Microsoft buys Simplygon to simplify rendering VR and AR models

Microsoft is betting that less is more in 3D design, with the acquisition of the Swedish developer of a 3D data optimization system, Simplygon.Windows 10 VR

Simplygon takes 3D models in a number of formats, and reduces the volume of data used to describe them by taking out some of the detail — somewhat like reducing the size of a JPEG image file by increasing the level of compression while leaving the resolution unchanged.

That means the models can be rendered more rapidly or using less powerful hardware, something that will help Microsoft with the “3D for everyone” vision it outlined last October at the launch of Windows 10 Creators Update.

The company is pushing hard into the markets for virtual reality, with a US$300 consumer VR headset for PCs due out as early as March, and augmented reality, where it is seeking to build an ecosystem around Hololens, its enterprise-oriented stand-alone AR headset.

3D models, whether for video games, architectural rendering, or viewing in augmented or virtual reality, are typically composed of many adjoining flat surfaces, or polygons. The more polygons that are used, the better the model is able to represent complex curved surfaces — but the more memory and processing power it takes to render, or draw on the screen.

Simplygon works best with rendering engines that use a similar density of polygons throughout, simplifying the model to describe flatter parts with fewer polygons, while retaining more polygons in more complex areas, so that they don’t look blocky.

Using this technique, it says it can reduce the number of polygons used in a model by up to 90 percent, while still retaining the essential details and shape.

For Kudo Tsunoda, corporate vice president for next-gen experiences in Microsoft’s Windows and Devices Group, the acquisition will make it easier for Windows users to capture, create and share 3D models.

“It builds on and extends our aspirations to empower a new wave of creativity with the Windows 10 Creators Update, Paint 3D and our online creator community at Remix3D.com,” he said in a post on Microsoft’s blog announcing the deal.

Simplygon was developed by 10-year-old Donya Labs, based in Linköping, Sweden. CEO Matt Connors, founder and CTO Ulrik Lindahl and co-founder Koshi Hamedi will join Microsoft following the acquisition, according to the companies’ websites. They did not provide information about the terms of the deal.

The biggest market for Simplygon is in 3D game design, where it was used by the developer of the game Submerge to reduce the size of models designed for PCs and consoles when the game was ported to iOS.

Over the last year, though, the company has begun highlighting its use in applications such as augmented reality (for recreation of historic scenes) and virtual reality. It worked with a team of archeologists to optimize a 3D model so that visitors to a site could view a virtual reconstruction of a 1,400-year-old village, rendered in real time on their phones or tablets.

Microsoft teases Windows 10’s sleek new look for the future

Microsoft’s planning a sleek visual refresh for Windows 10, and the company quietly teased its first official glimpse of what’s coming in the future during the Windows Developer Day keynote on Wednesday.windows 10

There aren’t many details being shared about “Project Neon” right now—as the refresh was called in earlier leaks—but the new visual look will focus on animations and transitions. The basic concept is “to add fluidity, animation, and blur to apps and the operating system,” as first reported by Windows Central. The new design language also hopes to make it easier for developers to create attractive apps.

The design refresh should extend to all Windows 10 devices including PCs and tablets, HoloLens, Xbox, and the few surviving Windows Phones, according to Windows Central.

windows10projectneon

Microsoft’s first official look at Project Neon. Click to enlarge it.

Twitter user Tom Hounsell shared a clean version of Microsoft’s first look at Windows 10’s forthcoming design tweaks. The image shown on the livestream had large text overlaid on top of the screenshot.

As you can see, this isn’t a huge change, but the visual refresh gives Windows 10 a sleeker, more modern feel. The taskbar icons look a little more dynamic and bolder. Cortana is using the icon instead of the search box, though it’s not clear if this will be the default look. The clock on the taskbar is also bolder, and the usual notification area icons including the Action Center are notably absent. The open Groove Music window itself looks more polished and Aero-esque as well, with no title bar to be seen—just unobtrusive options in the app’s upper-right corner.

The impact on you at home: Windows Central says that some of the code for Project Neon is already available in recent Insider Preview builds of Windows 10; however, it’s unlikely the visual refresh will be ready in time for the massive Creators Update this spring. Microsoft is expected to share more information about Neon during the Build conference in May. The Creators Update is expected to roll out in late March or early April, followed by a second major update later in 2017.

Windows 10 reaches 270 million users: Microsoft

A man shows off Microsoft's Windows 10 operating system at the CeBIT technology fair in Hanover, Germany on March 15, 2015

Windows 10 is now in use in 270 million devices, the tech giant said Wednesday, hailing a strong debut for the multiplatform operating system launched last year.

“Windows 10 is off to an amazing start,” said chief executive Satya Nadella as he opened the Microsoft Build developers conference in San Francisco, saying the figures represent the “fastest ever” adoption of the Windows operating system.

The company is hoping the new version—launched after a weak response to its prior one, Windows 8 and aimed at integrating with a variety of devices—can help it gain traction in the mobile sector, where it lags behind Google Android and Apple iOS, and in emerging technologies for computing.

Although Microsoft dominates the personal computer software market, Windows runs on only a tiny fraction of smartphones.

The 270 million represents new computers and devices with Windows 10 installed as well as upgrades of existing gadgets.

Microsoft has set a goal of having the operating system in use in more than a billion devices by 2018, which would put it on a par with Apple, which said this year it has one billion active devices running iOS.

Microsoft said it would introduce an update of the operating system in the coming months that will make Windows 10 available for its Xbox One game console and enable multiple devices to use the Microsoft digital assistant known as Cortana.

The update will also step up use of biometrics for authentication, allowing users to log into computers and their applications with their fingerprints.

Microsoft will also expand the use of its Ink system, which enables the use of a stylus to add notes or graphics on a display.

Discover stories within data using SandDance, a new Microsoft Research project

Data can be daunting. But within those numbers and spreadsheets is a wealth of information. There are also stories that the data can tell, if you’re able to see them. SandDance, a new Microsoft Garage project from Microsoft Research, helps you visually explore data sets to find stories and extract insights. It uses a free Web and touch-based interface to help users dynamically navigate through complex data they upload into the tool.

While data science experts will find that SandDance is a powerful tool, its ease of use can help people who aren’t experts in data science or programming the ability to analyze information – and present it – in a way that is accessible to a wider audience.

“We had this notion that a lot of visualization summarized data, and that summary is great, but sometimes you need the individual elements of your data set too,” says Steven Drucker, a principal researcher who’s focused on information visualization and data collections. “We don’t want to lose sight of the trees because of the forest, but we also want to see the forest and the overall shape of the data. With this, you’ll see information about individuals and how they’re relative to each other. Most tools show one thing or the other. With SandDance, you can look at data from many different angles.”

Today, SandDance is available in two parallel versions: a standalone Web-based tool and a custom Power BI visual.

“Using the Microsoft Garage as the release platform gives us the freedom to run experiments with the more accessible standalone version, and as we learn what you like and what works, we can add the right parts to the Power BI visual,” says Drucker. SandDance will be announced as part of Power BI at the Data Insights Summit on March 22.

The standalone SandDance experience provides a way to organize all these elements on the screen, show individual content, but also access how it looks overall, too. Moving particles represent data, and they can “dance” from screen to screen as you select and filter data and show it the way you want to, through 3D scatterplot, maps, charts, histograms and many other options. Other features include guided tours (tutorials), shareable insights, scripts and themes.

The SandDance Power BI visual is different from most other visuals that already exist for Power BI in that it shows all the data organized into aggregations, allowing users to see both overall patterns as well as individual outliers.

“SandDance simply rocks! It represents not only fresh, ground-breaking data visualization but also an inspiring partnership with Microsoft Research that has produced amazing results,” says Nick Caldwell, general manager for Power BI. “Most importantly, our customers will love SandDance and the possibilities it unlocks for exploring their data.”

“When people are looking at a bar chart, they’re probably wondering what the bars represent, and are they averages? Or sums?” Drucker says. “With SandDance, people can have a good understanding of what the data means. And then they see these animated transitions, and it means the series of visualizations they’re seeing are linked together in their minds and how they relate to each other.”

And while there are many other ways and tools to present data, they’re mostly linear. With SandDance, you can see where tangents take you, and follow it to a new discovery.

“Flipping around to different views makes the story you’re telling easier to understand,” Drucker says.

As an example, you can take any kind of results – like those of the primaries – from thousands of counties. You’d load that information as an Excel data file, and then you could see how every row represents a county. You can assign colors to easily see who won those counties, how well they did in different parts of the country and drill down the demographics on the voters in those areas. Swing counties start to emerge, as do other outliers, and other nuances that add depth to analysis.

“This experience is a lot about exploration, but it’s also about storytelling,” Drucker says.

In demos, he uses a data set from the Titanic to illustrate who survived and who didn’t. You can break it down by gender, and see that more men died than women, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Most who perished were crew, and amongst the passengers, ticket class determined survival rates – for the most part. Going through SandDance, you find out some didn’t pay as much for their tickets, but still ended up in first class. What’s the story behind that? That’s what SandDance helps reveal.

Each passenger is a data point in SandDance, so you can click on one and go to Bing to find out more information about individuals.

Being able to actually touch the screen and spin around the imagery in 3D also adds to the compelling nature of the tool, and why the researchers think it’s going to be popular with non-datageeks.

“We think of it as an immersive, intuitive way to explore your data and also to tell stories about your data,” says Roland Fernandez, a software engineer who’s the developer on the team. Early on, they experimented with particle animation in HTML, C# and WebGL. He works on the animations and data visualizations. He and Drucker are on the Visualizations in Business and Entertainment team within Microsoft Research. “People are attracted to this because it’s so visual.”

Drucker and Fernandez can see all sorts of uses for the tool, such as diving deeper into casualties from cars (and other vehicles), driving scores and insurance rates. You could even use it in planning a trip, pinpointing places to go based on several variables, or figure out where your money is going and use it to budget better.

“This can help you connect data with people,” Drucker says.

SandDance is releasing through the Garage, the official outlet for experimental projects from teams across Microsoft, to continue testing new and exciting data experiments.

Microsoft pitches smart chats with computers (Update)

Microsoft pitches 'intelligent' conversations with computers

Microsoft wants you to talk more with your computer—and have more useful conversations.

The giant software company is promoting new uses for Cortana—its voice-activated answer to Apple’s Siri digital assistant—including the ability to interact with software “bots” that can have limited conversations with users and help with tasks like booking a hotel room, ordering a meal or arranging a delivery.

Voice-activated services like Siri, “OK Google,” or Amazon’s Alexa can already perform tasks for users like playing a song at a request or answering a question. Bots are smarter than traditional software apps, though, using artificial intelligence to respond to a wider range of commands and in a convenient, conversational way.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, at the opening Wednesday of the company’s annual conference for software developers, touted the power of “conversational intelligence” as he outlined a long-term vision in which Cortana, a central feature of Windows 10, becomes a digital concierge for other online interactions.

“Bots are the new apps,” Nadella told developers.

Lilian Rincon, a program manager for Microsoft’s Skype service, demonstrated how this might work. After receiving a video message from her boss that mentioned an upcoming conference in Dublin, Rincon used Cortana to mark the dates on her calendar. Cortana then used Skype to contact a hotel chain’s bot, which suggested a room and helped Rincon make a reservation for those dates.

Microsoft pitches 'intelligent' conversations with computers

Integrating Cortana with other companies’ bots could increase the use of Microsoft’s services, and make them more valuable, said analyst Ross MacMillan, who follows tech companies for RBC Capital Markets, in an email on Wednesday.

Bots are not perfect, however. Microsoft recently shut down an experimental Internet bot called “Tay” after some Twitter users taught it to make offensive statements.

Nadella acknowledged the episode Wednesday, saying it shows the importance of designing technology to be “inclusive and respectful.”

Microsoft pitches 'intelligent' conversations with computers

Cortana isn’t as well-known as Siri or OK Google. But unlike those services, which are mostly found on smartphones and tablets, Microsoft has made Cortana available on desktop and laptop PCs, via Windows 10.

But Microsoft, after seeing its business suffer because fewer people buy new PCs, has also released Cortana as an app for smartphones and tablets that run Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating software. Similarly, Skype also works on those platforms.

Microsoft is now releasing programming tools for developers to build bots that will interact with Cortana. Not surprisingly, Microsoft would be glad to see people use these services on Skype, the Internet video and voice-calling service that it owns. But some of its tools for creating bots will work with other messaging services: Microsoft listed Slack and standard text messaging, among others.

Microsoft pitches 'intelligent' conversations with computers

Microsoft Corp. also on Wednesday announced a free upgrade this summer to Windows 10 that adds some new features and expands others. The company has touted Windows 10 as the operating system for a wide range of devices, from personal computers to hand-held gadgets, Xbox game consoles and even the company’s HoloLens augmented-reality headset.

Microsoft says Windows 10 is now running on 270 million devices, up from 200 million in January. Analysts say that’s a respectable figure, considering it was released last July, although Microsoft is aiming for 1 billion devices in a few years.

The Windows 10 upgrade will include expanded abilities for Cortana, which will be able to provide reminders or answer questions even if it’s on a device, such as a tablet or smartphone, where the user hasn’t unlocked the screen.

Another new feature will extend Microsoft’s biometric software, Windows Hello, so users can log into more apps and online accounts through fingerprint or facial recognition. The upgrade also expands the ways in which uses can write their own notes or draw lines and sketches with a digital pen on websites, maps and other images that are displayed on their screens.

Microsoft pitches 'intelligent' conversations with computers
Microsoft pitches 'intelligent' conversations with computers
Microsoft pitches 'intelligent' conversations with computers
Microsoft pitches 'intelligent' conversations with computers

Microsoft’s HoloLens is super limited — and hella magical

Microsoft’s HoloLens is one of the most magical pieces of technology I’ve ever seen. It could change the world. But if you bought one today, for your own personal use, I guarantee you’d hate it.

For over a year, journalists have written breathless descriptions of the amazing things they’ve seen inside the HoloLens headset, but they’ve never been able to give you the full picture. Microsoft planned it that way. The first time I tried HoloLens, I actually had to surrender my camera and phone, only to walk through a set of scripted experiences in a secret bunker underneath Microsoft’s Redmond campus.

It was exciting stuff. And still is, honestly. Have you seen our video yet?

But this week, Microsoft let us see what it’s actually like to use HoloLens for real. I spent 90 minutes with an actual $3,000 Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition on my head, watching as computer-generated objects popped into existence in my real world. I walked around an ordinary hotel suite, with no Microsoft supervision, and saw what these holograms were capable of. It made my mind swirl with the possibilities.

It also made me very, very glad that Microsoft has no intention of ever releasing the current developer kit to regular, non-developer people. It’s not even close to ready.

Not ready

The HoloLens developer kit already looks like a consumer product, sure — a futuristic one, anyhow. The headset is composed of a pair of concentric circles that unfold like two rings of a 3D solar system. The inner circle goes around your head, with a bicycle-helmet-style ratcheting dial to tighten it down. The front is supposed to stick to your forehead, while the back rests underneath the back of your skull.

Beneath a visor worthy of “Star Trek” engineer Geordi La Forge are a pair of lenses that glint with rainbow light. When you look through them, you can see additional objects appear around you that don’t exist at all. Things only you can see. Things as small as a little CG bird perched on top of your television, or as big as the surface of Mars suddenly appearing underneath your feet. You can select apps from a Windows-like menu, but you can also just place them in your real world.

They’ll be there, waiting for you wherever you left them, whenever you put the headset on.

But you don’t see these holograms all around you. They’re only in the center of your view. They only exist within a box, roughly the size of a smartphone, held a few inches away from your head. Look away, even a little bit, and they’re gone (though, thanks to built-in 3D speakers, you may still be able to hear them as you turn.)

If they’re large, like a virtual person, maybe you only see the top of them. Until you look down, their bottom half is invisible. Which means there’s no point in blowing up a virtual Web browser or virtual TV screen to cover a wall, because you’d only be able to see a small chunk of it at a time.

It feels nothing like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive virtual reality headsets, which completely surround you with worlds that don’t exist. HoloLens is more than that, but right now, it’s also much less.

Then there’s the matter of controlling the experience. To activate, grab and resize virtual objects, you need to reach out and bend your index finger in a very specific way to “airtap” them. Often as not, I missed tapping what I meant to, or failed to tap it at all. You can also just speak to the headset, issuing voice commands, but Microsoft’s Cortana personal assistant often had a tough time recognizing me.

I got pretty frustrated very quickly, and I’m generally fairly patient with technology.

Another problem I had was keeping the damn thing on my head with its amazing holographic images centered in my field of view. I had to constantly adjust it, cinch it ever tighter until it had my skull in a vice-like grip before it would stay put. I later found out that it comes with a pair of optional straps that go over the top of the head like a baseball cap. I wish I’d used those from the beginning.

While we’re talking caveats, you should also probably know that the HoloLens has a meager 2 to 3 hours of battery life, and it won’t work nearly as well outdoors. In dim rooms, the holograms feel like they’ve got some substance, but in bright light they’d appear ghostly.

But it’s still amazing

Have you watched our video yet, the one at the top of this post?

Regardless of the technology’s current limitations, it blows my mind that a completely wireless headset can do what this one does.

Microsoft’s not trying to hide the HoloLens’s current flaws. The company knows the technology isn’t ready, and it sounds like Microsoft won’t set a price or release date for a consumer version until it’s a product that people will actually want to use.

The just-released Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset had two developer kits before it became a real product. I spent plenty of time with each, and they had lots of flaws as well. It was hard to wear the first one for long without feeling sick. Both the software and the hardware needed years to mature — but the potential was there from day one.

The HoloLens feels like it could have the same potential. I can’t wait to see if it pans out.

Microsoft releases Lumia 650 in the US and Canada

Quite a while after its unveiling back in February, the Microsoft Lumia 650 is now finally available in the US and Canada. This comes after a three-week pre-order period for the new mid-range smartphone.

The Lumia 650 can be yours for $199 or CAD 199, and for that price you’ll receive a SIM-free and unlocked unit. You can order from Microsoft’s online store here for the US and here for Canada. This handset has already been available in Europe for many weeks, so it’s good to finally see it crossing the pond as well.

It comes with a 5-inch 720p touchscreen, an 8 MP rear camera with LED flash, a 5 MP selfie snapper, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 212 chipset running things (with a 1.3 GHz quad-core Cortex-A7 CPU), 1GB of RAM, 16GB of expandable storage, LTE, and a 2,000 mAh battery. It has Windows 10 Mobile on board. To get a better idea of whether it’s a worthy buy or not, make sure you go through our detailed review of the phone.

Humidity rather than heat is the number one enemy of the hard disk

Humidity rather than heat is the number one enemy of the hard disk

Heat isn’t the biggest enemy for the humble hard disk, rather humidity is what causes the most failures, a new piece of research has observed.

The study, carried out by Rutgers University and entitled ‘Environmental Conditions and Disk Reliability in Free-cool Data Centres’, found that the most negative effects on drive controllers and adapters were felt when humidity levels increased.

As Network World reports, the testing took place in Microsoft data centres and encompassed over a million hard drives over a period of several years, and unsurprisingly found that the vast majority of hardware failures in the data centres – 89% of them – were disk failures.

Clear difference

And as the humidity level rises, hard disk rises, failures increase to such an extent that the study authors noted you could easily tell which data centres had humidity controls, as those which didn’t showed up clearly when they looked at the annualised failure rate of controllers.

Humidity is such a danger that researchers found that positioning drives in the “hot region at the back of the server” actually improved the reliability level of the drives, because the heat kept humidity at bay – and the heat is clearly the lesser of two evils.

Whether the cost of advanced humidity controls for a data centre is worth it compared to what you’d fork out replacing the extra failed disks is another matter – although that also depends on how long-term you’re looking.

Last month, we saw some research from Google on the reliability of the hard disk’s big rival, the SSD. That also turned up an interesting finding, namely that it wasn’t the amount of usage the SSD had seen which correlated with high error rates, but simply the age of the drive.

In other words, heavy usage isn’t the big demon which it used to be, and today’s SSDs cope far better with heftier workloads.

Here’s why Cortana leaves Siri and Google Now in the dust

Here's why Cortana leaves Siri and Google Now in the dust

It isn’t often that Microsoft is the company that beats Apple and Google to the punch, especially when it comes to something as cool and sophisticated as virtual assistants but, with Cortana, Redmond has done just that.

The presentation that Microsoft gave at Build 2016, the company’s annual conference in which it explains where it’s at and what it’s doing, focused on ‘bots’, artificial intelligence, and improving services like Cortana.

Cortana means business

Siri, the virtual assistant that Apple launched alongside the iPhone 4S, and Google Now, the assistant embedded in most new Android phones, are rapidly being outpaced by Microsoft’s assistant, which is available on smartphones, tablets, and PCs. This may not seem like a radical difference, but it does mean that Cortana is well-placed to dominate in an area that Microsoft thrives in – the enterprise.

Embedding Cortana into the mindset of businesses is important and, thanks to the rapid uptake of Windows 10, possible. Every Windows 10 PC has the little box in the bottom left that, when pressed, brings up Cortana, ready to answer any queries, help with any tasks, or respond to inane prodding. Apple and Google do not have this advantage as the assistants are not available on OS X or Chrome OS, the company’s respective PC operating systems.

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that Microsoft has outmanoeuvred its competitors. Windows 10, the newest version of the operating system that went on sale last summer, runs across smartphones, tablets, PCs, Xbox, and Internet of Things devices seamlessly, ushering in a new era of universal apps and the Universal Windows Platform.

This platform is what enables Cortana and will, in the future, allow Microsoft to make sweeping advances with its software that can then be rolled out across any number of devices across all hardware ranges. Cortana is simultaneously available on a Microsoft smartphone, a Lenovo tablet, and a Dell PC, and, thanks to Windows 10, she works just the same on all of them.

Skype video bots are coming to take over your life

Bot building

Build also saw Microsoft adopting a different kind of technology: bots. Essentially, bots are little pieces of software that ‘attach’ onto other software and offer services automatically. For example, a bot enabled in Skype can translate a chat in real-time while a bot in Edge, the browser in Windows 10, can automatically order a pizza from Domino’s.

Microsoft is describing this as ‘Conversation as a Platform’ and spent a lot of time on stage explaining why it is so important for the future of the company, especially since it failed to get in on mobile quick enough to have a meaningful market share now.

BMW and Microsoft partner up for Google Now-like functions

BMW and Microsoft partner up for Google Now-like functions

BMW used Build 2016 to launch its new BMW Connected North America app for iOS users, which brings a Google Now personal assistant to its cars. The platform is powered by the Microsoft Azure-based Open Mobility Cloud.

The idea is to leverage your cloud-based data, like your calendar, messages, contacts, commute times, real-time traffic data and driving habits, to predict travel times and provide a reminder, at first.

If this sounds a lot like what Google Now does, you’re right, because most of those features are available on Android phones, which can connect to your car via Android Auto. But, BMW plans to integrate smart home features, so it predicts when you’ll be home and turn on smart lights or increase the thermostat temperature – features available with Google Now and Nest.

Positively, the BMW Connected North America app integrates with the ConnectedDrive app to let you access vehicle functions remotely, which is not something Google Now supports. However, unlike Google Now, which can easily transfer to any Android phone, BMW’s cloud is only beneficial to its vehicles.

As an Android user, I don’t find value in this feature and would rather have Android Auto integration, which BMW plans on supporting in future models. But for those that have an iPhone and a recent BMW that works with the previous Connected app, the new cloud-based features are a nice gesture that brings predictive driving features to existing cars.