Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller is an inspiring example of inclusive design

Every gamer with a disability faces a unique challenge for many reasons, one of which is the relative dearth of accessibility-focused peripherals for consoles. Microsoft is taking a big step towards fixing this with its Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device created to address the needs of gamers for whom ordinary gamepads aren’t an option. The XAC, revealed officially at a recent event but also leaked a few days ago, is essentially a pair of gigantic programmable buttons and an oversized directional pad. 3.5mm ports on the back let a huge variety of assistive devices like blow tubes, pedals, and Microsoft-made accessories plug in. It’s not meant to be an all-in-one solution by any means, more like a hub that allows gamers with disabilities to easily make and adjust their own setups with a minimum of hassle. Whatever you’re capable of, whatever’s comfortable, whatever gear you already have, the XAC
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A $400 Microsoft Surface may be on the way

Microsoft’s always taken a premium approach to its Surface line, showing users what its operating system can do when run on top of the line hardware. It’s a model that makes sense for a company with so many ties to third-party hardware manufacturers. But the line that’s been so focused on the high-end needs of “creative professionals” may be getting a budget addition in the near future.

According to a new report from Bloomberg, Microsoft is eyeing the end of the year to release a $400 version of the Surface designed to compete more directly with Apple’s ubiquitous tablet. Of course, many have tried and largely failed to take on the iPad — including Microsoft itself.

The company launched the Surface RT half a decade ago, without making much of a splash. These days, the tablet herd has thinned a bit, and Microsoft has established itself as a maker

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Music payments startup Exactuals debuts R.AI, a “Palantir for music royalties”

Exactuals, a software service offering payments management for the music industry, is debuting R.AI, a new tool that it’s dubbed the “Palantir for music”. It’s a service that can track songwriting information and rights across different platforms to ensure attribution for music distributors. As companies like Apple and Spotify demand better information from labels about the songs they’re pushing to streaming services, companies are scrambling to clean up their data and provide proper attribution. According to Exactuals, that’s where the r.ai service comes in. The company is tracking 59 million songs for their “Interested Party Identifiers” (IPIs), International Standard Work Codes (ISWCs), and International Standard Recording Codes (ISRCs) — all of which are vital to ensuring that songwriters and musicians are properly paid for their work every time a song is streamed, downloaded, covered, or viewed on a distribution platform. Chris McMurtry, the head of music
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Microsoft announces the Surface Hub 2

Do you remember the Surface Hub? Chances are you forgot it even existed. And yet, Microsoft just announced a second version of the Surface Hub. The company hasn’t shared any specifications or price, but it won’t be available before 2019 — selected customers will test the Surface Hub 2 starting this year. The Surface Hub was a crazy expensive digital whiteboard that could handle anything from video conferences to document collaboration. Microsoft says that there are 5,000 companies using Surface Hubs, including half of Fortune 100 companies. It’s unclear if each company has bought one Surface Hub or a thousand. But it seems like there was enough interest to work on a second version. At heart, it’s still a gigantic touchscreen-enabled display. It runs Windows 10 and supports the Surface Pen. Compared to the previous version, Microsoft has drastically reduced the bezels. It looks like a modern TV now, but
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Skype, Interrupted

Skype, was once a beloved product, one that I loved using every day. It was a product I wrote about long before it was trendy. I sent the team feedback. Like all tiny apps that are good at what they do, it became popular and grew really fast. It was sold to eBay, and then re-sold to Microsoft. And that’s when the magic disappeared. Through series of mergers and managers, Skype became an exact opposite of what I loved about it — independent outsider which was great at — chat, messaging and phone calls. It had just enough features, and its desktop client was minimal in its perfection.  Now, as I tweeted in the past, it is “a turd of the highest quality.” Bloomberg took a closer look at the Skype and its decline. Microsoft argued that the “criticism is overblown and reflects, in part, people’s grumpiness with software updates.” They say that now the focus is the corporate market. But that doesn’t deny the fact that it is a terrible interface, inhuman and difficult to use. It lacks any imagination — a fact that is repeatedly reinforced on social media every time you bring up Skype and its user experience.  “It is like Tim Tebow trying to be a baseball player,” I told Bloomberg reporters. “The product is so confusing, kludgey and unusable.” Continue reading "Skype, Interrupted"

The UK and USA need to extend their “special relationship” to technology development

The UK and the USA have always had an enduring bond, with diplomatic, cultural and economic ties that have remained firm for centuries.

We live in an era of profound change, and are living with technologies set to change things ever faster. If Britain and America work together to develop these technologies for the good of mankind, in a way that is open and free, yet also safe and good for our citizens, we can maintain the global lead our nations have enjoyed in the fields of innovation.

Over past months we have seen some very significant strides forward in this business relationship. All of the biggest US companies have made decisions to invest in the UK. Apple is developing a new HQ in the

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Microsoft’s Snip Insights puts A.I. technology into a screenshot-taking tool

A team of Microsoft interns have thought up a new way to put A.I. technology to work – in a screenshot snipping tool. Microsoft today is launching their project, Snip Insights, a Windows desktop app that lets you retrieve intelligent insights – or even turn a scan of a textbook or report into an editable document – when you take a screenshot on your PC. The team’s manager challenged the interns to think up a way to integrate A.I. into a widely used tool, used by millions. They decided to try a screenshotting tool, like the Windows Snipping Tool or Snip, a previous project from Microsoft’s internal incubator, Microsoft Garage. The team went with the latter, because it would be easier to release as an independent app. Their new tool leverages Cloud AI services in order to do more with screenshots – like convert images to translated
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After buying Flipkart, Walmart seeks allies to join its fight against Amazon in India

The rumors are true: Walmart has bought a controlling stake in India’s Flipkart. This isn’t a straight-up acquisition, however, because, rather than going it alone, the U.S. retailer is enlisting strategic allies as it takes its fight to Amazon in a new region. Walmart has an existing offline retail business in India, but enter the online space puts it up against Amazon, which has made massive strides since entering India in 2012. That perhaps calls for something special, which is one reason why Walmart is buying just 77 percent of Flipkart and leaving space for others with expertise to come join. Walmart confirmed that “some” existing investors will retain their stakes, including Tencent the $500 billion Chinese giant — and Tiger Global, both of which have board sets, and Microsoft, which was part of a $1.4 billion investment last year. Added to that, Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal has committed
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Microsoft is looking to entice app developers with a better store revenue split

In the fractured, spammy world that is consumer PC software downloads, Microsoft is looking to make their Microsoft Store a more central hub but they need the help (and enthusiasm) of developers. In a major showing of good will, Microsoft is changing up their revenue sharing structure to give developers a bigger cut. Developers of consumer apps (not including games) for PC, Windows Mixed Reality, Windows Phone or Surface Hub will now receive 85 percent of revenue from downloads — as opposed to 70 percent — when the app is tracked down through the Microsoft Store. What’s more interesting is that Microsoft is bumping this figure up to 95 percent when the app is deep-linked externally from somewhere like the app developer’s site. While Apple and Google both structure their revenue sharing models based on how long a user is engaging with an app, even after 12 months of usage, the
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Microsoft and Red Hat now offer a jointly managed OpenShift service on Azure

Microsoft and Red Hat are deepening their existing alliance around cloud computing. The two companies will now offer a managed version of OpenShift, Red Hat’s container application platform, on Microsoft Azure. This service will be jointly developed and managed by Microsoft and Red Hat and will be integrated into the overall Azure experience. Red Hat OpenShift on Azure is meant to make it easier for enterprises to create hybrid container solutions that can span their on-premise networks and the cloud. That’ll give these companies the flexibility to move workloads around as needed and will give those companies that have bet on OpenShift the option to move their workloads close to the rest of Azure’s managed services like Cosmos DB or Microsoft’s suite of machine learning tools. Microsoft’s Brendan Burns, one of the co-creators of Kubernetes, told me that the companies decided that this shouldn’t just be a service
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Live Share in Visual Studio lets you code and debug together

At its Build developer conference, Microsoft today announced that Live Share, its previously announced collaborative development feature for Visual Studio and Visual Studio code, is now available to developers who want to give it a try. Until now, this feature, which allows developers to better work together, was only available in a private preview — and it’s available for free to all developers, even those who use the free Visual Studio code editor. In a way, Live Share is a bit like using Google Docs for collaboration. Developers can see where everybody’s cursor is and when their colleagues are typing, no matter which platform they are on. All developers in a Live Share session can stay within their preferred (and customized) environment. That gives developers quite a bit more flexibility compared to a traditional screen share. One feature Microsoft heavily emphasized at Build is the ability to share debugging
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Microsoft shows off Alexa-Cortana integration, launches sign-up website for news

Microsoft still isn’t giving a timeline as to when its virtual assistant, Cortana, will support integration with Amazon Alexa – something the companies had announced last year. But the company at its Build developer conference today did show off how that integration will work, in an on-stage demo with support from Amazon, and it launched a new website for developers interested in receiving Alexa-Cortana integration news and information going forward. When Microsoft and Amazon first discussed integrating their virtual assistants, it was described as a two-way street – that is, Cortana could pass requests back to Alexa, and vice versa. For example, Alexa customers would be able to access Cortana’s productivity features, like booking meetings, accessing work calendars, or reading work emails. Meanwhile, Cortana users could ask Alexa to control smart home devices, shop Amazon, or use Alexa’s some 40,000 skills.  But there were some concerns those commands would
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Microsoft overhauls its conversational AI chatbot tools

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talked briefly about a major update to the company’s conversational AI tools. You can now more easily create, test and improve bots that run on Azure or your own servers and work across multiple platforms. “At this conference, we’re launching a hundred plus features for the bot framework so that you can continue to build these conversational interfaces and give them more customizations,” Nadella said. There are now 30,000 active bots per month that use Microsoft’s conversational AI tools. They handle 30 million messages per day for a thousand companies, including Macy’s, Asiana Airlines, Stack Overflow, KPMG, Telefonica, HP and UPS. And chances are you’ve already talked with one of those bots without realizing it because you don’t need to be using a Microsoft product to interact with a bot that leverages Microsoft’s technologies. Microsoft’s Conversational AI tools let you deploy bots on a website, Slack, Facebook
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Microsoft introduces a pair of new enterprise apps for HoloLens

Today at Microsoft’s Day 1 BUILD keynote, AR and VR has definitely been a sideshow so far, but the company did have some announcements related to enterprise apps on the HoloLens. The company detailed two new apps, Remote Assist and Layout which will be coming May 22. The new Remote Assist app from Microsoft is the company’s realization of a use case that has long been a core promise of AR in the workplace, hands-free telepresence that lets the other person see what you’re seeing. This sort of screen sharing of the real world can allow a worker in a manufacturing facility to ping a specialist and get quick annotations and advice about tackling a particular problem. This problem has been one that numerous companies in the AR enterprise space have been tackling, though Remote Assist is still more rudimentary than products from startups like ScopeAR which allow users to
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Microsoft wants developers to embrace Microsoft 365 and the Microsoft Graph

The Microsoft Graph is an interesting but also somewhat amorphous idea. It’s core to the company’s strategy, but I’m not sure most developers understand its potential just yet. Maybe it’s no surprise that Microsoft is putting quite a bit of emphasis on the Graph during its Build developer conference this week. Unless developers make use of the Graph, which is the API that provides the connectivity between everything from Windows 10 to Office 365, it won’t reach its potential, after all. Microsoft describes the Graph as “the API for Microsoft 365.” And indeed, Microsoft 365 is the second topic the company is really hammering home during its event. It’s a combined subscription service for Office 365, Windows 10 and the company’s enterprise mobility services. “Microsoft 365 is where the world gets its best work done,” said Microsoft corporate vice president Joe Belfiore. “With 135 million commercial monthly active users
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Microsoft’s Project Ink Analysis lets developers add handwriting recognition to their apps

As part of its Build developer conference, Microsoft today announced Project Ink Analysis, a new service under its Cognitive Services brand of AI products that will allow developers to add support for handwriting and other shape recognition to their apps. The company says that this service will be available for Windows and other platforms. Microsoft already offered handwriting recognition under Windows 10 as part of its overall Windows Ink support. The Cognitive Services Vision API can also read handwritten text, but not in the real-time kind of way that you would expect from an API like this. In addition, the Windows 10 touchscreen keyboard has also long supported handwriting input. Now, however, it’s opening up this service to developers across platforms, leveraging its AI ink services in the cloud. The company hasn’t announced any pricing information yet and we expect to hear more about how developers can actually use
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Microsoft and DJI team up to bring smarter drones to the enterprise

At the Microsoft Build developer conference today, Microsoft and Chinese drone manufacturer DJI announced a new partnership that aims to bring more of Microsoft’s machine learning smarts to commercial drones. Given Microsoft’s current focus on bringing intelligence to the edge, this is almost a logical partnership, given that drones are essentially semi-autonomous edge computing devices. DJI also today announced that Azure is now its preferred cloud computing partner and that it will use the platform to analyze video data, for example. The two companies also plan to offer new commercial drone solutions using Azure IoT Edge and related AI technologies for verticals like agriculture, construction and public safety. Indeed, the companies are already working together on Microsoft’s FarmBeats solution, an AI and IoT platform for farmers. As part of this partnership, DJI is launching a software development kit (SDK) for Windows that will allow Windows developers to build native
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Microsoft launches a unified API for all of its AI speech services

At its Build developer conference in Seattle this week, Microsoft is putting a lot of emphasis on its AI and machine learning services. For the most part, that means launching new services and bringing some existing services to new places. With the plethora of different AI services the company now offers, it’s maybe also no surprise that we’re now seeing some consolidation and so today, Microsoft announced that it is now bringing its four speech-related Cognitive Services AI tools under a single umbrella (and API). The unified speech service will combine Microsoft speech recognition service, text-to-speech API, customized voice models and translation service. Currently, these are all available as separate services (the Bing Speech API, the Speaker Recognition API, the Custom Speech Service and the Translator Speech API), all with their own pricing models. This update joins a number of other Cognitive Services announcements at Build, including the launch of
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Microsoft Kinect lives on as a new sensor package for Azure

Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing camera for its Xbox consoles was walking dead for the longest time. Last October, it finally passed away peacefully — or so we thought. At its Build developer conference today, Microsoft announced that it is bringing back the Kinect brand and its standout time-of-flight camera tech, but not for a game console. Instead, the company announced Project Kinect for Azure, a new package of sensors that combines the Kinect camera with an onboard computer and a small package that developers can integrate into their own projects. The company says that Project Kinect for Azure can handle fully articulated hand tracking and that it can be used for high-fidelity spatial mapping. Based on these capabilities, it’s easy to imagine the use of Project Kinect for many robotics and surveillance applications. “Project Kinect for Azure unlocks countless new opportunities to take advantage of Machine Learning, Cognitive Services and IoT
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Microsoft launches Project Brainwave, its deep learning acceleration platform

Microsoft today announced at its Build conference the preview launch of Project Brainwave, its platform for running deep learning models in its Azure cloud and on the edge in real time. While some of Microsoft’s competitors, including Google, are betting on custom chips, Microsoft continues to bet on FPGAs to accelerate its models, and Brainwave is no exception. Microsoft argues that FPGAs give it more flexibility than designing custom chips and that the performance it achieves on standard Intel Stratix FPGAs is at least comparable to that of custom chips. Last August, the company first detailed some aspects of BrainWave, which consists of three distinct layers: a high-performance distributed architecture; a hardware deep neural networking engine that has been synthesized onto the FPGAs; and a compiler and runtime for deploying the pre-trained models. Microsoft is attaching the FPGAs right to its overall data center network, which allows them to become
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