Update September 30, 2016
Yosemite, and President Obama,
head into virtual reality
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)
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.
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.)
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
“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
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.
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
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
Without that, he said, “it becomes
shots - beautiful, but it’s not a story.”
Video on Facebook 360:
AP photo gallery for park service
Update September 24, 2016
Pokemon doughnuts, exercise
classes tap game’s popularity
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)
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Excellent sound over the
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
Lock picking your way to cybersecurity at Def Con
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)
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
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
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
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.
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
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)
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)
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
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
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.
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..