Brace yourselves: Mark Zuckerberg has a new pivot for Facebook. The visionary genius who brought us the pivot to video, the pivot to privacy, the pivot to trusted news and the pivot away from trusted news is now preparing for the latest turn: the pivot to the “metaverse”.
“The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies – the whole industry,” Zuckerberg told tech news site the Verge in an interview last month. “My hope, if we do this well, I think over the next five years or so, in this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
Yes, it’s buzzword time. A metaverse – or virtual reality shared space – is the hot new concept in the tech sector, the latest thing that we are promised will be lifted from science fiction to reality. Imagine the virtual worlds of Ready Player One, Neuromancer or The Matrix and you’re halfway there. But as well as simple virtual reality, most visions of the metaverse have an eye on the creativity and commerce it enables, on seeing a place where you can commission an avatar from one digital artisan, a custom voice from a second and use them both to play in a game made by a third.
Zuckerberg has never been one to acknowledge when he’s changed his mind, but the pivot to the metaverse seems particularly ill at ease with the other major change that Facebook is pushing through. This is the encryption of all direct messages between its users and those of Instagram and WhatsApp and is part of the pivot to privacy announced in 2019.
I don’t want to accuse the fantastically successful founder, who singlehandedly holds almost 2% of all US millennial wealth, of glib thinking. And indeed, his vision of what a notional future Facebook might look like is impressively detailed. But I’m starting to tire of the fact that the tech sector periodically pauses to mull over the deep strategy behind Zuck’s latest brain farts as though they are anything more than repeated panicky attempts to enter and destroy whatever sector of the industry looks like it might pose a problem for his company in the future.
That’s not to say the concept of a metaverse is hollow. The term dates back to the 1992 Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash, a book Zuckerberg has liked for long enough that he once assigned it as required reading for underlings. Alarmingly, he seems to have overlooked the fact that the world it describes, of a hypercapitalist, libertarian future America and a virtual reality proto-internet, is an arch dystopia.
Even so, in the years since, many have tried to create such a metaverse. Perhaps the most famous is Second Life, an online virtual space where users could create avatars, buy land, build houses and, obviously, engage in oodles of cybersex. The service and Linden Labs, the company behind it, briefly experienced the 00s equivalent of the bitcoin boom, when the price of virtual land in Second Life’s community spaces soared.
But though diehard users stuck around for years, Second Life ultimately dwindled, because of the problem all networked virtual worlds have: the internet already exists. In the world of Snow Crash, it doesn’t and the metaverse fulfils those needs. Long-distance communication, shopping, entertainment, are all done by hopping into a virtual world and moving about. But in our real world, the virtual layer adds a lot of fuss, with little extra capability.
That’s not to say there haven’t been more successful attempts to do the same thing. But their home has been gaming, where Roblox and Fortnite are each attempting to build a metaverse for the 2020s. The goals are necessarily narrower than those of Zuckerberg: less “a single virtual space for anyone to do anything” and more “a place where Ariana Grande can hold a concert with Master Chief from Halo in the crowd”. But some of the basics are there, just as they were with Second Life. Users can build items in the world of Roblox and sell them to others and they can make whole sub-games that have their own rules, art and even physics.
It doesn’t feel like Zuckerberg is looking to video games for his inspiration, though. Instead, the recent buzz around the metaverse is because it has been repurposed as a way to justify the millions of dollars spent on NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in the past six months.
The thinking is simple. You own an NFT artwork, but what can you do with it? In the real world, not much: you could buy a video screen and display it in your house, but that doesn’t really interact much with the lovely NFTness of the whole thing. Why wouldn’t you have just bought a print, if all you wanted to do is hang it a wall? But in a virtual world, suddenly it makes more sense. You obviously can’t hang a physical object in a digital house. But what if you want a virtual item that still has some of the desirable rarity of a physical one? Well, then NFTs are perfect.
I’m now the one being glib. Perhaps the most fleshed-out example of how the metaverse would work comes from venture fund capitalist Matthew Ball. But it’s also, to my eyes, a vision that Zuckerberg could never achieve. A metaverse, Ball writes, must “offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content and so on”. He contrasts that with the digital world of today, where you can’t, for instance, buy a song on the iTunes store and upload it to Call of Duty so you can have it blasting from your Jeep as you drive across Verdansk. Nor can you pick up a virtual outfit from H&M and dress avatars in it in Fortnite.
Such a metaverse would be perfect for Facebook, provided the “unprecedented interoperability” happens by ensuring that every single service under the sun becomes part of the house of Zuck. Until that happens, though, we’re stuck with the watered-down ambitions of a man who bought the virtual reality company Oculus Rift for $2bn in 2014 and has never really worked out what to do with it.
What I’ve been reading
Green dream A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the latest novella by Becky Chambers is a quiet, cosy introduction to a “solarpunk” world: a sustainable futurism of e-bikes, biodegradable buildings and planet-scale wilderness.
Type cast An enjoyable Economist piece, How Europe’s Proverbial Voters Explain a Continent, charts the various national equivalents of “Mondeo man” in Europe, from Germany’s Swabian housewife to Ireland’s breakfast roll man.
The data integration business growing its EMEA HQ in Dublin is set for further expansion following a $5.6bn valuation and key acquisition.
Silicon Valley-headquartered Fivetran has announced $565m in Series D funding alongside a deal to acquire HVR.
This latest funding round sees the automated data integration provider’s value reach $5.6bn just over a year after it first reached unicorn status.
The funding round from new and existing investors included General Catalyst, CEAS Investments and Matrix Partners. Andreessen Horowitz led the round, which also brought in new investors Iconiq Capital, D1 Capital Partners and YC Continuity.
In total, Fivetran has raised $730m to date. And in tandem with its Series D funding round, the company also announced a $700m cash and stock deal to acquire data replication business HVR.
‘Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure’ – MARTIN CASADO, A16Z
For Fivetran’s mission to help businesses make use of the data they have, in a way that is quicker and requires fewer resources, HVR brings database replication performance along with enterprise-grade security.
“HVR is a recognised leader for enterprise database replication and shares our same vision – to make access to data as simple and reliable as electricity,” said Fivetran CEO George Fraser. “Their product is the perfect complement to our automated data integration technology and will be instrumental for us to help enterprise organisations that want to improve their analytics with a modern data stack.”
Fraser added that the latest injection of funding from investors will enable the company to expand its capabilities and accelerate its global growth.
Fivetran established its EMEA HQ in Dublin in 2018. The following year, fresh investment saw the company plan to double its Irish workforce. Last summer, a $100m funding round saw these expansion plans furthered.
In terms of market opportunity, Andreessen Horowitz general partner Martin Casado says Fivetran is a “critical component” of the modern data stack, which represents “a paradigm shift for global enterprises, with billions of dollars of revenue at stake”.
“Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure,” said Casado.
The acquisition deal has been approved by the boards of both companies and is expected to close in early October, subject to regular approvals.
Customers from both companies are expected to benefit from each of the business offerings. On the side of Fivetran, this client list includes Autodesk, DocuSign, Forever 21, Lionsgate and Square, while HVR services dozens of Fortune 500 brands.
“Combining HVR and Fivetran will enable a next-generation solution that will better inform business decisions by providing the freshest data available,” said HVR CEO Anthony Brooks-Williams.
“We’re thrilled to be joining forces with Fivetran and look forward to what this incredible opportunity will provide for our growing team, partners and customers.”
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The latest iteration of Amazon’s battery-powered Ring doorbell adds a new feature to capture the early details of events most competitors would miss without needing to be plugged in.
The Ring Video Doorbell 4 costs £179 ($199.99/$A329) and can be installed in any home with wifi. It tops Ring’s battery-powered range, which starts at £89.
The look and basic function of the Doorbell 4 is very similar to Ring’s older models. It has a camera with night vision, motion sensors and a large doorbell button.
When someone pushes the button Ring’s signature chime plays and an alert is sent to your phone. You can view a live feed and speak through the doorbell using the app from anywhere with internet. If you don’t answer, the new “quick replies” feature is like an answering machine for your door, recording caller’s messages. And it works as a motion-activated security camera too.
Four seconds of pre-roll
Most battery-powered doorbells sleep until motion is detected to save power, which means they typically only capture the second half of an event as it takes time for the camera to wake up and start recording.
Ring’s “pre-roll” system fills in the gap before the motion sensor is tripped. It takes a clip from a looping four-second lower-resolution colour recording that can be operated all the time without draining the battery too much.
It is a gamechanger for battery doorbells, giving you a much better idea of what has happened before the main camera fires up.
Video, motion and replay
The main 1080p HD video is clear and sharp enough to discern faces and name tags, and recorded HDR (high dynamic range) to better handle the sun shining straight at your door. The infrared night vision is bright and clear, too.
You can adjust the motion sensitivity and define areas you want monitored so that you only get notifications when something happens in the chosen zone, which is particularly useful for avoiding notification overload if your doorbell faces the street.
While standard motion and doorbell notifications, live view and pre-roll are free, you need to subscribe to Ring Protect to get the most out of the doorbell. A free 30-day trial is included so you can see what it does, and plans start at £2.50 a month, but it is essentially cloud recording for your videos as they are not stored locally.
You get up to 30-day event history, messages recorded by visitors from the quick replies feature and still snapshots taken every 14 minutes to fill in the gaps between events.
Ring Protect also enables smart motion alerts, to differentiate between people and other things such as cars, and rich notifications, which show an image of the motion or person within the alert on your phone.
Set up and battery life
Setting up the doorbell is very easy. It comes with screws and wall plugs, plus a bracket for angling the camera towards your door if needed and cables for attaching it to an existing doorbell wire and chime if you have one.
Once it is mounted you just slot the battery in the bottom, open up the Ring app on your smartphone and scan the QR code on the side of the bell. The app will run through the rest of the setup in about five minutes.
If you don’t have a traditional chime you can buy the wireless £29 Ring Chime or use any existing Amazon Alexa devices in your home to ring instead.
Battery life varies depending on how many features such as snapshot and pre-roll you have on and the number of motion events and live views. With everything active and capturing roughly 45 events a day, the battery lasts about a month. I would buy a second £20 battery as it takes at least five hours to fully charge the battery via microUSB.
You can block the recording of certain parts of the camera’s view such as your neighbour’s drive using privacy zones. Ring has recently added options to limit how long recorded videos are stored on a camera-by-camera basis, strengthened account security with two-factor authentication and, in addition to standard encryption, has enabled the activation of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for videos.
E2EE offers the strongest protection and means only the mobile devices you select can decrypt and watch captured videos. No one else can see the video, not even Ring. But with E2EE turned on some more advanced features such as pre-roll, snapshots, the event timeline, rich notifications and Alexa integration for watching a live feed from an Echo Show cannot be used.
The Ring Video Doorbell 4 is generally repairable and a range of spare parts, including the rechargeable battery, are available at reasonable cost. Most parts are also interchangeable with older models. The company will support its devices with software updates for least four years from the point it stops selling the device on its site, and continues to support all of the devices it has sold so far.
The response time to live view requests through the app is shorter than previous Ring models, but it can still take a few seconds to answer the door, so Ring has a separate stripped-down Rapid Ring app that is faster to load, which can be used for answering rings alongside the main Ring app.
Alexa smart displays can show a live feed on demand or automatically when the doorbell rings.
The Ring Video Doorbell 4 costs £179 ($199.99/$A329) and Ring Protect costs from £2.50 a month.
For comparison, the Ring Video Doorbell (2nd gen) costs £89, the Ring Video Doorbell Pro 2 costs £219, the Google Nest Doorbell costs £179.99 and the Arlo Video Doorbell Wire-Free costs £179.
The Ring Video Doorbell 4 is yet another great battery-powered smart doorbell from Amazon.
It intentionally doesn’t look any different from previous versions, so that parts are interchangeable and the older models don’t look dated. But it wakes up faster, the colour pre-roll captures much more of each event and its night vision is really good.
It can be installed almost anywhere but it needs good wifi so you might need a booster. You’ll probably need the extra £29 Chime too, which brings the real cost to £189 as a bundle, plus the £2.50 a month subscription to really make the most out of it as it doesn’t have local video storage.
Note the Ring Android app has an extremely annoying hard-coded pattern of four strong and long vibrations for every motion alert. It cannot be changed, which forced me to disable motion alerts entirely and lost the Doorbell 4 a star. Ring said it is working to fix the problem by the end of the year. This issue does not exist for the Ring iPhone app, however.
Pros: easy to install, clear video, great colour pre-roll, lots of accessories, solid iPhone app, faster, quick replies, snapshots, Alexa device integration, great as a regular doorbell replacement, end-to-end encryption available.
Cons: no local storage means you need Protect subscription for event review, no constant video recording, fairly wide for some door frames, battery needs charging once a month, Chime likely needed.
Linus Torvalds has revealed that winding back the decision to default to -Werror – and therefore make all warnings into errors – has made for another messy week of work on the Linux kernel.
“So I’ve spent a fair amount of this week trying to sort out all the odd warnings, and I want to particularly thank Guenter Roeck for his work on tracking where the build failures due to -Werror come from,” Torvalds wrote in his weekly missive about the state of kernel development.
“Is it done?” he asked rhetorically. “No. But on the whole I’m feeling fairly good about this all, even if it has meant that I’ve been looking at some really odd and grotty code. Who knew I’d still worry about some odd EISA driver on alpha, after all these years? A slight change of pace ;)”
Torvalds expressed his annoyance that his efforts have seen him enter “fix one odd corner case, three others rear their ugly heads” territory.
But he’s willing to wear the pain. “I remain convinced that it’s all for a good cause, and that we really do want to have a clean build even for the crazy odd cases,” he wrote.
And if he must handle this sort of thing in any week of the kernel production cycle, it might as well be the week of rc2.
“I hope this release will turn more normal soon – but the rc2 week tends to be fairly quiet for me, so the fact that I then ended up looking at reports of odd warnings-turned-errors this week wasn’t too bad,” he wrote.
Late last week, Torvalds also took some time to share what he described as “the true 30th anniversary date” of Linux.
On September 17th he wrote “a random note to let people know that today is actually one of the core 30-year anniversary dates: 0.01 was uploaded Sept 17, 1991.
“Now, that 0.01 release was never publicly announced, and I only emailed a handful of people in private about the upload (and I don’t have old emails from those days), so there’s no real record of that,” he wrote. “The only record of the date is in the Linux-0.01 tar-file itself, I suspect.
“Just thought I’d mention it, since while unannounced, in many ways this is the true 30th anniversary date of the actual code.”
So The Register though it worthy of mention, too. ®