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Mobile industry has stifled eSIM—and the DOJ is demanding change

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The US Department of Justice has given its tentative approval to a wireless-industry plan to revise eSIM standards, saying that new safeguards should prevent carriers from colluding against competitors in the standards-setting process. But the DOJ warned the industry that it must eliminate anti-competitive provisions from the current eSIM standard or face possible antitrust enforcement.

The DOJ last year began investigating AT&T, Verizon, and the GSMA, a trade group that represents mobile carriers worldwide. The antitrust enforcer found that incumbent carriers stacked the deck against competitors while developing an industry standard for eSIM, the embedded SIM technology that is used instead of removable SIM cards in new smartphones and other devices.

In theory, eSIM technology should make it easier to switch carriers or use multiple carriers because the technology doesn’t require swapping between physical SIM cards. But how it works in practice depends heavily on whether big carriers dominate the standard-setting process.

The DOJ investigation found that “the GSMA and its mobile network operator members used an unbalanced standard-setting process, with procedures that stacked the deck in their favor, to enact an RSP (Remote SIM Provisioning) Specification that included provisions designed to limit competition among networks,” the agency said last week.

That flawed process resulted in RSPv2, which makes it easy for a carrier to lock eSIM-equipped smartphones to its network, the DOJ said. The standard has so-called “profile policy rules” that require smartphones to “contain the capability for operator-controlled locking in order to be considered compliant with the RSP Specification,” the DOJ said. These provisions “may restrict the pro-competitive potential of eSIMs without being necessary to achieve remote provisioning or to solve an interoperability problem,” the DOJ said.

The current standard also has provisions that make it harder for phones to automatically switch between networks when the phone “detects stronger network coverage or a lower-cost network,” the DOJ said. The standard also “prevents an eSIM from actively using profiles from multiple carriers simultaneously.”

DOJ will watch and wait

Despite that, the DOJ said it won’t file an antitrust lawsuit. That’s because the GSMA agreed to a new standard-setting process that addressed DOJ concerns and will use that process to develop a new standard that will replace RSPv2. The DOJ said it is satisfied by the GSMA’s process changes but that it will monitor the implementation of the new standard and may take action if the GSMA doesn’t remove anti-competitive provisions in the next version of RSP.

The GSMA described its new process—called AA.35—in a letter to the DOJ in July, and DOJ antitrust chief Makan Delrahim provided an update on the agency’s “present enforcement intentions regarding GSMA’s proposal” in a letter to the GSMA last week. The DOJ said it “presently has no intention to challenge AA.35, if it goes into effect,” because the new process “includes sufficient protections to minimize the chances of anticompetitive self-dealing inside the GSMA if it is applied as contemplated.”

However, the DOJ said it “will closely observe how AA.35 is applied and whether it succeeds in promoting interoperability.” The DOJ also warned the GSMA that if carriers form separate agreements to limit competition, “such agreements are always subject to independent antitrust scrutiny.”

What the industry agreed to

Originally, the GSMA let non-carriers such as smartphone manufacturers participate in the standard-development process but made sure that all final decisions were controlled by mobile carriers. The DOJ said it was “concerned that the GSMA’s operator-dominated process was used with the purpose and effect of altering what would otherwise have been competitive negotiations between the operators and smartphone manufacturers (‘OEMs’) over the design and implementation of eSIMs.”

But after the DOJ began investigating, the GSMA came up with the alternative AA.35 process. As the DOJ noted, “AA.35 creates a two-stage process, with an Industry Specification Issuing Group (‘ISIG’) that creates the standards and an Industry Specification Approving Group (‘ISAG’) that approves the standards.”

ISIG membership is open “to all members, ensuring that there will not be operator-exclusive committees driving the process,” the DOJ continued. Non-carriers can become members of the ISAG, which “eliminates the complete control that operators previously had and instead gives all parts of the industry an opportunity to be represented,” the DOJ said.

Another safeguard prevents standards from being approved without the consent of smartphone makers. “At the ISAG level, [AA.35] requires approval of standards by separate majorities of the ISAG operator- and non-operator members,” the DOJ said. “Both bodies require an explanation of negative votes, another improvement that increases transparency and indicates meaningful attempts to reach consensus.”

Another new provision allows for appeals to be heard by an independent panel. Finally, operators can’t bypass or change this process “without the support of non-operator members” because the dual-majority voting structure requires consent of both groups, the DOJ said.

Getting rid of anti-competitive provisions

The current version of the eSIM standard, which was passed under the old, flawed process, has “several key features that have restricted the disruptive potential of eSIMs to date,” the DOJ said. That’s a reference to the phone-locking provision described earlier in this article and “provisions that restrict the number of active profiles on an eSIM or impede the user’s ability to consent to dynamic profile switching,” the DOJ said.

For example, RSPv2 requires consumers to give their approval each time an eSIM “toggles between profiles or networks,” preventing the scenario where a phone automatically switches between networks “if it detects stronger network coverage or a lower-cost network,” the DOJ said.

A RSPv2 prohibition on using profiles from multiple carriers simultaneously could prevent scenarios where users have their phone divided into work-related and personal profiles or multiple “profiles optimized for different coverage areas or for international travel,” the DOJ said. Incumbent carriers apparently wanted that restriction to undercut “a potential competitive threat [that] would allow a user to divide usage across operators,” the DOJ said.

When the GSMA uses its new AA.35 process to create a new standard, the DOJ said it expects the group to reconsider those anti-competitive rules.

“The Department will take a special interest in whether RSPv3 includes provisions that are motivated only by the incumbent operators’ interest in gaining a competitive advantage or stifling new sources of competition,” Delrahim warned the GSMA. The DOJ “reserves the right to bring an enforcement action in the future” if the GSMA’s implementation of AA.35 “proves to be anticompetitive in purpose or effect,” he wrote.



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Half-Life Alyx AMA: Everything we learned

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The developers of Half-Life: Alyx answered questions about the game on Reddit.

To save you rummaging through the Reddit thread, we’ve summed up all of the responses in one place.

SDK is not releasing alongside the game

The team is “not currently planning on shipping a full SDK.” They said it may come at some point, but it would be a lot of work at the moment, when they could be polishing the game instead. “Source 2 is a new toolset, much of which hasn’t been previously released. … Generally, this is how we’ve done SDKs in our previous Source 1 titles as well — making the game takes precedence, and after that’s done, we start looking at what’s next.”

It’s finished

The developers joked that “Valve Time,” a running joke about the studio’s delays, happened during the pre-announcement development cycle and the game is on track for its March release. “With the exception of some tweaks to the absolute final scene, the game is done. Lots of us at Valve, as well as playtesters, have played through the entire game multiple times. Right now we’re primarily polishing and fixing bugs, which is where we’d hope to be at this point in the development cycle. We’re confident we’ll hit our intended release.”

The developers also noted Half-Life: Alyx is comparable in length and content to Half-Life 2. Interestingly, the Half-Life: Alyx development team consists of around 80 people, which is the largest single team that has ever worked on a Valve project.

Secrecy

“Working on HL:A before we announced it was pretty worrisome. I have a teenage son, and for 4 years I’ve refused to tell him what game I was working on, because I knew he wouldn’t be able to keep it to himself. On the team we joked that releasing the game was much less scary than announcing it. But in the end, we are very happy with how it’s been received, and we’re really excited to get it finished and into your hands.”

More gameplay details, videos on the way

The developers confirmed that more gameplay videos are on the way before release. These will also showcase movement options and other VR-specific elements.

The developers also confirmed there will be a train ride in the game. “It’s actually illegal to ship a Half-Life game if you don’t spend at least a little time riding in a train.”

They also talked about how classic Half-Life monsters and enemies, like Barnacles, Head Crabs, and Combine soldiers, will work in VR. “Barnacles are a threat in VR. They don’t kill you instantly. You’ll deal with them in familiar ways, but the opportunities afforded by VR also give you new methods to use against them.”

Above: This looks spooky.

Image Credit: Valve

“We experimented with moving the player, but moving the player without their input in VR didn’t work very well. As with many aspects of working on this game, we’ve had to find new ways to take well-worn mechanics and other Half-Life staples into the specific framework of VR.”

“You can put a bucket on a headcrab, and it’ll move the bucket as it crawls around. Playtesters all keep reporting it as a bug.”

“Similarly, Combine soldiers definitely return, both in the form you’ve previously seen them as well as with new variations to keep players busy and take advantage of VR. Some creatures respond to audio more than others. We don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s an example of this we’re particularly excited about.”

Horrific headcrabs

It looks like UploadVR’s Jamie isn’t alone when it comes to VR horror – one member of the Alyx team admitted he struggled to play through headcrab sections. “I admit I cannot deal with headcrabs in general, and definitely not in VR. If I’m testing the game, and I’m in an area where I know one of those things is around, I’ll remove the head set and hold it off my face as I attempt to navigate on the 2nd monitor screen, to lessen the impact of headcrab discovery.”

“Disappointingly for me, it seems that I’m the only one on the team who can’t deal, we handle the scarier parts pretty well in terms of making the game accessible. Horror is part of the franchise, and through playtesting, we feel like we’ve gained some confidence about where to draw this line. Some of our gorier visuals tend to evoke a grim fascination rather than revulsion or panic, and apart from myself, we’ve hardly ever seen anyone nope out of a playtest, even during the creepier sections. So among testers I still seem to be the outlier on horror tolerance.”

No jumping

Jumping also won’t come into play very often during gameplay, either.

“For instance, if you need to get past an obstacle like a crate, you mantle up rather than jump up. The only time you need to jump is to traverse a short gap, which happens very rarely. We tried a few iterations of jumping, but ultimately found that even in continuous motion, players preferred dealing with those jumps with a teleport-style movement.”

Original Alyx coice actor was once involved

“We worked with Merle [Dandridge] at the beginning of HL:A development, but in the end, felt we wanted to go in a different direction. We love Merle, her work in Half-Life 2 was instrumental in bringing Alyx to life, and we hope to work with her again in the future.”

The team also reconfirmed that Alyx, the titular, playable character of the game, will speak. A speaking, playable protagonist is not overly common in VR games, let alone in Valve games. In the Half-Life series (and the Portal series), the playable protagonists have traditionally not spoken at all.

Valve writer Eric Wolpaw addressed this changed. “Having the viewpoint character speak is mostly liberating. It certainly makes writing scenes easier when you don’t have to write around the fact that the main character is mute. It’s also easier to have the player feel they’re actually an active participant in the scene. In portal we got around it a little by actually acknowledging the main character is mute. I think it’s a lot more tricky when you have to maintain a fragile fiction that the player character can talk but simply isn’t for some reason. Anyway, I was and still am happy that the main character speaks.”

Two-handed combat, inventory management

Above: These hands are made for bashing headcrabs.

Image Credit: Valve

The developers confirmed you can use one hand for all weapons, but a second hand can optionally be used to steady weapons. “We really wanted to focus on simultaneous two handed play throughout the game, so we needed the player to always be able to easily have a free hand. We keep that hand pretty busy with gravity gloves, movement, world interactions, flashlight, and so on.”

They also stated that the inventory systems are designed to keep the focus on the environment as much as possible. “We have an ‘over the shoulder’ contextual inventory system for ammo on your off hand, Your weapon hand has a quick weapon select feature, and we have a couple of wrist bags for some of the other items.”

V-Arms, Index finger-tracking

Some people brought up the lack of arms (and only hands) in the Half-Life: Alyx reveal trailer, which Valve addressed in the AMA. “We don’t render arms due to our experiences with playtesting – briefly, we found that players themselves don’t notice them missing (spectators do, obviously), and they don’t like them obscuring their view.”

“We actually simulate invisible arms though, which connect from your hands back up to your HMD, and we use those to detect impossible things, like completely closing a drawer over your wrist. We’re planning on releasing a video going into the tech behind our VR hands / interactions / etc, so there’ll be more on this soon.“

Meanwhile, when it comes to finger tracking on the Index: “Index controller finger-tracking allows for greater player expression and more opportunities for fine-grained engagement with the world. But the game was tested with all major VR solutions throughout development to ensure full compatibility for all required interactions.”

This is something we had mostly already heard before. The YouTube channel Tested even got to try Half-Life: Alyx out at Valve HQ and compare how the game plays differently on each headset.

Subtitles at launch, non-english voiceovers possible, dev commentary

Subtitles for English, French, German, Spanish-Spain, Japanese, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Spanish-Latin America and Traditional Chinese will be available at launch. Non-English voiceovers “is still something [they’re] considering.”

Likewise, the team “are huge fans of commentary and definitely plan on producing it for HL:A but it’s unlikely that [they] will have it in for launch day.”

This story originally appeared on Uploadvr.com. Copyright 2020



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Lib Tech Lost Twin Rocket 2018 Review

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Google, Amazon smart speakers can be more helpful digital assistants

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Already, about one in four U.S. consumers has a home personal assistant at their beck and call, thanks to the success of smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Nest.

But many users are just scratching the surface of what these gadgets can do.

If you aren’t familiar with the speakers (both starting at $35), you wake up your artificial intelligence-driven helper with a keyword – “Alexa” for Amazon devices and “OK, Google” for a Google Nest or Google Home speaker – followed by a question or command.

A human-like voice will give you a response, whether you want to hear the weather, a specific song, set a timer for the oven, or control your smart devices in your home, such as adjusting lighting or a thermostat.

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One-fourth of U.S. consumers (25%) will use a smart speaker in 2020, up from 17% in 2018, according to research firm eMarketer.

If you have a smart speaker already, don’t you want to get more out of it? Here are 10 helpful – and lesser-known – functions to take your digital assistant to the next level.

Make free phone calls

Both Alexa and Google devices let you make free phone calls – even if you don’t own a landline. It uses the internet to place the outgoing call, using Voice over Internet Protocol or “VoIP” technology.

Just say “Alexa” or “OK, Google,” followed by a phone number (“dial 212-555-1212”), a name in your smartphone’s Contacts (e.g. “Call Mary Smith at work”) or a business name (“call the Home Depot at the corner of 1st and 3rd street.”)

It works for any 10-digit American or Canadian number!

‘OK, Google, remind me’

No pen or paper needed if you have an Amazon or Google speaker. Say something like “Alexa, remind me to pick up Maya from the mall at 4 p.m.” or “OK, Google, remind me to take my pills every day at 9:30 a.m.” When the time comes, you’ll be reminded by your speaker.

Your smart speaker can also be an alarm clock. Just say something like “Alexa, wake me up to (specific song or radio station) at (time).” You can even specify the wake-up time to be for weekdays only.

‘Alexa, find my phone’

Smart speakers can also help you remember things.  For example, say something like “OK, Google,” or “Alexa,” and then “Remember my passport is in the small drawer in the kitchen.”

When you need it in the future, ask “Where’s my passport?” and she’ll tell you where it is, and what date you asked her to remind you.

On a related note, if you can’t find your smartphone, perhaps because it’s buried between sofa cushions, ask your smart speaker to find your phone and it will ring.

Use Bluetooth to pair a better speaker

Since both Google and Amazon smart speakers have integrated Bluetooth, you can wirelessly connect it to a better Bluetooth speaker or soundbar for louder and clearer sound.

Therefore, you can get away with buying an inexpensive and teeny Google Nest Mini or Amazon Echo Dot, yet still have room-filling sound for music playback.

You can tell it to pair to another device with your voice or by going into the app on a smartphone.

AI assistants can learn your routine

Another useful, and relatively new feature – for both Amazon and Google gear – is to set up Routines.

Instead of manually activating tasks, you can create automatic routines at a certain time, when you get to a specific place (as identified by your phone’s location info), or when you say a specific phrase.

For example, set a routine to start at, say, 7 a.m., and have your smart speaker wake you up with your favorite song, turn the smart lights on in your bathroom, brew a cup of coffee (with the help of a smart plug) and read your calendar appointments.

To enable a Routine on an Amazon speaker, go into the Alexa app on your phone, tap Settings > Routines.

For Google, open the app, and go to Settings > More settings > Assistant > Routines. 

Buy something with your speaker

Use your voice to easily buy things on an Amazon Echo or Google Nest speaker, saying the wake word, following by something like “Order a Fitbit Versa 2 Smartwatch” and the product will ship to your door from Amazon. 

Your speaker will tell you the item name and price. You’ll be prompted if Alexa or Google Assistant needs more info before ordering (and you can see the item on the app, too).

On Amazon devices, you can also track your package. Say “Alexa, where’s my stuff?” You’ll hear the day your delivery is expected to arrive on your doorstep.

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Use it as a night light

Alexa users know the neon blue ring on top of the smart speaker means Alexa is listening or processing your request. But you can go into the app and choose different colors and patterns to visually tell you things, such as if you missed a message or if someone is calling, what volume the speaker is at, and if the mic is turned off, to name a few options. 

There’s also a third-party “skill” (optional add-on) called Night Light that lets you use the ring as a night light in a dark room. First enable the skill by saying “Alexa, enable the Night Light skill.” Then, going forward, tell your speaker something like “Alexa, open Night Light for two hours.”

Personalize voice recognition

If you share a home with family members or a housemate, it’s a good idea to train your Amazon or Google device to recognize your voice.

When you do, you can ask for calendar appointments, favorite music, or how long it will take to get to work (taking real-time traffic information into account) – and it will be only tied to you.

Say “Alexa, train my voice” to get started. When you tell Google to “train your voice,” it will prompt you to open the smartphone app to begin.

Smoothen the conversation

It can be a pain to keep saying the wake word every time you need information from your smart speaker. But you can set up “Follow-up” mode (Amazon) or “Continued Conversation” (Google) to reduce how many times you have to say “Alexa” or “OK Google,” respectively.

Now, when you ask a question, like “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?,” you can follow up with something like “And how long will it take for me to get to work?” – without having to say the wake word again.

Another example is “OK, Google, turn the lights off,” after she says OK, say “Lock the doors” or “Set the thermostat to away mode.”

After enabling this in the app for Alexa or Google, this will work so long as you follow up within a few seconds of the original request.

Change the voice

For both devices, you can change the wake word, accent, and even the language of your smart speaker. Check the Settings of your smart speaker’s app to make those changes. 

You can also change the voice altogether. With Google, open the app, tap your profile picture in the top right of the screen, followed by Assistant settings > Assistant > Assistant voice. Choose which voice you like, and you can select celebrity voices, too, like John Legend.

The process is similar with Alexa devices. On the app, choose, Settings > (Device name) > Language.

As of last month, you can also embody your Echo with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson. Say “Alexa, introduce me to Samuel L. Jackson.” Agree to pay 99 cents. And now you’ll hear weather, a joke, music and more, in Sam’s voice, but you’ll have to first say “Alexa, ask Sam for __.” You can choose a clean or explicit version of banter from the actor.

There’s also a “Whisper mode” on Alexa devices. When you enabled this in the app’s Settings (under Voice Responses), whenever you whisper to your speaker – perhaps if a child is sleeping nearby – your speaker will whisper back to you!

Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast at www.marcsaltzman.com.

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