Pros and cons: Our quick verdict on the Oculus Touch
The Oculus Rift VR headset went on sale back in March, but it was only this month that the optional motion controllers arrived. Better late than never, though. In fact, if you already own the Rift, you’re going to want to spend an extra $199 on the Oculus Touch: It’s comfortable to use, works well as a game controller and allows for smooth, precise motion control. Also, there’s already a robust selection of games that support it, with even more to come. As that score of 88 suggests, we have very few complaints, but if we could change one thing, we’d like to see a rechargeable battery in future iterations. Even so, having to periodically swap out the AA battery is a small trade-off for the experience you get.
The biggest losers of 2016
Last week we broke down the biggest winners of 2016. This week, we’re taking a look at the biggest losers.
Yahoo has clearly had one of the worst years in history for a company. And, unless something changes soon, this whole mess with the NSA and 1.5 billion hacked accounts could become the problem of Engadget’s parent company Verizon. So, there’s that. Of course there was Samsung’s parade of exploding gadgets and Twitter… well, Twitter just couldn’t seem to get its act together. It’s now known as the platform of choice for trolls and white supremacists as much as it is for forcing you to distill complex thoughts into 140-character fragments.
Of course, between the explosion of fake news and the continued hostility towards the science of climate change, the biggest loser of 2016, might just be the American public.
Check out all of Engadget’s year-in-review coverage right here.
2016 was the year that Facebook tried to take over the world
Facebook had a busy 2016. It introduced chatbots to Messenger, repositioned Instagram as a Snapchat competitor and helped make virtual reality mainstream with Oculus. But as all of that was going on, Facebook also became one of the most powerful media companies on the planet. As more than a billion people flocked to the site for news, its influence on the world stage is undeniable. With live video, the Presidential election and the fake news scandal that followed, Facebook’s impact was more evident in 2016 than ever before.
Even though it debuted a whole year after Periscope and Meerkat, Facebook Live is by far the dominant force today in mobile live video. Part of the reason for its success is sheer name recognition, but a lot of it also has to do with how hard the company has been pushing it. From day one, you could broadcast and view live videos from the main app, without having to download additional software. What’s more, Facebook also took pains to pay news outlets and media companies to use its live video service. This gave the service more gravitas and also brought it plenty of publicity. A few months later, Facebook gave Live its own discovery section in the app, further boosting its visibility.
From there, the videos on Facebook Live went viral. Candace Payne broadcasted a video of herself wearing a Chewbacca mask, and before she knew it, the clip had more than 140 million views. It was so popular that CEO Mark Zuckerberg invited her to Facebook’s Menlo Park offices, and she also appeared on various shows like “Good Morning America” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden.”
Mobile live video made headlines again a few of months later when House Democrats used Facebook Live as well as Periscope to stream their sit-in from the House floor when Speaker Paul Ryan shut off C-Span’s cameras. It showed that live video doesn’t just need to be about exploding watermelons or Chewbacca masks; it could also be a way to stream news events where traditional media outlets have little to no access.
Unfortunately, there’s also a darker side to live video. At least a couple of police shootings were captured on Facebook Live: one of Antonio Perkins in Chicago and another of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. The latter video was briefly deleted due to a “glitch,” according to Facebook, but was soon reinstated with a graphic content warning. Facebook Live was also used to broadcast the deaths of 11 Dallas police officers during a protest over those aforementioned police shootings.
For better and worse, it’s clear that Facebook Live is an additional tool in reporting the news. Indeed, Facebook even teamed up with ABC for live coverage of both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, so users could see what was going on without needing to fire up their TV sets. Facebook is even looking into airing scripted shows and sports broadcasts on the platform — further evidence that the company is more media-driven than previously thought.
This all dovetails with Facebook’s increasing role in news dissemination. Even though CEO Mark Zuckerberg continues to deny it, Facebook has all the markings of a media company. Sure, it doesn’t produce any content, but millions of people use the site every day to get information. A Pew Research study published this year showed that around 44 percent of Americans now consider Facebook their primary source of news. Seeing as several media organizations have partnered with the firm to produce so-called “instant articles” — stories that are stored on Facebook’s servers rather than their own — it’s clear that the company is at least aware of its role as a news hub.
For evidence that Facebook is indeed a media arbiter, consider the time its algorithm automatically censored the iconic “napalm girl” photo due to nudity. After realizing its importance, the company reinstated it, explaining that it’s difficult for an algorithm to differentiate between child porn and an image of historical or cultural significance. The company faces the same issue with live video: When is violence permissible? These are questions that traditional tech companies don’t have to answer but media companies do.
Also, we learned earlier this year that Facebook had been using a team of human editors to curate the trending topics list you see on the right side of your News Feed. Obviously this indicates a certain amount of editorial decision-making, despite Facebook’s arguments to the contrary. There were also critics who said this team of editors was suppressing conservative news in favor of left-leaning stories.
Then, in August, Facebook largely disbanded that team, leaving trending topics to be curated by algorithms. Unfortunately, just a few days later this led to a fake news article about Megyn Kelly getting top billing on the site. Months later, a 9/11 truther story appeared in the trending topics section as well. Considering Facebook’s algorithm tends to favor stories with high engagement — those that gain more Likes and clicks will naturally float to the top of the feed — articles with sensationalist headlines would naturally get more traction. Despite Facebook’s efforts to limit these stories, they’re more likely to be clickbait or even false.
Fake news would continue to plague Facebook’s reputation for much of the year, especially as speculation increased that the rise of News Feed falsehoods had an impact on the outcome of the election. After initial statements that downplayed the role of fake news, Zuckerberg did eventually come forward and state that Facebook was taking steps to eradicate it, like cutting off advertising to fake news sites, making them easier to report and having third-party fact-checkers give them a second look.
As more people look to Facebook as their source of information rather than traditional media outlets, it’s time for the company to take its role as a media entity more seriously. Right now it’s mostly relying on AI and algorithms to filter through content, but it’s clear by now that human beings are still required to judge what is real and what is not. Considering fake news has the potential to influence elections and sway people’s minds, Facebook should take its responsibility as media arbiter a lot more seriously.
Check out all of Engadget’s year-in-review coverage right here.
Facebook won’t flag your friends on a map anymore
Facebook is making some significant changes to its Nearby Friends feature that lets you see where pals are, Techcrunch has noticed. Most significantly, it has eliminated the precise tracking feature that tells you exactly where friends are by pinpointing them on a map. Now, you can only see them in a list along with an approximate distance away. While the original feature made it easy to check someone’s progress or tell you when they arrive, for instance, it’s also a bit of a privacy nightmare if you forget to turn it off.
With the change, Facebook appears to have moved Nearby Friends to a more prominent place on the front page, rather than being buried in the “More” section. Facebook is also ushering in a new feature called Wave, spotted earlier this month by Adweek and others. If you see someone in Nearby Friends, you can send a Wave to let them know you’re around. Much like with a Poke, if that party is interested, they can message you back to arrange a meetup. “This is meant to give people more ways to express themselves and help friends interact with one another in new fun and lightweight ways,” a Facebook spokesperson said at the time.
Despite losing the map the new tweaks mean that the Nearby Friends feature, which most folks probably don’t even know exists, has gained some prominence on the social network. It’s another way Facebook can make functions seen in other apps — like Down to Lunch, in this case — more useful because of its billion-plus user base.
The Engadget Podcast Ep 19: Simply the Best
In this week’s episode guest host Devindra Hardawar is joined by managing editor Dana Wollman and senior editor Chris Velazco as they run through the biggest winners of 2016. While it might have been a rough year for our musical legends, it was a pretty solid one for Netflix and Tesla. Heck, even in the throes of a growing fake news crisis, Facebook managed to have more wins than loses. And, once they’ve finished listing off all the ways emoji are taking over the world, they’ll look at some of the best gadgets of 2016.
- 2016: The year in winners and losers
- This was the year of VR, until AR stole it
- Tesla’s master plan was realized in 2016
- NASA dominated space and social media in 2016
- The best gadgets of 2016
- The best games of 2016
You can check out every episode on The Engadget Podcast page in audio, video and text form for the hearing impaired.
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Facebook Live adds a bunch of features for famous people
Mentions is the behind-the-scenes tool that public figures use to keep track of their brands on Facebook, and today it’s getting three new features aimed at improving the Live video experience. New tools rolling out over the next few weeks include the ability to blacklist certain words or phrases from the comments, fresh customization options for live videos and the option to trim videos after the broadcast has ended.
The new Team Prompts feature is good news for social media managers across the globe. Users are able to create drafts of Facebook Live posts, allowing the public figure to then review and publish those descriptions directly via Mentions. Plus, social media mavens are now able to schedule times they want the star to go live or publish specific posts. There’s also the new comment moderation tool that allows Mentions users to block specific words or phrases from the Live video chat ahead of time.
People in the Mentions club also get an expanded set of Live customization options: The adjustments tray allows broadcasters to flip the camera horizontally or vertically, adjust brightness settings or use a fancy new mirror mode.
Finally, trimming allows Mentions stars to determine when they want their published video to start and stop, after the live broadcast has ended. Facebook is also testing out a broadcaster status bar with a handful of Mentions users, providing realtime details about audio levels, connectivity and battery status.
There’s no word on when or if these features will roll out for regular Facebook Live users, but it seems they would be handy for the hoi polloi as well as the stars.
Families of Pulse nightclub shooting sue Google, Facebook
Google, Facebook and Twitter are facing a lawsuit filed by the families of three victims killed by Pulse nightclub gunman Omar Mateen in Orlando. The plaintiffs are accusing the tech titans of providing “material support” to Mateen, who was known to have pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader. According to their lawsuit, the families are suing the companies for allowing the terrorist group to create accounts to raise funds and to spread propaganda with the intention of attracting new recruits.
The material support these tech giants provide, the lawsuit says, “has been instrumental to the rise of ISIS and has enabled it to carry out or cause to be carried out, numerous terrorist attacks.” In addition, the plaintiffs are accusing the companies of profiting from ISIS-related posts by combining them with advertisements and of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act in the United States.
This is far from the first time a tech company has been sued for providing support to terrorist groups. Back in July, the families of five victims killed in the Palestinian attacks on Tel Aviv sued Facebook for playing “an essential role in Hamas’s ability to carry out its terrorist activities.” The wives of two American contractors killed in a shooting spree in Jordan, on the other hand, sued Twitter for allowing ISIS activity to flourish on the microblogging site.
However, tech companies are pretty well-protected by the law, particularly by Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act. It says providers and website owners are not liable for information published by their users. That’s why the judge who presided over the American contractors’ case ended up tossing the lawsuit.
Facebook simplifies Android SMS verification
Facebook has rolled out a new system aimed to make logins easier for its users and, by extension, its ad partners. The latest developer Account Kit SDK now includes instant verification, a two factor system that lets you skip the usual drill of receiving an SMS and then entering a code. When you attempt a Facebook login for a third-party site and enter your phone number, “we attempt a match with the verified phone number listed on the person’s Facebook profile,” the company said in its developer blog.
The system only works if you’re logged into the Android Facebook app on the same device. If so, it can verify without sending a one-time password via SMS, and if not, you’ll receive a text on your smartphone and will need to enter it on the other device. “This feature is used only to improve the verification process in a secure way and no additional Facebook information is shared with the app,” the social network adds.
Instant verification produces a 97 percent conversion rate, making it highly likely that users will successfully log in to partner sites. Facebook ads that it’s particularly useful “in areas of the world where SMS delivery is not reliable.” Citing partner Familonet, it says the instant verification method boosted conversion rates by five percent.
That’s a nice convenience for Facebook’s users and partners, but is it secure? Instant verification still relies on SMS, which isn’t exactly a panacea, as the US government recently said. The alternative is custom apps that generate much more secure codes like Google’s Authenticator, or even hardware dongles that work in a similar way. For now, it’s still the best bet for keeping you secure, along with a non-terrible password.
Facebook Live Audio elbows in on radio and podcasting
Facebook spent much of 2016 tricking out its Live video broadcasting feature, most recently opening it up to footage shot with 360-degree cameras. But it seems they’ve been busy bringing another streaming option to professional organizations and amateur users alike. Today, the social titan is launching Live Audio for a select group of publishers, with plans to open it up to everyone next year.
The sound-only service could bring content like podcasts into News Feeds just like Live does for video. As Facebook’s announcement post points out, this could be useful for folks in low-connectivity areas to broadcast more data-efficient media. Should their signal get low, hosts could theoretically switch to audio for a seamless stream.
Facebook envisions that Live Audio will be used as a semi-professional stage for esteemed events like book readings and interviews with its Live service’s viewer interaction bolted-in. Currently, the first organizations cleared to use it are: BBC World Service, talk radio broadcaster Leading Britain’s Conversation (LBC), book publisher Harper Collins and authors Adam Grant and Britt Bennett.
Currently, Android users can keep listening to a Live Audio broadcast while using other services, while iOS users must stay within Facebook’s app to continue hearing it. The social platform plans to open the service up to other publishers and users next year, though it didn’t specify the rate it would be expanding broadcasting privileges.
Instagram Stories gets stickers and forced holiday cheer
It doesn’t look like Instagram will stop lifting features from Snapchat anytime soon. Today it’s the addition of stickers in Instagram Stories (a feature which itself was a direct Snapchat copy) on iOS and Android. You’ll be able to add stickers for things like the weather, your current location and the time in photos and videos that appear in your story. Yes, it’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it’s the sort of fun and irreverent thing that’s made Snapchat more appealing to younger folks. Instagram (and Facebook) just want in on that action.
If you’re not excited by stickers, there are a few other Instagram Stories updates that could be useful. You can now shoot “hands-free” videos just by tapping on the screen, add as much text as you’d like and save stories from the past day as a video. And of course, there’s the expected holiday cheer in the form a candy cane brush and special stickers (with more on the way for New Years).
While it makes sense for Instagram to play catchup with Snapchat, it would also be nice to see it innovating a bit when it comes to new features. Its new livestreaming capability, for example, is a sort of hybrid between Facebook Live and Snapchat. It’s not entirely new, but at least it’s distinctive.