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Month: September 2018

Facebook’s Virtual Reality Device Cost $399. Oculus Quest is Compelling but fails to solve some basics

by Cinideep Sasikumar Cinideep Sasikumar No Comments

Facebook on Wednesday unveiled the Oculus Quest, the company’s long-awaited, standalone virtual-reality headset that will go on sale in early 2019 for $399. I had a chance to try out two demos on the device.

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The Oculus Quest’s main advantage over other standalone VR headsets is its motion tracking technology. Unlike other portable headsets, the Quest is able to determine the motion of user’s head turns, hand gestures and overall body movement.

These capabilities were showcased on “Project Tennis Scramble,” a demo developed by Armature Studio. In the game, users play tennis as colorful avatars in a cartoon world, running around and swinging their arms in real life to move their avatars on the virtual court and hit the animated balls.

The Quest perfectly tracked my swings and the demo was a blast to play, especially when it emphasized elements of a tennis match that could only be possible in a virtual world, such as substituting the tennis racket and tennis ball for a cricket bat and ball.

Whether a demo like Project Tennis Scramble can ever succeed as a consumer game is an entirely different question.

Such a scenario requires that users have someone around to help them put on the Quest properly. They’ll also need access to rooms large enough to safely run around swinging their arms, blind to the real world, without breaking anything. For many folks, that type of space just isn’t available.

Just take a look at this photo, provided by Oculus, that suggests how it might be played in an apartment. Try to imagine the player, unable to see anything, getting through a virtual tennis game without running into the walls or furniture.

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Now look at the demo space Facebook actually used at its Oculus 5 conference. That’s a lot of space! If you need a whole tennis court, why not just play a real game of tennis?

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An attendee plays a virtual reality tennis game on the Oculus Quest at Facebook’s Oculus 5 event in September 2018.
Besides the spatial requirements, the Quest has other issues.

On “Face Your Fears 2,” a demo developed by Turtle Rock Studios, I found myself underwhelmed by the graphic-rendering abilities of the Quest. The horror game looked just fine, but it pales in comparison to the PlayStation 4 games I play every day.

I also felt nauseated when I was playing.

The demo required that I walk around, but the size of the room limited how much I could actually move, forcing me to use the Quest’s control joysticks to move the character. That felt unnatural and gave me motion sickness.

Another challenge for the Quest will simply be content. The two experiences I got to try were fine as demos, but there’s no chance I would ever drop $399 for the ability to play them. Oculus needs a killer title to draw in casual consumers, and it doesn’t have one yet.

The company said it will have more than 50 titles ready at launch. It also showed a short preview of “Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series,” an experience coming next year that will focus on Darth Vader. That title will surely attract some “Star Wars” fans.

Finally, there’s the question of battery life. The company declined to disclose any information on the battery, which raises doubts about users’ ability to play on the Quest for extended stretches of time.

The Quest has promise, but unless you’ve got $399, a large vacant room, someone to help you put on the headset each time you want to play and faith that great content will arrive, you may want to wait before lining up for this gadget.

New features coming to Google Assistant, including manners

by Cinideep Sasikumar Cinideep Sasikumar No Comments

Google made multiple major announcements related to the future of its Assistant today, including new voices, a feature to teach kids good manners, the ability to continue conversations, and Assistant being able to make phone calls on a user’s behalf.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai says he wants Assistant to be “natural and comfortable to talk to.” As such, users can now keep a conversation going with Assistant without repeatedly saying, “Hey Google,” to start every query. If you want to ask a question, you can keep asking more until you’ve reached a natural stopping point in the conversation. The feature, called continued conversations, should be available in the “coming weeks.” Amazon’s Alexa assistant already does this with its follow-up mode.

Assistant can now also handle multiple actions, that’ll let users ask for multiple things at a time.
Most interestingly, Google says Assistant will eventually be able to make phone calls for us. Users might be able to use Assistant to book appointments at salons or doctors’ offices. The live demo Google conducted showed Assistant making a phone call and then carrying out a conversation to book a hair appointment. It considered various time slots and compared them to the Assistant user’s calendar to find a convenient booking. The demo was incredibly impressive and natural sounding. It’s hard to believe it’ll work that well in the real world, but it would be life-altering if it did. This feature likely won’t be rolling out anytime soon, although Pichai says Assistant will soon automatically call businesses to ensure that it knows the correct hours, especially during holidays. You’ll see this information automatically updated in Google Search without knowing Assistant had to make a phone call.

The calling technology, called Duplex, is explained in a longer Google blog post that describes how the team is thinking about latency in responses and the Assistant’s natural cadence.

Director of product Lilian Rincon also demoed how voice controls will assist with more visual tasks, particularly with smart displays. Users will be able to ask Assistant to call up cooking videos and other video programming from YouTube. The Assistant is also getting a revamped look and experience on phones. It’ll act a lot more like Google Now and will call up a full-screen page of information when a question is asked. Smart home requests will also show up on the phone’s screen. The company has partnered with multiple food retailer chains, including Starbucks, Domino’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts, to streamline food pickup. Users can ask for their “usual order” and Assistant will pull up what it thinks they’ll want. The Assistant will also come to navigation in Maps later this summer, and users will be able to use it to play music from YouTube without video and to get their ETA.

The company’s new “pretty please” feature teaches kids to be kind and say “please” and “thank you” to their Google Assistant-equipped device. The Assistant will thank kids for saying please and will call out when the kids have asked for something nicely. This might help them learn to not demand things from their Assistant. Finally, six new voices are coming to the Google Assistant, including some male voices, like one based off singer John Legend

The company said last week that its Assistant is now compatible with more than 5,000 home devices, which is up from only 1,500 in January. Today, it said Assistant will support more than 30 languages and will be in 80 countries by the end of the year. Google’s clearly focusing on its Assistant, both from a usability standpoint and its prominence in the public conscience. The company installed a huge brand activation at CES and aggressively started marketing its Alexa competitor. Beyond getting the word out, Google needs to keep adding these features in order to stay ahead of Amazon and beat it in the smart assistant race.

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