Microsoft announced today that it has acquired Semantic Machines, a Berkeley-based startup that wants to solve one of the biggest challenges in conversational AI: making chatbots sound more human and less like, well, bots.
In a blog post, Microsoft AI & Research chief technology officer David Ku wrote that “with the acquisition of Semantic Machines, we will establish a conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley to push forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces.”
According to Crunchbase, Semantic Machines was founded in 2014 and raised about $20.9 million in funding from investors including General Catalyst and Bain Capital Ventures.
In a 2016 profile, co-founder and chief scientist Dan Klein told TechCrunch that “today’s dialog technology is mostly orthogonal. You want a conversational system to be contextual so when you interpret a sentence things don’t stand in isolation.” By focusing on memory, Semantic Machines’ AI can produce conversations that not only answer or predict questions more accurately, but also flow naturally.
Instead of building its own consumer products, Semantic Machines focused on enterprise customers. This means it will fit in well with Microsoft’s conversational AI-based products, including Microsoft Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Service, which are used by one million and 300,000 developers, respectively, and virtual assistants Cortana and Xiaolce.
Every gamer with a disability faces a unique challenge for many reasons, one of which is the relative dearth of accessibility-focused peripherals for consoles. Microsoft is taking a big step towards fixing this with its Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device created to address the needs of gamers for whom ordinary gamepads aren’t an option.
The XAC, revealed officially at a recent event but also leaked a few days ago, is essentially a pair of gigantic programmable buttons and an oversized directional pad. 3.5mm ports on the back let a huge variety of assistive devices like blow tubes, pedals, and Microsoft-made accessories plug in.
It’s not meant to be an all-in-one solution by any means, more like a hub that allows gamers with disabilities to easily make and adjust their own setups with a minimum of hassle. Whatever you’re capable of, whatever’s comfortable, whatever gear you already have, the XAC is meant to enable it.
Microsoft’s Xbox game controllers are widely heralded as the industry’s best, but they’re ultimately not something everyone can use.
Two thumbsticks, a bunch of buttons, and a directional pad are all fine when you have two fully functional hands, but not everyone does. The new Xbox Adaptive Controller is built to account for those players who need more of a customized setup, whatever the reason.
“There are a lot of gamers out there that play differently,” Microsoft’s director of product marketing Navin Kumar said during a recent meeting. “They play with their feet, their chin, different parts of their body.”
Different control options exist to suit different needs, but many can be expensive and tricky to set up. There are also situations where existing products don’t work for one reason or another, and something more customized is needed.
The Adaptive Controller is designed to account for any control needs that might come up, mostly because it leaves it up to the player to decide which attached controls activate which buttons or commands.
The $99 base station is a mostly flat device that’s roughly the size of a small, thin book. Its most prominent features are two large, round buttons — A and B by default, though there are ways to change that. There’s also a directional pad, an Xbox Guide button, and the View/Menu buttons introduced on the Xbox One controller.
Those buttons alone aren’t nearly enough to steer a modern video game, but that’s where the magic of this controller comes in. Each and every button command on an Xbox controller — A/B/X/Y, L3/R3, all four D-pad directions, you name it — is marked at the top edge of the Adaptive Controller.
These symbols all correspond to a series of 3.5mm jacks on the back, so when you plug a particular control peripheral into one of those slots, you’re handing control of that command over to the peripheral. Say you want to make it so your bite controller triggers the A button. Simply plug the bite controller into the desired port and you’re all set. It’s very simple and straightforward.
Those ports cover all the buttons, but not the two thumbsticks. Those are powered through USB inputs on the left and right sides of the Adaptive Controller. If fine finger movements are a problem, for example, you can plug in something like this to manage one or the other (or both) thumbstick commands.
The base unit has a built-in rechargeable battery that’s good for around 25 hours of use (though we’re told that number comes down as more attachments are added). There are also rear-mounted USB-C and DC power ports for those that would rather plug in. In addition, three threaded holes on the bottom of the unit allow it to be screwed onto a variety of different mounting arms as needed.
“We can actually help more gamers because of this, which is awesome.”
Users can also take advantage of Microsoft’s Xbox Accessories app on both Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs (there’s also support for Windows 7/8 machines, and Microsoft is open to supporting a wider range of hardware as well). This allows for added button-mapping flexibility, since the app lets anyone to reassign button commands to different parts of the controller as they see fit. Say you want to make the big A button click the R3 button instead; the Xbox Accessories app can do that.
Being able to add attachments using standardized ports is a big deal for this kind of controller, especially at the price Microsoft has set. Attachments — which will need to be obtained from third-parties — obviously add to the cost, but the total price for most will still probably be less than it is for other current options.
To make sure the Adaptive Controller does all the right, necessary things, Microsoft worked closely with the AbleGamers Charity throughout the testing process. The nonprofit organization works to bring greater accessibility into the gaming space, and that work often includes dealing directly with individuals and finding solutions that fit each of their needs.
“Through our grant program, we actually made a little box that would take switches [to interact with an attached controller], but it took a lot of hours to make and the total cost was about $400 per unit,” AbleGamers program director Craig Kaufman said during our meeting.
“Being able to have [the Adaptive Controller] to give to gamers, it’s so much more affordable. We can actually help more gamers because of this, which is awesome. For the cost of our device alone, we are able to buy the device and the [attachments].”
I sampled the Adaptive Controller on Forza Horizon in a few configurations, and it works just as described. Plugging in different attachments is easy — there are even grooves extending down from input symbol markings to the ports that manage them, making it simple to plug something in without actually having the port in your field of vision.
There’s no word on when the Xbox Adaptive Controller will be launching, but the design I saw and played with is final. In other words: The product seems like it’s ready to go. Perhaps we’ll get more answers on that front when Microsoft takes the stage in June for its annual onslaught of E3 reveals and deep dives.
Do you remember the Surface Hub? Chances are you forgot it even existed. And yet, Microsoft just announced a second version of the Surface Hub. The company hasn’t shared any specifications or price, but it won’t be available before 2019 — selected customers will test the Surface Hub 2 starting this year.
The Surface Hub was a crazy expensive digital whiteboard that could handle anything from video conferences to document collaboration. Microsoft says that there are 5,000 companies using Surface Hubs, including half of Fortune 100 companies.
It’s unclear if each company has bought one Surface Hub or a thousand. But it seems like there was enough interest to work on a second version. At heart, it’s still a gigantic touchscreen-enabled display. It runs Windows 10 and supports the Surface Pen.
Compared to the previous version, Microsoft has drastically reduced the bezels. It looks like a modern TV now, but with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Surprisingly, the video camera is now gone from the main device. You’ll need to plug a webcam above the display to start video conferences.
The most interesting part is the concept video. You can see a device with fluid use cases. You can hook it to a wall, you can put it on a rolling case, you can create a wall of Surface Hubs.
Users log in by putting their finger on the fingerprint sensor. This way, you can find all your documents and data and accept calls from your account.
Microsoft is trying to push the needle when it comes to computers. This is an innovative form factor that could fit well in your company’s workflow. It’s interesting to see that the company isn’t standing still. The Mac hasn’t drastically evolved while Microsoft still has bold ideas to share.
Credit to Microsoft for basically creating the “digital whiteboard” category. When the company unveiled the Surface Hub back in January 2015, there wasn’t anything else quite like it.
Here was a huge 4K touchscreen, but built for meetings and collaboration, not playing videos. It also cost a ton of money — the big, 84-inch panel carried a price tag of $21,999 (a smaller 55-inch Hub cost $8,999). Naturally, competitors jumped in with (much) cheaper options, notably the Google Jamboard and more recently the Samsung Flip.
In other words, there’s a good chance Microsoft is starting to feel some heat in this high-margins category, and that’s probably factoring into why Microsoft is now announcing the Surface Hub 2, an upgraded version of its whiteboard-with-smarts concept. Although it won’t ship until 2019, Microsoft wants any company drawing up budgets for hardware orders to know it’s got something special coming down the pike.
The Surface Hub idea is pretty straightforward: It’s basically a giant community Windows PC that you’d have in a meeting room, but with souped-up collaboration features. Microsoft apps and services like OneNote and Skype for Business integrate perfectly with it. Team members, whether in the room or remote, can all collaborate on shared documents while communicating verbally.
“It helps customers address this shift from individual productivity to group productivity,” Robin Seiler, general manager of hardware engineering for Microsoft, told Mashable. “Today is the time of the team. [With Surface Hub], there isn’t the friction of ‘how do I make this technology work.’ It’s the ability to walk into a room and immediately start working.”
Surface Hub 2 improves on the idea in some key ways. The resolution is “greater than 4K” and the aspect ratio is now 3:2 instead of 16:9. That also brings the shape in line with the Surface laptops and tablets, whose screens were designed to give the feel of a piece of paper. The dual front cameras are now 4K as well, and the “far field” mics are improved, too.
But the real upgrade is what all that new tech enables. For starters, the new Hub is optimized for Microsoft’s Slack competitor, Teams — “across any OS,” according to Seiler. That’s in keeping with Microsoft’s broader software strategy, which has embraced a world where users might be on iPhones, Androids, or even Macs. In other words, to really collaborate, the software needs to collaborate, too.
Seiler explained to me the four flagship features of the Surface Hub 2:
First is Immersive Collaboration, which is basically life-size video conferencing. With the Hub 2, instead of seeing a person shrunk into a tiny window off in the corner, they can take up virtually the entire screen. “When you’re in a video call and the person you’re talking to is life-size like they’re standing in front of you and you can hear them just as crisply, It changes how you work across distances,” Seiler said.
Dynamic Rotation means the Surface Hub 2 will keep your work on the canvas straight as an arrow as you rotate the display from 0 to 90 degrees. That beat you need to wait for the screen to re-orient itself? Gone. The display can move as much as you want, but the content on the screen holds still.
Tiling means if a conference room has up to four Surface Hub 2’s, they can all work together as one large canvas. The four hubs can work as a unit, potentially with four separate parts of the same project, each being worked upon by multiple team members. Very lair-like.
Finally there’s Dynamic Collaboration: The idea here is that two team members can actively collaborate on a single project on the Hub 2, but with both of their accounts logged in so the project has access to both coworkers histories and data, so everything is drag and drop. Presumably the Hub will intelligently “see” who’s working at any given moment so as not to give individual team members complete access to each other’s data.
Exactly how good is all this collaborative tech, and will the new Hub succeed in keeping competitors at bay while keeping Microsoft’s margins up? We won’t find out until later this year, when Microsoft says it’ll announce specs and pricing ahead of the 2019 release. Until then, keep ordering dry-erase pens.