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‘Dawn of Titans’ shrinks an epic strategy game onto your phone

This year alone, 1.4 billion smartphones will be sold, giving more people have access to gaming devices than ever before. But with more than 1,000 new apps flooding the App Store every day, it’s increasingly difficult for new titles to make an impact. Every so often, a game like Pokémon Go comes along, proving that if you have the right “hook,” you can find a massive audience.

NaturalMotion believes technology is its hook. The British gaming studio started life creating animation engines, with its software used for everything from The Lord of the Rings movies to Grand Theft Auto V. It then packed that tech into mobile games like Clumsy Ninja that, thanks to their visual edge, quickly topped the App Store. That success led to the studio being bought for $527 million by casual-gaming giant Zynga. It’s been nearly three years since the acquisition, though, and the pressure is on for NaturalMotion to deliver a fresh hit.

The studio is hoping that pushing the processing power of modern smartphones is enough to get players downloading again. Moving away from the simple titles that built them an empire, NaturalMotion’s latest title, Dawn of Titans, is the developer’s first foray into action-strategy gaming.

For a mobile game, Dawn of Titans offers an unusual sense of scale. Upon opening the app, you find yourself looking over an intricately detailed floating kingdom, fully rendered 3D castles and buildings sitting before you as tiny villagers wander around them in real time. It’s a level of detail you’d expect to see in a console game, not on an app’s home screen.

Although not quite as detailed, the battles themselves are also pretty spectacular. With the studio clearly taking cues from Creative Assembly’s Total War series, Dawn of Titans sees you leading thousands of soldiers into battle against either real-life or AI-controlled foes. Combat is simple: Skirmishes last around a minute, and you command each type of unit to attack with the flick of a finger. Most of the real strategizing takes place long before any swords clash. Offline missions and online fights reward you with in-game currency, and between matches you train your units and equip your most prized warriors.

NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil explains that simplicity is the key to success. “Those epic battles that you see in the likes of The Lord of the Rings, they don’t exist on mobile. We felt like we could do that and make them pass the Starbucks test.” Reil pauses, gesturing at the opposing army lying defeated on the screen. “For it to work on mobile, you need to be able to win a battle in the time it takes you to buy a coffee.”

“..Successful games create an environment that you want to spend time in, where you make friends. Then, eventually, some people will want to pay.”

Sensibly, this time NaturalMotion is choosing to avoid heavy-handed micro transactions. “[Dawn of Titans] doesn’t nickel-and-dime you because when we tried that in the past, players just dropped out of the game,” he explains. “In this new generation of free-to-play, I think all the successful games create an environment that you want to spend time in, where you make friends. Then, eventually, some people will want to pay.”

As enjoyable as Dawn of Titans is, it needs to do more than impress gamers like me. Facebook gaming has fallen by the wayside and NaturalMotion’s parent company Zynga’s relevance and profits have declined with it. The Farmville creator has bet big on NaturalMotion, and despite performing well initially, the company’s first game since the acquisition, CSR Racing 2, has since dropped out of the top 50 on the App Store charts. A lot is riding on Dawn of Titans‘ success.

NaturalMotion’s CEO seems less worried. “If we wow people, it spreads word of mouth.” Reil says. “It’s actually a very specific focus that we have with all of our games. Our business model is if we invest more in the product, then we invest less in user acquisition.”

But its competitors reportedly spend almost $1 million a day on star-studded ad campaigns, and NaturalMotion is going to need more than just word of mouth to succeed. Reil argued that Zynga has the resources to compete. “If we want to compete with Clash of Clans — with any of these companies– we can,” he says. I’m not so sure. That may have been true in 2012 when Zynga was valued at $11.5 billion, but now the company is worth just $2.4 billion, less than a quarter of Clash of Clans maker Supercell (which also has the financial clout of Tencent, a $250 billion company, behind it).

Since my discussion with Reil, Dawn of Titans was released on both Android and iOS. As of December 19th, it ranked 64th in the App Store’s “Top Grossing” list and 50th in the corresponding Google Play chart. It’s off to a decent start, for sure, but with Zynga unable to match its rivals’ marketing budgets, Dawn of Titans will have to hook a lot more players if it’s to succeed in this cutthroat market.


Samsung TVs now play YouTube videos in HDR

If you have a recent Samsung TV and want more high dynamic range content without having to buy a game console, you’re in luck. Samsung’s 2016 quantum dot and 4K TVs are getting support for HDR YouTube videos thanks to an updated YouTube app rolling out to sets worldwide starting in December. You now only have to visit a special HDR section in the software to find a library of extra-vivid videos — no subscription services or dedicated media devices required. There’s still going to be a relatively limited selection of clips given how new HDR is for YouTube as a whole, but it’s an important step for making the color-rich technology available to a wider audience… and, of course, it’s a good excuse to show off your new TV.

Source: Samsung Newsroom


Google Home now plays nice with Sony speakers and Android TVs

Google Home already allows you to control any connected Chromecast devices with simple voice commands, but if the device is really going to compete with Amazon’s Echo line, it’s going to need a bigger ecosystem to play in. Starting today, however, users with Sony speakers or Android TV sets can start taking advantage of Google Home’s voice commands to control music and video streaming without the need for a complicated smart home setup.

According to Sony, a firmware update for all its “Chromecast built-in” speakers and Android TV-equipped sets adds the missing support for Google’s smart hub and personal assistant. That means commands like “OK Google, play Spotify on my Sony speaker” will automatically route the audio to your desired speaker. Likewise, calling out, “OK Google, play Stranger Things from Netflix on the TV” will also work with any of Sony’s Android TV sets like the Bravia line or its latest 4K HDR panels. Finally, for users with multi-room audio setups, you can use Google’s app to group together speakers or even sync the audio across any combination of compatible Chromecast devices including Sony equipment and the Google Home itself.

Source: Sony Newsroom


This was the year of VR, until AR stole it

This was supposed to be the year of virtual reality, but barely had 2016 started when Microsoft threw a spanner in the works with the announcement of HoloLens. Rather than taking us to a virtual world, Microsoft’s headset pulls virtual objects into our own. Microsoft calls these objects Holograms, much to the chagrin of hologram enthusiasts, but most people know them as tenets of mixed, or augmented, reality. It’s already being touted as the next next big thing.

Of course, 2016 was full of VR. With spring came the retail launch of the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Valve-endorsed Vive. Both require two things: a lot of cash and a lot of power. The Rift costs $599 while the Vive is $799 (including controllers and tracking accoutrements). But then you need to factor in the price of a PC that can support the high-fidelity, high-speed visuals VR requires. A typical all-in price started from $1,500, putting it out of the range of all but the most ardent of gamers. That price has dropped and will continue to drop as cheaper, better graphics cards are released.

There are no firm figures for how many VR kits have been sold. Steam statistics suggest that just 0.34 percent of its users in November had a headset. Even counting gamers who don’t use Steam, that would likely put the total figure sold across both Vive and Oculus at well under a million. That estimation is in line with VR analytics group SuperData Research, which projected around 450,000 HTC Vive sales and 355,000 Oculus Rift sales for 2016.

Just as Oculus and HTC should’ve been dominating the news cycle, Magic Leap, the secretive Google-backed mixed reality (MR) startup, finally broke cover with a Wired feature. Magic Leap is basically promising to do the same things as HoloLens, but better.

Details are scant, but rather than projecting images onto a portion of a giant helmet (like Microsoft’s headset), Magic Leap will beam light into your eyes, using a system called Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal to give these objects depth and solidity. The company has yet to show off any hardware or software or even suggest a year when its tech will be ready, but it’s nonetheless one of the best-funded startups around. Wired’s Magic Leap feature came in April, within weeks of the Vive and Rift launches. The timing was obvious, and the message was clear: There’s something better around the corner.

In the meantime, an ex-Google startup with a couple dozen employees was preparing to steal everyone’s attention with a mobile game. I’m talking about Niantic, of course, and Pokémon Go, which was undoubtedly the hit game of the summer, if not the year.

Somewhat erroneously referred to as an augmented reality (AR) game, Pokémon Go is better described as a location-based game, like geocaching, with a pervasive layer on top. Definitions aside, there can be no doubt that AR has been a big part of its huge success. When catching Pokémon, players are shown a live feed from their device’s camera with a monster overlaid. Hundreds of thousands of people shared these images on social media, helping spread intrigue about the game.


Before long, packs of Pokémon hunters were roaming New York, London, Paris and other locations around the world, searching for new monsters and using an AR system to help catch them. Unlike Niantic’s last game, Ingress, this wasn’t just geeks and gamers. I can count on one hand the number of Ingress players I know. With Pokémon Go, I can count on one hand the people I know who didn’t play it. My 64-year-old mom played. My 10-year-old son played. It felt like, at one point, almost everyone gave it a shot. By the time Niantic announced an Apple Watch app for Pokémon Go, the game had already been downloaded 500 million times. That’s a ridiculous number.

Of course, crazes rise and fall, and it’s safe to say that Pokémon Go is, if not gone, seemingly on its way out of the public’s imagination. But its impact remains. My colleague Kris Naudus referred to Pokémon Go as AR’s aha moment, and I agree. For a fleeting minute, the game brought a little Pokémon magic into our world. It’s one of the most basic implementations of AR around, but we found it compelling. That should be encouraging for Microsoft, Magic Leap and any other company that’s planning a mixed or augmented reality product.

So where does that leave virtual reality? Well, there are still plenty of headsets out there, and VR is not going away anytime soon. Sony launched the PlayStation VR just a month ago, and it’s expected to equal Vive and Rift sales combined by the year’s end. It’s not that PSVR offers a better experience than its PC-based cousins. It’s just a lot cheaper — $399 to $499, depending on your needs — and has a way bigger reach. Steam stats suggest little over 10 percent of PC gamers have a VR-ready computer. Every PlayStation 4 owner can plug in a PSVR and get started. That gives Sony somewhere between two and four times the potential audience.

And even PSVR’s prospective audience is dwarfed by the potential market for smartphone VR. Google has sold cheap Cardboard viewers for a couple of years, but this year the company announced Daydream, a new initiative to bring a more premium VR experience to mobile users. Daydream View is a $79, comfortable headset sold with a bundled motion controller. At present, only Google’s Pixel and the updated Moto Z are Daydream-certified — a side effect of the high standard of experience that Google is hoping to maintain — but you can bet that many Android phones will support the standard in 2017.

VR, AR, MR and every other “R” need to coexist for a while. For now virtual reality is the easiest to pull off — software and hardware makers have the fewest things to keep track of and complete control of the virtual environment — and also the most developed. It’s fairly easy for a developer to build a VR app or for a manufacturer to make a VR-ready phone. Mixed reality is clearly harder.

Microsoft’s HoloLens is effectively a wearable computer, making thousands of calculations every second just to understand its environment. And its limitations, such as field of view, are way more apparent than those of a VR headset. The virtual objects of HoloLens have to be small enough — or faraway enough — to fit into a small square in the middle of the headset. You simply can’t see the whole illusion. Perhaps Magic Leap already has the answer to that problem, but given how many years it’s been in development — and how little it’s shown so far — it’s likely not a simple thing to figure out.

In 2017, Microsoft’s partners will release a handful of $300 VR headsets for Windows. Rather than competing with existing VR products, these headsets are more like a diet HoloLens. You’ll get the same experience, interface and apps as HoloLens, but your entire environment will be virtual. Think of it like a gateway drug for mixed reality. In one swoop, it’s getting both developers and users ready for MR, without the tribulations of dealing with first-generation, hyper-expensive headsets.

At the same time, Google is currently working on a device that uses cameras and algorithms to display mixed reality inside a virtual reality headset. It’s essentially going to be a combination of VR and Google’s Tango computer vision efforts, with a lot of extra smarts added on top. Again, the project seems almost like a stepping-stone toward a more complete mixed reality experience. The device has yet to be announced, but sources familiar with the matter say it’s of great importance to the company.

The dark horse in all of this is Apple. As is tradition, there’s been a lot of speculation and questions asked about the company’s plans for virtual, augmented and mixed reality. CEO Tim Cook has said that AR is more interesting than VR, as it’s less closed off and more social. The company has already acquired an AR company, and it has experts in the field within its ranks. Its iPhones clearly have the power and sensors to pull off a Daydream-like VR experience immediately, but it’s obviously waiting to offer something more compelling to its users.


There can be no doubt that ‘virtual reality’ headsets like the Vive, Rift and Daydream View are just a stopgap until mixed reality is ready.

There can be no doubt that “virtual reality” headsets like the Vive, Rift and Daydream View are just a stop-gap until mixed reality is ready. That probably sounds like a bold statement, but it’s easy to justify. Mixed reality headsets will, at some point make virtual objects appear solid. HoloLens isn’t there yet, sure, but Magic Leap claims to be, and you can be sure Microsoft is working on it.

Once these headsets are able to display opaque objects and cover our entire field of view, developers and creatives will have total control over what we see. They can decide to mix or augment our surroundings, like we’ve already seen with Magic Leap and HoloLens, or completely scrap that environment and put us in a virtual space, like with a VR headset. It should only take a few taps to send us to an augmented reality, a virtual one and back to our own.

This year showed millions of people how fun it can be to see a digital creation entering their world. And maybe 2017 won’t be the year, but as technology catches up to its aspirations, we might soon be able to see how fun it is to have millions of digital creations do the same.

Check out all of Engadget’s year-in-review coverage right here.


Google shows off its sleeker self-driving Chrysler minivans

Waymo, Google’s new autonomous vehicle division, has finally unveiled its latest model: a heavily modified Chrysler Pacifica. The hybrid minivan, which can go 30 miles in pure electric mode, was glimpsed earlier in spy photos at a Google facility. It’s now fixed up with the custom computer, sensors and telematics used on Google’s Lexus SUV and other self-driving cars. Waymo didn’t just bolt the tech on, though. Rather, its engineering team worked together with Fiat Chrysler (FCA) at a special facility in southeastern Michigan.

“FCA’s product development and manufacturing teams have been agile partners, enabling us to go from program kickoff to full vehicle assembly in just six months,” said Waymo CEO John Krafcik. The plan was first leaked in May and later confirmed by Google, so it’s actually been over seven months, but Google still met its year-end schedule to unveil the car. Waymo has already done “over 200 hours of extreme-weather testing” in California and at FCA’s Arizona and Chelsea, Michigan proving grounds. Krafcik says.

These aren’t your stock minivans — FCA and Waymo teams modified the electrical, powertrain, chassis and structural system to better accommodate the extra weight and energy draw of Google’s devices. While not glamorous, the Pacifica’s ubiquity made it an obvious choice, Krafcik wrote in a Medium blog. “With this great new minivan on the road in our test markets, we’ll learn how people of all ages, shapes, and group sizes experience our fully self-driving technology.”

Chrylser CEO Sergio Marchionne says such partnerships “are vital to promoting a culture of innovation, safety and technology.” He adds that the deal gives Fiat Chrysler an inside track to autonomous driving tech. “Our partnership with Waymo enables FCA to directly address … a future where fully self-driving vehicles are very much a part of our daily lives.” Judging by a the rush to release new autonomous features, that self-driving future may be dawning faster than automakers hoped.

Source: Fiat Chrysler


Google’s Keep note-taking app lets Chromebook users doodle

Google has added drawing tools to its widely-used note-taking Keep app on Chrome, giving Chromebook users an Android feature that has been around for a year. Spotted by 9 to 5 Google, it’s only available via the Chrome Web store, and doesn’t work on any browser, including Chrome. You can add a doodle by creating a “new note from drawing,” selecting the pen, highlighter or marker tool and choosing from 28 colors and 6 line thicknesses. You can also add a drawing to any existing note with the “add drawing” option.

Keep doodling is easy on Android, since you draw right on the screen with your finger or a stylus. Though it does work with a mouse or touchpad, it’s less logical on a laptop, unless you have one with a touchscreen. Since Chrome apps are primarily geared to Chromebook owners (Google is phasing out Chrome apps on Windows and Mac), the Keep’s drawing feature perhaps points to a more touchscreen-oriented future for Chromebook. Samsung, for one, is rumored to be releasing a hybrid, stylus-equipped Chromebook Pro for around $500.

Tablet sales down across the board, with the notable exception of hybrid models that can double as a PC, like Microsoft’s Surface or the iPad Pro. It makes a lot of sense for Google to make a stronger push into the hybrid PC game, where it can perhaps offer a better price-point than its rivals.

The search giant has already started by porting tablet-based Android apps to Chrome OS, giving users of select models more to choose from. By making its core Chrome apps more touchscreen friendly, it might motivate its hardware partners to create hardware to match. To get the Keep’s drawing tools on Windows, Mac or ChromeOS, just go to the Chrome Web Store and search for “Keep” (or click here). As mentioned, don’t get to attached to the function on Windows or Mac, though.


Google’s search-savvy keyboard comes to Android

Ever since Google introduced its Gboard keyboard on iOS, there’s been one main question: when is it coming to Android? You can relax. The company has released Gboard for its own phone platform, replacing the previous (and relatively plain) Google Keyboard app. As with iOS, the interface revolves around a search feature that not only digs up common search results (including location and weather), but also emoji and those seemingly inescapable animated GIFs. Gboard will also autocorrect in any enabled language, so you don’t have to worry about making typos if you switch between languages on a frequent basis.

Gboard is available now, and works with over 100 languages. Don’t expect to drop GIFs into conversations regardless of the app, though. GIF sharing only works for Android users in Allo, Hangouts and Messenger right now, and sharing in other apps depends on developers integrating image keyboard support.

Source: Google Play, Google Blog


Google, Apple and Uber promise not to build a Muslim registry

After over a thousand Silicon Valley engineers pledged never to help build a Muslim registry, Buzzfeed News asked the tech giants themselves about their stance. Google, Apple and Uber told the publication that no, they won’t support the development of one either. Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter made the same vow a few days ago. The possibility of a Muslim registry in the United States first came up during President-Elect Trump’s campaign, and he has yet to deny wanting one. In addition, one of the members of Trump’s transition team, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, proposed to reinstate a registry of immigrants from Muslim countries.

The big G told Buzzfeed News in an email that from what the company knows, the “proposal doesn’t seem to be on the table.” But if it’s ever asked to participate, “of course [Google] wouldn’t do [it.]” An Apple spokesperson said the iPhonemaker hasn’t been asked and would oppose such an effort. “We think people should be treated the same no matter how they worship, what they look like, who they love,” he said. Meanwhile, Uber replied with a resounding “No.”

These tech titans met with the President-Elect at a tech summit earlier this week to discuss job creation, tax cuts and China, among other topics. One of the attendees who has declined to respond to Buzzfeed News’ question is Oracle, whose CEO (Safra Katz) is slated to join Trump’s transition team.

Source: Buzzfeed News


Google Home’s new actions include food, news and more

Amazon’s Echo line already has a truckload of skills that tap into Alexa’s ability to lend a hand with tasks, and the company adds new ones on a what seems like a weekly basis. This week, Google announced Netflix support for its connected Home speaker through Chromecast alongside the ability to display images from Google Photos. It turns out that was just the beginning as Google revealed over 30 more actions for Home from third-party developers.

Using voice commands, you can try to find out why you feel crappy with WebMD, sort your to-do list with Todoist, order pizza from Domino’s and get news updates from the likes of The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, NPR and more. And those are just a few examples. The so-called Conversation Actions from dozens of companies will roll out over the coming weeks, but some are already available.

VentureBeat reports that this is the largest addition of actions since Home launched and there are now 35 third-party options total. 32 of those are available now. We were able to confirm that the collection of services are accessible inside the Google Home app.

The new features for Google Home follow the company’s announcement that it was opening up those Conversation Actions from its Assistant to other developers earlier this month. Of course, those tools play nice with the company’s Pixel phones, too. To get in on the actions, er, action, for the household gadget, head to the Services section of the Settings menu inside the Google Home app for Android and iOS.

Source: VentureBeat


The Engadget Podcast Ep 18: We Both Go Down Together

Managing Editor Dana Wollman and Senior Editor Devindra Hardawar join host Terrence O’Brien to talk about the biggest tech stories of the week. First Dana and Devindra debate the value of Amazon’s delivery drones and Google’s… I mean Alphabet’s new self-driving car company, Waymo. Plus they discuss the privacy freakout surrounding Evernote. Then all three will dig into the never ending security failures of Yahoo. Now that the company has admitted that over 1.5 billion user accounts were compromised — and didn’t say a word about it for over 2 years — will Verizon still go through with its planned buy out? The panel certainly hopes not.



Winning %

Christopher Trout
Mona Lalwani
Dana Wollman
Devindra Hardawar
Chris Velazco
Cherlynn Low
Nathan Ingraham
Michael Gorman

Relevant links:

  • Google spins out its self-driving car division
  • Evernote’s new privacy rules may let its employees read your notes
  • Amazon completes its first drone-powered delivery
  • Yahoo confirms new security breach affecting over one billion accounts
  • Yahoo confirms over 500 million users affected in 2014 breach

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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