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Update September 2016

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern

Update September 30, 2016

Yosemite, and President Obama, head into virtual reality

In this Saturday, June 18, 2016, file photo, President Barack Obama speaks by the Sentinel Bridge in the Yosemite Valley in front of Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in the park, at Yosemite National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Anick Jesdanun

New York (AP) - In a new project with National Geographic, Barack Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to project himself into virtual reality - in this case, a 360-degree representation of Yosemite National Park.

The 11-minute VR video, narrated by Obama, is one part paean to the wonders of America’s national parks and one part warning of the threat posed by climate change. It’s also a testament to how powerful VR can be when done right.

National Geographic joined Facebook’s Oculus Studios and VR specialists Felix & Paul Studios to produce the free video, which came out Thursday to mark the centennial of the National Park Service. It’s available on Samsung’s Gear VR headset and through Facebook’s 360-degree video service. It’s coming soon to the Oculus Rift headset.

The message

Although the video advocates visitation and preservation, the experience is mostly an opportunity to marvel at Yosemite’s natural wonders, from the giant El Capitan rock formation that opens the video to the tall sequoia trees filling Mariposa Grove and the Merced River rushing through Yosemite Valley. You can almost touch the surrounding tall grass; later in the video, it feels as though you’re floating in a real canoe.

Crews captured Obama’s June visit to the California park with his family. In the video, Obama addresses an audience on climate change, with the 2,424-foot-tall Yosemite Falls as a backdrop. In a more intimate setting, surrounded by trees, Obama speaks with Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher on the importance of exposing kids to national parks. The video concludes with Obama urging viewers in a voice-over to take action on the environment in light of threats such as wildfires and melting glaciers.

“We hope people emotionally connect to this story, to these environments, and we hope that it elicits within them a desire to visit national parks,” said Felix Lajeunesse, the “Felix” in Felix & Paul. (“Paul” is his partner, Paul Raphael.)

Coming together

The Felix & Paul team recorded former President Bill Clinton’s journeys to Africa in VR last year, but a sitting U.S. president had yet to appear in VR. After all, VR didn’t exist beyond labs and small gaming circles before Obama took office.

Oculus was looking for ways to extend VR beyond games and approached the White House to explore an opportunity that wouldn’t feel gimmicky, said Colum Slevin, head of experiences for Oculus VR. The White House, in turn, suggested pairing with National Geographic, which was already developing tie-ins to the park service centennial.

Although National Geographic has produced 360-degree video before, this is its first project in full VR, with more immersive, 3-D imagery intended for viewing through special headsets.

“This is the next frontier,” said Rajiv Mody, National Geographic’s vice president for social media. The VR technology, he said, can take people “to experiences they aren’t able to necessarily experience on their own.”

Nonetheless, the video could be a hard sell, warned Joel Espelien, an analyst with Diffusion Group, which tracks emerging video formats and services. He said many VR viewers are younger and male - not the same audience that would watch a nature show on PBS.

And while the video isn’t overtly political, Obama’s appearance in an election year could make it seem so, he said. The VR video isn’t a traditional documentary, as the producers and the White House worked on the script together.

Feeling intimate

At this juncture, many VR projects feel experimental, as if their producers mainly wanted to play with new filmmaking techniques or showcase the technology’s potential. This Yosemite video, though, feels much more like a short nature movie that just happens to be viewable in a 360-degree surroundscape. (It does, of course, also deliver a promotional punch for the park system.)

For instance, the Yosemite project managed to avoid a common VR pitfall that can render landscape shots remote and distant because 360-degree cameras lack zoom. Lajeunesse said the team made sure to juxtapose distant iconic landmarks with nearby grass, trees and other tangible objects, lending perspective to the shot.

Producers also kept the cameras at a constant vantage point from scene to scene - low, at roughly sitting height - based on the assumption that most people would be watching this video sitting down, Raphael said.

But visuals alone aren’t enough. “The emotional connection, a lot of that comes from having the voice of the president being there with you on this journey,” Lajeunesse said. “It somehow makes those moments in nature feel more personal, feel more intimate.”

Without that, he said, “it becomes shots - beautiful, but it’s not a story.”


Video on Facebook 360:

AP photo gallery for park service centennial:

Update September 24, 2016

Pokemon doughnuts, exercise classes tap game’s popularity

Pecha Berry Pokeseed doughnuts, top left and center, are displayed in a box of doughnuts from Doughnut Plant, in New York. From doughnut shops to zoos, businesses and organizations are finding creative ways to capitalize on “Pokemon Go.” (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Bree Fowler

New York (AP) - Weeks into the “Pokemon Go” craze, demand remains strong for “Poke Ball”-shaped treats made by a high-end doughnut company, one of many businesses and organizations coming up with creative ways to lure players in their search for the elusive “pocket monsters.”

Even on sweltering summer days, the popular smartphone game has gotten throngs of players out of their homes to real-world locations designated as “PokeStops” and “Gyms.” Theme parks, bars and even a county animal shelter are among those trying to capitalize on that surge in foot traffic.

In New York, Doughnut Plant created an edible version of the Poke Ball - dubbing it the Pokeseed - after a Pokemon-obsessed employee realized that all four of the company’s shops are either PokeStops or very close to one, owner Mark Isreal said. And one location is an in-game Gym, making it a gathering place to both consume and virtually burn off calories.

The team at Doughnut Plant designed the fruity treat in less than a day, using cranberry-raspberry and white chocolate icings to recreate the red-and-white Poke Balls, the objects used in the game to capture monsters. The Pokeseed is stuffed with a peach-strawberry cream filling, an imagining of Pokemon’s mythical pecha berry.

Pictures went out on social media the next morning, “and before they were delivered, people were already coming to the stores,” Isreal said.

Doughnut Plant has already sold thousands of Pokeseeds, and customers frequently post pictures of them on Instagram. They’re still selling strong, so Doughnut Plant has no plan to take them off the menu any time soon.

Meanwhile, a trendy food court near New York’s Penn Station put up a sign urging passersby to catch a Pokemon instead of a train, while the city’s parks department created “PokeFit” classes for kids to play while exercising.

Earlier, the Busch Gardens theme park in Florida hosted a Pokemon “lure-a-thon,” with some PokeStops accessible only by season-pass members for one hour. The Pawtucket Red Sox baseball team in Rhode Island invited fans onto the field to chase the virtual monsters.

Police in Manchester, New Hampshire, even tried to lure fugitives by claiming to have detected a rare Charizard in the booking area. A Facebook post invited those on a list of “lucky ones” to capture the monster - the list happens to be filled with the city’s most wanted.

Andy Wong of Kurt Salmon Digital, which helps retailers connect digitally with consumers, said the game has worked well for small businesses, though there hasn’t been a good way for larger companies with hundreds of stores to automate the “lures” they buy to attract digital monsters - and with them, players and potential customers.

And even for small businesses, he said, the ability to draw customers may have diminished as the game loses its novelty.

But those that caught the bug early saw tangible benefits.

The Phoenix Zoo was a hotbed of Pokemon activity right after the game’s release last month, even when temperatures climbed as high as 112 degrees. It helped that a Pokemon Gym was housed in the zoo’s conveniently air conditioned orangutan house.

After noticing that some visitors were on the hunt for more than just traditional zoo creatures, the zoo opened an hour early at 6 a.m. for a week during what’s usually a slow time of year. The zoo also converted its train into a “PokeShuttle” that pointed out PokeStops along with its animal exhibits. On the first day of the promotion, attendance more than doubled from a week earlier, and sign-ups for new memberships spiked, said zoo spokeswoman Kerri Baumann.

“It has snowballed in the most exciting and fun way,” she said.

Given the popularity, zoo officials are considering having additional Pokemon-themed activities, she said.

Other furry creatures have benefited, too. The Wake County Animal Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, said its Pokemon-themed social media posts prompted about 25 applications for volunteer dog walkers, about four times what it usually gets.

“If people are getting out and walking, why not come out here and walk the dogs and catch some Pokemon?” said Jennifer Federico, Wake County’s animal services director. “It’s fun and it gets people out.”

The shelter also named dogs and cats after Pokemon characters in hopes of giving animals that may get overlooked a second chance at adoption, she said.

Bars and restaurants are getting in on the action as well, both through numerous Pokemon-themed bar crawls around the country and by taking advantage of nearby stops and gyms on their own.

Because street art accounts for a substantial number of PokeStops, especially in big cities, the Tyron Public House bar and restaurant in New York has seen a slight bump in business, thanks to a large mural outside. Some patrons have paid for lures to attract more Pokemon; others return the favor by buying them drinks.

“It’s kind of fun to see people playing and say, ‘Here you go. Enjoy,’” Tyron manager Errol Flynn said. “For us, it’s not so much about organized events as much as it is about keeping up with social and what’s going on in the neighborhood.”

Update September 17, 2016

Reward your ears: 5 gadgets to liven up your music

 Ron Harris

Atlanta (AP) - Open your ears. What do you hear?

If you’re listening to music coming out of the tinny speaker on your phone, you’re not hearing much. And inexpensive Bluetooth speakers or flimsy earbuds aren’t much better, as they fail to give you a proper spectrum of sound that your music deserves.

Instead, reward your ears. Consider quality Bluetooth speakers, finely crafted headphones and even a portable turntable for vinyl on the go, if analog is your thing. Here’s a look at some nice gear to consider:


For a fuller sound
at home

The $500 Fluance Fi70 is the beefiest Bluetooth speaker you’ll likely come across. It sits on the floor, comes up to about waist-high and isn’t something to tote to the beach. Though the Fi70 is big, it has a nice wood finish and an eye-appealing shape and design.

This Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, photo shows the Fluance Fi70, a large Bluetooth speaker, in Decatur, Ga. The 80-pound speaker can be connected wirelessly to a smartphone or tablet and puts out a combined 280-watts of amplified sound. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)

The Fi70 sports dual 8-inch woofers to push those low-end sounds out powerfully. It filled my living room and well beyond when I connected my phones and tablets wirelessly. It also worked well as a speaker for my TV on movie night using wired connections.

A remote control lets you shape the sound, adjust the volume and change songs. Or you can use the touch-sensitive buttons on the top of the speaker.

The Fluance Fi70 is a solid choice for those who want the ease of Bluetooth connectivity, but desire a balanced output range that does your music justice.

Sexy speaker for the bookshelf

If you want to pump your music to a Bluetooth speaker that looks like professional gear at a concert stage, the $230 Marshall Stockwell speaker is for you. It carries the Marshall brand, but is separate from the company that makes performance gear common at concerts and studios. Still, it’s an eye-appealing nod to rock’s roots.

This Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, photo shows the Marshall Stockwell Bluetooth speaker, in Decatur, Ga. Separate knurled knobs for volume, bass and treble are recessed into the speaker and pop up at the touch of a finger. The Stockwell also has an input port for devices without Bluetooth. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)

As for sound quality, dual woofers and tweeters do a nice job at separating the sound and delivering an above-average tonal range.

Separate knurled knobs for volume, bass and treble are recessed into the speaker and pop up at the touch of a finger. The Stockwell also has an input port for devices without Bluetooth.

Excellent sound over the ears

The $250 Lola headphones separate the players from the pretenders. Blue Microphones makes gorgeous equipment for the discerning ear, and it’s come through again with the Lola.

This Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, photo shows the Lola headphones from Blue Microphones on display in Decatur, Ga. The earcups have pivoting arms so you can adjust both the height and angle over your ears. The result is a better fit and sound delivery. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)

These are over-the-ear headphones - not earbuds you stick into your ear. The fit is so well thought out that it adds to the experience of listening to music through them. The earcups have pivoting arms so you can adjust both the height and angle over your ears. The result is a better fit and sound delivery.

The Lola’s performance exceeded those of rival headphones that cost about $100 more. I found myself gravitating toward a lot of better recordings, both digital and vinyl, to take advantage of the quality sound reproduction. I didn’t want to waste my junk pile of pop music on them.

These are zero-mistake headphones. Well done.

For audiophiles only

You know who you are. You need all the gear your friends don’t have.

The $600 Nighthawk headphones from Audioquest aren’t for everyone. You’re not going to want to jog or mow the lawn with them, or do anything to get them sweaty, or worse. These are for times you simply want to hear music faithfully reproduced using the best gear you’ll find for this price.

In this Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, photo, Nighthawk headphones from Audioquest lie on display, in Decatur, Ga. The headphones require 150 hours of “burn-in” time before the audiophile-grade components are properly adjusted and broken in for optimum listening. The earcups are made with renewable raw materials and then injection molded to give a liquid wood appearance. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)

The headphones are so meticulously crafted that you have to play 150 hours of sound through them first just to get the components properly seasoned. It took me a couple of weeks to get that done, though it sounded fine out of the box, too.

The diaphragm - the part that vibrates to create sound - is made of a bio-cellulose material. Audioquest believes the more commonly used Mylar material creates a false sense of detail for high-frequency sounds. These headphones are full of little details like these. Audioquest seems full of people who spend a lot of time fretting over quality.

Your ears will thank you. Your wallet? That’s another matter.

Vinyl is back

Face it. You need a little vinyl in your life.

To that end, a multi-component system will eat up half your living room. For $100, the Electrohome Archer Briefcase portable turntable will handle your basic needs without breaking your budget. It’s a full turntable, built into a briefcase with speakers. It’s a self-contained way to pack some LPs for a road trip, or simply listen to them in various rooms around your home.

This Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, photo shows the Electrohome Archer Briefcase portable turntable on display in Decatur, Ga. The unit has built-in speakers and a headphone jack if the user wants to listen in private. A USB port on the front lets the listener play music from a flash drive with song files. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)

A headphone jack lets you listen in private. A USB port lets you temporarily succumb to the digital age by plugging in a flash drive with song files. The speakers aren’t huge, so you won’t be waking up the neighbors with your vintage vinyl Led Zeppelin collection. It’s not meant for loud parties, but more of a personal experience for the small space.


AP video on Fluance speaker:

AP video on Marshall speaker:

AP video on Lola headphones:

AP video on Nighthawk headphones:   

AP video on Electrohome turntable:

Update September 3, 2016

Lock picking your way to cybersecurity at Def Con


In this Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016, photo, a Def Con attendee demonstrates how to pick a padlock at the annual Def Con conference in Las Vegas. Picking locks might seem out of place at a cybersecurity gathering, but it’s an important skill for those tasked with protecting machines from digital threats. (AP Photo/Bree Fowler)

Bree Fowler

Las Vegas (AP) - Lock picking might seem ridiculously old-fashioned at a cybersecurity gathering - but learning it can actually help people protect machines from digital threats.

As security improves to block remote attacks over the internet, hackers look for ways to deliver malicious software physically instead - for instance, by breaking into a company’s data centers. Like cracking a digital system, picking locks involves solving puzzles, along with a certain amount of finesse and skill.

And for the good guys, knowing how to pick locks is important for learning how to defend against it.

The recent Def Con security conference in Las Vegas had one section devoted to hands-on lock picking . Getting a seat was tough. At times, the tables looked like knitting circles, with participants at various skill levels looking intense as they used tiny rakes and tension bars to pop open a variety of practice door and padlocks.

Tools were shared. Experts offered advice. Shouts of joy erupted when someone finally cracked a tough lock. Locks and tools also proved to be popular souvenirs, with a conference store nearby doing brisk business.

A puzzling badge

You can’t host a gathering for creative people who love to tinker and just give them the same, old plastic badge hanging from a lanyard. Def Con’s electronic badges are both cool to look at and full of puzzles to decipher.

Last’s year’s badge was a fully mastered, playable, 7-inch vinyl record. This year’s badges were shaped like a skull, and LED lights in their eyes and mouth seem to light up at random.

The badge itself, powered by a 3-volt battery in its chin, features a mini processor and buttons that look like the controller for an old-school video gaming system. Attendees quickly discovered they can set off a light show by using the buttons to enter the “Konami Code,” a video game cheat code dating back to the 1980s.

The back has other secret codes and patterns for attendees to decipher.

Rise of the machines

Def Con kicked off with the finals of the Cyber Grand Challenge, which was billed as the world’s first all-machine hacking tournament.

Seven teams created computers to automatically hunt for software bugs and fix them in real time before significant damage could be done. Spectators watched on the big screen as sportscaster-like commentators described the action. Mayhem, built by a startup with roots at Carnegie Mellon University, took the $2 million prize for catching and fixing the most bugs.

The competition was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the military’s research arm that created the internet in the 1960s.

Being different

Most security conferences focus on encryption, firewalls and the digital side of security. Def Con has those topics, too, but takes pride in blending in the physical side as well.

Crowds packed ballrooms to see how one hacker channeled his inner MacGyver to create a bionic hand out of a deconstructed Keurig coffee maker. Unofficial evening parties offered lessons on how to escape from handcuffs.

It’s like a summer camp for mischievously gifted and talented kids after they grow up.


AP video on badge’s “Konami Code”:

Android makers really want to make their phones eye-catching

The Moto Z Droid, left, and Moto Z Force Droid phones are displayed with modules available to extend the phones’ functionality. The Moto Z adopts a modular design, which lets customers mix and match components, like Lego blocks. The modules are, from left to right, JBL speakers, a wall projector and a spare battery pack. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

JBL SoundBoost speakers, with a red fold-out stand, are attached to the back of a Moto Z Force Droid phone, in New York. Motorola is offering mix-and-match modules to make the phone more powerful. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Anick Jesdanun

New York (AP) - It’s getting rarer for phone launches to generate excitement these days - especially in the Android world, where all models use the same underlying Google software. Every year, phones get routine refreshes such as faster processors, better cameras and longer battery life.

But Android phone makers haven’t given up trying to stand out. Samsung, for instance, hopes to encourage upgrades by giving its new Galaxy Note 7 phone an eye scanner for identification and related security features. Other manufacturers are looking beyond the phone entirely, pinning their hopes on innovative accessories. Motorola offers mix-and-match modules that let you upgrade your phone on the fly, while Alcatel is focused on adding virtual-reality features, including a headset.

Just look ... for security

Fingerprint scanners are now standard in high-end phones, following their big debut in the 2013 iPhone 5S. In the Note 7, Samsung takes the notion of such “biometric” security a step further, adding an iris scanner that detects patterns in your eyes to confirm your identity.

The feature is easy to set up, and the iris detection works well - as long as you’re not in direct sunlight or wearing glasses (much less sunglasses). Samsung even warns that contact lenses might mess things up, although the scanner worked fine when I wore them. To unlock the phone, you need to turn on the screen and swipe; then you just stare at the screen. The fingerprint scanner works even with the screen off and glasses on, making it the far better choice unless your fingers are wet.

Many Android phones offer a face-detection feature for unlocking phones, but that’s all it does. With the Note 7, the iris or fingerprint can also unlock a secure folder where you can stash sensitive photos, documents and email accounts you might want to keep away from friends who borrow your phone to look at baby pictures.

It’s a good concept, although in practice it can feel like you’re using two separate phones. When browsing photos in the “secure” gallery, all your other photos are invisible. You need to go back out to the “unsecure” gallery to view those. And there’s no way to move text messaging to the Secure Folder.

Beyond that, the Note 7 has a more resilient screen, more storage and more ways to use the stylus - for instance, you can translate a phrase just by holding the pen over a word. Samsung also brings water resistance and its excellent Galaxy S7 camera to the jumbo Note 7, while offering easier access to camera settings using swipes.

Nothing is radically new, but the improvements are great if you’re already looking to upgrade. The Note 7 comes out Friday and will cost $850 to $880 in the U.S., depending on the carrier. It’s about $100 more than what last year’s Note cost at launch, but all models now have a screen that curves over the sides of the phone, something previously reserved for a more expensive “Edge” version.

Build your own phone

Motorola is the latest manufacturer to embrace a new concept called modular design. With it, customers can customize their phones on-the-fly by swapping out components to get, say, a bigger battery or more powerful speakers. Another replaceable module can turn the phone into a wall projector for presentations. This takes the idea of personalization way beyond choosing the phone’s color or storage.

LG introduced an earlier modular design with its G5 phone in April, although that phone forces you to shut it down every time you replace a module. Motorola lets you replace modules without missing a Snapchat. Modules attach to the phone using powerful magnets, yet they snap on and off easily, like Lego blocks.

Of course, many phone cases and other accessories offer similar functionality, but they aren’t as fun as what the company calls Moto Mods.

For now, you can only use these modules with the Moto Z ($625) and Moto Z Force ($720) phones, which are currently available only through Verizon in the U.S. under the Droid brand. And these modules will cost you: a spare battery is $60 to $90, the speaker is $80 and the projector is a whopping $300. You could shell out more than $1,200 if you also opt for a designer phone back made of fabric, wood or leather.

The concept is pretty radical as Android innovations go, but there’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Third-party developers need to know there are customers out there before they’ll commit the time and money to building imaginative modules. A module with a larger camera lens for better zooming, for instance, would be awesome. But there are no crowds demanding that feature - at least not yet.

LG faces the same problem with its G5 modules. For now, it lets you swap batteries and attach a camera grip with physical buttons to take shots and control video recording.

Another World

Alcatel’s approach to innovation is to not sell you a phone at all. Instead, it wants to offer you a virtual-reality setup for $400. You get a mid-range Android phone, the Idol 4S, along with a VR headset, JBL headphones and an Incipio protective case for the phone. Alcatel doesn’t sell the 4S separately, but based on the $280 price of last year’s Idol 3, you’re paying roughly $100 for the accessories.

Alcatel’s headset is a step up from Google Cardboard, a $15 contraption that’s not meant to be comfortable - it’s made of cardboard, after all. But it lacks the head-tracking capabilities of Samsung’s $100 Gear VR, which on Friday is getting a wider field of view and a black interior for more-immersive viewing.

The Idol 4S comes with several VR apps already installed, including Littlstar for watching VR videos and Fyuse for stitching together 360-degree photos, panorama-style.

Unfortunately, Alcatel’s innovation might feel obsolete in just a few months, when Google releases its Daydream system for headsets and phones. Daydream is designed for higher-end phones than the Idol 4S, so Alcatel’s VR system won’t be compatible..



Back to Main Page

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Yosemite, and President Obama, head into virtual reality

Pokemon doughnuts, exercise classes tap game’s popularity

Reward your ears: 5 gadgets to liven up your music

Lock picking your way to cybersecurity at Def Con

Android makers really want to make their phones eye-catching


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