VR rivals come together to develop a single-cable spec for VR headsets

Future generations of virtual reality headsets for PCs could use a single USB Type-C cable for both power and data. That’s thanks to a new standardized spec from the VirtualLink Consortium, a group made up of GPU vendors AMD and Nvidia and virtual reality rivals Valve, Microsoft, and Facebook-owned Oculus.

The spec uses the USB Type-C connector’s “Alternate Mode” capability to implement different data protocols—such as Thunderbolt 3 data or DisplayPort and HDMI video—over the increasingly common cables, combined with Type-C’s support for power delivery. The new headset spec combines four lanes of HBR3 (“high bitrate 3”) DisplayPort video (for a total of 32.4 gigabits per second of video data), along with a USB 3.1 generation 2 (10 gigabit per second) data channel for sensors and on-headset cameras, along with 27W of electrical power.

That much video data is sufficient for two 3840×2160 streams at 60 frames per second, or even higher frame rates if Display Stream Compression is also used. Drop the resolution to 2560×1440, and two uncompressed 120 frame per second streams would be possible.

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Microsoft is making the Windows command line a lot better

One of the sore points of the Windows command-line environment is that the command-line windows themselves, the “console” windows, have always been a bit strange. Back in Windows XP, for example, regular Windows apps were themed, with their blobby title bars and bulbous red X button. But command-line windows didn’t get the theme; they had a regular Windows title bar and borders. That’s because the console windows were “special.” A special, rather delicate operating system process drew them, and if that process crashed, your computer would blue screen. So no themes allowed.

Over the last few years, Microsoft has been working to improve the Windows console. Console windows now maximize properly, for example. In the olden days, hitting maximize would make the window taller but not wider. Today, the action will fill the whole screen, just like any other window. Especially motivated by the Windows subsystem for Linux, the console in Windows 10 supports 16 million colors and VT escape sequences, enabling much richer console output than has traditionally been possible on Windows.

Even with this work, however, the Windows console still leaves a lot to be desired when compared to its counterparts on Linux and macOS. Linux in particular has a wide range of console applications offering, for example, tabbed consoles. It also has applications like screen and tmux that allow multiple applications to share the same console. While there are third-party efforts to do the same on Windows (with programs such as ConEmu), they all tend to be quite limited: they work by creating a Windows console window, hiding it somewhere off-screen, and scraping the characters from that console window. This approach isn’t robust; command-line applications that try to do complex things (such as showing full screen interfaces) often end up breaking.

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Microsoft killing off the old Skype client, adding built-in call recording

Skype’s development history is a bit checkered; a wide range of clients has been developed with disparate features and a lack of clarity over direction. This has been especially true on Windows, where two different clients were available—the “Classic” client is a Win32 application that can trace its heritage back to the days before Microsoft bought Skype, while the “modern” client shipped through the Microsoft Store—each with its own interfaces and features.

Microsoft has finally, however, managed to more or less unify its Skype development across Windows, macOS, Linux, and the mobile apps. This effort was itself years in the making (we reported on it in 2016), and with that work done, the company is at last working on new features.

Today, the application allows video chat with screen sharing at up to 1080p with up to 24 people. Messaging now supports the convention of using @mentions in a group chat to alert users and file sharing works with files up to 300MB. It’s also now easier to find historic shared media with a built-in gallery of media content.

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Microsoft Recommends All Customers Upgrade to Skype 8 With Skype 7 Set to Be Sunset in September

Microsoft today highlighted Skype 8 and recommended that customers upgrade to the new software as the company plans to retire Skype 7, aka Skype classic, later this year.

Skype 8 includes free HD video and screensharing calls with up to 24 people, reaction options for messages in conversations and @mentions to get someone’s attention in a group chat, a chat media gallery for viewing photos and links, customizable themes, a notification panel, and options to share photos, videos, and files over Skype that are up to 300MB in size.



In the future, Microsoft plans to add additional features that include read receipts, private conversations with end-to-end encryption, call recording, profile invites, and group links for initiating a call with multiple people. Skype 8 features are also rolling out on the iPad starting today.

Microsoft is encouraging all Skype users to update to the new 8.0 version of the software as earlier versions of Skype will stop working on September 1, 2018. Microsoft says it is discontinuing older versions of Skype in order to provide the best possible Skype experience with no quality or reliability issues.

Note: A previous version of this post listed the 8.0 update as new, due to the fact that Microsoft published a blog post announcing it as new this morning. Our readers have pointed out that Skype 8 has been available for some time, with 8.25 listed as the current version of the software.

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Google Cloud’s LA region goes online

Google Cloud’s new region in Los Angeles is now online, the company announced today. This isn’t exactly a surprise, given that Google had previously announced a July launch for the region, but it’s a big step for Google, which now boasts five cloud regions in the United States. It was only three years ago that Google opened its second U.S. region and, while it was slow to expand its physical cloud footprint, the company now features 17 regions around the world.

When it first announced this new region, Google positioned it as the ideal region for the entertainment industry. And while that’s surely true, I’m sure we’ll see plenty of other companies use this new region, which features three availability zones, to augment their existing deployments in Google’s other West Coast region in Oregon or as part of their overall global cloud strategy.

The new region is launching with all the core Google Cloud compute services, like App Engine, Compute Engine and Kubernetes Engine, as well as all of Google’s standard database and file storage tools, including the recently launched NAS-like Cloud Filestore service. For businesses that have a physical presence close to L.A., Google also offers two dedicated interconnects to Equinix’s and CoreSite’s local LA1 data centers.

It’s worth nothing that Microsoft, which has long favored a strategy of quickly launching as many regions as possible, already offered its users a region in Southern California. AWS doesn’t currently have a presence in the area, though, unlike Google, AWS does offer a region in Northern California.

ACLU calls for a moratorium on government use of facial recognition technologies

Technology executives are pleading with the government to give them guidance on how to use facial recognition technologies, and now the American Civil Liberties Union is weighing in.

On the heels of a Microsoft statement asking for the federal government to weigh in on the technology, the ACLU has called for a moratorium on the use of the technology by government agencies.

“Congress should take immediate action to put the brakes on this technology with a moratorium on its use, given that it has not been fully debated and its use has never been explicitly authorized,” said Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU legislative counsel, in a statement. “And companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and others should be heeding the calls from the public, employees, and shareholders to stop selling face surveillance technology to governments.”

In May the ACLU released a report on Amazon’s sale of facial recognition technology to different law enforcement agencies. And in June the civil liberties group pressed the company to stop selling the technology. One contract, with the Orlando Police Department, was suspended and then renewed after the uproar.

Meanwhile, Google employees revolted over their company’s work with the government on facial recognition tech… and Microsoft had problems of its own after reports surfaced of the work that the company was doing with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement service.

Some organizations are already working to regulate how facial recognition technologies are used. At MIT, Joy Buolamwini has created the Algorithmic Justice League, which is pushing a pledge that companies working with the technology can agree to as they work on the tech.

That pledge includes commitments to value human life and dignity, including the refusal to help develop lethal autonomous vehicles or equipping law enforcement with facial analysis products.

As facial recognition technology becomes pervasive, Microsoft (yes, Microsoft) issues a call for regulation

Technology companies have a privacy problem. They’re terribly good at invading ours and terribly negligent at protecting their own.

And with the push by technologists to map, identify and index our physical as well as virtual presence with biometrics like face and fingerprint scanning, the increasing digital surveillance of our physical world is causing some of the companies that stand to benefit the most to call out to government to provide some guidelines on how they can use the incredibly powerful tools they’ve created.

That’s what’s behind today’s call from Microsoft President Brad Smith for government to start thinking about how to oversee the facial recognition technology that’s now at the disposal of companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple and government security and surveillance services across the country and around the world.

In what companies have framed as a quest to create “better,” more efficient and more targeted services for consumers, they have tried to solve the problem of user access by moving to increasingly passive (for the user) and intrusive (by the company) forms of identification — culminating in features like Apple’s Face ID and the frivolous filters that Snap overlays over users’ selfies.

Those same technologies are also being used by security and police forces in ways that have gotten technology companies into trouble with consumers or their own staff. Amazon has been called to task for its work with law enforcement, Microsoft’s own technologies have been used to help identify immigrants at the border (indirectly aiding in the separation of families and the virtual and physical lockdown of America against most forms of immigration) and Google faced an internal company revolt over the facial recognition work it was doing for the Pentagon.

Smith posits this nightmare scenario:

Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge. Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech. Imagine the stores of a shopping mall using facial recognition to share information with each other about each shelf that you browse and product you buy, without asking you first. This has long been the stuff of science fiction and popular movies – like “Minority Report,” “Enemy of the State” and even “1984” – but now it’s on the verge of becoming possible.

What’s impressive about this is the intimation that it isn’t already happening (and that Microsoft isn’t enabling it). Across the world, governments are deploying these tools right now as ways to control their populations (the ubiquitous surveillance state that China has assembled, and is investing billions of dollars to upgrade, is just the most obvious example).

In this moment when corporate innovation and state power are merging in ways that consumers are only just beginning to fathom, executives who have to answer to a buying public are now pleading for government to set up some rails. Late capitalism is weird.

But Smith’s advice is prescient. Companies do need to get ahead of the havoc their innovations can wreak on the world, and they can look good while doing nothing by hiding their own abdication of responsibility on the issue behind the government’s.

“In a democratic republic, there is no substitute for decision making by our elected representatives regarding the issues that require the balancing of public safety with the essence of our democratic freedoms. Facial recognition will require the public and private sectors alike to step up – and to act,” Smith writes.

The fact is, something does, indeed, need to be done.

As Smith writes, “The more powerful the tool, the greater the benefit or damage it can cause. The last few months have brought this into stark relief when it comes to computer-assisted facial recognition – the ability of a computer to recognize people’s faces from a photo or through a camera. This technology can catalog your photos, help reunite families or potentially be misused and abused by private companies and public authorities alike.”

All of this takes on faith that the technology actually works as advertised. And the problem is, right now, it doesn’t.

In an op-ed earlier this month, Brian Brackeen, the chief executive of a startup working on facial recognition technologies, pulled back the curtains on the industry’s not-so-secret huge problem.

Facial recognition technologies, used in the identification of suspects, negatively affects people of color. To deny this fact would be a lie.

And clearly, facial recognition-powered government surveillance is an extraordinary invasion of the privacy of all citizens — and a slippery slope to losing control of our identities altogether.

There’s really no “nice” way to acknowledge these things.

Smith, himself admits that the technology has a long way to go before it’s perfect. But the implications of applying imperfect technologies are vast — and in the case of law enforcement, not academic. Designating an innocent bystander or civilian as a criminal suspect influences how police approach an individual.

Those instances, even if they amount to only a handful, would lead me to argue that these technologies have no business being deployed in security situations.

As Smith himself notes, “Even if biases are addressed and facial recognition systems operate in a manner deemed fair for all people, we will still face challenges with potential failures. Facial recognition, like many AI technologies, typically have some rate of error even when they operate in an unbiased way.”

While Smith lays out the problem effectively, he’s less clear on the solution. He’s called for a government “expert commission” to be empaneled as a first step on the road to eventual federal regulation.

That we’ve gotten here is an indication of how bad things actually are. It’s rare that a tech company has pleaded so nakedly for government intervention into an aspect of its business.

But here’s Smith writing, “We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology. As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.”

Given the current state of affairs in Washington, Smith may be asking too much. Which is why perhaps the most interesting — and admirable — call from Smith in his post is for technology companies to slow their roll.

We recognize the importance of going more slowly when it comes to the deployment of the full range of facial recognition technology,” writes Smith. “Many information technologies, unlike something like pharmaceutical products, are distributed quickly and broadly to accelerate the pace of innovation and usage. ‘Move fast and break things’ became something of a mantra in Silicon Valley earlier this decade. But if we move too fast with facial recognition, we may find that people’s fundamental rights are being broken.”

Microsoft offers extended support for Windows, SQL 2008: but with a catch

Windows Server 2008 and 2008 R2, as well as SQL Server 2008 and 2008 R2, are due to move out of extended support over the next few years; SQL Server in July 2019, and Windows Server in January 2020. For organizations still using that software, this offers a few options: keep using the software and accept that it won’t receive any more security updates, migrate to newer equivalents that are still supported, or pay Microsoft for a custom support contract to continue to receive security updates beyond the cutoff dates.

Today, Microsoft added a fourth option: migrate to Azure. Microsoft is extending the support window by three years (until July 2022 for SQL Server, January 2023 for Windows Server) for workloads hosted on Azure in the cloud. This extended support means that customers that make the switch to the cloud will receive another three years of security fixes. After those three years are up, customers will be back to the original set of choices: be insecure, upgrade, or pay for a custom support contract.

Microsoft isn’t requiring customers to demonstrate that they have any kind of migration plan in place, and this support scheme incurs no additional costs beyond those already imposed by running software on Azure in the first place.

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