09 December, 2011



YouWeb’s Pluto Games spins out and raises $500K for tablet-based music education games

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 09:00 AM PST

Pluto Games is spinning out of game incubator YouWeb today, raising $500,000 in seed money in the process. Pluto Games will use the money to foster its business of creating tablet apps that teach kids how to play and enjoy music.

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company makes games such as the iPad app Pluto Learns Piano, an “edutainment” title targeted at children ages three to five. It is the brainchild of Luis Sampredo, a pianist and developer who founded Pluto Games. The company is also unveiling a new version of the piano game, which is akin to the old player pianos.

The company plans to use the funding from YouWeb and angel investors to “transform tablet devices into fun learning tools,” said Peter Relan, founder of YouWeb, in an interview. Like the new mobile game maker Go Go Kiddo, Pluto Games sees touch-based tablets and smartphones as ideal learning devices for children. So much so that both companies consider Apple iOS devices to be the new babysitters, replacing TV as a parent favorite.

“Parents look at this and they say, ‘Wow, what a great babysitter!’” Relan said.

Sampredo (pictured right) added, in an interview, “The iPad will revolutionize learning.”

The piano title combines scrolling game play with musical notes to get children to learn music. The game follows Pluto the Penguin on a quest to master as many as 24 different songs on the piano. Players are awarded stars based on performance, and then they can unlock new songs, Sampredo said. He said that the game is fun first and foremost, but the music lessons are integrated into the app in a subtle way. The app is free but parents can pay 99 cents to unlock two or three new songs.

Relan said that the creation of Pluto Games followed a familiar pattern. Relan’s Burlingame, Calif.-based team found Sampredo, whom they considered a “brilliant developer.” They decided to bring him into YouWeb as an entrepreneur-in-residence, though they didn’t know what he would do. They just had confidence that he would create something cool, and in the six months or so he has worked on the startup.

“We bet on a talented entrepreneur in this case,” Relan said.

Besides YouWeb, angel investors include Dave Roux, co-founder and Chairman of Silver Lake; Brett Wander, chief investment officer at Charles Schwab, and Praful Shah, former vice president of marketing at WebEx.

Pluto Learns Piano, previously called Pluto Plays Music, has been played more than 2 million times since its beta launch in May. Pluto is now hiring new employees. Pluto Games is the fifth company spun off by YouWeb. Others include CrowdStar, Sibblingz, iSwifter and OpenFeint. The latter was purchased by Japan’s Gree for $104 million.

Here’s a video of the Pluto Learns Piano game in action.

Filed under: games

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Nokia’s lesser Windows Phone, the Lumia 710, starts shipping — headed to T-Mobile

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 08:53 AM PST

nokia lumia 710

If you’ve been dying to get your hands on Nokia’s Lumia 710, its lower-end Window Phone device, today is a very good day indeed. Nokia has announced that it has begun shipping the Lumia 710 to Asian countries as it begins the phone’s global roll-out.

And this time around, US consumers won’t have to wait too long for a new Nokia phone. T-Mobile has a New York City press event scheduled for next week, and it’s clear at this point that it’s gearing up to announce the Lumia 710, reports The Verge.

The Lumia 710 is basically a cheaper alternative to the Lumia 800, Nokia’s flagship Windows Phone. It features the same 3.7-inch display and 1.4 gigahertz CPU as the 800, but it packs in less storage (8 gigabytes), a lower-quality 5 megapixel camera, and slightly less battery life (6.9 hours of 3G talk time). The 710′s rear covers will also be swappable, allowing you to mix and match your color scheme.

While it’s nice to see the Lumia 710 headed to American shores, what we’re really waiting for is further details on the Lumia 800. At this point, it’s unclear when the Lumia 800 will reach the US, even though it’s been out in international markets for a few months.



Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Skandanavian payment startup Klarna nabs a huge $155M round

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 08:43 AM PST

A handful of big-name venture firms have lobbed a sizable chunk of change at Klarna, a Swedish startup that’s taking on Paypal in the mobile and online payments arena.

This is only the startup’s third round of venture capital funding; previously, it had raised just $10 million total, including an angel round that weighed in at less than $100,000.

Now, however, it’s apparently playing in the big leagues, with funding coming from previous investor Sequoia Capital and new investor DST, the firm that funded Facebook, Zynga and Twitter in later and larger rounds in the hundreds of millions.

Klarna’s main differentiator is that users are not charged until after delivery of the item they’re purchasing.

"Klarna is unique in the world of online payments because we separate the fun experience of buying from the tedious process of paying", said said Klarna CEO and co-founder Sebastian Siemiatkowski in a release.

"Over 40 percent of transactions in participating online stores are handled by Klarna, rivaling the major credit card companies as the most preferred payment method online."

Currently, Klarna has just 14,000 participating merchants, most of them in Europe, and around 6 million consumers using the service. It processes around $2.5 billion in payments each year.

For contrast, payments Goliath Paypal operates in 194 markets around the world, including more than 100 million active accounts and support for 24 currencies. Its total payment volume for 2010 was $92 billion.

With its headquarters in Stockholm and satellite offices in Helsinki, Finland and Oslo, Norway, Klarna is hoping this mega-round will help propel it beyond Scandinavia and into a truly international marketplace — and true competition in a somewhat entrenched and heavily regulated space.

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Tired of ads on your Xbox dashboard? Reddit shows you how to block them

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 08:31 AM PST

The Xbox Metro dashboard has brought lots of shiny new features to the console, but many gamers are troubled by the amount of advertising appearing on there. Never ones to sit on problem, members of the gaming community have come up with a way to block the ads being sent to your Xbox.

While we would not advocate trying this yourself, there are many reports that it works, and helps stop Chuck Norris appearing on your dashboard when you least expect it.

There are two methods of removing the advertising, as detailed on Reddit, and both involve blocking the server that Microsoft is using to deliver advertising – rad.msn.com

The first method is to block the rad.msn.com domain via your router, if this feature is supported. After doing so, try to access the domain via a computer. If you receive a 404 or “security” error it means the address has been blocked. Receiving a 403 error means the address has not been blocked.

The second method involves using the free OpenDNS service, which can filter your connection and block specific sites. Instructions for doing this are below.

  1. Sign up for a free OpenDNS account.
  2. Add a network for your current IP address.
  3. Go to Advanced Settings and next to ‘Domain Typos’, check the box ‘Enable typo correction’, if it’s not already checked, and apply.
  4. Go to Web Content Filtering settings and set the filtering level to ‘None’, and under ‘Manage individual domains’, put rad.msn.com and select ‘Always block’ and then click ‘Add domain’.
  5. On your Xbox, go to System Settings -> Network Settings -> (your connection) -> Configure Network -> DNS settings -> Manual, and enter the OpenDNS IP addresses for the primary and secondary DNS servers: and
  6. You may need to clear your hard drive cache before ads disappear entirely: System Settings -> Storage -> Hard Drive -> press Y -> Clear System Cache (note that you may have to re-download any title updates for any games you play after doing this)

Microsoft is keen for the Xbox to become a 'true entertainment platform', and its new dashboard, with its goal of targeted advertising, is a firm part of that plan. It is unlikely that the company will be happy for users to circumvent its advertising delivery system for long, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this workaround being nullified in the near future. Saying that, those gamers are a resourceful bunch.

Filed under: games

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GAIN Fitness grabs $650K to pump up its business

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 08:15 AM PST

GAIN Fitness, developer of an exercise application, wants to make personal trainer-quality workouts available to the masses. The San Francisco-based startup has raised a round of seed funding to develop a marketplace for fitness enthusiasts and professional trainers.

Today, GAIN allows consumers to create fitness plans on its iPhone and web apps. The service is currently free to users, but GAIN hopes to capture part of the $120 billion fitness industry with its next product release. In early January, the company will begin selling trainer packs, a bundle of exercises complete with audio and video. These packs, which could generate between 50 and 100 unique workouts, will likely cost between $1 and $5, said CEO and co-founder Nick Gammell in an interview with VentureBeat.

The app, initially tested by VentureBeat last December, now has more than 600K users. GAIN’s users tend to be people who are already active but dissatisfied with their current routines and results.

GAIN is not the only workout app on the market today. Competitors include Wii Fit and Nike Plus, and popular home exercise system P90X recently released an iPhone app. When asked what makes GAIN unique, Gammell cited the company’s data-driven approach. The team of former Google employees has created algorithms to make GAIN’s workouts more individualized and adaptive than the “out of the box” varieties offered by rivals, Gammell said.

The company, which currently has five employees, has raised $650K in seed funding from InterWest Partners and Seraph Group, along with angel investors including Keith Rabois, the chief operating office of Square. GAIN previously raised $190K from family and friends.

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Spotify debuts enhanced radio service with unlimited skips

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 08:08 AM PST


One of the most lacking features in Spotify’s music service has been radio and artist discovery. No longer. The service has just added a new Spotify Radio function with an unlimited stations and skips.

Spotify has been a roll with news lately and just a week ago it opened an API so HTML5 apps can be built by third-part devs that can take advantage of Spotify's features. On top of this, Spotify made headlines in October for forcing users to login with Facebook to intergrate its service and for the launches of its BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7 apps.

The new Spotify Radio, which looks much-improved all around, will be rolling out in the next few days to all of Spotify’s users. The company will now have a better footing to compete with the likes of Rdio and MOG when it comes to music discovery. Spotify describes the changes to its radio feature as such:

Unlimited stations: Choose a track, artist or genre and Spotify will instantly create a station of similar music. Your station will keep playing music based on your initial choice. Plus there's no limit to the number of stations you can create.
Unlimited skips: Don't like a track? Skip it. As many times as you like.
All-new intelligent recommendation engine: Spotify has put some clever new kit under the hood of Spotify Radio to let users access a better music discovery service.
Unlimited access: With over 15m tracks to choose from, you've never had a bigger song library to enjoy.
Available to all: Spotify Radio will be available to everyone – both free users and subscribers.

Spotify has seen considerable growth in its revenue and number of paid subscribers since its launch in the U.S. in July. As of October, the service has more than five million active users, with two million paying subscribers. Spotify has raised about $120 million in funding so far and is valued around $1 billion. It raised a round of financing earlier this year from Russia's DST, the investment company that has previously backed Facebook, Groupon and Zynga.

Filed under: media

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DeanBeat: The iPhone fairy tale comes true for Russia’s Cut the Rope developers

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 08:00 AM PST

The iPhone fairy tale is becoming a familiar one for game developers: A small indie developer creates a hit, people love it, and it spreads like wildfire through the App Store. Tens of millions or hundreds of millions of downloads later, and the developers are rich and on their way to building a mobile gaming empire. Sometimes they even sell adorable plush toys based on their game characters.

It has happened with Rovio, maker of Angry Birds; Outfit7, maker of Talking Tom Cat; Lima Sky, maker of Doodle Jump; Halfbrick, maker of Fruit Ninja; Bolt Creative, maker of Pocket God; and Andreas Illiger, creator of Tiny Wings. So the question isn’t why were two Russian brothers so successful with their iPhone game, Cut the Rope, which has been downloaded more than 60 million times in just a year. It’s more, ‘Why not?’

Semyon (pictured above left) and Efim Voinov (above right), two twin brothers in Moscow in their 20s, have been making games since they were ten. They have put in their time, making dozens of games for the old feature phones and a handful for iPhones too. So it’s only right that, finally, one of their games has paid off with blockbuster results.

Efim got his first iPhone in 2008 and decided to work on games for the device. He created  ZeptoLab, a game development company where he serves as technical director and his brother Semyon works as creative director. Misha Lyalin (pictured middle) is the chairman of the company. With a team of just four people, they created a zany game called Parachute Ninja. The game, which stars a ninja with a ball-like body that bounces and floats, debuted in February 2010.

Parachute Ninja was almost based on the rope mechanic that’s in Cut the Rope. Efim spent a lot of time getting the physics right by creating a custom engine that could simulate the behavior of the rope. There were other open-source physics engines available, but Efim liked the challenge of creating his own. He wanted to create a rope engine that worked well even on a device with a weak processing brain. To do so, he had to dust off his old physics books.

At the last minute, the developers decided to substitute a parachute for the rope. Parachute Ninja was downloaded 3 million times — a solid hit, but not as spectacular as some of the other mega-hit games on the iPhone.

“We found that there were no barriers for small developers,” said Efim Voinov, in an interview. “It is possible to be successful without a huge team on the iOS platform.”

The game gave the small team some good experience with its core development tools. After the first iPhone game shipped, the brothers decided to make use of their rope engine with another creation. They studied their first game and felt like the combination of touch and tilt controls made Parachute Ninja tricky to understand for players. Other games used rope physics.

“We experimented with different ideas,” Semyon Voinov said. “One of them was Cut the Rope.”

The concept phase was in the spring of 2010 and the prototyping took place in the summer. The team settled upon a mechanic where the player can draw a rope on the screen to solve various puzzles. Playing with a rope was pretty universal. The game play involved predicting the behavior of different objects in the rope environment.

It turned out that the visual element of how the rope looked wasn’t the key. The game play was the secret. It was an arcade-like experience that was simple to learn but players had to think and act fast.

The team also decided to create a funny character since casual gamers enjoy interacting with animated characters more than blocks or geometric shapes. They decided to use the rope to deliver food to Om Nom, the little green monster with a big appetite. Semyon thought that the monster should be cute, like a baby or a pet. That would tap into the feeding instincts of the players.

The 99-cent game came out on the iPhone on Oct. 5, published by Chillingo, which is now a part of Electronic Arts. Chillingo helped to get it off the ground and noticed with promotions and marketing. On its first day, the game shot into the top ten on the App Store. On its second day, it hit No. 1 on the App Store charts. Within 10 days, it crossed a million downloads. In June 2011, the game made its debut on Android. The game took off, Efim said, because it makes people smile.

“The monster is like a stress reliever,” Efim said. “They look at the animations and feel better.”

After the runaway success, the fairy tale has continued to play itself out. The team has done six or seven updates of the game, and Zeptolab has now grown to 20 employees in Moscow thanks to profits from Cut the Rope. Zeptolab has no plans to raise fuding, since it already has a lot of money coming in from game sales. The brothers are now mini-celebrities in the mobile game development world.

“I don’t have a lot of girls standing by my house yet,” Efim said. “But we are known in the industry. What we see as a great sign is that Om Nom is liked by people. We see a hunger for something more.”

And, of course, like Angry Birds before them, there are Om Nom plush toys. The toys hit the market in September and they’re selling well. On Nov. 18, they released a free holiday edition with new game content on iOS.

Efim and Semyon have some advice for small developers. “[If you] do what you like,” Semyon said. “You will not waste time doing things you don’t like.”

They suggest developers study games that have been successful and understand the features that made them successful. They also say developers should study games that were duds and understand what people didn’t like. Developers should create games that appeal to as many people as possible and to keep at it. Altogether, the brothers had worked on 30 mobile games before they had a major hit.

“We were mentally prepared to work on many titles, hoping one would be a hit,” Efim said. Semyon added, “It’s very important when you develop games to show it to others. Listen to them. Understand what they like. Show it to non-gamers.”

And what’s next, beyond the plush toys? They are working on a sequel to Cut the Robe that should be released in 2012. They want to keep fans happy with updates and they are working on a new intellectual property (an original title) that should come out next year as well. That’s where the 20 employees come in. The company now has the ability to work on multiple projects at once, including a new digital comic book.

“We want it all, basically” Efim said. “We want to expand the Cut the Rope brand. We plan to offer new titles that are similar. At the same time, as creative people, we have an urge to work on something different.”

The team will expand Cut the Rope to new platforms, but is aware that it can’t pursue all opportunities due to resource constraints. The company continues to hire, but only people who are perceived as the best at what they do. Facebook is intriguing, as is HTML5 for multi-platform games. The growth of the mobile game industry, which is now in the billions of downloads, is surprising them most of all.

“We started working on mobile games a long time ago, when the phones were not powerful and had tiny screens,” Efim said. “There was hype back then, and we expected it to become huge. I had some illusions. It didn’t happen then, but it surprisingly happened with the iPhone.”

Filed under: dev, games, mobile

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iOS 5 untethered jailbreak shown on video, one step closer to release

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 07:55 AM PST

Apple’s iOS 5 has enough new features that I haven’t really missed jailbreaking my iPhone, but for those who miss tweaking their phone or downloading jailbroken apps, it looks like a completely untethered iOS 5 jailbreak is on the horizon.

The above video, released by iPhone hacker pod2g, demonstrates the untethered jailbreak — so-called because the jailbreak hack is retained even after you reboot your phone. A tethered iOS 5 jailbreak has been out since June, but that’s far more inconvenient than an untethered jailbreak since it requires hacking your phone upon every reboot. A jailbreak for the iPhone 4S was demonstrated in October, but it’s also tethered.

Casual iPhone tweakers, like this reporter, typically wait for untethered jailbreaks because the tethered alternative is far more trouble than it’s worth. This time around I’ve been less anxious to jailbreak my phone since iOS 5 includes many features formerly only available to jailbreakers, like its drop-down notifications interface. One jailbreak developer has even taken issue with how closely Apple’s notifications resemble his own design.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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High-res iPad and Samsung tablet rumored for February (sorry holiday shoppers)

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 07:26 AM PST

iPad 2Both Apple and Samsung are hard at work tackling the next big innovation in tablets: higher resolution screens that can match the pixel fidelity of the iPhone 4′s Retina Display.

And both companies are apparently gearing up to show off their new high-res tablets in February, according to rumors from Boy Genius Report and Citi analyst Richard Gardner.

That timing makes a certain amount of sense for Apple: the  iPad 2 was announced this past March, and the original iPad was introduced in late January 2010 and made available for pre-order in March 2010. Samsung released its new Galaxy Tab 10.1 in June, so it’s feasible that the company will have something new to show off come February.

A “trusted source” tells BGR that the new Samsung slate will feature an 11.6-inch screen with a massive 2560 by 1600 resolution. In comparison, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 sports a 1280 by 800 display (which allows it to support 720p high-definition video), while the iPad 2 features a measly 1024 by 768 resolution. The more pixels, the better — that’s why the iPhone 4 and 4S screens look so much better than most other phones.

While the screen is bigger, Samsung’s source says the new tablet won’t feel that much bigger than the Galaxy Tab 10.1. It’s said to be powered by a dual-core 2 gigahertz and Android 4.0. BGR believes it will be announced at the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which begins on February 27.

Less is known about the next iPad, which will likely be called the iPad 3. Gardner notes that it’ll feature a screen with double the resolution of the current model, but that’s been rumored for some time now. He attributed the February release date to “several sources,” but it’s unclear just how reliable those sources are.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Indie devs losing faith in Microsoft following Xbox dashboard update

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 07:10 AM PST

A number of indie developers have expressed concerns about the updated Xbox dashboard, with some suggesting it is guilty of burying Xbox Live Indie Games.

Indie Games are no longer listed in the New Arrivals section of the Marketplace, nor the Genre listings. Instead, they are found through a tile labelled Game Type.

The Xbox Metro dashboard update went live on Dec. 6 and brought with it a host of new features. In the shake up though, the XBox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) channel has been replaced with an Indie Games tile, which some developers are worried might be missed by gamers, or could eventually disappear altogether. In addition, the Bing search engine on the dashboard is failing to return results for many Xbox Live Indie games. Searching for ‘Dead Rising’ yields a multitude of results, but searching for 'Applejack' or 'Avatar Battle Bees' returns no relevant findings.

Mommy’s Best Games boss Nathan Fouts spoke to Eurogamer explaining his concerns, "There’s a revolving tile that currently also links you to Indie Games but it’s sort of random if someone will see that or even if IG will be listed there next week." He added that "the truly disheartening news is that the ‘games’ tab on our game console is now several pages away from the start……simply getting to the main portal for Arcade, Games on Demand or Indie Games, or for that matter my own game library is a chore."

The dashboard has also brought with it more advertising, as Microsoft looks to target adverts to individuals, based on their behaviors. The new layout is an "advertisers dream", according to Fouts, but this means that "every single page main page now has an advertisement on it, there are dozens of secret little places to feature things, and it’s easy to get lost."

Cthulhu Saves the World developer Robert Boyd, is also concerned about the new dashboard, and thinks that it will probably result in reduced sales: "It feels to me that Microsoft is trying to promote individual games more but hide the [XBLIG] channel as a whole. I think this will result in less sales overall, but only time will tell.”

Although a degree of backlash is to be expected with such a major dashboard change, the concerns raised by indie developers do feel like part of a wider feeling of discontent towards Microsoft. Brett Everleigh, developer of Avatar Battle Bees, says that “Microsoft take a back-seat approach and only really gets involved to take a cut of your sales and make the games slightly harder to find with each new dashboard update". He adds that "it feels like Microsoft has abandoned the platform in favour of Windows Phone 7. But instead of admitting it they’re brushing it under the carpet and hoping it’ll go away."

Pricing is also a point of concern for many XBLIG developers, as they are forced to under-value their games, to get people to even consider them, according to Everleigh. He points out that while Indie games on PC and iOS are also being devalued, there are a sufficient number of users on those platforms to offset the problem, which isn't the case on XBLIG.

Microsoft has responded to these concerns in a statement, saying "Indie developers have told us they are looking for an easy route to market, which is the biggest hurdle to overcome, and we’ve provided that for them with Xbox Live Indie Games. But they’ve got to take that next step and do marketing after the launch."

The statement continues, "”the new Xbox 360 Dashboard update provides improved ways for consumers to find great indie titles, including the ability to search with voice”, but while this voice search is a nice new feature, it doesn’t overcome the fact that some indie titles aren’t showing up in the results.

Microsoft states that it is listening to feedback from developers, and is taking it into account for future programs.

Filed under: games

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Team Ninja studio head talks DLC costumes and Tekken vs. Dead or Alive

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 07:00 AM PST

Team Ninja, an in-house development studio owned by Tecmo Koei, is best known for its work on the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden franchises. The last major entry in the Dead or Alive fighting game series, Dead or Alive 4, was released one month after the launch of the Xbox 360 in late 2005. Since then, Team Ninja has focused on ports, such as Dead or Alive Dimensions for the Nintendo 3DS, Ninja Gaiden sequels for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and even brought their unique style to Nintendo’s Metroid: Other M, to mixed results. Now, with notorious figurehead Tomonobu Itagaki having left the company amid sexual misconduct allegations and a well-publicized lawsuit, Yosuke Hayashi has taken over as studio head and is charging into 2012 at full-speed with Ninja Gaiden 3 and Dead or Alive 5.

As a longtime fighting genre fan, I was eager to see how the DOA series has progressed over the past several years, especially given the steep competition from recent titles such as Mortal Kombat. The visuals have been revamped, now including far more dynamic environments, as well as dirt and sweat that accumulates on the player characters over time. Dead or Alive’s signature “breast physics” seem to have been toned down slightly, as both Ayane and Hitomi were not only dressed surprisingly modest, but featured somewhat more realistic proportions. I’m also impressed that series mascot Kasumi (of whom previous games have included life-sized pillows featuring her likeness) has taken a backseat during these early previews.

Aside from that, it seems very little has changed thus far. Still in “alpha” phase, plenty of aspects and characters are yet to be unveiled, but we were shown a new “power blow” move. By holding the right trigger button, a unique attack can be charged up that will unleash a stunning, cinematic combo that ends by allowing the player to “aim” where they would like to launch their opponent. Interactive environments have become a staple of the Dead or Alive series, and this enhanced control will let players more easily send their rival into explosive containers, upturned vehicles (which also explode, of course), and even off the side of a construction building. It’s a good start, and hopefully we’ll see several more worthwhile advancements to the franchise’s already solid gameplay.

VentureBeat sat down with Hayashi-san for an exclusive interview to discuss his current projects. These answers were given through a translator.

VentureBeat: Based on this new demo, I noticed that the move sets for Hitomi and Ayane actually seem identical to Dead or Alive 4, and I was wondering in what substantial ways–besides the power blows–has the gameplay changed since the last iteration?

Yosuke Hayashi: Right now we’re still in a very early part of development. What we’re focusing on for this event are the power blows. You might be able to get a feel for… A little bit different hold on the action that’s going on. So in terms of the actual move sets, the final move sets that are going to be in the game, that’s something that we’re going to be brushing up until the very end.

VB: Will the story of Ninja Gaiden III tie into Dead or Alive 5?

YH: The worlds for DOA and Ninja Gaiden III are kind of different. I mean, it’s the same world, they’re all living in the same place, but we treat them differently. So you won’t get a strong link between the stories for Ninja Gaiden III and Dead or Alive 5. But there will be links that people will notice. For example, the sword that [Ryu] has on his back in Dead or Alive 5. If you played the Ninja Gaiden III stage that we have, the single-player stage out here, he actually gets that sword from Ayane. So there are links there between the two games, but it’s not like there’s a direct, like, sequel link or anything like that.

VB: Ninja Gaiden has always had a very serious story, even back in the 8-bit days, while Dead or Alive has had a mix of serious and mostly humorous endings. But they’re always very short, the endings are just little standalone snippets. Has the handling of the story in Dead or Alive evolved at all since the last one?

YH: Ninja Gaiden III really focuses around Ryu Hayabusa and his story. For Dead or Alive, though, every character is their own main character in their story. So the way that you put the stories together is different when every character has to be a main character. That changes the way that we approach stories in Dead or Alive versus Ninja Gaiden.

VB: Have you looked at what games like the new Mortal Kombat and BlazBlue have done with their story modes? Generally speaking, a lot of people say story doesn’t fit in fighting games, because nobody cares. But I think that these and a few other games have proven that you can do something meaningful with a story in a fighting game. Have you looked at those at all and if so, what did you think about them?

YH: We’ve definitely looked at what else is out there, and we understand that a lot of people feel that story is an afterthought for fighting games. But if you’re going to really link with the character, if you’re going to feel connected to the character that you’re using, story is vital to making that link with the character. So we’re definitely looking at ways to incorporate story into Dead or Alive 5 that fit within the fighting game genre, that work for a fighting game. Something that’s still compelling, that’s not just an afterthought, that works together with the gameplay to reinforce the characters. So we’re definitely taking a look at how we do story in fighting games for Dead or Alive 5.

Filed under: games

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Instagram is Apple’s No. 1 app of 2011 in a year heavy on fun and sharing

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 06:49 AM PST

instagram-logoIf you made plans for your weekend, you might want to kiss them goodbye.  Apple yesterday released its iTunes Rewind 2011 list, with the 40 top  iPhone and iPad apps of the year. The iTunes store now has more than 500,000 apps in it, but  this year’s top apps list shows that fun is the dominant theme. Games and social networking tools dominated, and photo sharing tool Instagram was chosen as the No. 1  app of the year.

People can’t get enough of Instagram. Since launching in October of 2010, the app has acquired over 13 million users. On the iTunes Store, the app has been rated by more than 207,000 people who give it 3.75 stars out of four.

Apple’s top apps list still has many other fun services and games to choose from. Some you know and love, others might be new. Don’t be surprised if your Saturday and Sunday disappear as you check out a few of the games you might have missed out on earlier in the year. It definitely happened to me over Thanksgiving weekend when I downloaded Tiny Wings for the iPhone. And now the list, without further ado:

Top Paid iPhone Apps

1. Angry Birds
2. Fruit Ninja
3. Angry Birds Seasons
4. Cut the Rope
5. Tiny Wings
6. Angry Birds Rio
7. Words With Friends
8. Camera+
9. Doodle Jump
10. Plants vs. Zombies

The top 10 paid iPhone apps were all games, with the exception of Camera+, a photo app with tons of cool filters. Angry Birds claimed the top spot, and it’s no surprise. 2o11 was the year Angry birds went from a niche meme to a full on cultural phenomenon. Making an unlikely appearance on the Top 10 list is Doodle Jump, a basic but “insanely addictive” platformer that first appeared on the iPhone nearly two years ago.

Top Free iPhone Apps:

1. Facebook
2. Pandora Radio
3. Words with Friends Free
4. Angry Birds Free
5. Skype
6. Netflix
7. Angry Birds Rio Free
8. Groupon
9. Fruit Ninja Lite
10. Twitter

The top free apps were dominated by games and social networking services. Facebook took the top slot, and it has has been the most popular iOS app for some time by a comfortable margin. More than 350 million people access Facebook through a mobile device, and it is the most popular  iPhone app of all time. Pandora is another heavy favorite for iPhone users, and Twitter, which was integrated into iOS 5, is an app that has become part of the mobile phone experience. No real surprises here.

Top Paid iPad Apps:

1. Angry Birds HD
2. Pages
3. Angry Birds Seasons
4. GarageBand
5. Angry Birds Rio HD
6. Penultimate
7. Fruit Ninja HD
8. Cut the Rope HD
9. SCRABBLE for iPad
10. Keynote

The top iPad apps showed a little more bias towards productivity and work, with Apple’s publishing tool Pages, and presentation designer Keynote making their way to the top 10. Overall, iPad owners still love their games. Cut The Rope HD and Fruit Ninja were still in the running, capturing people’s imagination on both the iPad and the iPhone.

Top Free iPad Apps

1. Angry Birds HD Free
2. The Weather Channel for iPad
3. Netflix
4. CNN App for iPad
5. Angry Birds Rio HD Free
6. Kindle
7. Skype for iPad
8. Calculator for iPad Free
9. Pandora Radio
10. Calculator Pro for iPad Free

The free iPad apps category shows the most diversity, with a mixture of games, such as Angry Birds Rio, a calculator app, and even the app designed for the Weather Channel. Pandora, Kindle and Netflix are all on the list, showing that people love their iOS devices for play and media, even when they can help get a lot of work done.

Filed under: media, mobile, VentureBeat

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Red Robot Labs buys Supermono game studio

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 12:06 AM PST

Red Robot Labs is a pretty young startup, founded earlier this. But the mobile game company raised $8.5 million in September and is using that money already. Today, the company is announcing it has acquired England-based game studio Supermono.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Red Robot Labs is also appointing Phil Harrison, former chief of Sony’s game studios and now a venture capitalist in Europe, as an advisor. That shows that these are still pretty heady times in mobile games. In particular, location-based gaming is starting to come into its own, said Mike Ouye (pictured in the middle in front of the Death Star), chief executive of Red Robot, in an interview. The purchase price wasn’t disclosed.

A purchase like this makes sense, given that Red Robot has a late start in the mobile gaming wars and the competition is fierce, with everyone from Electronic Arts to Zynga participating in the market.

Red Robot launched its first game, Life is Crime, in September at the Penny Arcade Expo West (PAX) event in Seattle. During that debut, players committed more than in-game crimes on the first day and visited over 2,411 unique venues in Seattle. Life is Crime is currently the top Android-based game in the U.S.

Pete Hawley (pictured left, with chief technology officer John Harris on the right), chief product officer, said that his company’s expertise in location will complement Supermono’s experience in making games with cool 3D graphics. Hawley, a native of the U.K., hooked up with the Supermono team when he went home for a visit and met with friends that he once knew in the console game industry.

“We now have a way to expand our intellectual property in new directions,” Hawley said.

Red Robot plans to develop its R2 location platform as a foundation for making better location-games. Supermono, which has a good position in indie games in Europe, will use the R2 platform in its future games. Its titles include the mobile racing game Forever Drive, which is the top game in its category in 50 countries. Tak Fung is general manager at Supermono and some of the company’s veterans made PC games such as Black & White in the past. The Forever Drive game had 1.2 million mobile downloads in its first week. Red Robot now has 27 employees in the U.S. and six in the U.K.

Harrison is a general partner at London Venture Partners. Red Robot raised its money from Benchmark Capital, Shasta Ventures, as well as existing investors Rick Thompson, co-founder of Playdom and Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive.

Harrison said, "I'm really impressed with what the team at Red Robot has achieved in less than a year. Life is Crime has proven their ability to succeed in the mobile game space and the addition of the U.K. studio gives the company access to even more talent."

Hawley said that both companies have new games coming soon. Life is Crime is debuting soon on the iPhone, and more titles are likely to debut next year from both companies. Rivals in geo-gaming include Ogmento, which just launched a new location-based game. Even as mobile game companies are hiring, a number of console game studios in the U.K., such as one owned by Codemasters, have closed.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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At $300B in revenues, the chip industry still embraces its cool startups

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 11:42 PM PST

The global semiconductor industry will grow 1 or 2 percent this year and finally hit $300 billion revenue in 2011, marking the first time it has done so. At the At the Global Semiconductor Association’s annual awards dinner today in Santa Clara, Calif., analysts predicted the industry might grow 1 percent to 5 percent in 2012.

That’s what you call a mature market. I remember in 1996 that the respected chip economist Vladi Catto of Texas Instruments predicted that the industry would hit $300 billion in the year 2000. It took about 11 years longer than Klesken and anyone else expected to hit the milestone. That’s a sobering fact and a reminder that growth never turns out the way you expect it.

But here we are, in 2011, and the 60-year-old-plus chip industry is still celebrating its startups. At the dinner tonight, the association touted the innovations and growth not only of its giant companies such as Intel, but also the small startups in fast growth mode. It was funny to see the group offer an award to the “emerging public company of the year” — NetLogic Microsystems won that prize. In most industries, all of the emerging companies are private startups.

The chip industry is at least growing at around the same rate of the world economy this year, and it had to deal with supply chain catastrophes related to the earthquake in Japan and the floods in Thailand. Smartphones, ultrabooks, and Windows 8 could spur growth in 2012, according to Needham & Co. analyst Quinn Bolton. And it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, as GSA founder Jodie Shelton said, the number of internet-connected devices — which have plenty of chips in them — will grow from 5 billion now to 22 billion by 2020.

“The tendency in a slow time might be to retreat from research and development,” Shelton said. “But those that innovate will prosper in years to come.”

For sure, it took a lot longer than everyone thought to hit $300 billion in revenue, and it doesn’t seem like such a great achievement in a year when the industry is growing so slowly. Still, the chip industry is the bedrock of the $1 trillion-plus electronics industry. And its pace of innovation is punishing, with new chip factories costing as much as $4 billion to build now. Every two years, chip makers have to invent entirely new processes to keep the lights turned on, and chip designers have to create high-demand chips to keep the factories filled. Moore’s Law, the prediction by Intel chairman emeritus Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years, demands continuous breakthroughs.

That’s why there are still innovative startups in the business. The association’s long list of awards included the “startups to watch.” The nominees on that list this year were Amalfi Semiconductor; Netronome; Newport Media; and Quantenna Communications. The winner was Amalfi, a fabless company focused on wireless and mixed signal chips, with more than 50 million chips shipped to date.

SandForce and Silicon Mitus were nominated for outstanding revenue growth for a private company, and SandForce won. The most respected private company award nominees included Ambarella, Aptina Imaging, and SandForce. Ambarella, a maker of low-power imaging chips, won the award. Nine chip companies managed to have initial public offerings this year, and 10 more are in registration. Invensys, which makes gyro chips for the Nintendo Wii’s controller, is still trading 19 percent above its IPO price.

Some chip makers raised sizable amounts of venture capital. Tabula raised $108 million and Bridgelux raised $21 million. Meanwhile, Texas Instruments paid $6.5 billion for National Semiconductor; Broadcom bought NetLogic for $3.7 billion; Qualcomm bought Atheros for $3.1 billion; and CSR bought Zoran for $679 million.

The most prestigious award of the evening, the Dr. Morris Chang Exemplary Leadership Award, went to Henry Samueli (pictured right), the co-founder of Broadcom. He started Broadcom with his friend Henry Nicholas in 1991.

They had to design digital communications chips — which typically had to be built in a highly customized factory — that could be built in a standard plain vanilla chip factory. They had to do that because that was the only kind of factory that Broadcom — a fabless semiconductor company, or design house — could find to make its chips. Broadcom’s engineers had to be twice as good as rivals who had their own factories.

In 1996, the company had 60 employees and generated revenue of $4 million a quarter and had a valuation of $100 million. Now the company has $8 billion in revenue and is the 10th largest chip company and has 10,000 employees. Both Samueli and Nicholas — who had their share of controversy with options backdating cases and government investigations in the past decade — appeared humble and wizened in a video celebrating Samueli’s contributions, on the 20th anniversary of Broadcom’s founding. Despite a black mark on his career that forced him out of Broadcom, Samueli was greeted with a standing ovation.

“Of all the accomplishments of the company that I am most proud of, it is the impact on society,” Samueli said. “Broadcom played a big role in the broadband revolution.”

In his acceptance speech, Samueli thanked his wife and recalled being such a bad father because he had to work past midnight every day at Broadcom in its startup days. He says that now, with a two-year-old grandaughter, he is making it up by spending more time with her. He also thanked his partner Nicholas and Broadcom’s employees. Still worth billions, Samueli has become quite the philanthropist. He had quite a career, all because he left his cushy tenured position as a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and started a crazy little chip company.

The chip industry’s heritage is fast-growing startups. It’s nice to see they’re still happening.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Halo Waypoint, ATLAS coming to mobile devices on Dec. 10

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 09:04 PM PST

Halo ATLAS App

Right on the heels of the My Xbox LIVE release, Microsoft is bringing two Halo apps to smartphones. The first, Halo Waypoint, will function much like its console counterpart, relaying stats, awards, news, and other Halo-related content. It will be free on all the smartphone markets on December 10th, but for $4.99, a separate premium app called ATLAS can deliver an impressive slew of features the free Waypoint app won’t be offering.

The move shows that mobile games are a priority, even among the big companies that own video game console platforms such as Microsoft.

The developers behind the app have detailed exactly what ATLAS, the Assisted Tactical Assault System, will include:

  • Weapon and vehicle spawn locations for Matchmaking and Firefight games.
  • Health pack locations.
  • Near-real-time locations for weapons and vehicles during Custom Multiplayer games.
  • Your location and that of your team members displayed on the map.
  • 'Follow me' mode to track your movement.
  • Dynamic player list, including current score for the teams and each player and equipped weapon for you and your teammates.

This could completely turn the tide of multiplayer matches for those with the tactical skills to keep track of everything on the current map on their phone while running and gunning through the levels. All the multiplayer and firefight maps have been included and perfected in a partnership with strategy guide experts Brady Games.

The app also delineates between custom games and ranked matchmaking games. For example, only spawn points of items and vehicles will appear during matchmaking, but in a custom game, if a player picks up a rocket launcher at its spawn point and then drops it somewhere else, ATLAS will update with the weapon’s new location. Check out Xbox’s Halo blog for more specifics and an interview with the developers.

And in case you were wondering about the mysterious ‘L’, the devs have created a tagline explaining it – “ATLAS: Because it sounds better than ATAS.”

Filed under: games

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CEO claims Zynga could double paid users after IPO, and he’s probably right

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 08:12 PM PST

Zynga co-founder and chief executive officer Mark Pincus said today that his company could double its number of paid subscribers.

Zynga has about 215 million monthly users. Roughly 7.7 million of these users have purchased Facebook Credits, which can be redeemed for virtual goods inside Zynga games like Farmville. This figure represents between 2.5 and 3 percent of Zynga’s total user base.

“We could see that doubling,” Pincus said before a room of about 100 potential investors, Reuters reported. Pincus was speaking in Boston during a roadshow event for the company’s planned initial public offering.

Pincus has never publicly stated that the company could double the number of paid subscribers and he did not specify a timeline. A Zynga spokesperson declined to comment, but an analyst contacted by VentureBeat said it was not a far-fetched prediction.

San Francisco-based Zynga makes games that people play inside online social networks, and the company is preparing to go public on NASDAQ Exchange as soon as next Friday.

The company’s listing value has fluctuated wildly, on fears that users are abandoning its games for other popular titles such as The Sims Social, and that Zynga will have a hard time holding onto paid users. The company was valued between $15 billion and $20 billion as recently as July, but it’s pre-IPO value has settled at an estimated $8.9 billion one week before the expected offering.

Michael Pachter, a research analyst at Wedbush Securities who specializes in games and digital media, said there are several scenarios in which Zynga could double its paid user base within the next one to two years. The two key drivers of growth will be Facebook and mobile devices.

Pachter said that if Facebook hits 1 billion users, the number of  people who play Zynga games will almost certainly increase in tandem. And if this happens, Zynga could still be close to doubling the number of paid users it has without significantly shifting the total proportion of Facebook users who play its games.

Pachter also believes that Facebook will start doing more to make people use their credit cards within the social network. Buying Facebook Credits is a frustrating experience. If Facebook removes some of the friction from this process, Zynga stands to benefit, even if people are spending $1-$2 per month, which is the norm. He compared this to e-commerce sites like Amazon.com, where people make repeated one-click purchase once they grow accustomed to securely storing their credit card information online.

On the mobile front, Pachter said that Zynga’s only killer app now is “Words with Friends,” the Scrabble-like game that got actor Alec Baldwin yanked off an American Airlines flight in Los Angeles this week. Zynga games work better on smartphones than feature phones. If Zynga invests heavily in mobile development there is a great opportunity to reach customers on feature phones.

Zynga is planning to raise $900 million or more in its IPO, the largest initial public offering since Google went public in 2004, raising $1.7 billion. Zynga has enough orders to cover the number of shares it’s floating, Bloomberg reported today.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 no longer banned in Australia

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 06:55 PM PST

kangaroo galaxy tabSamsung executives’ moods are no longer down under. Australia’s High Court removed its country-wide ban on the company’s tablet, the Galaxy Tab 10.1, today.

Australia’s court prohibited the sale of the tablet when Apple filed an infringement suit against the Galaxy Tab, a decision Samsung called “grossly unjust.” Apple’s iPad launched in Australia after releasing in the United States. The Galaxy tab shares similarities with the iPad, and can be counted among its biggest competitors. The tablet is a little too close for Apple’s comfort given that Samsung produces chips used in Apple products.

Mobile rivalries are bound to happen, especially when one tablet takes on a very similar look and feel to another. The unfortunate part of the tablet, however, is it’s a tablet. There aren’t a lot of shapes for it to come in. That is, other than the Pyramid tablet sold at Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s the internals that really count, and when one company recognizes features they feel are unique to its own tablet, wars are bound to flare.

An angry Samsung stated in November that the judge handling the injunction against the Galaxy Tab didn’t properly look through Apple’s intentions in the suit. Samsung has, however, also filed a similar suit to stop sale of Apple’s iPhone 4S in Australia. A hope for a French ban was recently denied.

The Australian courts have agreed to hear the case in March 2012. The tablet has, however, already been on ban since July. If Apple does flush the Galaxy Tab down Australia’s toilets, maybe we’ll finally find out if the water swirls the other way.

[via Reuters]

Filed under: mobile

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Google nabs Square Enix and other game developers to do native client Chrome games

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 06:24 PM PST

Google announced today that its three-year effort to create a muscular browser technology that can run heavy duty apps such as console-like games is now ready for prime time.

Google has provided the platform to allow games to run in the Chrome browser and make use of the computers 3D graphics hardware. That makes it possible to run games with high-end console-like graphics in a web browser.

Square Enix chief executive Yoichi Wada attended the event at the GooglePlex headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and said his company has been waiting for this day for a long time. The company created a version of its Mini Ninjas game for Chrome as a “native client” game.

“Let us begin this new era together,” Wada said. “Google’s native client will be welcomed worldwide as a truly innovative technology for the information technology industry and game industry as well.”

He said that high-end games require high-end hardware, but by making those games available on the web via native client, a wider audience will be able to enjoy them. To date, web browsers have been too weak to run games well.

“Google’s native client solves this problem,” he said. “It is an excellent solution for browser gaming.”

A dozen other game companies were at the event to show their support for the Chrome native client. They said the benefits of running a game natively in the Chrome browser is high performance, security, and the ability to port to the system easily. The games include Bastion, an award-winning title from Super Giant Gamesthat debuted on Xbox Live on the Xbox 360 game console.

Google said it would be easy to port existing PC and console games to the Chrome native client, partly because developers can use a varity of familiar programming tools. The Unity 3D game engine will now include a check box that a developer can click in order to make a Unity-based game run on the Chrome browser. That’s pretty darn simple. It means developers don’t have to waste a lot of time rewriting games and other apps for the web, only to see them crawl in slow motion. Besides games, photo and video apps will also benefit from the native client technology.

For game developers, this is a chance for a much wider audience, as Chrome has been downloaded more than 200 million times. Unity reaches 90 million gamers. Oren Tversky, vice president of business development at Unity, said that the experience is much easier for consumers, who don’t have to wait for a long installation. They are less likely to quit a long download and so they are more likely to become paying customers.

Five Unity-based games will be available in the Chrome web store. Google is working on improving portability for future operating systems and architectures. It will add features such as support for gamepads, memory mapped files, and web sockets as well.

“These examples show the support for the native client,” said Christian Stevanson, Google product manager for native client. “Games are a category that push the boundaries of what is possible on a platform.”

Ian Ellison Taylor of Google said that the project started three years ago with the question, “What if we could run native code inside the browser, but have it be secure and portable?”

Filed under: games

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Embed this tweet: This New New Twitter feature finally works

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 05:07 PM PST

Throw out the blackbird pie, Twitter has finally served up a new dish of embeddable tweets that is actually digestible.

Twitter released a brand spanking New New Twitter option called “embeddable tweets” Thursday. The feature makes it simple for folks to pull tweets from Twitter and paste them, with all their Twittery-goodness in tact (reply, retweet, favorite and follow options), elsewhere on the web.

“[Every tweet is] a dynamic piece of media, and we believe that everyone should be able to view and interact with Tweets on the Web in the same ways you would from any Twitter client,” Twitter developer Brian Ellin said.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Didn’t I read something about an embeddable tweets feature more than a year ago?”

Yes, you did. The embeddable tweets feature was then just a makeshift and clunky option called “Blackbird Pie” that regular folks and super users alike scoffed at. This time around, embeddable tweets is a useable product. So useable, in fact, that WordPress.com users need only copy the URL of a tweet and paste it into a blog post (as I did above). Posterous, a blog and private-sharing platform, also now supports super fast-and-easy tweet embedding.

Everyone else can navigate to a tweet’s permalink page via the New New Twitter (you’ll want to click on the “Details” option on the tweet), and then select “Embed this Tweet” to grab the proper HTML code.

Be forewarned: The feature could use a little extra time in the oven. We noticed sluggish tweet loading times in testing.

[Image via Kadath/Flickr]

Filed under: dev, social, VentureBeat

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Get the e-book of “Xbox: The Making of a Bad-Ass Machine”

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 04:47 PM PST

To mark the 10th anniversary of Microsoft’s Xbox, VentureBeat’s lead games writer Dean Takahashi wrote an epic two-part story on the history of the video game console. The articles were a huge hit with VentureBeat readers, but we thought the depth and breadth of Dean’s reporting was worthy of a of a full book.

We’ve combined part one, “How Microsoft unleashed a video game revolution,” and part two, “Microsoft's journey to the next generation,” into one convenient 53-page Kindle e-book. The final product is an inside look at the popular game console’s journey from conception to launch through today. You can get the $2.99 Kindle book, “Xbox: The Making of a Bad-Ass Machine,” now for your Kindle e-reader or Kindle app of choice.

The narrative is based on recent interviews, as well as Dean’s two earlier books: “Opening the Xbox: Inside Microsoft's Plan to Unleash an Entertainment Revolution,” published in 2002; and “The Xbox 360 Uncloaked: The real story behind Microsoft's next generation video game console,” which was published in 2006.

“Xbox: Making of a Bad-Ass Machine” is coming soon to Apple’s iBookstore, for all you iOS lovers. In the meantime, you can read this version of the book in the Kindle app on any iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.

Buy the book now.

[Image via Alfred Hermida/Flickr]

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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Jawbone suspends production of Up wristband, offers refund even if you keep it

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 04:25 PM PST

Jawbone-Up-iOSBluetooth headset maker Jawbone issued an apology today and will be giving broad refunds with “no questions asked” on its recently launched Up health wristband after many users complained of issues, including battery and syncing problems.

“While many of you continue to enjoy the Up experience, we know that some of you have experienced issues with your Up band,” Jawbone CEO Hosain Rahman said, in a statement. “Given our commitment to delivering the highest quality products, this is unacceptable and you have our deepest apologies.”

Jawbone is mostly known for its stylish Bluetooth headsets, so when the company set its sights on the health and fitness space, we were intrigued. Using the Jawbone Up wristband and an iOS app, you could get reminders to move when you sat at a desk too long, be told exactly how long you've slept, be prompted to wake up in accordance with your natural sleep cycle and track how many calories you ate by snapping photos of your food.

Unfortunately, the first set of users for the wristband appear to have had many issues — so many that Jawbone is suspending production until it can fix all the problems. The main issues appear to be that some wristbands can’t hold a full charge due to capacitor malfunctions, and some don’t sync properly because of a hardware issue. Jawbone said it is “working around the clock to identify the root causes” and it will take new orders for Up wristbands once all of the issues have been addressed.

The most interesting aspect of the refund is that anyone who purchased the wristband, even if they haven’t had any problems, can still get a refund. The somewhat hilarious wording from the press release reads: “This means that for whatever reason, or no reason at all, you can receive a full refund for Up. This is true even if you decide to keep your Up band.”

The “Up No Questions Asked Guarantee” refund applies to any Up wristband purchased in 2011. So, in theory, you could go buy an Up wristband right now and still get a refund even if you don’t have a single problem. And if you do have serious problems, the company will send you a replacement band in accordance its standard product warranty.

[Lemon image via platinum/Flickr]

Filed under: mobile

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Multi-tuner chips will deliver faster TV channel changing and wireless video viewing experiences

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 03:22 PM PST

In the coming months, consumers will be able to watch recorded digital movies on a wide variety of platforms, from TVs in the bedroom to tablet computers, according to a technology briefing by chip maker Broadcom today.

The same processing technology that makes it easy to watch a high-end movie on a small tablet or smartphone could also make changing channels on digital TV sets almost instantaneous. It shows that faster and cheaper chips can allow for new kinds of convenient consumer electronics features for couch potatoes.

The crux of the technology is the TV tuner in a set-top box. These Broadcom chips can now have as many as eight tuners on a single chip, making it economical for a set-top box to act as a better home gateway, or a device that slings digital video to a variety of devices. In the past, set-tops such as digital video recorders only had two to four tuners in a box, said Stephen Palm (pictured), senior technical director at Broadcom’s communications group, in an interview.

“With eight tuners, we can now start decoding more than one channel at a time,” Palm said.

Digital video streams are often sent to homes in multiple streams. The set-top box — like a cable machine or digital video recorder — can decode one stream and display it on the TV. But the other tuners can also decode pieces of adjacent channels so that they can be quickly processed and displayed instantaneously when someone advances up or down one channel with a remote control. Normally, it can take two seconds or more to change a channel from one digital video stream to another.

With eight tuners on a chip, a set-top box could become a better gateway. This new kind of multi-room gateway is necessary because people will want to be able to watch their home entertainment on just about any device. Video is already a big on mobile devices, but the smartphones and tablets don’t have much horsepower for processing video. Palm said that a new set-top with the eight-tuner chip could play video on a TV, and at the same time it could distribute video wirelessly to a TV in another room. It could also “transcode,” or convert video for the TV so that it can be viewable on a portable device.

Thus, the set-top box “home gateway” could be like a hydra, a multi-headed beast delivering video to a variety of machines in the home at the same time. The gateway could use cable, powerline, or wireless networking to distribute the video simultaneously, Palm said.

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EA Sports Challenge launches on PS3, with $1 million prize fund up for grabs

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 02:55 PM PST

Electronic Arts today launched its new e-sports video game tournament, exclusively on the Playstation 3. The EA Sports Challenge Series is designed to determine the most skilled Madden NFL 12, NHL 2 and FIFA 12 players, and is offering cash prizes of up to $140,000 to the best players.

The tournament qualifiers are running from now until March 12 2012, allowing gamers to compete against each other from the comfort of their own home. Entry to the tournament costs $10, and players winning six games in a row will progress to the live final in New York.

Virgin Gaming is hosting the tournament, and gamers that want to compete can register and participate immediately. Although $10 will buy you base level entry, it is possible to fast track your way to the finals, by buying into higher level matches, for an additional fee. Sports game fans with deep pockets can even stump up $448 to bypass the qualifying stages completely, and head straight for the finals.

Rob Segal, chief operating officer of Virgin Gaming, explained the reasoning behind the large cash pot on offer "Virgin Gaming is earning a reputation for hosting the biggest gaming tournaments, but our members have been asking for even larger prize pools. That's what drove the creation of the EA Sports Challenge Series; the idea came from them."

Public awareness of competitive e-Sports is still pretty low, something of which Billy Levy, president of Virgin Gaming, is acutely aware:  "I believe the public understands that people play competitively, but I don’t think they realize the scale of some of these tournaments. Players are making real money competing, with some tournaments offering up one million in cash."

Major League Gaming has a professional e-sports league, which recently recorded record viewing figures of more than 3.5 million. This EA and Virgin Gaming initiative, by contrast, seems to be aimed at all gamers, regardless of  their previous experience of competitive online gaming.

Levy obviously believes that the time is now right for competitive gaming to reach a wider audience, saying that “Once people realize that Virgin Gaming is an extension to their gaming experience, similar to an in game add-on or a DLC update, you will really start to see the shift.”

Filed under: games

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Google Schemer is a deliciously diabolical attack against Foursquare

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 02:55 PM PST

Oh Google, your aptly named new product Schemer doesn’t have us fooled. We know you’re calling it a new way to discover things to do, but we see this for what it really is — an assault against Foursquare and the company’s hold over quality location-based content, city tips and to-dos.

Let’s start with the basics. Google Schemer launched earlier today as an invite-only Web application designed to help people explore new and familiar cities.

The product was first announced on Google+, and heavily promoted on Twitter by the Schemer team and product media partners. But Google didn’t really tell us much about what Schemer is or what it does. And it certainly didn’t make invites easy to come by.

Instead, Google crafted a rather ambiguous description, posted an even more obtuse video, and left it up to interested parties to sleuth out invites and details.

“Whether it's exploring a new city, checking out a friend's movie recommendations, or just finding new activities for your weekends, Schemer lets you discover new things to do, share schemes with friends, and make the most of your day,” an introduction to Schemer on Google+ reads. “We're a scrappy team of Google engineers who wanted to help people do fun stuff in the real world.”

I tracked down an invite via Twitter to test the tool out, and I can tell you with all sincerity that Schemer is pretty mediocre out of the gate. If you’re looking to this product to tell you something fun to do in your city or solve your weekend What should I do? plans, look elsewhere, at least for the time being.

But, and here’s a dramatic pause worth drawing out, Schemer has all the makings of a Foursquare challenger. It’s definitely not a check-in service (though Foursquare would tell you that it’s not either), but it is centered around helping users find things to do in their cities, and elsewhere in the world. Sound familiar? Right. That’s Foursquare’s mission.

Schemer is structured around the user building a list of “schemes” (a.k.a. things) to do, surfacing ideas from friends and experts, and marking off the schemes that have been completed. Doesn’t that sound a whole lot like Foursquare tips and to-do lists?

Now, consider that Google has launched Schemer with media partners such as Bravo, Zagat, Thrillist, Food Network, Rolling Stone, IGN and Entertainment Weekly, each of which have Schemer pages replete with schemes that read a whole lot like the tips you’ll find on Foursquare brand pages. Do you start to see a pattern.

If not, let me break it down for you: Google is building up a base of location-based tips, sourced from media partners and users, that has the potential to evolve into something quite grand.

Schemer is also tied into Google+, making it inherently social and easy for folks to add users and — this is key — media partners to their Google+ Circles.

There are other features, of course, and it’s not all about location all the time, but there certainly is a lot of overlap with Foursquare here.

The Schemer name implies intentional subterfuge — even the video drives this point home — and this is Google’s veiled attempt to take over the location-based content and discovery category, and it’s a deliciously diabolical one at that.

[Suspicious man image from Shutterstock]

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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Klip version 2.0 brings even more goodies to its video-sharing iPhone app

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 02:43 PM PST

More than 115 million smartphones were sold during Q3 of 2011, according to the latest Gartner report, and almost all of them have some video capability. But with the spike in video creation comes a new problem: what to watch. Startup Klip tackles this problem by making it easy to track and sort videos from your friends on your iPhone.

Klip is a video sharing app that helps you sift through all that video to share and discover the best content with your friends. Today a new, more social version of Klip is available in the iTunes App Store, Klip 2.0.

The enhanced version of Klip has a refreshed layout with social networking at its heart. You can search for videos from your friends as always, but Klip now features a recommendations tab, and deeper Facebook integration.  Now it’s easier to see videos people outside your circle based on your interests.

“We’re bringing to bear a lot of technologies that are not viewed by our users as technologies, but as a way to interact with videos,” Klip co-founder and chief executive officer Alain Rossmann told VentureBeat.

Klip has 20 employees and raised an $8 million Series B round in mid-November just two months after launching. Klip raised $2 million in a previous round of financing. Benchmark Capital, Matrix Partners and Alain Rossmann have all invested in the company.

It competes with a number of social video sharing apps, such as Looplr and Vlix, an app which allows users to shoot videos and add effects. Klip and services like it succeed because they are built on top of social networking behavior that has become commonplace online. On Facebook we tag our friends in important posts, and they’re notified the next time they log in to the service. On Twitter we’re able to follow trending topics by searching for hash tags that describe events, people, places or ideas. Klip has integrated both of these features with its service so that video clips follow the same type of conversational flow as established social networking behaviors.

Social video sharing is also breaking down the barriers between amateurs and professional broadcasters. Today’s smartphones  allowing citizen journalists to compete with major news organizations to break important events to the public. The iPhone 4S can record in 1080p HD, and the pocket-sized device is quickly eroding the picture quality of professional video equipment. And through our social networks we have a distribution channel that used to be controlled by major media outlets. So while we may use phones to record great skateboarding tricks, we have the power to use them to capture a protest movement in progress and share it with the world.

Even moviemakers are starting to use cellphone video. Olive may be the first feature-length movie shot entirely on a phone to be released in theaters. The cinematographers used a Nokia N8 mounted on a specially designed 35-mm lens for filming, and they’re hoping to raise $300,000 through Kickstarter to get the picture in theaters. But while there’s a certain notoriety that comes with screening a movie before a theatrical audience, it’s now possible to have many more people see your work through their social networks.

Could the time come where we see a full-length film shot entirely using Klip?

Filed under: mobile, social, VentureBeat

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Gmail update brings Google+ features to your inbox and contacts

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 02:39 PM PST

Do you check your Gmail religiously, but can’t seem to make your way over to Google+ to see what your friends are up to? With the new Gmail and Google+ integration, you’ll be able to see friends’ status updates from your inbox, organize your Gmail by Google circles, and more.

Google will start rolling out some of its Google+ features for Gmail and Contacts over the next few days. The new Gmail goodies include filtering messages by circles, viewing Google+ updates within an email, and sharing image attachments on Google+, all from within your inbox.

People can filter Gmail messages by their Google+ circles, displaying only emails from friends, family, work colleagues or other custom circles they’ve created. Circles work much like labels: Click on a circle in the left sidebar to view messages from people in that group. Like labels, circle names will be shown in the email subject lines. Haven’t spent time perfecting your Google+ circles? No fear, you can add people directly to your circles from within Gmail.

When you receive an email from someone who is on Google+, you’ll be able to see their latest status update on the right hand side of your email list, along with other information they have shared, such as photo and contact information. In addition, whenever a person updates their contact information in Google+ (such as an address, phone number or email address), it will automatically update in your contact list.

One other convenient and cool feature in the new update allows you to directly share a photo attachment from an email to Google+. You used to have to download an image and re-upload it to Google+, but now you will see a Share link next to an image that sends the image to Google+.

The updates will be pushed out over the next few days according to The Official Google Blog, so be on the look out for a new Circles list in your Gmail and all the other nifty new features.

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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Nintendo 3DS scores free Boingo wi-fi access in 42 airports

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 01:27 PM PST

Nintendo and wireless service provider Boingo announced a new partnership today that gives 3DS owners free wi-fi access at 42 airports across North America.

Unlike both smartphones and Sony’s upcoming Vita handheld gaming competitor, the Nintendo 3DS can’t connect to the internet through a cellular network, which limits the ability to download games/updates and online play to locations with a reliable wireless hotspot.

As part of the new partnership, travelers at Chicago’s O’Hare, New York’s JFK, and Houston’s George Bush airports (among others) will now have free access to Boingo hotspots — thus allowing you to use your 3DS to surf the web and stream Netflix movies. Boingo hotspots will also grant users access to the Nintendo Zone, which has promotional offers, retail coupons, game previews, trivia and downloadable 3D videos.

The Boingo deal expands a network of over 29,000 freely accessible hotspots for the Nintendo 3DS that already includes AT&T wireless hotspot locations, Westfield shopping centers and Best Buy stores.

"With the holiday season approaching, more leisure travelers and families with children will fill our airports and have access to our hotspots," Boingo Senior VP of Strategy and Business Development Colby Goff said in a statement. "Our state-of-the-art networks will provide Nintendo 3DS users with seamless connectivity and fast, reliable service to help them make the most of their travel downtime."

While the 3DS initially suffered from lower than expected sales, it’s now doing considerably better in the months following a drastic price cut (from $250 to $170). Nintendo is also quick to point out that the 3DS is on pace to exceed first year sales of the original DS, which has sold over 50 million units worldwide.

Filed under: games, mobile, VentureBeat

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Flipboard for Android isn’t here, but Google Currents is way cooler, anyhow

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 01:03 PM PST

Hey Android (and iPad/iPhone) users, check out this glossy, sexy new way to browse through high-quality, magazine-like content: Google Currents, which is available for download now from the App Store and Android Market.

With this free app, you can get professionally produced content from around 150 initial partners, including Forbes, PBS and others, each of which create special editions of their content optimized for tablet and smartphone viewing.

If that kind of media sounds too high-brow, you can also browse through YouTube videos, download music and movies, and engage with your friends on Google+.

Here’s a demo video explaining more about how Currents works:

Once you download the app, you can pick out your subscriptions, which will be delivered free of charge. If you’ve already got online subscriptions, including RSS feeds or public Google+ streams, you can add those, too. Or, you can just click the “trending” tab to see popular content that you might also find appealing.

Google is giving content publishers, including bloggers, a handy self-service platform to help them design and customize their content for Currents. And of course, Currents integrates with Google Analytics, so you can see all the nitty gritty details of who’s reading your stuff.

Currents was formerly known as Google Propeller while it was being developed. It and Yahoo’s Livestand were intended to provide variation and competition with Flipboard’s popular iOS app — and to offer a more visually appealing way for mobile users to get around content, in general. That design style is creeping quickly into many modern web apps, as well.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Twitter launches new, glossy, engaging pages for brands

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 12:41 PM PST

With a bevy of new profile features, Twitter is giving brands even more control over how they present themselves on the site.

Today at a press event to announce a complete design and functionality overhaul for the service, Twitter executives also announced new brand-focused pages, which are enhanced profiles meant to entice marketers to think of Twitter as an essential, expressive destination for consumer interaction.

“We have tons of businesses on Twitter today,” said Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.

Likening the appearance of @usernames and #hashtags in advertising, he continued, “This is the new URL. This is the way people are interacting with content now.”

On the new pages, large header images can be used to show a company’s logo and tagline as well as other visual information. Additionally, brands can select a specific tweet to be “promoted” or featured as the top status on the page.

And since all tweets are now expandable, this initial Promoted Tweet on a brand’s page will be automatically expanded the minute a visitor lands on the page.

These new pages are free for brands to use. Twitter is starting the roll-out today with 21 initial brand partners, including such big names as Pepsi, Heineken, McDonalds, Disney/Pixar, Coca Cola, Verizon Wireless and many others.

Here’s a snapshot of what you can expect to see on a brand page:

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Twitter hits the big time with its new Art Deco headquarters (pics)

Posted: 08 Dec 2011 12:29 PM PST

We got a sneak peak at Twitter’s new headquarters today during a press event about the site’s full-fledged overhaul.

But Twitter.com isn’t the only thing that’s getting an overhaul: In about six months, micro-blogging company is moving to its new headquarters in a gorgeous, old Art Deco building in San Francisco.

While the evirons of the company’s new digs could be described as “scabby” or “down-at-the-heels,” and are certainly replete with empty buildings and “for sale” signs, Twitter employees are excited and optimistic about the new site.

Twitter’s new home at 1355 Market is definitely a fixer-upper. The building doesn’t appear to have any other tenants that we could see, and every floor we saw was gutted and ready for renovation.

But the place has good bones. The building was once the site of the now-defunct San Francisco Furniture Mart, a wholesale market that was only open to the public twice a year. At the press event today, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey explained that the construction on this Art Deco-era building was completed in 1937, the same year that construction was completed on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The move should happen around June 2012. All of Twitter’s 700 current employees based in San Francisco will relocate to the new building.

Of course, there’s more than enough space for those employees. Twitter is occupying three floors of the building, a total of 220,000 square feet, which CEO Dick Costolo said was “enough space to hold thousands of people.”

“We’re going to need all this space to scale the company,” said Costolo.

For now, however, the office space is still raw, with exposed beams, concrete floors, no heating to speak of. One spokesperson told us that all the attendees at today’s gathering almost had to wear hard hats and vests; only the small room we were in was approved for public consumption.

We were also told that the roof will be cleared to make way for a garden.

Twitter also has international offices in London and Tokyo, and several offices around the world will be opened in the middle of next year, around the time of the move to 1355 Market.

Twitter is certainly growing fast enough to fill the space in due time. The company revealed today that signups have increased 25 percent since Twitter launched its partnership with Apple.

And in terms of revenue, eMarketer estimated today that Twitter’s global advertising revenues will grow 210 percent to $139.5 million in 2011, up from $45 million in 2010. Last year was the company’s first full year selling ads, and early in 2012, Twitter will also fully roll out its self-service ad platform to rake in the long tail of ad dollars (and to better compete with Google and Facebook, which have similar offerings).

For 2012, eMarketer forecasts that Twitter will see $260 million in worldwide ad revenue, up 86.3% over 2011.

Many thanks to VentureBeat’s Sarah Mitroff and The Next Web’s Drew Olanoff for photography hardware help.

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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