Crowdfunded gaming console Ouya will shut down for good on June 25th

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Seven years ago, Ouya was going to change the face of gaming. Now it’s dead. Razer, the company that bought Ouya back in 2015, announced today that it will be discontinuing support for the gaming console. Owners of Ouya will have until June 25th to continue using the device. After that, Razer will be deactivating user accounts and shutting down all online elements of its service. Gamers will only be able to play games they have downloaded directly to their console.

The rather unceremonious shut down of Ouya isn’t what its backers were expecting when they funded the project back in 2012. By promising a console that was affordable and easy to develop for, the creators of Ouya managed to generate a huge wave of support. The Android-powered gaming console was funded on Kickstarter just eight hours after going live and eventually managed to raise $8.5 million, making it one of Kickstarter’s most supported projects ever.

While Ouya did end up delivering a console, the final product couldn’t live up to the hype. The controller felt cheap and was difficult to use and the console suffered from some performance issues that made games a pain to play at times. Despite the open ethos that invited anyone to develop games for the console, there ended up being too few truly engaging games to keep people’s interest.

Just two years after officially launching in 2013, Ouya was bought up by gaming accessories maker Razer. Hardware sales of the console stopped and Razer rolled Ouya’s gaming content into its Forge TV set-top box platform. Now, with Razer officially discontinuing support for Forge TV, Ouya is going down with the ship.

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Why putting googly eyes on robots makes them inherently less threatening

At the start of 2019, supermarket chain Giant Food Stores announced it would begin operating customer assisting robots — collectively dubbed Marty — in 172 locations across the East Coast. These autonomous machines may navigate their respective store using a laser-based detection system, but they’re also outfitted with a pair of oversized googly eyes. This is to, “[make] it a bit more fun,” Giant president, Nick Bertram told Adweek in January, and “celebrate the fact that there’s a robot.”

“As we approach the completion of the rollout, we continue to be pleased by the addition of Marty in our stores,” a Giant Food rep told Engadget via email. “Our associates are appreciative of the assistance Marty provides them, freeing them up to do other tasks and interact more with customers. Speaking of our customers, they too are big fans of Marty, with kids and adults alike looking for Marty in store and taking selfies.”

But Marty’s googly eyes don’t just give customers something to chuckle at as they pass one another in the cereal aisle. Research shows that slapping peepers on inanimate objects puts the humans around them at ease, and encourages them to be more generous and pro-social (as opposed to anti-social) than they normally would.

“People pay attention to the presence of eyes,” Dr. Amrisha Vaish, Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychology, told Engadget. “Humans are very sensitive to the presence of other people and we behave more socially in the presence of other people.” It’s called the “watching eye paradigm” and exploits the deep-seated human trait of needing to be valued within society. Managing our reputations and being seen by those around us as team players.

“In the course of our evolution, it’s been really important for us to be to cooperate with others,” Vaish points out. Interpersonal cooperation has proven “so important to the evolution of the human species that we’ve become really sensitive to even sort of minimal cues of eyes,” she continued.

Eye close-up

Dr. Pawan Sinha, Professor of Vision and Computational Neuroscience at MIT, concurs. “If one were to find an ecological reason why we are so attuned to see faces it’s because the ability to detect faces is crucial for our social well being and, when we are young, it’s crucial to our survival to be able to detect a specific human and be able to orient towards them,” he told Engadget. “It’s very important for us to be able to live our lives as social beings.”

Vaish’s own research in this field, specifically the 2018 study Eyes, More Than Other Facial Features, Enhance Real-World Donation Behavior, bears out this effect. Vaish and her team alternated photographs of a chair, a nose, a mouth and a pair of human eyes above the donation jar at a local children’s museum over the course of 28 weeks. The weeks where the eyes were displayed saw an average total donation of $27 — around $12 more than when the other images were shown.

“What we found is that the eyes — compared to the chairs — did, in fact, increase people’s donations,” Vaish explained. “The numbers weren’t huge but there was a statistically significant increase.”

This effect extends beyond actions like donations, the watching eye paradigm can also reduce antisocial behavior like littering and bike theft. It also affects people of all ages. “As young as five years of age, children become sensitive to being watched.” Vaish said. “When a peer is watching them, they show more prosocial behavior and less antisocial, less stealing behavior.”

eye bike theft

The effect does not last forever, however. Vaish notes that in her previous research position, she found that putting a picture of eyes near the communal supply of milk drastically reduced the rate at which people would help themselves to it. At least to start.

“Initially, they’re very striking when you put them up, and then you sort of start to monitor your behavior more,” she explained. However, over time, people became accustomed to the presence of these watching eyes before eventually sliding back into complacency with regards to their milk intake.

This intra-office phenomenon illustrates an unusual aspect of humanity’s evolution: we can see faces (and assign agency) to almost anything. “People look for certain specific cues, physical features or behaviors, to determine whether something is alive,” Dr. Erin Horowitz, Lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Department of Psychological and Brain Science, told Engadget. “So something that appears to move on its own, people tend to process it as alive.”

This is an ancient prey response in humans, instilled within us over countless generations before we arrived at the top of the food chain. It’s better to see the leopard that isn’t there, Horowitz summarized, than to not see the leopard that is. As such, even highly abstracted and stylized depictions of eyes can trigger this response. “You could have two dots next to each other and those would be considered eyes,” Horowitz said, “if there’s, say, a line underneath that looks like a mouth.”

And it’s “not just identifying predators,” she points out, “but also identifying potential people that we can cooperate and interact with.” These hardwired evolutionary responses and visceral need for social bonds has led to the development of the “theory of mind.”

“You can think of it as a broad term for research on human capacity for social engagement,” Dr. Tamsin German, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Department of Psychological and Brain Science, told Engadget. “Specifically, those ones that talk about the concepts we have of people’s internal, hidden mental states.”

“People believe things, people want things, people hope things,” she continued. “And those internal states predict the behaviors that they will engage in.” By piecing together a person’s behavior and explaining it in terms of those hidden states, one can glimpse at the motivations and underlying beliefs of that person. “it’s a critically important skill for humans being such a social species,” German said.

As it turns out, slapping googly eyes on a roving robotic monolith like Marty can elicit the same response from humans, even when we know the object is not actually alive. But there are limits to this effect and surprisingly the Uncanny Valley exists for robot eyes as well.

Thinking young monkey

German notes that a wide variety of prey species have evolved agency-granting responses similar to humans, “there is lots of work suggesting that they have a sensitivity to two eyes looking directly at them.” But in Rhesus Macaques, how those eyes are presented makes all the difference.

She points to a recent study out of Princeton University, which placed various photographs and stylized, abstracted depictions of Macaque faces in front of real Macaques. “The Rhesus Macaque will look a lot at highly stylized, cartoony pictures of other faces of Rhesus monkeys. And they look a lot at actual photographs of Rhesus monkeys” she explained. “But if you have very, very close, but not quite images, they don’t like them at all.” As with humans, being almost there — but not quite — is interpreted as a negative signal.

A similar effect can be seen when humans observe the movements of robots, androids, and other people. German references a recent multinational study wherein subjects were shown static images of clearly mechanical robots, natural humans, and androids like what you’d see at the Disney World Hall of Presidents.

“You put them in an fMRI scanner, and just essentially, allow the brain to acclimate to what it’s seeing,” she said. Then, “using a technique called predictive coding, you look at which parts of the brain are excited when [the object in the image] starts moving. Essentially, asking the brain to tell you what it didn’t expect.”

When the robot starts clunking around in a very mechanical fashion and the human moves smoothly, researchers noted only slight electrical responses from the brain. “But the Android looks like a human and moves like a robot in various areas of the brain kind of a more active compared to a baseline, suggesting that the brain didn’t see what it predicts,” German explained.

This is what elicits the uneasiness and trepidation in people when they interact with a machine in the Uncanny Valley. It’s 200,000 years of evolution going, “Hey stupid, this thing is moving when it shouldn’t be (at least not moving or looking like it should be). You need to scram before you get eaten.”

But adding eyes, even if they’re of the googly variety, appears to help mitigate this effect by exploiting our social nature to artificially instill a sense of agency towards these inanimate objects.

“It’s just a signal that this is an animate thing, it’s going to have mental states and — provided you’re not trying to you make it look so realistic, where the movement that it engages in looks wrong — you’re not going to get an uncanny valley effect,” German concluded.

Images: Tim Flach via Getty Images (Human Eye); Newcastle University (warning sign); luxiangjian4711 via Getty Images (monkey)

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Amazon investors reject call to limit facial recognition system sales

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Vicente Méndez via Getty Images

Amazon shareholders have voted against a proposal to limit the company from selling its facial recognition technology to law enforcement and government agencies. The proposal, which highlighted concerns over the Rekognition system related to “civil and human rights and shareholder value,” failed to pass at Amazon’s annual investor meeting Wednesday, on the same day the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on facial recognition tech.

Law enforcement agencies in Florida and Oregon have already piloted Rekognition, while Amazon reportedly pitched the system to ICE. Amazon and Microsoft have both called for government oversight of facial recognition, while San Francisco banned the tech this month. Meanwhile, protestors and Amazon employees demonstrated outside the meeting.

Amid a number of non-binding votes, shareholders also rejected a proposal for Amazon to commission an independent report on the impact of government use of Rekognition. Amazon’s board had urged investors to vote against both proposals. As TechCrunch notes, the votes seemed doomed from the outset. CEO Jeff Bezos holds 12 percent of stock as well as the voting control on his ex-wife’s shares. Amazon’s top four institutional shareholders have roughly the same combined voting rights as Bezos.

Shareholders voted down all the other proposals put forward at the meeting, including a request for the company to detail its efforts on how it addresses “hate speech and the sale of offensive products throughout its businesses.” They rejected a call for Amazon to produce a report on its carbon footprint and fossil fuel use, along with how it’s tackling climate change.

Investors also declined to back a measure urging Amazon to change how it reports gender pay disparities. Board directors recommended that shareholders vote against all of those measures. A filing laying out tallies for each of the votes is expected on Friday.

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Google is facing its first GDPR probe from Irish privacy regulators

Google is the subject of its first GDPR probe from Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner (DCP), Reuters is reporting. It’s the first major standoff between the company and its lead privacy regulator in Europe, raising difficult questions about how the ad giant handles personal data across the internet.

The probe will investigate how Google treats personal data at each stage of its ad-tracking system. Those questions originate in part from a complaint filed by the browser company Brave in September, which alleged that Google’s ad auction system constituted a data breach under GDPR rules.

“Every time a person visits a website and is shown a ‘behavioural’ ad on a website, intimate personal data that describes each visitor, and what they are watching online, is broadcast to tens or hundreds of companies,” chief policy officer Johnny Ryan explained in a post. “A data breach occurs because this broadcast, known as an ‘bid request’ in the online industry, fails to protect these intimate data against unauthorized access.”

If found guilty, the potential penalties would be enormous. The GDPR authorizes fines as high as four percent of global annual revenue, which would total $5.4 billion in Google’s case. Even more damaging, the company would have to fundamentally reshape its ad system in order to avoid future fines. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ireland’s commissioner has been criticized as overly friendly to Facebook and Google, both of which are headquartered in the country and are squarely in its jurisdiction under GDPR rules. Roughly a year after the regulation took effect, this is the first action Ireland’s DCP has taken against either company. A number of groups have filed complaints against Google during that time, raising concerns about the company’s location-tracking and ad-targeting systems, among others.

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At heart, Amazon’s Good Omens is a gay cosmic rom-com

An extended pre-credits sequence in one episode of Amazon’s Good Omens displays the best part of the six-episode miniseries based on the book of the same name by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The segment traces the 6,000-year relationship between prissy angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen of The Queen and Frost/Nixon) and swaggering demon Crowley (Doctor Who star David Tennant), who have known each other since the Garden of Eden was a going concern. The sequence is an entertaining romp through myth and history, with the two popping up as knights in Arthurian England, as part of a goofy spy drama during the Blitz, and going out for crepes during the Reign of Terror. Even though they technically stand on opposing sides of a cosmic conflict for the souls of mankind, they form a deep mutual respect driven by witty banter, and their odd-couple chemistry forms the heart and soul of the series.

That sequence also exposes Good Omens’ greatest weakness. The scene are joyous when Crowley and Aziraphale are sparring, commiserating, or teaming up to stop the apocalypse their bosses have been waiting for since the dawn of humanity. Scenes with just one of them still tend to be strong, particularly as Crowley gleefully outsmarts everyone around him. But when neither of them are on-screen, Good Omens grinds to a halt. The supporting cast members are necessary to move the plot forward or provide needed exposition about the series’ complicated mythology. But no one else has enough development or agency to make their scenes feel worthwhile unless they’re playing off one of the protagonists.

That flaw comes from the source material, which Gaiman has adapted extremely faithfully. (Pratchett died in 2015.) Much of the dialogue is directly quoted from their book, which combines Gaiman’s love of elaborate worldbuilding and cosmic conflict with Pratchett’s quirky characters and absurdist comedy. While the 1990 novel has been updated a bit for the times — apparently one of Crowley’s diabolical acts was inventing the selfie — it otherwise stays true to the tangled plot, where the final conflict between good and evil will kick off shortly after the antichrist’s 11th birthday. In a spoof of The Omen, the son of Satan was meant to be raised with power and privilege by an American diplomat. But due to a comedy of errors at a hospital run by Satanic nuns, Adam Young (Sam Taylor Buck) has instead been sent to live in the British village of Lower Tadfield, where he’s grown into a leader of a crew of kids that’s basically a less-charming version of the gang from Stranger Things.

Both heaven and hell want the rematch the Apocalypse will bring about, but Crowley and Aziraphale have grown accustomed to the comforts of Earth. They’ve largely been shirking their duties, discovering that humanity is more than capable of doing good and evil without their intervention. They also much prefer to spend time with each other rather than with members of their respective hosts. The rulers of hell are grotesque, petty, and humorless, unable to grasp Crowley’s achievements, because they don’t understand modern technology. None of them have enough character to justify the production budget that was used to cover them with sores, flies, or scales.

The angels, meanwhile, are aloof and filled with the same benign ineptitude the bureaucracy of heaven shows in The Good Place. They’re beautifully embodied by Gabriel (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) who was barely mentioned in the book, but here serves as Aziraphale’s supervisor, filled with good cheer even as he expresses contempt for humans and support for the final war. He’s by far the best supporting character and evidence of a stronger, more dynamic story that might have been made if Gaiman had been willing to expand the story further.

The rest of the cast is just trying to do their best with the thin material they’re offered. Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), a witch whose family has been preparing for the Apocalypse for generations, could be the protagonist of an entirely different story, but is really just here to provide information to more important characters, and to be part of one of two terrible romance plots that have competent, clever women falling for hapless men for no discernible reason. Michael McKean brings the same goofy humor he showed in Clue and This Is Spinal Tap to the nipple-obsessed witch-hunter Shadwell, but he’s playing a one-note character who can’t stand up to Aziraphale and Crowley’s comedic depths.

The film’s antagonists feel similarly flat. War (Mireille Enos of The Killing) and Famine (The Originals’ Yusuf Gatewood) both get thrilling introductions showing how the Horsemen of the Apocalypse can cause misery in the modern day. Similar development would have been a huge boon to Pollution (Lourdes Faberes), who is mostly distinguished by looking a lot like the Captain Planet villain Dr. Blight, and Death (Brian Cox of Succession and X2) who seems to have just walked off a production of A Christmas Carol. But it doesn’t really matter, because the Horsemen’s entire plot ends in a dull climax that’s meant to be a big moment for Adam’s friends, but doesn’t feel earned.

That’s a shame, because Good Omens has some strong themes, even if they’re minimally developed. Adam nearly destroys the world, not because he’s inherently evil, but because like so many young people today, he sees the mess previous generations have made of things and is willing to tear everything down to build a better world. Anathema’s plot explores the choice between getting support by following your family’s wishes and the challenging freedom of forging your own path. But as is the case in the rest of the show, only Aziraphale and Crowley get real development as they navigate unsatisfying jobs, the absurdity of God’s ineffable plan, and the problems caused by moral absolutism.

Fortunately, the series’ quirky cheerfulness lends it strength even at the plot’s lowest points. Visually, it looks like a version of Dogma as remade by Monty Python. Sherlock and Doctor Who director Douglas MacKinnon uses puppets, over-the-top makeup and costumes, pyrotechnics, and a card-trick demonstration (narrated by Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, as the voice of God) to provide near-constant spectacle. Fellow Sherlock veteran David Arnold has done a fantastic job with the show’s jaunty theme, which is sampled in various forms throughout the series. Meanwhile, Crowley is perpetually followed by a soundtrack of on-the-nose Queen songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which blares from the Bentley he drives to the final showdown.

Good Omens is, at its heart, a cosmic gay rom-com, with bad-boy Crowley tempting Aziraphale to get out of his comfort zone and enjoy life, while Aziraphale simultaneously lures him into being a better, less selfish person. The duo haltingly come together, fall apart under the strain of the events around them and their conflicting moralities, and inevitably come together again to save the day and each other. The rifts in their relationship are felt far more keenly than any instance of demonic mass murder. Their story is so bright and captivating that it’s well worth watching, even if it makes the rest of the show pale by comparison.

Good Omens debuts on Amazon Prime Video on May 31st, 2019.

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