TIME Video Games

The Best Minecraft Homage to BioShock Infinite Yet

If you stepped through a tear in space-time (like BioShock Infinite's Booker), you'd probably find a version of Mojang's game dubbed Homagecraft.

 

Minecraft renditions of BioShock Infinite‘s cloud-cruisin’ Columbia are a dime a dozen nowadays, but I’ve never seen one as embellished as this. Just look at the colors in that skybox, at the arcing sky rails, at the towering statuary, and at all the fussy little details like flower boxes beneath windows — and those windows with their exquisite tracery, and the way the designers used subtly different colors to block-texture the buildings and walkways.

Then check out the green vistas way way down below. You’re not supposed to be able to see all that, what with Columbia being a cloud-hidden city and all, but it works here. In fact it’s all the more impressive knowing this block-homage to Irrational Games’ metaphysical opus actually lives up in the air, somewhere.

That somewhere would be The VoxelBox, a free-build, creativity-focused community with its own Minecraft texture and mod packs whose members attempt to craft ridiculously ornate homages to various worlds — or entirely new ones from scratch. The community’s server doesn’t support survival or PvP play, and the FAQ notesthere are only very rarely any monsters, and it’s nearly impossible to die.” Which explains how you wind up with the bandwidth to create something as ambitious as this.

You can see all of the images stacked on imgur here.

[VG247]

TIME Media

YouTube Is Gunning Hard for New Advertisers

2014 may well be remembered as the year YouTube got serious about courting advertisers. The video-sharing network is rolling out a bevy of new features this month in an effort to make its ad offerings more similar to television and lure lucrative marketing dollars from traditional media.

At its NewFronts presentation to advertisers in New York, YouTube formally announced a new ad program called Google Preferred, which will allow marketers to buy ads against the top 5% of YouTube content across various verticals such as food, fashion and comedy. The move is an attempt to create media scarcity on a platform that adds 100 hours of new video content every minute, and to allow marketers to show their commercials alongside premium content rather than cat videos. “It’s a limited set of the most popular, engaging and fast growing channels on our platform,” Margo Georgiadis, Google’s vice president of sales in the Americas, said at the event. Johnson & Johnson and Heineken have already signed up for the program, as has the ad agency DigitasLBI.

YouTube also announced that it will now offer audience guarantees to advertisers, ensuring that their ads reach a certain percentage of their target demographic. The video platform is also partnering with Nielsen to offer viewership data more similar to television metrics. Advertisers had complained that YouTube’s internal data was not verified by a third party such as Nielsen.

Though YouTube was once seen as a repository for home videos, marketers have a growing amount of clout on the platform. Three of the top 10 most-watched YouTube videos of 2013 were ads, company CEO Susan Wojcicki said. “The advertisements aren’t just advertisements,” she said. “They’re also content.”

YouTube generated an estimated $5.6 billion in ad revenue in 2013, according to the research firm eMarketer.

 

TIME Deal talk

AT&T Mulls $40 Billion Merger With DirecTV

A view shows the AT&T store sign in Broomfield, Colorado
Rick Wilking / REUTERS

AT&T would love to own DirecTV's satellite-TV business. DirecTV wants to bolster its broadband position. The talks were reportedly prompted by Comcast's intention to buy Time Warner Cable, which already faces intense scrutiny from the Justice Department

Consolidation begets consolidation.

Telecom titan AT&T has reportedly reached out to satellite giant DirecTV about a possible merger that would reshape the TV business at a time of rapid change in the industry.

Such a deal would likely be valued at more than $40 billion — DirecTV’s current market value — and would be another example of the decades-long consolidation of the telecom and cable industries. U.S. broadband leader Comcast is currently trying to persuade regulators to let it buy Time Warner Cable in a $45 billion deal.

DirecTV would be open to a merger with AT&T, the Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday, citing a “person familiar with the situation.” Talks between the two companies have intensified since Comcast announced its intention to buy Time Warner Cable, the paper reported, though it cautioned that the talks may not yet be in an advanced stage.

Given the increasing consolidation in the broadband industry, an AT&T merger with DirecTV would make sense for both companies.

DirecTV has the second largest pay-TV subscriber base in the country but lacks a competitive broadband Internet offering of its own. AT&T is forging ahead with its own broadband plans but would love to get its hands on DirecTV’s satellite-TV business. And AT&T, which is currently worth $185 billion, could certainly afford the deal.

Comcast’s proposed tie-up with Time Warner Cable, its smaller rival, already faces intense scrutiny from the Justice Department over competition concerns, not to mention the Federal Communications Commission, which must ensure the deal advances the public interest. An AT&T merger with DirecTV would face equally intense scrutiny.

News of the AT&T interest in DirecTV comes as the cable industry is meeting for its annual conference in Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts made the case that the Time Warner Cable deal would be great for competition because it would strengthen Comcast’s position against the likes of AT&T and DirecTV.

TIME Technologizer

Facebook Wants to Do to Mobile Apps What It Did to the Web, and That’s O.K.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg compares the Facebook platform for mobile developers to iOS, Android and Windows Phone at the f8 conference in San Francisco on April 30, 2014 Erin Lubin -- Bloomberg / Getty Images

The most striking thing about the keynote at Facebook’s f8 conference in San Francisco was something that only became apparent after it was over: Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives spent an hour on stage talking about new stuff, and none of it was about Facebook.

Or at least not if you define Facebook as being the social-networking site and app of the same name.

Instead, all the news–and there was tons of it–related to features Facebook is rolling out to help mobile developers build more powerful apps and make more money from them.

A sampling of what got announced:

  • New features for signing into apps using Facebook will let you customize your privacy settings and log in anonymously;
  • AppLinks is a standard that lets mobile apps integrate with each other, so that one app can send you directly to a specific feature in another app, which can then route you back to a specific place in the original one;
  • The company is also offering technology to let mobile apps that normally need web access to store data locally on a device, thereby enabling them to work in offline mode;
  • There’s a new mobile Like button and tools that allow developers to let users share content with specific friends through Facebook Messenger;
  • The Facebook Audience Network will let apps display ads sold by Facebook, and allow marketers to target their ads using information Facebook knows about users, much as already happens on Facebook itself.

Zuckerberg described the company’s vision as offering a “cross-platform platform,” competing in some respects with Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone without forcing developers to build apps for a specific mobile operating system.

It’s a logical extension of what the company has been doing for the majority of its existence: Providing web developers with features that (A) help them offer powerful features without having to build them; and (B) lash them tightly to Facebook, thereby making the web even more dependent on Mark Zuckerberg’s social network as the primary way to keep track of people and their identities.

At the keynote, Zuckerberg said that third-party sites and apps make almost a half-trillion calls to the Facebook API a day–each one representing an instance of Facebook powering something on a site or app other than Facebook itself. Making this infrastructure reliable is so important that he declared that the company has retired its famous mantra–”Move fast and break things”–and now wants to move fast while ensuring that it’s providing robust infrastructure for all the companies that depend on it.

People who don’t like or trust Facebook–a minority, but a passionately vocal one–presumably won’t like the idea of its tendrils stretching deeper and deeper into more and more apps. But how should the rest of us feel about the prospect?

Me, I’m O.K. with it–optimistic, even, that it will lead to better apps. Here’s why:

  • The alternative, oftentimes, is nothing. A pretty high percentage of mobile app developers are small shops with a very limited ability to build complex features from scratch. Facebook’s goal is to let them make their apps more sophisticated by plugging in a few lines of code–a strategy the web has embraced for years now, and which has (mostly) made it a better place.
  • Facebook’s competition is usually another big, powerful company. If apps don’t work with the Facebook Audience Network to monetize themselves through targeted ads, they’ll do something similar with Google or somebody else. Better for Google to face competition from Facebook than for it to end up dominating advertising even more than it already does. And as Zuckerberg said, much of what Facebook is doing provides an alternative to what Apple, Google and Microsoft are doing with their respective operating systems.
  • The privacy controls look reasonable. Consumers have memories like elephants, and Facebook’s reputation is still tarnished by blunders it made years ago when it moved too fast and broke too many things–such as with Beacon, a 2007 advertising technology that left members surprised to find information about their activities elsewhere showing up on their feeds. But at f8, the keynote began with demos of the new granular privacy controls and anonymous login option, both of which should help users take advantage of the Facebook-ization of mobile apps in a way that works for them.

You don’t have to be a Facebook hater to worry, sometimes, about one company controlling so much of the technological plumbing that powers other companies’ services and apps. Ultimately, though, Facebook has became so essential in so many places because it’s built so many useful technologies and has done a better job than anyone else of selling the world on their advantages.

To put it another way: If the idea of Facebook being everywhere bothers you, don’t blame Facebook. Blame everybody else who’s failed, in most instances, to beat it to the punch or provide more compelling alternatives.

TIME streaming video

Pay for Movies Based on Screen Size? Head of Dreamworks Says It’ll Happen

In the distant future, movie tickets might cost more, but smartphone rentals could cost less.

If Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has his way, the price to watch a movie will eventually depend on the size of the screen.

You’d pay a premium to see a movie in theaters, of course, but maybe you’ll save a little by watching it on your phone instead of the television. In other words, as Katzenberg said at a conference in Los Angeles this week, you’ll “pay by the inch you watch.”

Katzenberg has banged this drum before. At another conference last year, he also talked about charging less for movies on small-screen devices, partly to appeal to overseas markets. But this time, he seems to have fleshed out the vision. As Variety reports, Katzenberg imagines that movies would only be exclusive to theaters for 17 days, during which nearly all movies make nearly all their money. After that, you’d be able to watch the movie at home, whether it’s on a phone, tablet or TV.

“A movie screen will be $15. A 75-inch TV will be $4. A smartphone will be $1.99. That enterprise that will exist throughout the world, when that happens, and it will happen, it will reinvent the enterprise of movies,” Katzenberg said.

The proposal sounds good in theory–who wouldn’t want a shorter wait to watch a new movie at home?–but it’s unclear how Katzenberg would get movie theater operators on board. In the past, theater operators have strongly resisted any tampering with release windows. Outside of a few high-priced experiments and minor timing tweaks, studios have been unable to speed the release of their movies on home video.

Other logistical issues would also have to be hashed out, such as getting the Apples and Googles to fit this system into their platforms, and getting all the movie studios to agree on pricing for each screen size. And right now, it all seems pretty theoretical.

Perhaps that’s why Katzenberg said this week that this scenario will take 10 years to play out. If it’s even possible, it’s definitely not going to happen anytime soon.

TIME housing

Grab That Apartment Before the Rent Spikes

In strong-growth markets like Charlotte, landlords are adopting dynamic pricing strategies similar to the airlines and Amazon.com—meaning the asking rent price for apartments can change by hundreds of dollars in the blink of an eye.

The Charlotte Observer recently took note of how commonplace it’s become for rent rates at large apartment complexes in the city to be dictated by software algorithms that track supply and demand — and then tweak asking prices accordingly. The result is that if a handful of units are scooped up by renters over the course of a weekend, the monthly rental rate for similar units in the complex could soar on Monday, if not sooner.

Rent prices can and do change all the time, occasionally with quick, dramatic swings. During one particularly volatile ten-day period, the Observer tracked the monthly rate for a one-bedroom apartment at one complex as it rose from $982 to $1,307 per month.

Such dynamic pricing strategies have been used by airlines for decades, and online sellers like Amazon are utilizing quick-changing prices to a staggering degree. According to one recent study, Amazon had up to three million daily price tweaks last November, and during the busiest shopping period for the 2014 holiday season, the world’s largest online retailer is expected to change prices on its site six to ten million per day.

Even as several software programs focused on producing algorithms for apartment rent yield management have increasingly been embraced by landlords and apartment complex owners, the fact that a unit’s rental rate can jump by a couple hundred bucks overnight often comes as an unwelcome surprise to renters, especially young people seeking their first place. Even worse, apartment managers are using dynamic pricing as a tool to pressure would-be renters into acting fast, at the risk of losing out or seeing rents soar.

“I obviously did not like it,” one 24-year-old said to the Charlotte Observer, with regards to the potential for unit rent prices to change from moment to moment. “All complexes, they say it can change really fast. It just makes me feel pressured to make a decision really fast without maybe considering other options or even how safe it is or if it’s really practical.”

Even so, the increased usage of dynamic pricing in nearly all realms of consumer life isn’t all bad for the average Joe. Yes, it can make car hire rates surge during periods of peak demand, and can cause rental rates to soar seemingly out of nowhere. But dynamic pricing can also drive prices lower when demand eases. That can mean cheaper ride-share rates during “happy hours,” and also that by learning about the local rent market and timing it right, one renter can get a way better deal than his neighbor on essentially the same apartment unit. At one complex in Charlotte, rent for one-bedrooms hit $588 per month last May, down from a peak of $806 in February.

This is the way pricing has been done for decades in the airline business, in which there’s always the possibility that you paid hundreds more (or hundreds less) than the person sitting next to you on the plane. The problem is that it’s impossible to really know the precise best time to buy. The other problem for consumers is that, by and large, people think it’s unfair to charge different prices for the same product. They absolutely hate the scenario in which two different people pay dramatically different prices for essentially the same airline seat, or ticket to a baseball game, or apartment unit.

Well, they hate it if they’re the one who was charged more. If they’re the one who worked the system and figured out a way to pay less, then it’s not so bad.

TIME

MIT Students To Get Free Bitcoins This Fall

It's not quite free money, but it's close

+ READ ARTICLE

Next year, MIT undergrads will pay $43,498 in tuition year, but hey, at least they’re getting 1oo free Bitcoins.

MIT’s Bitcoin Club arranged the giveaway in hopes of turning the cryptocurrency into a viable payment model.

The Bitcoin Club raised $500,000, most of it coming from a wealthy MIT alumnus, to make the project a reality.

Few stores in the Cambridge area currently accept the currency, but with 4,528 undergrads having 100 Bitcoins burning a hole in their digital pocket, that could yet change.

TIME Technologizer

Facebook Beefs Up Privacy for App Logins–and Lets You Go Anonymous

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg gives the keynote at Facebook's f8 conference in San Francisco on April 30, 2014 Harry McCracken / TIME

I’m at Facebook’s f8 developer conference in San Francisco, where the keynote is still underway–but there’s already been some significant news.

Mark Zuckerberg opened the day by saying that this conference would be all about how Facebook is building a stable mobile platform for developers–a “cross-platform platform” that competes with Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. And which isn’t too buggy–Zuckerberg says that Facebook has dumped its old mantra of “Move Fast and Break Things” in favor of moving fast, but worrying about reliability.

The first specific tidbits he shared all had to do with using Facebook to sign into other apps:

  • When you sign into a new app for the first time, you’ll get a list of specific permissions the app would like to have, such as being able to post to your wall–and you’ll be able to turn them on and off selectively, tailoring your level of privacy to your liking.
  • Facebook will stop sharing information involving a user’s friends with apps–so, for instance, an app such as Rdio will never know or display what you’re listening to unless you’ve given explicit permission.
  • You’ll be able to use Facebook to sign into an app anonymously–so your Facebook credentials get used but Facebook doesn’t tell the app who you are.

Interesting stuff. More to come as the conference proceeds.

TIME Google

Student Pass: Google Junks Gmail Ad-Scanning for Student Accounts

And that's just for starters: Google says it's planning similar changes for all its Google Apps customers, from business to government users and more.

Rejoice, ye matriculated and presently in-process-of-being-educated: Google announced on Wednesday that it would no longer ad-scan student Gmail accounts. That’s the process whereby Google’s purportedly blind algorithms rifle through your Gmail content to create you-flavored advertisements.

If a garden variety Gmail user emails something about liking a certain soft drink, for instance, chances are they’ll see a soda ad at some point or another. The presumption on Google’s part is that since it’s going to advertise to you one way or another, you might as well see stuff that’s more likely to matter to you than not.

But no more, if you’re a student, and that’s effectively the cherry on top of a pro-student dish Google’s been cobbling together for some time. In its blog post announcing the move, the company notes that “from day one” it’s turned off displaying ads by default in its Apps for Education service suite (that suite includes Gmail, Google Talk, Google Drive, Google Calendar and others). The company adds that last year, it removed ads from Google Search for K-12 users when signed in.

But those maneuvers didn’t preclude the company from scanning said services and compiling the data for future purposes — a controversial practice in its own right. Today’s move effectively pulls Google’s ad-related fingers out of Gmail for Apps for Education permanently, which — in Google’s own words — “means Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.”

What’s more, the company’s also permanently removing its “enabled/disable” toggle in the Apps for Education Administrator console. If, for whatever odd reason you wanted to enable ads before, you’ll no longer have that option: ads in Apps for Education will now be mandatorily disabled for good.

Better still, Google says these education-specific changes are just the tip of the iceberg, and that it’s planning comparable changes to all its Google Apps customers, from business to government to legacy users of the free version. While it’s a far cry from Google upending advertising across all strata of its products, it’s clearly a sea change, and presumably a welcome one across the spectrum. When should you expect the post-education modifications to kick in? Google says it’ll “provide an update when the rollout is complete.”

Sidebar: Education Week is taking credit for Google’s surprise move, writing that the company is “apparently bowing to pressure from a lawsuit and an Education Week-published report revealing the practice.” Education Week cites Google’s admission a month-and-a-half ago that it was scanning millions of Apps for Education students’ emails, and mentions a federal lawsuit currently in process whose plaintiffs claim Google’s been using Apps for Education to surreptitiously target-advertise to students.

TIME streaming video

Hulu Bringing Free Shows to Phones This Summer, Pizza Ordering Later

A selection of free, full episodes is coming to Hulu's mobile apps, with no Hulu Plus subscription required.

Starting this summer, you won’t need a paid subscription to watch Hulu shows on your phone or tablet.

Hulu says it’s bringing “a selection of ad-supported full TV episodes” to mobile devices for free this summer. Users will still get a bigger selection with an $8 per month Hulu Plus subscription, but will no longer be completely cut off from full episodes as they are now. Currently, Hulu only lets non-paying users watch short video clips.

There’s no word on how many shows or episodes will be available for free, or how closely the mobile version will resemble Hulu’s free desktop website. According to The Verge, Android will get the free episodes first, followed by iOS.

Hulu also announced several other initiatives and milestones in a blog post. The company now has 6 million Hulu Plus subscribers, and is continuing to kick up more original programming to compete with Netflix and Amazon. If you haven’t heard of Hulu’s original shows, the company plans to change that by tripling its content marketing budget.

Hulu says it will be trying some new things in advertising as well, including an in-ad purchase mechanism later this year. The first partner will be Pizza Hut, allowing viewers to order a pie during commercial breaks.

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