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14 Mar

Unreal developer blasts Microsoft, claims company wants to monopolize game development

The Windows Store and therestrictions it places on games and game settings have been rising over the past week, ever since the release of Ashes of the Singularityand Gears of War Ultimate Edition. We’ve reached out to Microsoft in an attempt to clarify some of these issues, specifically those related to V-Sync, WDDM 2.0, and the current limits that lock down Windows Store titles. Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games and lead developer on the Unreal Engine, recently blasted Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform, UWP, and called for a complete boycott of the platform.

unreal development

In an op/ed for The Guardian, Sweeney describes Microsoft’s actions as an aggressive attempt to lock down the Windows ecosystem, thereby monopolizing both application distribution and commerce. He writes:

Microsoft has launched new PC Windows features exclusively in UWP, and is effectively telling developers you can use these Windows features only if you submit to the control of our locked-down UWP ecosystem. They’re curtailing users’ freedom to install full-featured PC software, and subverting the rights of developers and publishers to maintain a direct relationship with their customers.

Sweeney states that he has no problem with the Windows Store as such, but takes issue with the way Microsoft has locked down the platform. Because Microsoft controls the only distribution point for UWP applications, no other company can offer equivalent software. Side-loading can be enabled, but it’s off by default and could be removed entirely in a future Windows Update.

timsweeney-ed

Epic Games founder and Unreal engine developer, Tim Sweeney

Sweeney calls on Microsoft to allow UWP applications to be distributed just as Win32 applications are now, for any company to be allowed to distribute UWP applications, including Steam and GOG, and that users and publishers should be allowed to directly engage in commerce with each other without paying a 30% fee to Microsoft. It should be noted that Valve, which owns the vast majority of digital distribution on the PC, also charges a 30% fee.

This true openness requires that Microsoft not follow Google’s clever but conniving lead with the Android platform, which is technically open, but practically closed…

The ultimate danger here is that Microsoft continually improves UWP while neglecting and even degrading win32, over time making it harder for developers and publishers to escape from Microsoft’s new UWP commerce monopoly. Ultimately, the open win32 Windows experience could be relegated to Enterprise and Developer editions of Windows.

Right now, the Windows Store is a mess compared with the gaming options available on Steam, GOG, and even publisher-specific options like Origin or uPlay. Microsoft clearly wants to jump-start the store with options like cross-purchase with the Xbox One, but the Gears of War port we got earlier this week was a poor way to do that. Sweeney pulls no punches here, either, writing:

In my view, if Microsoft does not commit to opening PC UWP up in the manner described here, then PC UWP can, should, must and will, die as a result of industry backlash. Gamers, developers, publishers simply cannot trust the PC UWP “platform” so long as Microsoft gives evasive, ambiguous and sneaky answers to questions about UWP’s future, as if it’s a PR issue. This isn’t a PR issue, it’s an existential issue for Microsoft, a first-class determinant of Microsoft’s future role in the world.

Them’s fightin’ words. But is it true?

Is Microsoft trying to take over PC commerce?

It’s interesting to me that Sweeney, who works on one of the leading PC gaming engines, didn’t say much about technical limitations or problems implementing specific features that PC gamers want. The word from Microsoft (such as it has been) on these restrictions is that solutions to the various technical problems are coming. AMD is adding DirectFlip to its DX12 drivers, a V-Sync “fix” is in the works at Redmond, and patches are in development for Gears of War.

The technical issues that the press and readers have been cataloging, in other words, may simply be a sign of a still-developing ecosystem and early support.

Sweeney’s argument isn’t technical, it’s economic. And I can see where he’s coming from. There’s an old saying: “If all your traffic comes from X, your customers (or readers) aren’t yours — they’re X’s.” The rise of Facebook and social networking has had an enormous impact on web publishing — more and more traffic flows over these sources, and less comes in direct web searching or homepage visits. The idea of typing a direct URL into a browser window is apparently an anachronism.

Even Sweeney admits that the Windows Store as it exists today is a shadow of what it would need to be to actually start locking down the game industry. His remarks remind me of Gabe Newell’s back when Microsoft launched Windows 8. The Windows Store is at least a tremendous theoretical threat to Steam — if Microsoft dominated game distribution, Valve, which currently owns most of the digital PC gaming space, would see its revenue plunge. Sweeney may be sincere when he claims to be fighting for the rights of both gamers and publishers, but that doesn’t mean he wants to pay Microsoft a 30% cut for distributing games on the Windows Store platform.

I don’t think Microsoft will ever open the UWP application concept to any and all programs, but hopefully we’ll see some technical improvement to the applications distributed via this method. Allowing Valve or GOG to publish games that have been certified as UWP-compatible also seems like a fair change, provided those titles aren’t gimped like the current products sold via the Windows Store.

Personally, I’m not sure if I agree with Sweeney or not. The puzzle pieces he’s fit together are definitely on the table — Microsoft has moved to new revenue models with Windows 10, the Windows Store lockdown mirrors what Android and iOS already do, and Universal applications are meant to replace the older Win32-style apps in the long run. I’m not sure the PC software industry is particularly interested in doing that, and there are some practical reasons not to — Windows Store applications are restricted in ways that can result in an inferior user experience.

Even if Microsoft has no plans to go full villain, the concerns he raises are valid, and the lack of communication from Redmond on many of these issues is disquieting.

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29 Jan

Audi drives repairs with telepresence robots’ help

Lets mechanics around the globe consult with factory technicians

audi

A mechanic working at an American Audi dealership is stumped by a problem with a car.

Solving the problem would be so much easier if a technician from the manufacturing plant in Germany could look over his shoulder, hear the noise the car was making and see under the hood.

Impossible, right?

Well, actually, it’s not.

Audi, a German automobile manufacturer, has been testing telepresence robots in 68 dealerships across the United States. They’re also piloting a few in Mexico, Singapore and Germany — but the main test bed is in the U.S.

The company is using VGo robots , made by Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna Technologies to improve communication, save money and get cars repaired faster.

A pilot program began in 2014, and now a telepresence robot is planned for every one of the approximately 292 U.S. dealerships by the end of 2016. Audi executives say the robots are already helping their human workers do a better job.

“If the dealer has a telepresence unit, [the robots] can follow the mechanic to a car and work with them as if I was standing shoulder to shoulder with him,” said Brian Stockton, general manager of technical support for Audi of America. “We can see what [the mechanic] is seeing. We can record what he’s recording… We can do this seamlessly and quickly instead of going back and forth with emails.”

VGo is a wheeled, robotic system that runs on a battery and uses Wi-Fi. The remote user controls the system, giving it commands to move to where it needs to be, use the two onboard cameras and give the user live streaming video.

The robot is controlled by the remote user — in this case, the technician based in Germany, in most cases.

The robot also has a screen where a human head would be, allowing the remote user to see what’s in front of it and enabling people near the robot to see the remote user’s face.

“It’s making my job easier and quicker,” said Lee Ludolph, a shop foreman and technician at an Atlanta-area Audi dealership. “We can get answers quicker because [factory technicians] can see what we’re seeing. It’s like they’re standing beside us. Before it was a phone call and we had to take pictures or sound recordings and upload it to them. This way, they can see and hear it all at one time.”

Broadening use

Vecna, which acquired New Hampshire-based VGo Communications and its telepresence robots last July, has its VGo robots used at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital for patient interaction, as well as by JetBlue for customer service. NASA’s also used these robots to help remote employees participate in meetings, among other things.

A VGo robot was even sent to a medical unit in Liberia in the fall of 2014 so it could be used to help treat patients fighting the deadly outbreak of Ebola .

The telepresence robot was used to enable doctors and nurses working outside of quarantine areas to observe and communicate with patients inside the quarantine areas. It increased patient care, while keeping caregivers safely away from contaminated areas.

Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, said it’s a great idea that will probably spread to other companies and other industries.

“You would think that if doctors can heal patients from a distance, mechanics should be able to fix cars that way even easier,” he told Computerworld. “Technology empowers every industry to use telepresence to solve problems better and more affordably than ever. This is a very innovative idea. It is a very exciting idea. The only thing now is to watch how well it works.”

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, says he’s glad companies are starting to put telepresence to work.

“Telepresence robots were created around a decade ago but it has taken folks a long time both to get the technology to a point where it was reliable and cheap, and to figure out how to use it properly,” said Enderle. “This is kind of what telepresence robots were created for.”

He also thinks this technology will only increase in use and usefulness.

“These things are pretty rudimentary right now, but expect them to evolve quickly now that they have found a better purpose and eventually be far more capable and often far more human-looking in the near-term future,” said Enderle.

Some tech bumps

Despite the positive prognosis for telepresence robots, there have been bumps in the road with Audi’s robotic telepresence project.

Ludolph noted that they had to work out some kinks with their dealership network to get the VGo system working well there.

“We had some issues in the beginning with the Wi-Fi system in our store,” he explained. “Our IT guys had to straighten it out. They had to update their Wi-Fi to a 5.0 spec. Before it was 2-point something. They had to open up some ports. After they did that, it worked flawlessly.”

Each of Audi’s dealerships has its own network, with often different Wi-Fi and security settings, along with heavy security.

However, there also has been a human side to adjusting to the new robots.

People issues

Ludolph noted that it has been tough for some of the technicians to get used to being around and working with a robot.

“I’m not going to lie. It’s different,” he said. “Even some of the newer guys who come to work and see it driving itself around are like, ‘Am I seeing this?’ It’s kind of weird because it feels like you’re talking to a wall. You see a face but it’s still kind of weird talking to a computer screen. I don’t normally do that a lot. I don’t even do FaceTime on my cell phone.”

But after using the robot two or three times and seeing how much time and effort he could save, Ludolph said he was won over and adjusted to his new robotic co-worker.

Now that they’re more familiar with the robotic system and they’ve got the kinks worked out, Stockton said they’re looking to use the robots as training tools, as well as to help with repairs.

Factory technicians can also use the telepresence machines to communicate with shop foremen around the world, updating them on technical issues or new plans.

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