in – Do the directors, officers, and executives have access to appropriate internal and external resources to help them evaluate data privacy and security issues and make informed business decisions? Have they allocated budgetary resources for personnel and technology solutions needed to automate privacy-compliant best practices well in advance of a transaction?

In a world of growing cyber threats and attacks, these privacy and data security considerations actually go far beyond just M&As. They can help businesses understand the ramifications of worst case scenarios and for evaluating the impact of data security and privacy solutions and policies on company value. Regulators are also more acutely monitoring companies' privacy practices and statements. For instance, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the most sweeping change to data protection in the past 20 years, will impact any U.S. company that handles EU resident data. Failure to comply with GDPR by the mandated May 25 deadline may lead to fines of up to €20 million or 4 percent of global annual turnover, whichever is higher.

In today's business climate, not adhering to privacy and data protection practices risks leaving money on the table in M&A deals, incurring regulatory fines, and losing brand assets.

Chris Babel is CEO of TrustArc.

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