TIME Gadgets

Samsung Gear S Smartwatch Can Make Calls Without a Paired Phone

Samsung

The predominant smartwatch maker introduces yet another wearable, but this one can fly solo.

Smartwatches are notoriously codependent gadgets. If you want to use one to make calls, you need an auxiliary device nearby to do the cellular legwork. Forget smart, they’re like mini-dumb terminals, wrist-bound proxies for another functionally better-rounded piece of technology.

Until now: Meet the Gear S, a curved-screen smartwatch that maker Samsung says can do phone calls all by its lonesome.

The Gear S uses a curved 2-inch 360-by-480 pixel Super AMOLED display attached to a flex band (with changeable straps), and employs a customizable interface that includes views and fonts Samsung says will let you “read messages and notifications at a single glance.”

The IP67-certified (particle and moisture resistant) wearable is powered by a 1.0 Ghz dual-core processor, has 512MB of memory and 4GB of internal storage, and runs Tizen, the Linux-based operating system for embedded devices. It includes both 3G as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, charges its 300 mAh Li-ion battery (Samsung estimates you’ll get two days out of “typical usage”) with a USB 2.0 cable, and has a battery of tracking tools, including an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a compass, a heart-rate monitor, an ambient light sensor, an ultraviolet detector and a barometer.

It’ll still sync with or act as a call proxy for a smartphone, of course, if that’s what you prefer, but the big deal — if you care about smartwatches anyway — is that it can get online to check notifications by itself, and you can make and receive calls from your wrist without a secondary device. I see nothing in the specifications about a microphone or speaker, for better or worse, thus ruling out the Dick Tracy angle (meaning, in other words, that you might need a Bluetooth headset to make calls).

Samsung’s covering that angle by simultaneously announcing the Gear Circle, a Bluetooth headset that can pair with smartphones (and while the company doesn’t say as much in the press release, one assumes, the Gear S). The Gear Circle’s extras include a magnetic lock that lets it hang around your neck during downtime, and it’ll vibrate to indicate an incoming call or notification.

TIME Video Games

Kinect for Xbox One by Itself Will Set You Back $150

Microsoft

It'll cost a little more than many probably hoped, but it comes with a pack-in game and it's less expensive than the Windows version.

When Microsoft launched its Xbox One games console in November 2013, it cost $500: $100 more than Sony’s PlayStation 4, and $150 to $200 more than Nintendo’s Wii U.

That steep price tag arguably cost Microsoft launch sales as well as momentum heading into 2014. Sony now claims over 10 million PlayStation 4 units sold worldwide, a record for any games console in a similar period, whereas at last check (in April, the last time we saw a formal number), Microsoft said its Xbox One had shipped to stores (distinct from sold to consumers) some 5 million units.

Surely because of that lack of momentum, Microsoft dropped the Xbox One’s price from $500 to $400 in early June, but at the expense of removing its Kinect motion-control sensor from the system.

Since June, you’ve been able to buy the Xbox One without Kinect, but if you wanted to buy the Kinect sensor separately, you couldn’t because here wasn’t a standalone Kinect SKU.

Microsoft never intended to sell Kinect as a standalone SKU, because Kinect was supposed to inextricable from the Xbox One experience. It’s removal was the boldest sea change in a series of philosophical reversals the company’s made since the system debuted.

The standalone Xbox One Kinect SKU finally has a price tag and a launch date: Microsoft announced it’ll cost $149, and you can buy it on October 7. That $149 includes a copy of Dance Central Spotlight, an upcoming music video game in the Dance Central series due out on September 2.

Yes, the math seems wonky at first blush. I suspect most assume that if the Xbox One was $500 with Kinect and $400 without, Kinect by itself ought to be $100. But there’s packaging to consider, plus intangibles like the development value of being able to depend on Kinect’s presence in a given home. And of course there’s Microsoft’s right to jack up the price any way it likes. This is a company that, for years, managed to sell a proprietary Wi-Fi USB dongle for the Xbox 360 at two to three times the asking price for similar PC parts, after all.

Microsoft says, “Kinect remains an important part of the Xbox One experience.” Never mind that claim: how important is going to come down to evidence in the coming years. Either the company’s going to release groundbreaking games and media center features or it won’t. If it doesn’t, Kinect becomes like any other secondary peripheral in the annals of console-dom: somewhat interesting, occasionally amusing, and utterly niche.

Note that Microsoft currently sells a Windows version of Kinect as well, a part that launched in July for $200 without a pack-in game. So at least from a PC gamer’s standpoint, you could argue console gamers are getting a pretty good deal.

TIME Home entertainment

GOG.com Is Getting Into the DRM-Free Movie and TV Business

GOG.com, nee "Good Old Games," is throwing its hat in the DRM-free video ring, hoping to eventually persuade the big studios to liberate all movies and TV shows.

GOG.com–the encyclopedically stocked go-to site for older versions of PC games refurbished to play on existing Windows, Mac and Linux computers–is getting into the DRM-free movie business, or it’s trying to anyway. The company just announced that it’s going to pull the trigger on a slew of film and TV content that it’ll let buyers download or stream at leisure.

Movies and television shows would be completely new territory for GOG.com, media content and distribution mechanisms it’s had no experience with to date…save for one crucial component: the DRM-free part.

Today, say you want to watch movies at home, you have any number of options: stream from a service like Netflix or Hulu, buy and download from an e-tailer like iTunes or Amazon, or if you’re old-school (or like my wife’s parents who live at the ends of the earth in rural Iowa, stuck in an Internet black hole) you rent something on a physical disc from your local grocery store or Redbox vending machine.

But grabbing any of the above without digital rights management is essentially verboten. The content isn’t yours: It’s either borrowed or earmarked for use with a proprietary distribution mechanism. Short of poking around websites that catalog video in the public domain, attempting to decouple physical discs you’ve purchased and want to rip for backup or playback purposes from their copy protection bulwarks, or flat-out turning to piracy, DRM-free video isn’t an option in today’s world.

GOG.com’s position on DRM is, you could argue, its primary PR cachet. The site’s mantra is “you buy it, you own it,” period. No copy protection, no download or reinstallation or backup limits. Nada. That philosophy’s allowed the site to carve out significant space in the currently Steam-dominant downloadable PC gaming scene, and it’s apparently driving a sustainable business model.

In that light, wading into film and television with a DRM-free angle makes a certain amount of sense. It’s by no means clear the company’s going to succeed, of course. The deal starts with “over 200 partners in the gaming industry,” so publishers like EA, Square Enix and Ubisoft alongside various indie studios. That means documentaries, largely, at first, though much of it will start off unique to the site. GOG.com says the service will include world premieres like Gamer Age, The King of Arcades and Pixel Poetry, as well as award-winners off the festival circuit like Indie Game: The Movie.

But I’d wager most people see the phrase “movie and TV” used in a sentence with DRM and want to know when they’re going to be able to download a DRM-free copy of the first season of shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective. (That’s what I’d want to know, anyway.)

“Our initial idea was to start with the big guys, but the process is not easy,” says Guillaume Rambourg, GOG.com VP for North America. “In our first round of talks, the response was largely, ‘We love your ideas, but we do not want to be the first ones. We will gladly follow, but until somebody else does it first, we do not want to take the risk.’”

Rambourg claims most studio officials agree with GOG.com that DRM is “pointless,” but says they wind up punting to conservative legal departments, which of course have no intention of lowering their respective DRM drawbridges. GOG.com says it decided to regroup and prove the concept first, thus it’s launching its DRM-free film section “with documentaries catering directly to its existing community: gamers and geeks.”

GOG.com says these films, which can be streamed or fully downloaded as preferred, will include additional content, and that two of the launch titles–Art of Playing and TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard–will be available free of charge. Buy a video on GOG.com and you’ll get a file, says the company, which you can play whenever and wherever you want. New movies should arrive thereafter at a rate of at least once a week, and it sounds like the company’s starting with a flat price model: $5.99 a piece.

So no, not the place to go if you want to own shows like Treme or Fargo free and clear, but it’s a start, and who else is offering even that much? GOG.com says it’s “aiming high,” of course, and that its goal is to free “all movies and TV series from DRM.” It’s hard to imagine any of the major studios cozying up, but then the idea that you’d be able to buy hundreds of legacy PC games for peanuts, play them on modern machines and outright own them, DRM-free, after decades of code-wheels and pass-phrases and all sorts of other copy protection shenanigans, was just a pipe dream until GOG.com came along six years ago and proved it could be done.

TIME apps

Every Dropbox Pro User Now Gets 1TB for $10 a Month

Dropbox's new unified Pro subscription plan brings it (almost) into alignment with Google Drive.

The verb “slashed” may not do what this amounts to justice: Dropbox just collapsed its Pro-member pricing model, allowing you access to 1TB of storage for $10 a month, or $100 a year.

Through August 26, Dropbox allowed Pro subscribers to buy any of three monthly plans: $10 for 100GB, $20 for 200GB and $50 for 500GB. But as of August 27, you can have twice the prior maximum storage offering for one-fifth of the monthly cost.

What’s more, the $10-a-month plan is now the only plan on the block. Everyone pays $10 a month, everyone gets 1TB of storage.

Here’s how the plan stacks up to some of Dropbox’s competitors:

  • Google already offers the same rate for its Google Drive service, and includes several others besides: $2/month for 100GB, $10/month for 1TB, $100/month for 10TB, $200/month for 20TB and $300/month for 30TB.
  • Amazon also offers cloud storage plans, but on a yearly basis that’s more expensive gigabyte-for-gigabyte, starting at $10/year for 20GB and climbing to $500/year for 1TB.
  • Apple’s new iCloud Drive (due with OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 later this year) looks similarly steep by comparison, with prices said to range from $1/month for 20GB to $4/month for 200GB.
  • Microsoft offers OneDrive personal plans for $2 and $4 per month for 100GB and 200GB, respectively, and a business-focused 1TB plan for $2.50 per user per month.

Google and Microsoft, for their parts, give “free” users 15GB to play with, whereas Dropbox, Amazon and Apple still draw the line at 5GB.

But this is an important move by Dropbox on its subscription side toward making the service competitive with Google’s offerings (some will understandably quibble with the lack of a comparable $2/month-for-100GB option, but on balance, it seems like a considerable step in the right direction). And today’s update comes with other collaboration-related enhancements, including the option to place passwords on shared links, set expiration timeframes on shared links and tweak permissions on shared folders such that select recipients can be set to “view-only.”

The company’s also added a “remote wipe” feature, allowing you to zap your Dropbox files off a lost or stolen device (but without removing them from Dropbox’s servers).

For Pro members, the new features should go into effect “in the next couple days,” says Dropbox.

TIME Video Games

With Infamous: First Light, Sucker Punch Aims for a ‘Relatable’ Female Lead

Sucker Punch cofounder Chris Zimmerman talks about how his design team approached its first female lead in the studio's DLC prequel to Infamous: Second Son.

Infamous First Light is hardly the first game to foreground a female superhero.

Think about Final Fantasy‘s Lightning, Metroid‘s Samus Aran, the Tomb Raider reboot’s rendition of Lara Croft, Beyond Good & Evil‘s Jade, Perfect Dark‘s Joanna Dark, The Longest Journey‘s April Ryan or Mirror’s Edge‘s Faith Connors. Strong female leads to a one, whatever you want to say about their quality or psychological depth contrasted with female characters in other longer-lived mediums like film or literature.

But those games are also outliers, a handful of titles in an ocean of shackling tropes and stereotypes, despite video gaming’s meteoric transition over the past several decades from niche past time to one of the highest grossing entertainment mediums in the world by revenue.

And so Sucker Punch’s standalone DLC prequel to its PlayStation 4 action-adventure Infamous: Second Son, debuting today amidst increased scrutiny of gender representation (sexualization, objectification, stereotyping) in video games, is noteworthy simply because it’s part of a still-all-too-small club: games with formidable female leads.

Even then, it looks a little like a compromise on paper: Delsin, the male protagonist of Second Son, got his own 15- to 20-hour-long game, whereas First Light‘s female protagonist, Abigail “Fetch” Walker, stars in a fractionally priced ($15 vs. the original’s $60) downloadable followup that lasts just four to five hours. That’s a crude, reductive way to think about anything, of course, but a way some will, nonetheless, given how gender-skewed gaming remains in 2014.

“In general, there are correlations between gender and genre–they’re not many letters off each other after all,” says Sucker Punch cofounder Chris Zimmerman during a phone interview on the eve of First Light‘s release. “Our games tend to skew a little bit more towards women than most games do, but we’re not wildly out of band with other third-person action titles.”

I ask Zimmerman whether he knew the demographic breakdown for Infamous: Second Son: how many women versus men played the original game. He doesn’t have specifics, but says “it kind of depends.”

“The fact that Sucker Punch, like all video game companies unfortunately, has a relatively male-skewed gender balance probably does influence our outlook on things, but we don’t make an explicit point of that,” he tells me. “When we started work on First Light, we didn’t think of it in terms of a male or female lead. When we were deciding whether the protagonist should be Fetch or not; gender didn’t even come into the conversation.”

Zimmerman says Fetch was just a character the company saw as appealing to people in general, regardless of gender. “It didn’t seem like an issue when we were talking to people, so we really didn’t consider it,” he says. “On the other hand, all of the characters in our games are very explicitly designed not to be objectified or gender-distorted.”

Zimmerman brings up Delsin, the male protagonist of Second Son and proverbial every-geek, a middle-of-the-road, rumpled-looking, quip-slinging dude. The stereotypical gamer, in other words.

“Delsin as a character is a regular-looking guy. He does not look like a superhero. He looks like a dude,” says Zimmerman. He then launches into an anecdote about randomly running into someone while walking in downtown London, however improbably dressed like Delsin, and how that drove home the utter ordinariness of the character the studio had designed.

“This is like the world’s easiest cosplay,” he says. “Just get a denim jacket, some buttons, do some painting on the back, you’re done. You don’t have to fabricate a giant sword, you just have to wrap a chain around your wrist. That’s all very intentional on our part. The Infamous games are about relatability. It’s about setting a world up where you can’t help but say ‘What would I do?'”

Sony

But Fetch is an altogether different persona in Sucker Punch’s X-Men-like world, a psychologically fractured, super-powered killer in the midst of a mental fugue. When we meet her in Second Son, she’s euphemistically described as a vigilante, when she’s in fact a homicidal maniac, assassinating drug dealers willy-nilly and leaving behind creepy neon tableaus. Where Delsin’s led an uneventful life up to the point he’s handed superpowers, Fetch is grappling with a borderline schizophrenic crackup: parental rejection, years of substance abuse and addiction and paranoia, long-term incarceration, a spree of violent murders, and topping it all, her unspeakable role in the death of her brother. Second Son was in part her redemption story, whereas First Light chronicles her descent into madness.

Still, says Zimmerman, the team’s goal with Fetch was to make her just as relatable as Delsin.

“It was important to us that Fetch looked like a normal person,” he says. “She’s like someone you’d see on the streets of Seattle. She’s not wearing bikini armor, she’s just wearing clothes. She has her own sense of style. They’re not clothes I would wear, but I’ve absolutely seen people wearing clothes like that. And it’s not just the female characters we’re thinking about like this, it’s the male characters, too. We want to make sure that our characters are real, that they look like real people.”

There’s a flip side to relentless political scrutiny, where quashing stereotypes can unintentionally become witch hunting, a game’s accomplishment reductively discarded along with its shortcomings. I put the question to Zimmerman: How do artists or creators go about creating games in a gender-skewed industry without it feeling like a quota-fulfillment exercise?

“It’s a super question, and as a content creator, I can say it’s a hard thing to do,” says Zimmerman. “I love my job. It’s a great job. I love being able to come to work everyday and be excited about what I’m doing. But it’s not easy.”

“There are lots of constraints on what we do,” he says. “I think at the end of the day, our primary role is to build entertainment that people want to consume. We want to create experiences that are meaningful to people, but at the same time, we want to tell our own stories. I think the best commercial art happens when those two elements come together. When we make a game with a strong female protagonist, it’s not because we’re trying to change the world, it’s because we’re trying to remain true to the character. And hopefully the story we’re trying to tell is a story people want to play.”

TIME Video Games

Amazon Explains Why It Just Paid Nearly $1 Billion for Twitch

Amazon Said To Buy Twitch For $1 Billion As Google Bid Fails
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg / Getty Images

Amazon VP of games Michael Frazzini and Twitch CEO Emmett Shear talk about Monday's surprise high-price acquisition and what it means for the popular game-streaming service going forward.

The rumor mill got it wrong.

Twitch, an online service that lets people watch other people play video games, was supposed to go into the arms of Google. That was the received wisdom until late Monday afternoon anyway, when Amazon capsized expectations and announced it would pay $970 million for the fledgling company, an amount said to be less than what Google was offering (the rumor mill pegged that amount at around $1 billion, though never backed it up), but an enormous sum by any measure. It also the most Amazon’s paid for any company to date.

Why the heck would the world’s largest e-tailer–in the news more these days for its consumer electronics and apparent hopes to conquer time and space by deploying fleets of personalized delivery drones–buy a games-streaming startup? This is where knowing a little about Twitch helps.

These days everyone has big numbers, but this one’s genuinely impressive: Twitch says it had 55 million unique visitors to its site in July 2014 alone, and all of those visitors eyeballed over 15 billion minutes of games-related content. The number of people generating all that content? One million, says Twitch, comprising an audience of amateur and pro gamers, game publishers and studios, video game news sites and eSports-related events (eSports being the term gamers call video games played in professional matches). All sorts, in other words, from content creators and consumers to critics and video gaming “athletes.”

Here’s another way to look at it: the Wall Street Journal reported in February that Twitch accounted for nearly 2% of peak Internet traffic in the U.S., or fourth overall during peak hours. The only three companies that scored higher were Apple (4.3%), Google (22%) and Netflix (32%). Think about that for a minute: Twitch, a company that arrived in 2011, accounted for more peak U.S. traffic in February than Facebook.

But why Amazon of all companies? When I put the question to Twitch CEO Emmett Shear Monday night, he said it came down to two words: like minds.

“Talking to Mike [Frazzini, VP of Amazon Games] along the way, it really became clear that we have a shared vision for the gaming industry. We see the same trends in the same space,” said Shear. “And it’s also their culture. Amazon thinks about problems and solving those problems in the same way we do at Twitch. They think about how you can build things for customers, and how to do that in the long run.”

That sense of philosophical camaraderie over the course of multiple meetings culminated in formal negotiations, said Shear.

“One of the things I was really impressed by during the deal discussions was Amazon’s commitment to making Twitch a fully-owned subsidiary, which means I get to remain the CEO, we keep our office, we keep our culture, we keep our strategy,” said Shear. “But we get access to all of these resources and products that Amazon has that’ll let us do all of that better and faster.”

Amazon, for its part, looks less like an outlier and more like a natural home for a gaming-centric service like Twitch when you add up its recent moves. Where rivals like Apple and Google still hold gaming at arm’s length, building platforms and ecosystems to lure third party creators in lieu of crafting first-party content, Amazon’s been quietly cultivating its own gaming stable, edging step by step more toward the sort of holistic approach a Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo might take in securing ownership of both the hardware and software ends of the bargain.

When I asked Frazzini if Amazon paying beaucoup bucks for an enthusiast-angled video game operation is further evidence that Amazon intends to square off directly with gaming’s 800-pound gorillas, though, he was quick to couch the move as strictly consumer-driven.

“I was never, like, ‘How does this, that or the other company do it, and maybe we should,'” said Frazzini. “I’ve always thought about it in much simpler terms, through the lens of the customer experience and what we wanted to create, where we thought we could built inventive new experiences that would resonate. That’s been the driving motivation. If you look at Amazon fairly high-level, what you end up with is, we have a commerce business, and games are a very important part of the commerce business.”

Amazon loves people who buy games through Amazon, said Frazzini, because gamers tend to come back and buy all sorts of other things. But it’s also about more than consumers, he said, talking about the importance of catering to the sort of premium content developers the company’s been wooing with its cloud-focused Amazon Web Services model–which is just another way of saying Amazon’s Twitch purchase is (at least in part) about growing its gaming cred.

Consider Amazon’s two most recent games-related acquisitions: Amazon bought developer Double Helix Games in February, a studio known for the survival horror game Silent Hill: Homecoming as well as its work on a revitalized version of Killer Instinct, an arcade-style fighting game for Microsoft’s Xbox One. And in April, Amazon rolled out Fire TV, a $99 set-top box that not only plays high-fidelity games, but supports them with an optional gamepad–one a traditional console- or PC-gamer wouldn’t be embarrassed to wield.

“I think it’s fairly safe to say at this point that on anything with a screen, games are the number one or two activity,” said Frazzini. “Obviously if we’re going to be in the devices business, we have to be thinking hard about games. And at the center of that is the customer experience, which is what’s so interesting about Twitch for us. Twitch has that same point of view. They think long term. They think a lot about invention.”

Frazzini is naturally effusive when talking about Twitch’s accomplishments since the service’s debut in 2011, going on to call it “just the beginning” of a process that’s about anticipating “where games are going.” Clearly Amazon sees that destination as more than another overloaded app store or slew of iterative mobile devices. Put another way, no one spends close to $1 billion on a gaming service whose most vocal proponents identify as core gamers if they aren’t serious about wooing and winning them over.

The acquisition makes even more sense when you think about services like Amazon Instant Video. Amazon’s been in the video-on-demand business since 2006, and with its recent shift to an all-you-can-eat Amazon Prime streaming video model, whereby Prime members gain access to scads of video content (including the company’s coup-of-coups exclusive deal with HBO) for a Netflix-ian flat fee, capturing new eyeballs by adding a service like Twitch fits hand-in-glove with the company’s ostensible goals. And think of what else the purchase buys Amazon in terms of new eyeballs: Twitch is already an entrenched and critical presence on both Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One.

And for those worried that Amazon’s purchase could somehow harm or curtail the house Twitch built, it’s not clear yet what the actual relationship between Amazon and Twitch will be, but Twitch’s Shear said the most immediate benefits (for Twitch, and thereby its user base) translate as exponentially greater scalability.

“This year we spent a huge amount of money growing our network footprint, and I hope that next year we can spend three times as much money or just leverage some of the network footprint Amazon already has,” said Shear. “Now we can move into locations Amazon already has servers. And that alone is super exciting to me.”

TIME Security

Sony’s PlayStation Network Attacked: 9 Questions Answered

A breakdown of what happened, why it happened and who's claimed responsibility to date.

Sony’s PlayStation Network had a rough ride this weekend, collapsing under the brunt of a cyber attack by forces as yet unknown. While the PSN is now back, here’s a breakdown of what happened, with answers to questions.

What brought the PlayStation Network down?

Something called a Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS attack (confirmed by Sony here). A DDoS attack occurs when someone attempts to make a server’s resources unavailable by inundating the server with traffic. In short, Sony’s servers couldn’t keep up with the incoming traffic, culminating in a logjam for all incoming requests, legitimate or otherwise.

When did the PSN go down?

Sunday, August 24, in the early morning.

What’s this I’m hearing about Sony and a bomb scare?

Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley, traveling on August 24 by commercial plane from Dallas-Fort Worth to San Diego, had taken to Twitter to let people know Sony was battling the DDoS avalanche Sunday morning.

But someone, though at this point no one knows who precisely, claimed the American Airlines Boeing 757 Smedley was on contained explosives, prompting its diversion to Phoenix.

The plane landed uneventfully in Phoenix on Sunday and as far as anyone knows, no explosives were found on the plane.

Was Sony the only company affected by the DDoS attack?

No. While the lion’s share of media attention has been on Sony, probably due to the simultaneous bomb scare, several other gaming-related services, including Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Blizzard’s Battle.net, were reportedly disrupted over the weekend.

Microsoft, for instance, reports that access to its “Social and Gaming” services are “limited” (and were still as this list went live, though the reasons why are unclear; according to Reuters, Xbox spokesperson David Dennis said, “We don’t comment on the root cause of a specific issue, but as you can see on Xbox.com/status, the core Xbox LIVE services are up and running”).

Blizzard posted the following note: “Battle.net game services have recently been subject to DDoS attacks. We worked diligently along with our ISPs to improve the situation and currently are seeing more stability. We appreciate your patience.”

Gamasutra notes that both Riot’s League of Legends and Grinding Gear’s Path of Exile were also targeted, resulting in those services going down.

Who did it?

No one knows, but an anonymous group calling itself @LizardSquad on Twitter posted the following early Sunday morning:

And the same group tweeted this at American Airlines, as SOE’s John Smedley was manning Sony’s Twitter cannon Sunday morning:

The LizardSquad account also made several references to ISIS, one of various names ascribed to the jihadist group currently attempting to establish an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria:

But as the BBC notes, a person associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous has said the DDoS attacks were in fact initiated by Anonymous to demonstrate weaknesses in Sony’s system. The BBC says this hacker has denounced LizardSquad’s attempts to take credit for the attack, and has posted screenshots designed to prop up Anonymous’ claims to responsibility.

In other words, we’re still not sure at this point who was actually responsible, or what their goals were beyond the mundanely obvious: service disruption.

Did whoever brought the PSN down manage to steal anything?

A DDoS attack isn’t a hack in the strictest sense of the word: It’s a brute assault on a server’s ability to service requests. Sony social media manager Sid Shuman says, “We have seen no evidence of any intrusion to the network and no evidence of any unauthorized access to users’ personal information.”

In other words, as far as we know (and Sony says), no sensitive information was accessed or compromised.

Is the PSN still down?

As of this morning, it appears to be back, and Sony indicated it was functional already late yesterday (though at the time Sony’s note went live, the PSN was still nonfunctional for me and hadn’t come back by the time I went to bed).

The PSN was supposed to go down (in part or whole) for planned maintenance Monday for much of the day, so certain features weren’t supposed to be working on Monday by design. But Sony now says that scheduled maintenance update is no longer happening today, writing, “In light of today’s issue, the networks will not undergo the regularly scheduled maintenance, which was planned for Monday, August 25. We will provide an update shortly for when the maintenance will be rescheduled.”

Didn’t this happen to Sony once before?

Not exactly. Sony’s PlayStation Network was hacked back in 2011, at which point the perpetrators absconded with some 77 million user accounts, prompting Sony to shutter the service for over three weeks.

As noted above, yesterday’s DDoS attack was a brute force attempt to take Sony’s servers offline, not an intrusion hack, and according to Sony, no sensitive information was taken.

What now?

On the DDoS front, the companies involved are doubtless bolstering their defenses, but bulwarking for brute force denial of service attacks is an ongoing process, and there’s no panacea.

On the bomb-scare front, USA Today notes that American Airlines spokesperson Michelle Mohr said the FBI is investigating the matter (as does the BBC, which cites Sony as saying the same).

TIME Innovation

Oculix, Netflix’s Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Demo, Looks Pretty Boring

Virtual reality interfaces should be more than clumsy-looking design transplants.

It’s a little discouraging watching Netflix’s Oculus Rift demo (a so-called hack it’s calling “Oculix”), the one where the screen pans through a black void in which the observer finds her- or himself circled by show portals.

Imagine iOS wrapped around your head like a towel: a vortex of lights, or a sheath of video boxes. (For some reason, it made me think of the Senate chamber in the Star Wars prequels with its movable hover-platforms.)

Pick a channel by waving your hands in the air (using LeapMotion’s gesture sensor) and you can stream movies or TV shows through Oculus’s head-mounted contraption direct to your eyeballs.

This isn’t what’s interesting about virtual reality to me. We’ve placed movies up close to our faces for decades, be that on giant screens or via glasses with special LCD displays designed to confound our sense of scale. But what’s so different about sitting in a comfortable movie theater (or for that matter, an Omnimax wraparound dome) looking at screens dozens of feet tall and wide, compared with watching video at home through a glorified, full-motion View Master?

Home convenience, there’s that, though I’d argue there’s little convenient about clapping hardware as unwieldy as World War I gas masks on our heads, then leashing ourselves to stationary servers with clumsy cables.

I’m less put off by the ungainliness of Oculus Rift (and Project Morpheus, and every other attempt to revive the buzz-concept “virtual reality” lately) than I am by the lack of imagination in these hacked-together interfaces, whereby a company takes the most obvious and mundane approach toward exhibiting the potential VR lays at its doorstep. Strap on Oculus Rift and you can watch Netflix videos up close to your face! Wave your hands in the air like Tom Cruise in Minority Report and take two or three times as long to do what takes everyone else microseconds with a remote or on a touch-based tablet!

To be fair, it is just a hack, and in a statement Netflix noted that it “may never become part of the Netflix product, internal infrastructure, or otherwise be used beyond [Netflix] Hack Day.” In other words, it’s just for fun, not even rising to the level “proof of concept.” This isn’t Netflix trying to sell you on either its stake in VR or the Oculus Rift headset itself.

I’m just surprised by its obviousness. If you’re going to hack Netflix into VR, why not do something no one’s seen before? Imagine, for instance, summoning a movie like The Matrix, only going into the extras and bringing up the making-of clips, then having the option to pan around virtual versions of the “bullet time” sets to see for yourself how that went down. You could be Keanu Reeves (or see what he’d be seeing) as he falls back limbo-like, his arms splaying, or you could be the circle of cameras themselves, wheeling around the actor’s frame at different velocities and elevations. Imagine reassembling a scene to create your own version of events, playing the role of virtual director with godlike visual command of the landscape.

Netflix is a viewing environment, an interface to conjure videos on demand, a kind of “visual carrier.” If we’re about to experience the visual paradigm shift everyone keeps telling us VR amounts to, it has a much bigger role to play in shaping what it means to stream a video in a virtual environment. To me, it at least means more than forklifting a bunch of screens into a wraparound environment, just because enveloping yourself in a cone of colors looks cool.

My hat’s off to the programmers who took the time to build the Oculix demo. I certainly couldn’t have done it. But next time, why not show us VR that feels like a compelling reason to use VR, and not just lights in a box on your face.

TIME Rumors

Don’t Count the iPhone 6’s September 9 Debut Out Yet

The new iPhone line reportedly had a backlight engineering problem that goofed up the assembly process earlier this summer.

Reuters is reporting that Apple may be having difficulty prepping a sufficient number of screens for the next iPhone. Apple is expected to unveil the new line at media event on September 9. The problem, says Reuters, involves a “key” component that’s disrupting the production of the line’s new screens, rumored to be larger than the iPhone 5’s current four inches, and possibly come in two sizes.

More specifically, Reuters’s supply chain sources say the problem is with the backlight configuration in the new phones. Apple wanted to reduce the material used for the backlight from two layers to one in hopes of thinning the phones, says Reuters. But without that second layer, the phones apparently weren’t bright enough, which forced the parts back to engineering and held up the assembly process earlier this summer. That’s now impacting the number of screens Apple’s been able to produce in the ramp up to the unveiling, according to Reuters’ sources.

How many phones amounts to a sufficient number at launch anyway? I have no idea, nor does Reuters, but the news site defangs the issue somewhat by pointing out that its sources indicated the “hiccup” may or may not make it harder for you to get one of the new phones at launch or delay the phones outright. Thus we’re left to mull the possibility that there could be a launch availability problem, but with absolutely no idea of its magnitude, on a scale that runs from “catastrophic” to “irrelevant.”

Short of actually delaying the debut, which seems unlikely at this point–rumors of a September 9 event bubbled up just a few weeks ago, well after the June/July timeframe referred to in the Reuters piece–it’s unlikely we’ll know whether this story impacted the phones’ arrival. Availability issues have been a major part of every new iPhone launch, and a certain amount of scarcity–so long as Apple’s able to ramp up production to meet or surpass its fiscal projections in the long run–isn’t the worst problem to have. Sony’s PlayStation 4, for instance, which Sony claims was plagued by supply issues from launch, has gone on to sell 10 million units worldwide, a record-breaking figure even Sony can’t explain.

TIME Video Games

Star Wars: Commander Is Slow-Going Unless You Pay Up

All of the game's content is available for free--so long as you're willing to wait for it.

+ READ ARTICLE

Disney’s new freemium real-time strategy game Star Wars: Commander just arrived on Apple’s App Store in the U.S. as a time-limited exclusive for iOS devices (there’s an Android version coming shortly).

Don’t confuse it with Star Wars: Force Commander, another real-time strategy game released back in 2000 for Windows by now-Disney-owned studio LucasArts. It was a mess of a game–one of several failed attempts to give players a thoughtful, strategic window into the iconic Star Wars universe. To this day, no one’s succeeded.

So Commander is interesting because it’s the closest thing we’ve had to a thoughtful, strategy-minded Star Wars game–boardgames notwithstanding–in years. The only downer: it’s a free-to-play-slow, pay-to-play-faster game.

I’ve been noodling with it this morning, and it’s your garden variety real-time strategy game: kit out a base, build and upgrade structures, then deploy troops to slug it out in Star Wars-ian locales. After stepping through a few tutorial exercises that illustrate where to tap to buy things and how to tap to deploy units in combat, you’re allowed to throw in with either the Rebellion or the Empire, the difference between the two a matter of campaign storyline and playable unit types. Choose the Empire and you can trot out AT-ATs and Tie Fighters. Favor the Rebellion and you’ll have access to individuals like Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia.

Underlying the economy are crystals, credits and alloy. Refineries and credit markets produce alloy and credits respectively. You purchase structures and units with the latter two, though these accrue at ridiculously slow speeds (as in “go-do-something-else-for-several-hours” slow), and which you have to harvest manually by tapping on the producing structures. Automation is apparently beyond warring factions with ultra-high-tech weaponry, but then that’s how the developers get you to pay attention to just how little your factories are generating at a given interval.

If you want to speed things up, you can pay real money for greenish “crystals” at price intervals of $100, $50, $20, $10 or $5, which in turn let you buy oodles of credits or alloy, as well as pay for protection (presumably against hostile incursions by other players, since the game also supports PvP battles). Fairly warned: if you dislike freemium games that lock most of their gameplay behind punitively slow resource generation clocks, you’re not going to like Commander at all.

What makes it feel like a Star Wars game? The retro gliding yellow-letter intro, of course. The character likenesses, with voice work not by the original actors but plausible analogues. Mostly John William’s unforgettable musical motifs, with signature flourishes from flutes, french horns and trumpets ebbing or swelling in the background obligingly. If you want some insight into the nerd-lore propping up the game’s logistics, GamesBeat interviewed one of the game’s producers about that (preview: it sounds like the Rebels are scavenging Clone Wars tech).

But since Star Wars was never about the battlefield minutia or the specifics of this or that piece of Separatist technology, it does start to feel a little like a generic real-time strategy template overlaid with a Star Wars-ian one. On the other hand, that sums up most Star Wars games: vanilla ice cream with dollops of Star Wars sauce. It’s also clearly Disney spooling up its Star Wars turbolaser in advance of Star Wars: Rebels, its animated Clone Wars TV series followup set half a decade before the events of the original Star Wars movie.

I should caution that Commander has launch quirks, in particular one where I minimized the game, then reloaded it, only to have it claim I’d launched a second instance on a second device, thus squelching the first one (in general, the game seems to hate minimization). It’s also arguably a poor fit, visually speaking, for a 4-inch iPhone: while you can zoom on the maps, the interface panels and text are just too small to use comfortably (like 22Cans’ Godus, Commander probably should have been tablet-only). Assuming Apple’s next iPhone has a significantly bigger screen, I’d reconsider that position. Barring that, I wouldn’t bother unless you have at least an iPad Mini.

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