TIME Innovation

Microsoft Is Getting Close to Perfecting a Universal Communicator

Some 40,000 people are using software program Skype Translator in hopes of achieving real-time translation

Gurdeep Pall was confident Skype’s automatic translation program would work. But as Microsoft’s corporate vice president in charge of Skype prepared to hold the first public demonstration of the program last May, Pall found himself worrying about the room itself. “Any sound that goes into the microphone, you basically have logic running trying to figure out what the sound said,” he says. “You can have feedback or you can have somebody coughing faraway that the mic picked up, somebody shifting far away, the squeak from their foot.”

Pall’s anxiety was for naught. An audience of several hundred reporters and industry insiders watched on as Pall and a native German speaker held a nearly flawless conversation through the company’s prototype of Skype Translator. Roughly a second after Pall Spoke, subtitles in German and English appeared at the bottom of the screen, and a synthetic Siri-like voice read the words aloud to the German caller. The audience murmured in astonishment, but the program didn’t falter as it shot back a translation from German to English. Pall, on the other hand, was flustered as his jitters about the room metastasized to two presenters who were whispering to one another nearby throughout the demonstration. “I’m thinking, ‘Get out of here!’” Pall recalls, laughing.

Researchers working on automatic translation technology like this are familiar with this blend of hope and anxiety. The concept of a universal translator has long been a fixture of science fiction, not to mention a dream of inventors and linguists since long before computers existed. The granodiorite slab announcing the kingly reign of Ptolemy V in Egypt circa 196 BC, better known as the Rosetta Stone, might be considered an early stab at the idea. In the 1930s, two inventors filed patents for “mechanical dictionaries” promising to translate words in real time. And in more recent decades, firms ranging from NEC to Jibbigo have periodically tried to crack the problem. But as practical reality, the idea has been perennially delayed.

Now, advances in so-called machine learning—computer programs that can essentially self-teach with enough exposure to spoken language—hope for a universal translator is increasingly replacing anxiety. What has changed from previous generations is that the underlying technology thrives through use, trial and error, recorded and reviewed, ad nasueam. The current crop of translation software gets smarter, researchers and programmers say, the more it absorbs. “The more data you have, the better you’re going to do,” explains Lane Schwartz, a linguistics professor at the University of Illinois.

Which is why Microsoft released a preview version of Skype Translator to a limited number of users last December. (The Redmond, Washington-based tech giant bought Skype for $8.5 billion in 2011.) The program is expected to reach a major milestone near the end of March. Late last year, Google announced its translation app for text would include a “conversation mode” for the spoken word. Baidu, the so-called Google of China, has had a similar feature available in its home market for several years. And the forthcoming release of the Apple Watch, a powerful computer with echoes of Dick Tracey’s famous wrist wear, has some speculating that near-instant translation might be the nascent wearables market’s killer app.

That leaves a handful of search giants—Microsoft, Google and Baidu—racing to fine-tune the technology. Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist likens what’s coming next to the space race. “It doesn’t work if you have a giant engine and only a little fuel,” he says. “It doesn’t work if you have a lot of fuel and a small engine.” The few companies that can combine the two, however, may blast ahead.

So Many Fails

There’s no shortage of false summits in the history of translation. Cold War footage from 1954 captured one of the earliest machine translators in action. One of the lead researchers predicted that legions of these machines might be used to monitor the entirety of Soviet communications “within perhaps 5 years.” The demonstration helped generate a surge of government funding, totalling $3 million in 1958, or $24 million in present-day dollars.

But by the 1960s, the bubble had burst. The government convened a panel of scientific experts to survey the quality of machine translations. They returned with an unsparing critique. Early translations were “deceptively encouraging,” the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee wrote in a 1966 report. Automatic translation, the panel concluded, “serves no useful purpose without postediting, and that with postediting the overall process is slow and probably uneconomical.”

Funding for machine translation was drastically curtailed in the wake of the report. It would be the first of several boom and bust cycles to buffet the research community. To this day, researchers are loath to predict how far they can advance the field. “There is no magic,” says Chris Wendt, who has been working on machine translation at Microsoft Research for nearly a decade. But he admits that the latest improvements resulting from artificial intelligence can, at times, be mystifying. “There are things that you don’t have an explanation for why it works,” he says.

Wendt works out of Building 99, Microsoft’s research hub on the western edge of its Redmond campus. The building’s central atrium is wrapped by four floors of glass-walled conference rooms, where Microsoft engineers and researchers can be seen working on pretty much any project they please. The open-ended aspect of their work is a point of pride enshrined in the lab’s mission statement. “It states, first and foremost, that our goal as an institution is to move the state of the art forward,” said Rick Rashid in 2011, twenty years after he launched the lab, according to a Microsoft blog post celebrating the milestone. “It doesn’t matter what part of the state of the art we’re moving forward, and it doesn’t say anything in that first part of the mission statement about Microsoft.”

In other words, if Microsoft’s researchers want to tinker with strange and unproven technologies, say motion-sensing cameras or holographic projectors, nobody is likely to stop them. In the mid-2000’s, there were few technologies quite as strange and unproven as “deep neural networks,” algorithms that can parse through millions of spoken words and spot the underlying sound patterns. Say, “pig,” for instance, and the algorithm will identify the unique sound curve of the letter “p.” Expose it to more “p” words and the shape of that curve becomes more refined. Before long, the algorithm can detect a “p” sound across multiple languages, and exposure to those languages further attunes its senses. “P” words in German (prozent) improves its detection of “p” words in English (percent).

Those same lessons, it turns out, apply to volume, pitch or accents. A lilt at the end of the sentence may indicate that the speaker has asked a question. It may also indicate that the speaker talks like a Valley girl. Expose the deep learning algorithm to a range of voices, however, and it may begin to notice the difference. This profusion of voices, which used to overwhelm supercomputers, now improves their performance. “Add training data that is not perfect, like people speaking in a French accent, and it does not degrade overall quality for people speaking without a French accent,” says Wendt.

The results of deep neural network research in language applications stunned Microsoft’s research team in 2011. Error rates in transcription, for instance, plummeted by 50%—from one out of every four words to one out of eight. Until then, the misunderstood word was one of the most persistent and insurmountable obstacles to machine translation. “The system cannot recover from that because it takes that word at face value and translates it,” explains Wendt. “Employing deep learning on the speech recognition part brought the error rate low enough to attempt translation.”

Speaking into Skype Translator, the commercial face of all of Microsoft’s linguistic research, shows how far things have come. The sound of your voice zips into Microsoft’s cloud of servers, where it is parsed by a panoply of software developed by the company. The team that developed those green squiggly lines under grammatical errors in Word documents laid the groundwork for automatic punctuation, for example. The team that created Microsoft’s translation app, which is currently used to translate posts on Facebook and Yelp, provided the engine for text translation. The team that developed the voice for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated personal assistant similar to Apple’s Siri, helped develop the voice for Skype.

When Microsoft’s researchers debuted a prototype of Skype Translator at the company’s version of an annual science fair, they enclosed it in a cardboard telephone booth, modeled after the time-traveling machine from the Dr. Who television series. Co-founder Bill Gates stepped inside and phoned a Spanish speaker in Argentina. The speaker had been warned that when the caller said, “Hi, it’s Bill Gates,” it wasn’t a joke. It really would be Bill Gates. What did Gates say? Pretty much what everyone says at first, according to the team: “Hi. How are you? Where are you?”

My Turn

I posed the same questions to Karin, a professional translator hired for a hands-on demonstration at Microsoft’s Building 99. She answered in Spanish, and paused as Skype’s digital interpreter read a translated reply: “Hello, nice to meet you. Now I’m in Slovakia.”

The program has the basic niceties of conversation down cold, and for a moment, the Star Trek fantasy of a “universal translator” seemed tantalizingly within reach. But then a few hiccups emerged as the conversation progressed. Her reason for visiting New York was intelligible, but awkwardly phrased: “I want to meet all of New York City and I want to attach it with a concert of a group I like,” from which I gathered that she wanted to see a concert during her visit. I asked her if the program often faltered in her experience. “In the beginning,” came the translated reply, “but each time it gets better. It’s like one child first. There were things not translated, but now he’s a teenager and knows a lot of words.”

With some 40,000 people signed up to use Skype Translator, it has been getting a crash course in the art of conversation, and those words could work wonders on its error rates. An odd quirk of machine translation systems is that they tend to excel at translating European Union parliamentary proceedings. For a long time the EU produced some of the best training data out there: a raft of speeches professionally translated into dozens of languages.

But Microsoft is rapidly accumulating its own record of casual conversations. Users of the preview version are informed that their utterances may be recorded and stored in an anonymous, shuffled pile that makes it impossible to trace the words back to their source, Microsoft stresses. The team expects the error rate to drop continuously as Skype Translator absorbs slang, proper names and idioms into its system. Few companies can tap such a massive corpus of spoken words. “Microsoft is in a good position,” says Wendt. “Google is also in a good position. Then there’s a big gap between us and everyone else.”

For now, the Skype team is focused on adding users and driving down error rates, with the long-run goal of releasing instant translation as a standard feature for Skype’s 300 milllion users. “Translation is something we believe ought to be available to everybody for free,” says Pall.

That raises an awkward question for professional translators like Karin. “Do you feel threatened by Skype Translator,” I asked her through the program. “Not yet,” was her translated reply, read aloud by her fast-developing, free digital rival.

Read next: Here’s Why Microsoft Is Giving Pirates the Next Windows for Free

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Drones

Drones Help Find Stray Dogs in Texas

Drones Texas Tests
Eric Gay—AP A test drone with a wing span of almost 13 feet flies over a ranch near Sarita, Texas, Jan. 15, 2014.

It's for a TV show

We all know about drones and their more dangerous missions – flying in war zones, crashing onto the White House lawn. But now they’re being used in Texas for a gentler reason: to find stray dogs.

The World Animal Awareness Society (WA2S) is filming a new television show called “Operation Houston: Stray Dog City,” USA Today reports, to examine the stray dog problem in Houston and profile the people trying to save the animals.

That’s where the drones come in. Tom McPhee, executive director of WA2S, said the drones will “draw a big circle in the air” while volunteers and GPS technology work on the ground, and that combination will help them count all the stray dogs in the Houston area.

“It’s another amazing tool,” McPhee said of drones.

[USA Today]

TIME Autos

How Silicon Valley Suddenly Fell in Love With Cars

Tesla Model S.
Tesla Tesla's battery makes it cleaner than gas-guzzling alternatives—but think about what else it's made of.

The last great remaining American preoccupation tech hasn't yet tackled is the automobile. That's about to change

“The American really loves nothing but his automobile,” Gavin Stevens says in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. “Because the automobile has become our national sex symbol.” Given that longtime infatuation, you’d think Silicon Valley’s tech companies would have been eager to get into the auto industry before now. Instead, many are surprised that it’s happening at all.

Ever since the personal computer became mainstream, Silicon Valley has been inventing or reinventing new gadgets: the music player, the phone, the computer itself, first as a portable, now as a tablet. Amazon remade the shopping mall and put it on a screen. Netflix and YouTube subverted the TV set, and now Google’s Nest is going after other household appliances. This year, Apple is reworking the wristwatch, casting tech as jewelry.

The last great remaining American preoccupation that tech hasn’t yet tackled is the automobile. Much of this has to do with logistics–selling phones or music players is child’s play next to the expensive, highly regulated business of manufacturing cars–but there’s also a historical mindset at work. Detroit, with its combustion engines and metallic gears, was the epitome of an analog era that Silicon Valley displaced. The car was an anachronism, however beloved.

No longer. Google has been working on self-driving cars for a number of years. Uber has started looking into them as well. Now, according to the ever-churning Apple rumor mill, the Cupertino giant is working on a stealth car project. For tech companies, the automobile has gone from a super-sized docket to park a smartphone while you drive to a gadget that can be reimagined from the ground up with digital technology.

The sudden shift is happening for a few reasons. First, with PCs, tablets and smartphone markets close to saturation, tech giants are looking for new markets to invade with their innovations. Second, the car market seems ripe for a makeover. American automakers like GM may be reviving post-financial crisis, but the U.S. looks to have reached “peak driving:” Annual miles driven per person is down 9% from 1995, and even more among young drivers.

But the biggest single reason tech suddenly loves the car is Tesla. The company founded by Elon Musk in 2003 to make electric cars has become much more: It has fused the automaker with the tech company, and not only built a cultural bridge between Detroit and Silicon Valley but showed that both were converging toward each other.

Tesla was a wake-up call to automakers that had grown complacent about innovation. It showed that technology was a powerful way to differentiate a particular model from the herd, and that if automakers wanted to reach out to younger consumers, they should embrace the kinds of technology they enjoy. Soon, you began to hear auto executives talk about “smarter cars” and roadways as “connected networks” structured like the Internet (15 years ago, that simile ran mostly in the opposite direction).

Read more: How Apple Is Invading Our Bodies

Google CEO Larry Page has said his interest in driverless cars stems from the inefficiency of roadways, which not only cost lives but waste worker time in traffic jams. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that driverless cars could offer commuters more opportunity to look at Google ads.) Uber is also researching self-driving cars to lower costs for its passenger service as well as a planned delivery service.

The loudest buzz surrounds Project Titan, a rumored Apple car that in reality could be pretty much anything: an electric vehicle, a leased minivan, a driverless car, a ploy to acquire Tesla, a bluff to pressure automakers into putting its CarPlay software in their vehicles, or a clever Apple hoax trolling Apple rumor-mongers. Wall Street analysts, though, think an Apple car is the likely bet, and if so the marriage of Detroit and Silicon Valley is a matter of time.

If nothing else, Apple’s rumored entry into automobiles seems to have turned up the heat. Last week, Musk said Tesla would start offering “autopilot” technology in its cars this summer. Google said its more ambitious driverless-car system would be ready for broad consumption in five years.

But the dark-horse in this new race may be Samsung, which according to Thomson Reuters has “has the largest and broadest collection of patents in the automotive field including a very large interest in batteries and fuel cells for next generation vehicles.” If automobile technology boils down to a patent race, Samsung may end up having an edge. Samsung even has some history in car manufacturing.

The end goal of these tech aspirations in the automotive industry may well be partnerships with established manufacturers. After all, what company is dying to break into a low-margin heavy industry? Many auto executives scoff at the idea that jumping from smartphones to cars is good idea. They may be surprised. Cars are just another form of technology, albeit one in need of an upgrade. And who is better positioned to upgrade them Apple or Google?

TIME apps

You Asked: How Can My Phone Help Me Split the Bill?

TIME.com stock photos Money Dollar Bills
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Plenty of apps can make it easier to send money from one person to another

Whether it’s splitting a tab, paying someone back for a few rounds at the bar, or negotiating six months of electricity bill back payments with your roommates, there isn’t always an easy way to square away your debts with friends. You never want to be that person who breaks out the checkbook at dinner.

But you’re in luck: There are plenty of great digital payment apps that can make your life a lot easier.

The most obvious choice for the job is the PayPal app. Once you sign in to your PayPal account, you can link your card or bank account when prompted. If you want to add a second card, you’ll find the option to do so on the app’s home page. In order to transfer funds to a friend’s account, select the option on the bottom left of the app that says “Send.” If your friend also uses PayPal, you send money using their email address.

However, PayPal knocks you with a 2.9% fee for sending money via a credit or debit card account instead of sending from a PayPal account to a PayPal account. To avoid that fee, check out Venmo, an increasing popular mobile payment app that doesn’t knock you with a fee if you link it with a debit card (using a credit card involves a 3% fee).

When you first open Venmo, you’ll be prompted to enter your bank info — stick with a debit card to avoid that fee. If you give Venmo access to your Facebook friends list, you’ll be able to select from a list of your friends already using Venmo, thanks to integration with Facebook’s social graph. You can also search for people on Venmo who aren’t already your Facebook friends by clicking the new transaction button—the upper rightmost gray button—and then typing a name.

Once you have selected your recipient, you’ll be prompted with a number pad on which you’ll be able to decide how much to transfer. Venmo also lets you request payments from people — say, that roommate who still hasn’t doled out his share of last night’s Thai delivery order. If you have somebody you really trust, like a significant other, you can let them take money from you without asking — sort of like having a joint bank account — but that’s probably not the smartest thing to do with casual friends.

Venmo keeps money you receive in a separate account; you can either hang on to that cash to use via Venmo or “cash out” and have it hit your regular bank account in 24 hours.

It’s worth noting here that Venmo recently had a security scare, but it’s taking steps to address those issues. There are other cash-sending alternatives, too: Mobile messaging app Snapchat recently added “Snapcash,” a payment feature that integrates with Square, while Facebook is rolling out a payment option in its Messenger app as well. Which app you use ultimately depends on which ones most of your friends or roommates are using and which one you feel most comfortable linking to your bank accounts.

TIME 2016 Election

Ted Cruz Doesn’t Own TedCruz.Com

Ted Cruz Announcement
Tom Williams — Roll Call/Getty Images Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during a convocation at Liberty University's Vines Center in Lynchburg, Va., where he announced his candidacy for president on March 23, 2015.

An Obama supporter does

Sen. Ted Cruz may have been the first Republican to declare his candidacy for the 2016 presidential race, but he appears to have missed the boat on purchasing a web domain featuring his own name.

Instead, web users landing at tedcruz.com see only two phrases: “Support President Obama” and “Immigration Reform Now!”

With the .com domain out of the picture, the Texas senator has officially settled with tedcruz.org, instead.

TIME Video Games

Bloodborne’s 10 Quirkiest Ideas So Far

From Software's PlayStation 4 exclusive does just enough to walk the studio's unique action-roleplaying ideas forward, but it could have done more

That I’m nowhere near finished with Bloodborne says as much about From Software’s PlayStation 4 lycanthrope-mauler as anything. I’ve had the game since late last week and clocked at least 40 hours through Monday night — just shy of what some claim it takes to beat the game. I’m still working through the first few areas. Chalk my sluggishness up to being a slower, more methodical player.

But it’s also because Bloodborne carries forward the Souls’ series back-breaking pedigree: this is a game about pushing the proverbial ball up something more like a mountain, millimeter by grueling millimeter, looking for meaningful perspective on your progress. From Software’s great triumph as a studio — and Bloodborne epitomizes this — is in making that feel like something you want to do, not that you have to.

Here’s what I think of Bloodborne so far, absent the multiplayer angle, which I’m waiting to futz with until the game’s launch tomorrow, March 23.

The new “regain” system changes everything

From Software’s entire developmental oeuvre trades on simplistic sounding gameplay ideas that wind up having monumental depth. To wit, in Bloodborne the studio’s added what it calls a “regain” system to combat.

It sounds trivial: after an enemy damages you, you have a few crucial seconds to strike back and, if you connect without taking further damage, replenish your flagging health bar. They hit, you hit. On paper, it’s as nuanced as a pugilism seminar.

But Bloodborne packs its Grand Guignol zoo with deft, spontaneous enemies who make it incredibly difficult to land reciprocal blows before the regain timer runs out and the damage to your health bar becomes permanent. Regain is thus another dare (in a game about daring), goading you to act recklessly, to make split-second tactical choices that, if you’re not thoroughly versed in an enemy’s attack patterns, often result in your taking even more damage.

Multiply by the barrage of new enemy types, each with unique attacks, and how you dispatch them — the crux of these games, requiring methodical thought — is easily the most nuanced of any of the prior Souls installments.

So does the game’s loot-hunt twist

The Souls games are basically risk-reward abattoirs wrapped around hack-and-slash chutes. You haul around souls (the games’ version of cash), but drop them if you die, after which you have just one shot to bash your way back to the spot you croaked and reclaim your booty. Die before you get there, and those dropped goods vanish forever, forfeiting all your hard work to that point.

Bloodborne continues in the same vein (instead of souls, it calls your cha-chings from enemy kills “blood echoes”), but with a fascinating wrinkle: now, if you die in the vicinity of enemies, they can snatch up your lost treasure and go for a stroll.

Return to the spot of your demise, and you’ll often find it bare. Instead, you have to scan nearby enemies until you identify one with glowing eyes — the telltale sign it’s the creature schlepping your goods. And the only way to retrieve them is to defeat the creature in combat. Suffice to say I’ve lost a lot of hard-earned moola overzealously rushing blood echoes thieves flanked by lethal helpers. (Woe to anyone who loses their trove in battle with a deadly mini-boss, and has to fight it to get their blood echoes back.)

From Software

It’s all about crowd control

The Souls games generally involve engaging enemies one and sometimes two at a time. Bloodborne by contrast opens the battlefield up to whole squadrons of horrors, each creature bristling with different weapons, hit ranges and attack sequencing, making them pretty much phalanxes of anarchic insanity.

Figuring out how to break down a crowd, maybe by luring away one or two enemies at a time (you can toss pebbles, Shadow of Mordor-like), is thus as crucial as leveraging the game’s new arsenal of crowd control weapons. If you’re into observation-related strategizing, and I am, Bloodborne forces you to pause and study groups of enemies before engaging them far more than in From Software’s prior games.

You can scan enemies from a distance — and you’ll need to

Demon’s Souls and both of the Dark Souls games opened on vast panoramas, but blurred their beautifully bleak far-off scenery for technical reasons. Bloodborne makes no such compromises, spotlighting ever exquisite distant detail of its Boschian nightmare-scapes, allowing you to eyeball enemy mobs (and their shambling trajectories) from several stories up, so you can plot your approach vectors accordingly.

It’s the apotheosis of From Software’s ultra-creepy visual aesthetic

I’ve loved the bleak, convoluted, almost Peake-ian feel of the Souls games for years, but Bloodborne ratchets that up another order of magnitude. In the starter areas, you’ll prowl gorgeously macabre coffin-choked cobblestone streets, observing flamboyant gothic tableaus framed by cathedral structures with coruscating stained glass windows and knuckled spires, while a fat, apocalyptic star baptizes the landscape like something out of a Jack Vance yarn.

I imagine you’re going to see the adjective “Lovecraftian” slung around a lot here, and fair enough, since he’s clearly an influence. But after reading Jeff Vandermeer’s hypnotically weird Southern Reach trilogy last year (if you’ve read it, I’m thinking specifically of the tunnel/Crawler sequences), I have a new word to describe how these games work on me: Vandermeerian.

From Software

Access points are just access points (again)

Dispensing with Dark Souls’ “campfires-make-it-all-better” approach to vitality replenishment, where you could heal by tagging the nearest bonfire, Bloodborne’s lantern-lit checkpoints are simply I/O ports to and from the game’s safe hub (that is, they’re more like Demon’s Souls’ bonfires). If you want to heal, you instead have to quaff blood flasks swiped from defeated enemies.

The only problem: so far, those blood flasks are pretty easy to come by. You can carry up to 20 on your person off the bat, and store another 100 in the safe hub (they’re a lucrative business, too: I’ve probably sold half as many as I’ve gulped). I have yet to run short of flasks during the toughest boss battles, where when I’ve died, it’s because I didn’t drink them fast enough.

And the levels cross-connect in fascinating ways

I’m not sure we’ll ever see an open-world From Software game (or that we’d even want to), nor is Bloodborne in so much as the same hemisphere as those sorts of games. But the levels I’ve plumbed are far more intertwined, and in cleverly concealed ways, offering, among other things, the option to take on certain bosses out of sequence. If you enjoy hunting for secret avenues or byways, some that lead to secret items, others that open up shortcuts or ways of cutting ahead, Bloodborne is flush with them.

But some of the boss fights are too pattern-enslaved

Maybe this changes further along, but all the end-area creatures I’ve battled have been tediously bipolar: you’re either destroyed quickly for lack of pattern recognition, or winning almost effortlessly once you’ve sussed the latter.

The most interesting thing about Bloodborne (so far, for me) is the crowd-control dynamic that coalesces spontaneously in the midst of a level, defying rote approaches. The boss fights, by contrast, come off too much like the same old static puzzles: once you’ve solved for X, you’re just going through the motions.

From Software

It really is Dark Souls with shotguns (but they’re not the main attraction)

That’s what a Sony community manager called it. It sounds glib, but only because it misses Bloodborne’s real star: its transformable arsenal of melee weapons. Brandish the game’s cane, for instance, and you’ll execute a series of fast, nominally damaging hits at short range. But pull one of the gamepad’s triggers and, after rapping the cane on the cobblestones (transformations aren’t instantaneous), it’ll change into something Castlevania’s Simon Belmont would appreciate: a jangling whip that, while slower to strike, deals pain at much greater range and lets you tag entire swathes of enemies.

Projectile weapons, by contrast, are more adjuncts to your melee armory, used offhand to stun or drive back enemies before you launch the coup de grace from your main hand. They’re helpful, in other words, but only as blowback tools. There’s no ballistic finesse involved, and since the main action’s happening in your other hand, that’s as it should be.

The chalice dungeons are kind of boring

The idea with chalice dungeons is that you stumble on goblets in the main game, then perform a “chalice ritual” in the game’s safe zone to spawn mini-dungeons from random seeds, which you can then visit at leisure to practice or level up. Each time you perform the ritual, the layout of the dungeons — including creature placement, trap arrangements and boss finales — gets rejiggered.

Random generated dungeons are already dull by design, but here they feel doubly so. After slogging through Bloodborne’s handcrafted main levels hundreds (and eventually thousands) of times, who wants to plow through haphazardly computer-built ones?

As an alternative to grinding out the same choreographed battle maneuvers in the primary areas to level up, introducing optional mini-dungeons isn’t a terrible idea. And the way the game mashes up enemy types and difficulty levels makes for a curiously asymmetric (and in that sense, unique) experience. But so far, they’re too arbitrary to hold my interest, though perhaps that’ll change once I’ve had a chance to try them in cooperative or player-vs.-player modes.

TIME

UN Women Breaks Off Partnership with Uber

Just weeks after they announced partnership to create 1 million jobs for women

UN Women has cancelled a partnership with Uber that aimed to create jobs for women at the company after objections were raised about Uber’s safety record with women and treatment of its drivers.

On March 10th, UN Women and Uber announced a partnership to create one million Uber jobs for women by 2020, as part of their endeavor to increase economic empowerment for women around the world. But on March 12th, the International Transport Federation published a letter criticizing the partnership, noting that Uber drivers often lack basic job protections like minimum wage and health care. “Women already make up a high percentage of the precarious workforce, and increasing informal, piecemeal work contributes significantly to women’s economic dis-empowerment and marginalization across the globe,” the ITF wrote. Uber jobs, they said, would “not contribute to women’s economic empowerment and represents exactly the type of structural inequality within the labor market that the women’s movement has been fighting for decades.”

So in a speech last week, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka quietly cancelled the partnership. “Not only are we listening, we are aligned,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “I also want to assure you that UN Women will not accept an offer to collaborate on job creation with Uber, so you can rest assured about that.” (UN Women is the branch of the United Nations that works to empower women and girls and to end gender discrimination.)

[H/T Buzzfeed]

TIME Social Media

You Can Now Put Your Exact Location in Tweets

TIME.com stock photos Social Apps iPhone Twitter
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley views success as getting his product into the hands of hundreds of millions of users

Twitter on Monday announced that it has partnered with Foursquare, a startup focused on local business recommendations, to allow users to include their location in Tweets. Rather than a simple geographic location—e.g. “New York”—Foursquare’s data, which gathers information on venues from billions of user-generated check-ins, is more specific and contextual, e.g. “Time-Life Building.”

Beyond the product implications for Twitter, this deal highlights an aspect of Foursquare that the company is eager to tout: Namely, that Foursquare is sitting on a mountain of data that is valuable enough for a social media giant like Twitter to pay for it.

“The Foursquare platform is a pretty fast-growing SaaS business compared to the other new SaaS businesses we’re invested in,” says Ben Horowitz, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz and board member of Foursquare, using the acronym for software as a service. “To build [Foursquare’s data business] from nothing would be exceptionally difficult.”

Questions have swirled for years about the fate of Foursquare, a beloved New York startup that many believe fell victim to the hype cycle. With $121.4 million in venture backing (and $41 million in debt) but waning popularitywith users, the company has spent the last chapter of its life fighting the impression that it is struggling. Last fall, the company made its biggest bet yet: It split its namesake app into two. Swarm, a new app, is for checking in and sharing your location with friends. The existing Foursquare app is now solely for recommending restaurants and other venues based on your preferences and location.

Foursquare is now working to tell the story of the data it has gleaned from seven billion check-ins at 65 million places. (It also has 70 million user-generated tips and 90 million “tastes.”) More than 85,000 developers have built products using Foursquare’s data. As of last year, most of those developers pay to access the data; that business is poised to make up a third of Foursquare’s revenue this year. The majority of the company’s revenue comes from advertising products. Dennis Crowley, Foursquare’s chief executive, said the company has “more than doubled” its revenue growth each year for the last three years.

The social media data business is a tricky one; many hopeful startups have excitedly gathered data from Tweets and status updates and Likes but struggled to figure out a compelling business use for it. Foursquare is different, Horowitz tells Fortune, because its data contains context and insights around a user’s preferences. “You can’t collect a bunch of data and sell it to people and have that be a business,” he says. “What you can do that can be valuable as a business is collect a lot of data and through some kind of very smart thinking and software, gain valuable insights out of the data.”

Foursquare’s data partners include prominent social networks such as Google’s Waze, Yahoo’s Flickr, Twitter’s Vine, and Pinterest, and mobile systems like Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to Siri. Waze is particularly notable because the company is owned by Google, which collects its own location data through Google Maps. Waze chose Foursquare because of its ability to provide strong recommendations. Still, Foursquare has competition. Last year, Instagram switched from using Foursquare’s location data to using Facebook’s equivalent.

Despite challenges, Crowley has remained focused on his vision of personalized local search and recommendations. That’s what makes the Foursquare story so compelling. Crowley has done things that might look crazy—turning down sizable acquisition offers and putting off life milestones (as articulated by a feature story in Fast Company)—to build his vision. He’s even built the same company twice. (The first iteration, Dodgeball, sold to Google and was eventually shut down.)

Horowitz believes Foursquare can be a startup unicorn, the term for a private company valued at more than $1 billion. “They’re not a billion-dollar company yet. But I think they’ve got a lot of ways to get there,” he tellsFortune. (For a look at of today’s unicorns, see Fortune‘s Unicorn List.)

Crowley views success as getting his product into the hands of hundreds of millions of users, he says, admitting that that’s a huge challenge. The company has 55 million registered users. It won’t disclose how many of those are active, except to say that last year’s app split send one third of active users to Swarm and one third to Foursquare, with one third using both. Crowley notes that Foursquare can be a success without that many users. “Local search monetizes so well, we can be a successful company with a fraction of the users that Twitter and Facebook has,” he says.

His vision includes Foursquare-powered recommendations and location data in many different use cases. “The future of mobile experiences is this proactive element—teaching people stuff about the world without them having to ask,” Crowley says. “I think we’re ahead of that trend and we’re going to end to powering it for a lot of these players.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.


TIME the big picture

Apple Is About To Change the Watch Industry Forever

Apple Inc. Reveals Bigger-Screen iPhones Alongside Wearables
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The Apple Watch is displayed after a product announcement at Flint Center in Cupertino, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014.

Luxury watchmakers won't be able to keep up with what's about to happen

Apple has already disrupted the computer, phone and music industries — and now it’s poised to change the watch industry forever, too.

I’ve had a great interest in watches since my grandmother gave me a Hop Along Cassidy for my fifth birthday. Almost all of my watches have been cheap but functional, save a TAG Heuer I bought for $700 on a trip to Switzerland in the late 1980s. That’s still the most expensive watch I’ve ever owned, and today it holds great sentimental value even though I broke it playing golf a few years ago.

Before whipping out my credit card to spend a fortune on that Swiss watch, though, I worked at a Mountain View, California company that made some of the first LED watches in the 1970s. Those devices preceded the birth of digital timepieces, which posed a significant threat to traditional watchmakers: By the early 1980s, the market was flooded with cheap digital watches coming from Asia, forcing some European watchmakers to join the digital era. But there was much resistance, and even today brands like Rolex, Breitling and TAG Heuer make analog watches that appeal to the upper crust — evidence there will always be a demand for high-end watches purchased for their style over their utility.

When Apple introduced the Apple Watch last fall, I started asking people in the high-end watch world if they viewed the device as a threat. Surprisingly, many told me that the Apple Watch could very well redefine what a “watch” is and does. The same people pointed out that high-end watch brands are already responding to the Apple Watch before it even hits store shelves, moves evidenced by TAG Heuer’s announcement it’s making a smartwatch along with Google and Intel.

The Apple Watch won’t force high-end watchmakers to change course entirely, as the jewelry aspect of their business will always have appeal and lasting value. But talking to those in the watch world gave me a real sense that the Apple Watch is a game-changer. When digital watches flooded the scene, they were easily copied, explaining why the 1980s-era transition from analog to digital happened so fast. But Apple’s approach — they own the hardware, software and services — will be nearly impossible for watchmakers to replicate. Devices like the TAG Heuer/Google watch that run Android Wear will continue to try to compete, but from what I’ve seen from Apple, the Cupertino giant could have an edge for at least a year or two, if not more.

What Apple is ultimately bringing to the watch market is a redefinition of what a watch is — the watch folks use the term “wrist computer.” And because it’s a platform for apps, the Apple Watch can be many things to many people, not just an aviator’s watch or a diver’s watch. Traditional watchmakers understand this. While the basic concept of the watch won’t change, it’s clear that the Apple Watch, which analysts expect to sell between 22-24 million units in the first year on average, will cause a massive shift in the watch industry.

Tim Bajarin is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc and has been with the company since 1981, where he has served as a consultant providing analysis to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry.

TIME apps

Your Smartphone Could be Tracking You Every 3 Minutes, Study Says

TIME.com stock photos Social Apps iPhone
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Your apps want to know where you are

Smartphone apps regularly collect large amounts of data on users’ locations, sometimes as often as every three minutes, new research suggests.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study where they asked 23 people to use their Android smartphones normally, and tracked location data requests from each device with specially designed software, the Wall Street Journal reports. The researchers found that many popular Android apps tracked their users an average 6,200 times per participant over a two-week period, or about every three minutes.

The WSJ writes:

Even apps that provided useful location-based services often requested the device’s location far more frequently than would be necessary to provide that service, the researchers said. The Weather Channel, for example, which provides local weather reports, requested device location an average 2,000 times, or every 10 minutes, during the study period. Groupon, which necessarily gathers location data to offer local deals, requested one participant’s coordinates 1,062 times in two weeks.

Some of the apps came pre-installed on the phone, and were not as easily deleted, the WSJ reports. The researchers were also looking at whether users would benefit or appreciate software “nudges” that would alert them when sensitive data was being collected by their apps. The researchers found that the participants often changed settings when they learned that their apps were collecting information about them or their location.

The research will be presented at the CHI 2015 conference.

[WSJ]

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