Google may have acquired Geoffrey Hinton’s DNNresearch and is now using his technologies to power its Google+ photo search features, but the academic work Hinton did on deep neural networks (DNN) is now also helping Microsoft to improve its speech-recognition systems. Microsoft today announced that it is using DNNs to double the speed of its speech recognition engine for Windows Phone while bringing down its word-error rate by 15 percent. Bing Voice Search, the company says, now also works far better in noisy conditions.
For now, these improvements are only available for users in the U.S.
Microsoft says it quietly started rolling this new system out to Windows Phone users over the last few weeks. The new system is the result of the Bing Voice team working closely with Microsoft Research, the company’s network of 13 research labs that work on anything from improving cell phone battery life and machine learning to research in game theory and economics.
DNNs, Microsoft says, help researchers build a smarter acoustic model to represent the acoustic representations of a language. Essentially, the idea is to build a model of how the brain listens to and interprets speech. You can find more info about how Microsoft uses DNN here.
There can be little doubt that voice recognition is a pretty hot area right now. Google, with its conversational search feature, is currently leading the way, but Apple (with Siri), Microsoft and a number of startups like Maluuba are also all working on products that use voice recognition, natural language processing and other techniques to get users just a little bit closer to the “Star Trek computer” ideal.
A few people have taken up the challenge of bringing some kind of Vine support to Windows Phone, but so far all the ersatz Vine apps in the Windows Marketplace do is let people view those six-second clips. According to WPCentral’s Daniel Rubino, developer Rudy Huyn’s 6Sec is different — the third-party Vine app crossed a major milestone with a recent update so Windows Phone 8 users (well, ones that are part of the private beta anyway) can now upload their micro-films in addition to just watching them.
6Sec isn’t expected to shed its beta trappings for at least a few weeks, but it’s big news for folks looking to jump on the next big social bandwagon (as I write this, Vine is No. 4 on Apple’s Top Free app list, and No. 5 on Google’s). The app is a remarkably pretty one considering the fact that it was cobbled together by a single person, but that probably won’t come as a shock to Windows Phone app junkies. After all, Huyn’s Windows Phone development chops are well-established by now: He’s perhaps best known for whipping up an equally handsome Wikipedia app that won Microsoft’s curious Next Big App contest a few months back.
Of course, 6Sec may find itself pushed to the sidelines if the folks at Vine Labs actually decide to craft their own Vine app for Windows Phone. It’s become increasingly clear that Microsoft has no problem throwing its financial resources around if it means getting developers onboard. A recent report about iOS 7 from Bloomberg Businessweek points out that Microsoft has been shelling out plenty of dough (apparently over $100,000 in certain cases) to developers in a bid to get them creating for the Windows Phone platform. That’s not exactly a new story, considering that the folks at Redmond have been trying to sweeten that particular deal for years now, but it speaks to the level of importance Microsoft has placed on getting companies to create quality Windows Phone apps.
Hell, it seems to be working, too — I still see some of those infamous cr-apps pushing their way into the Windows Marketplace, but Microsoft has managed to land surprisingly good WP-specific versions of Zinio, Hulu Plus, and Pandora over the past few months. It wouldn’t be a shock to hear that Microsoft is attempting to tempt Team Vine into building a WP app, especially considering just how quickly Vine shares on Twitter surpassed Instagram shares. Until then though, talented developers like Huyn are working to fill that gap, and I’m looking forward to taking 6Sec for a final spin once it finally graduates from beta.
Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, writer of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Between all the press conferences at E3 and the follow-up interviews, there’s been a lot of gaming news to chew on this week. Announcements of consoles and games all came at a terrific pace, along with a lot of he-said/she-said.
There was an amusing gaffe made by one platform chief, essentially saying “let them eat cake” to those who didn’t jive with his next-gen vision. There was a very off-color joke in a press conference. There was a dreadful reaction on Twitter to a question posed by Anita Sarkeesian about a lack of female protagonists in upcoming titles. And a stunt gone slightly wrong when one microconsole maker tried to set up an un-conference in the parking lot outside the main event.
For me, however, the signature moment was a cheer that happened during the Sony press conference. Sony, once kings turned to laughing stocks. Sony, the penitent platform holder who spent half a decade mending fences and yet still got very little respect. Now Sony, champion of used games, lending games and region-free games. Sony, hero of indies and diversity. Sony, the console maker who didn’t make too big of a deal around extra features. Sony, a full $100 cheaper than its rival.
And the crowd roared.
While the cheer was certainly a delicious moment, its broader context is significant. It wasn’t an Apple-esque cheer for some new invention, device or bold new product line. It was a cheer for the status quo, for a lack of innovation or disruption. Gamers whooped and hollered because Sony said that it was going to try to keep their world exactly as they already know it, discs and all.
Gamers are an expectant group on the whole. They are highly tribal in their loyalties, and consistently respond to both visual aplomb and brands. They buy into franchises rather than single titles, which means once their loyalty is earned it usually stays earned for long periods of time. With the right trailers and tone, the publisher that seizes the moment can ride it all the way to 100m unit sales over a decade if it gets it right.
Many gamers don’t like some kinds of change. The console war saga is one that they’ve known for a long time, and they are comfortable with. It feels as though the back-and-forth of gaming generations is eternal, and how things should be. It seems evolutionary, right, and disruptions that threaten its core dynamic are viewed very dimly. It’s always been consoles and the PC, that’s where “real games” are.
“Real gamers” don’t like iPads. “Real gamers” don’t like Facebook. “Real gamers” consider figures like Sarkeesian as pushing agendas that will ruin games. “Real gamers” consider games as more than a medium: they are a culture. And that would mostly be fine (not the sexism part) if it weren’t for two issues: (1) The escalating cost of making games driven by gamer expectations, and (2) the size of the gamer population.
The Same Old Problem
There are simply not enough “real gamers” to make the console market function well, and there haven’t been for a long time, but “real gamers” don’t really get that. They think that “real games” are bigger than movies, and always growing, but the reality is that the market for console games has only grown incrementally over the last decade. All the explosive growth and the most interesting stories have come from “not-real” markets like mobile, social and casual games. For a long time now it’s been smartphones and Wiis that really pushed the medium forward. Core consoles, on the other hand, seem stuck.
While the Wii managed to sell to lots of people outside the gamer fold, the core consoles managed about 75 million to 80 million sales each over a seven-year period. Accounting for dual ownership (people who bought both systems) and replacements, the overall core market’s size is probably about 140 million gamers, much the same as it was in the PlayStation 2 era. Of those, maybe half are active enough to buy three to five games per year, and of that half, maybe a third are active enough to buy one or more games per month.
That means the real market for console games is maybe 70 million (split across two systems). Remembering what I said about gamers buying into franchises, less active gamers tend to make a lot of repeat purchases. They buy into the super-AAA games over multiple years (Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, FIFA, Madden, Mario, Zelda, The Sims, Diablo, Pokemon, The Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, The Need for Speed, Halo, etc.) and not touch newer would-be franchises unless more active gamers keep telling them to. This means the market for mere AAA games is smaller, closer to 20 million to 25 million players. And below AAA used to what we’d call mid-tier games, but they’re mostly dead now. Why?
Mid-tier games just stopped making sense. At a $1 million typical cost level of original PlayStation games, publishers could field lots of games and rely on a few hits paying for all the others. This meant that many games were mid-tier, a few became AAA and the idea of a super-AAA category didn’t really exist. However with the sixth generation (PlayStation 2, the original Xbox) development costs multiplied by a factor of four, and with the seventh generation (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) they did so again. Publishers could no longer afford to play the field and had to be very choosy in what they funded, and yet many of their games didn’t pan out. The market did not grow along with the costs, and so the mid-tier game died. So did many publishers.
With the next generation, the same is already starting to happen for AAA games, only the stakes look even higher. Costs will rise once more, but the market is still much the same as it was. We live in an age when a console game can sell 3.4 million copies and still fail to make a financial impact for its publisher. That’s a team of 700-1,000 developers slaving away on a 15 hour experience that people pay $50 to own. And still, at best, it’s breaking even. As costs continue to rise does that mean that the sales target for all big-budget console games become 5 or 6 million copies? Yep.
Enjoy The Exuberance
Sony may feel reborn, and along with its rebirth comes a sense of rejuvenation in the games industry. It may seem as though the forces threatening “real games” have been pushed back, and that these are happy times. Publishers will commission new games, developers smart enough to have gotten an early start gain enormous buzz from the press and inflated sales, and everybody hopes to build a marketing story.
Yet this exuberance is irrational, a temporary respite from the longer problems that the console industry faces. For all the excitement surrounding the eighth generation, not enough has changed about how it operates, and its core market’s unwillingness to be disrupted means that it continues to battle its own stasis. It means that successful publishers are likely to see a big shakeout in the next couple of years. Companies like Ubisoft, Take Two and even mighty Electronic Arts are going to feel extreme pressure to succeed at every instance of going to market. Soon the only viable market for console games will only be super-AAA, and they know it.
E3 may have proved a very exciting week, but the quiet news about iPhones getting game controllers is probably more significant. While the “real gamer” can comfort himself in feeling that games have not been ruined by outside forces, and that because games are bigger than movies that means everything will be fine, the reality is that change is coming to games whether he likes it or not. The only question that remains for the companies involved is which side of that change they want to be on.
It was a big week in gadgets, and thus, a big TC Gadgets podcast it shall be. This week, we discuss developments at E3, including Xbox One and PS4 pricing, the death of Nokia’s Symbian OS, and of course, WWDC.
Will you buy a PS4 or an Xbox One? Does despair fill you from nose to navel when you remember the good old days of Symbian? Is the new iOS 7 design repelling, attractive, or some bizarre combination of the two? John Biggs, Matt Burns, Jordan Crook, Darrell Etherington, and Natasha Lomas touch on all of this and more.
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Intro Music by Rick Barr.
Microsoft today announced that it is partnering with Best Buy to set up its own store-within-a-store in 500 Best Buy locations in the U.S. and 100 Best Buy and Future Shop locations in Canada. These stores, which will be up to 2,200 square feet in size, will go head-to-head with Apple’s mini-stores in many of these Best Buy locations. Microsoft hopes they will become the “premier destination for consumers to see, try, compare and purchase a range of products and accessories, including Windows tablets and PCs, Windows Phones, Microsoft Office, Xbox and more.”
“The Windows Store offers a large-scale, hands-on customer experience that will show customers how Windows and Microsoft devices and services can make it easier for them to work and play,” said Tami Reller, chief marketing officer and chief financial officer of the Windows Division at Microsoft in a canned statement today. “We’re pleased to partner with Best Buy in bringing the latest technologies to consumers at scale in a unique environment where they can explore how Microsoft products fit together across entertainment, travel, music and other scenarios.”
As Microsoft’s Brandon LeBlanc also notes, Microsoft hopes that these stores will give shoppers the opportunity to showcase its own Surface tablets in a dedicated area and show off “the latest and greatest PCs, laptops, convertibles and more.” The stores will also feature an “ecosystem section” to show off Xbox SmartGlass, SkyDrive and other services.
The stores will be staffed by dedicated Microsoft specialists, and the alliance will train an additional 1,200 Best Buy sales associates.
Earlier this year, we also heard that Best Buy is going to give Samsung its own space in its stores (so maybe Best Buy’s plan is to just turn itself into a little bazaar now?). Microsoft itself currently runs 68 Microsoft Stores in malls across the U.S.