Sunday, August 14, 2016

'Maguss,' the game that definitely isn't 'Harry Potter Go'

Warner Bros,if you're reading this Ondrej Tokar will really like to talk to you.

"It's a little bit complicated," Ondrej Tokar says with a laugh.
Tokar is the creator of Maguss, an augmented reality mobile game that transforms players into wizards wandering around a world of spells, potions, duels and fantastical creatures. But let's get one thing absolutely clear: It's not a Harry Potter game. Tokar has to emphasize this fact because his team has already been contacted by someone claiming to represent the Harry Potter brand, asking them to distance Maguss from J. K. Rowling's world, or else.
Strangely enough, this is precisely what Tokar wants.
Tokar's dream is to create the Harry Potter Go game that fans have been clamoring for since Pokémon Go busted down the doors of the mainstream, mobile AR experience. Maguss has been in development for two years, and it currently occupies an original world of magic. Much like Pokémon Go, it features digital creatures to find scattered around real-world maps, plus it has quests, crafting, the ability to duel other players, factions to join, spells to learn, potions to make and ingredients to hunt down. And the team is building an actual wand peripheral that connects to the app via Bluetooth, allowing players to flick and swish just like they've always dreamed of.
Though Maguss is already far along in the development process, Pokémon Go's success in July presented fresh marketing opportunities. Tokar and his crew began positioning Maguss as the Harry Potter Go solution that many fans wanted. They branded its social media posts with things like "#HarryPotterGo" and "#Potterheads," and even wished J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter a happy birthday alongside Maguss tags.
They knew they were walking a fine legal line. They were careful to never say Maguss was an official Harry Potter game, while still blatantly marketing the idea to Harry Potter fans. This wasn't just a way to get more people excited about the game: Tokar wanted to get Warner Bros.' attention, even if it came in the form of a cease-and-desist.
"We think there's a huge market for it and we also think that we went quite far to get to the point that we are now, and we're not far from launching," Tokar says. "We just need Warner Bros.' permission to make it Harry Potter themed."
Maguss developers did hear from someone claiming to represent Warner Bros., but it arrived in an unlikely form: a Twitter direct message. The DM came from the @HarryPotter_UK account, whose bio says, "The Harry Potter Film Twitter feed for United Kingdom." It reads like an official account might, though it isn't verified.
Tokar isn't sure if the person who contacted him is truly a legal representative for the Harry Potter brand. They moved the conversation from Twitter to email, where Tokar explained the situation: He wasn't selling Maguss as an official Harry Potter app, but he would love to talk with Warner Bros. about a potential partnership.
This is where things turned fishy for Tokar. The representative refused to identify herself, and at one point she told Tokar that he would never have the rights to a Harry Potter game. This set off alarm bells in his head: He questioned whether she had the power to make that claim for the entire Harry Potter ecosystem. Once Tokar raised concerns about her legitimacy as a legal representative, she stopped responding entirely.
But, to be safe, the Maguss team notified fans that it had to stop mentioning Harry Potter altogether, and it added a disclaimer on its website.
"We did all the precautions to be safe, but we are not sure if that is the person that is really legal," Tokar says.
Engadget has reached out to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment about its stance on third-party developers and whether it would be open to working with a project like Maguss. We'll update this story if and when we hear back.
Maguss has been in development for two years. Meaning: It isn't a knee-jerk reaction to Pokémon Go's success or the recent online movement calling for a Harry Potter version. It's a passion project for Tokar, who's a huge Harry Potter fan in his own right.
In 2014, his girlfriend surprised him with a Harry Potter–themed trip around the United Kingdom for his birthday. They visited the studios in Leavesden where the films were produced and rode the Jacobite steam train -- or, as fans know it, the Hogwarts Express. During this trip Tokar, a developer by day, imagined how he could bring this magical world to life. The wand seemed like a good starting point, and pairing that with a mobile AR game made the most sense.

Tokar, based in Denmark, teamed up with a colleague from Portugal and they got to work on Maguss, a game steeped in magic and fantasy but completely separate from the Harry Potter brand -- or any other fictional wizarding world, for that matter. They launched a Kickstarter campaign in August 2015 that featured a wand peripheral powered by a motion sensor and IR LED, which connected to a receiver shaped like a coat of arms that players attached to their clothes. The receiver then transmitted players' movement data to a smartphone. It was an inelegant system -- and likely one reason that the Kickstarter didn't get funded. Tokar raised roughly $24,500 of a requested $53,000.
"And we know why," Tokar says. "It just wasn't high-quality enough. We know it. And right now, I think we are proving that it's much, much better."
Today, Tokar has a full team of artists, developers and marketing professionals helping to build a new and improved version of Maguss. The wand uses Bluetooth, negating the cumbersome coat-of-arms receiver, and the interface looks better overall. Players don't have to use the wand either, and can instead trace spell glyphs right on their phone's screen.
"That is to target people that are shy to run around swishing their wands, or for people that want to play the game somewhere in public or in public transport, for example," Tokar says.
Plus, with Pokémon Go's success this year, the project is a much easier sell. However, this level of awareness also has a downside. Pokémon Go has made mobile AR games more viable in the public eye, but that means other companies are ready to pounce on this fresh industry. A Russian company making a magic-themed mobile AR game already tried to poach one of Tokar's artists in the past few months.
"Fortunately he told me," Tokar says.
And then there's Warner Bros. itself. What if that company, with all of its funding, access and legal rights, decides to develop its own Harry Potter Go?
"I have invested lots of money into this project, lots of time," Tokar says. "On one hand, I would be very happy to see a game like that. On the other hand, we would be happy to be the ones developing the game."
Maguss is roughly halfway complete. Tokar plans to launch another Kickstarter campaign in mid-September, hoping to raise enough money so his team can finish it off. Right now, he's funding the development on his own.
"It's quite rough, but it's working out well now," he says.
There's a mountain of land mines in front of Maguss, from legal concerns to copycats to official designs, but Tokar isn't giving up. He still hopes to get in touch with Warner Bros. and talk about turning Maguss into an official Harry Potter Go app, whether that contact comes through the Kickstarter, Twitter, Facebook or articles like this one. Or, perhaps, by magic.
"We would still like to speak with Warner Bros. to make it Harry Potter themed, but we are going our own way right now," Tokar says. "But still, if we have the opportunity, we will take it."

Sony's hi-res turntable and software make it easy to go digital

If you want to convert stacks of vinyl to space-saving audio files, this bundle can help.

Vinyl has seen a resurgence lately, with sales growth for this format outpacing digital. To stay on top of that trend, Sony refreshed its record player lineup to include the not-so-memorably named PS-HX500. Though it cuts a familiar figure, resembling many minimalist-style turntables, it was built with a 21st century purpose: to make quality digital copies of your treasured discs. That's important for long-time collectors, of course, but also newer vinyl enthusiasts, who will also want to convert their discs into a high-resolution digital format as painlessly as possible.
As record enthusiasts will tell you, the love of vinyl is about the physical product, artwork and warm sound. Even so, this gives you the option of enjoying your tracks beyond just your home-listening zone. Besides, a digital archive is useful as either a backup of your rare records or a gradual transition to virtual media. (It's also the format used by most modern DJs.) At $600, the PS-HX500 costs more than competing players, but the addition of an onboard analog-to-digital converter (ADC) helps justify the premium. In addition, the bundled software, though limited and a tad annoying to use, makes the seemingly endless task of real-time recording easier to stomach.

The PS-HX500 is pretty much ready to go right out of the box. You just need to put the platter, belt drive and record mat in place, add the tonearm weight and dial in the antiskate. For output, you can connect to your computer via USB, your stereo system or speaker using RCA (as phono or line-in) or even both at the same time -- which can help you preview if you're recording. The turntable also comes with a premounted Audio-Technica cartridge with a diamond-tipped stylus, so unless you want to swap in your own, you're good to go there as well.
The power and speed controls are bundled together in a single dial on the front left, as you might expect, and can accommodate speeds of 33 and 45 RPM (rotations per minute). If you're into vintage 78s, then, you'll have to look elsewhere.
As far as design, there's not much going on here. The device looks like most other casual-listening, non-DJ category turntables out there. There's a straight tonearm with a built-in headshell and the base is made from sturdy-feeling composite wood. There's a set of stout little legs with rounded, seemingly gel-filled feet, providing some give to kill unwanted vibrations. As usual, there's also a standard lever for raising the needle off the vinyl without sending it skittering across the platter with your big, clumsy hands.
Unless you're looking for high-end audiophile gear, this turntable should meet your expectations, with much of the sound output beyond the needle depending on the system you hook it up to. Really, the most interesting feature is the ability to record records to digital files over USB using the built-in ADC. Obviously, you could pick up an external analog-to-digital converter, various turntables and software (like Audacity), but that's more things to include in your setup. For those without the time or knowledge to put together the right elements, the simplicity of this package is appealing.

Sony Hi-Res Audio Recorder settings.

I have mixed feelings about Sony's Hi-Res Audio Recorder software. On the one hand, it has a simple, uncluttered interface, but that means you won't get much in the way of granular or customizable settings. If you dig in, all you'll find are audio export options and temporary file storage. File types include Sony's Direct Stream Digital (DSD) and PCM. The DSD format is supposed to offer one of the most accurate representations of an analog waveform, but it's only compatible with a limited selection of apps and hardware. Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) is another, more common digital approximation of the original analog waveform and is exported as a WAV file. Because I didn't have any DSD-compatible options on hand, I stuck with the common WAV format for outputting.
Once your turntable is connected to a computer via USB, you fire up the (downloadable) app and click the record button to get things started. You won't get any audio monitoring until you do this unless you're playing audio over RCA in addition to USB. It's also worth mentioning that the Hi-Res Audio Recorder software is proprietary and will work only with Sony's turntable.
After clicking "record," you'll see a slightly annoying pop-up (one of many, actually) that asks if you're ready to start the recording. The best way to convert a whole record is to let each side play through, pause, flip the disc and continue recording -- up to 100 minutes per file. It's an easy enough task to set markers at the start and end of each track in the waveform, simplifying the exclusion of breaks and pauses from the final export. When you're done with all that, hit the "recording complete" button, then write to files for the final step.
Lastly, you'll need to check off which marked sections contain tracks as opposed to blank material to be skipped. All sections are numbered in order, but if you use the "update file names" button at the bottom, it will consecutively number only the items you've selected. For this reason, it's beneficial to export complete albums in a single file, so the tracks will all be in order. You want to avoid having various duplicately numbered items from multiple exports just lumped in next to each other.
The software also lets you apply the album artist field to all the track artist spots to save some data entry. You can also swap out the numeral-only file names with the track titles. Unfortunately, those options are buried in a drop-down menu at the bottom of the window, making the whole process feel a bit convoluted.

The weirdness doesn't stop there: When saving files, the dialogue window doesn't show a "new folder" option, but it will save albums as a unique folder or add tracks to an existing match. There are also quite a few secondary pop-ups that hinder your process, stopping you each time, asking for another click to proceed. Keyboard shortcuts are also in short supply. When you're ready to start a new recording, Ctrl+N won't do it; you need to head to the drop-down menu at the top. Ctrl+Z doesn't help you backtrack in various instances, either. Failure to click the apply button after selecting the update file names option will also default to writing tracks as numerals (oddly, without a pop-up to warn you). Argh!
Ultimately, though, the recordings sound great (assuming your vinyl is in good nick), but you'll have to wait until the audio files are saved to enjoy them at your selected quality. And if you want to edit out pops and crackles, you'll need additional software.
Can you get the same results with a variety of other components? Sure. Both the Rega RP1 and Music Hall MMF 2.2 turntables have a similar style. They're both priced in the $400 to $450 range, but don't include an analog-to-digital converter. Depending on what you're looking for, you can get an ADC for as little as $30 or so. If you're looking to DJ, but want to have a USB output for recording, the Pioneer PLX-500 may be the way to go. If you just want a deck to play tunes and easily make digital high-resolution copies, the Sony PS-HX500 is a tempting option, those few software quirks aside. I found that although I could do all the same stuff (and more) with a multipiece setup, the turntable's compact design, convenient setup and quality recordings make it worth the few extra bucks.

The hysterical hacking headlines of Def Con 24

The conference has a rocky relationship with reporters.

You might've noticed that your regular news outlets have way more hysterical, random-seeming and utterly terrifying articles about hacking this week. That's because hacking conference Def Con happened last weekend, where a fair number of journalists had the pee scared out of them and decided to share their irrational reactions with everyone.
This year's big American hacking conference was bursting at the seams. By 2 PM on Friday, Def Con had unexpectedly sold out of its 20,000 specialty badges and started selling paper badges. The sprawling event straddled both the Bally's and Paris casino hotels in Las Vegas, and packed enough attendees, speakers, staff and press under those combined electric skies to bring its double-wide causeways to a standstill.

Gallery: DEF CON 24 | 4 Photos

In years past, only outliers like me would be writing about going to Def Con, and all the various and sundry exploits, attacks, demonstrations, vendors, workshops and talks about all things hacking. That's because, until recently, journalists have been allowed at Def Con but have not exactly been welcomed.
This year it's safe to say that Def Con has become much more media friendly, for better and for worse. The conference has gotten friendlier to journalists only in the past couple of years, and last weekend journalists flooded the venue. But prior to this year, Def Con could best be described as flat-out hostile to the media -- especially major and mainstream news outlets.
This was heightened by an episode at Def Con 15, in 2007, when Dateline NBC associate producer and reporter Michelle Madigan acted ... like a "reporter." Thinking she'd do a shock piece on evil criminal hackers, she hid a camera in her bag to catch attendees confessing to felonies on video.
Def Con staff had actually spotted her bag with a hole in it and reached out to her several times to offer her press credentials. She was able to avoid them and was instead seen panning her bag around the "Capture the Flag" (CTF) room.
After that, she attended a talk by Def Con founder Jeff Moss. During the presentation, Moss announced a new game called "spot the undercover reporter." If one was spotted in the room, he or she would be invited up to the stage to be presented with press credentials. At which point Madigan bolted from the room and out of the Riviera Hotel and Casino, chased by a pack of (an estimated) 150 attendees -- plus other reporters and photographers, who recorded the whole mess.

While in the past taking photos was not allowed, this year not only did people take photos, but journos panned cameras across rooms -- exactly what NBC got chased out for doing.

This year my fellow journalists didn't do much better. Despite all the advisories not to use the conference WiFi on what's been described as "the world's most hostile network," one reporter paid the price for ignoring even his own outlet's guide and was hacked within 20 minutes. A pair of journalists tried to pass themselves off as "consultants" in hopes of getting hackers to talk, and failed. And pretty much all of them totally, completely freaked out about how everything is hackable, even though we've known this for decades.
Many journalists were attending a decades-old hacking conference for the very first time, and a good number of them were covering infosec for the first time, too. So while for some of us it just felt like the Walking Dead tryouts brought to you by DARPA, to the people writing your news it was a funhouse of horrors from which they may never recover.
When it came to differentiating between what was theoretical and what was real, most journalists really screwed up. Facts ran naked and unashamed away from the chaos, unchecked. The really important issues we should be warned about got lost in the miasma of what streamed out of the hacker panic clickbait factory.
And panicked it was. Glancing at "Your 'intimate personal massager' –cough – is spying on you," one might think that vibrators with cameras were watching your every move. Er, no. Rather than a Def Con talk revealing a conspiratorial surveillance state in your pants, the researchers' findings were actually about one "smart vibrator" company playing fast and loose with user data, an issue that truly needs to be addressed and fixed.
ReadWrite said "Future hackers might freeze you out til you pay up,"making a talk about connected thermostats sound like you could be frozen or fried in your home by malicious hackers at any moment. The Memo even assured us, "Gold-digging hackers will seize your smart home heating." In reality, this was a proof of concept showing that it's possible for skilled attackers to hack into a connected thermostat, but only if people actively download and transfer malware to their thermostats.

By the time you got to reading "Hackers Could Break Into Your Monitor To Spy on You and Manipulate Your Pixels," you were probably scared shitless, and understandably so. Plenty of journalists were ready to buy in to the irrational fears brought on by a lack of nuanced understanding about active threats and possibilities. The Ledger and PhysOrg concluded that the only way to stay safe is to turn off your computerThe Guardian literally gave up and told its readers "we're all screwed."

I won't blame you for associating Def Con with an urge to run for the hills and live in a shack without electricity, lined in tinfoil, just like your hats and Faraday pajamas. But ... but ... this conference and everything it has been trying to tell people has been going on for two decades.
It's definitely annoying to see my industry unable to separate the important talks and real issues from the hacker fluff, or miss the real point of these presentations and demos. But it's also really great to see hackers being taken seriously, finally, and being heard by people who can amplify their messages.

Google's Fuchsia operating system runs on virtually anything

The open source software appears to be just an experiment, but could lead to bigger things.

Google is no stranger to creating whole platforms when it needs them, but its latest project might be something special. It's working on Fuchsia, an open source operating system that's designed to scale all the way from Internet of Things devices through to phones and even PCs. Its kernel includes 'grown up' OS features like user modes and a capability-based security model, Android Police notes, and it supports both advanced graphics as well ARM and 64-bit Intel-based PCs. To no one' surprise, it's using Google's own Dart programming language at its heart.
You can run Fuchsia either on a computer or a virtual machine if you'd like to give the early code a try, and Google's Travis Geiselbrecht adds that you'll soon see it running on the Raspberry Pi 3.
We've asked Google if it can shed some light on Fuchsia, and we'll let you know if it has something to say. Whatever its answer, there's no guarantee that this will be the next Android, Brillo or Chrome OS. Right now, it comes across as an experiment that could lay the groundwork for bigger efforts. Given that the company is branching out into making smart household gadgets like Google Home, though, Fuchsia might make sense. It could be the platform that Google uses when it wants more flexibility and power than a platform like Brillo can offer, but doesn't need the deep feature set (and resulting overhead) of something like Android.

Apple Watch supplies run low ahead of September event

Don't buy an Apple Watch yet.

You'll find a lot of Watch variants marked as "Sold Out" if you browse Apple's online store, 9to5mac has discovered. And, yes, the list includes ones with brightly colored bands Cupertino launched just a few months ago. While there could be a different explanation, it sure seems to support rumors that the company is revealing its next-gen Watch very soon, possibly during its September event. Apple usually slashes a product's supplies when it's about to launch a refresh, but it's not always this conspicuous.
Rumors of a second-gen Watch have been going around for a while, along with reports of possible features, such as built-in GPS and cellular connection. If the new wearable is indeed making an appearance on September 7th, it could be launched alongside the new iPhone. 9to5 mac has a pretty comprehensive list of Watch variants marked as Sold Out. But you can head over to Apple's website and click around on your own to find that even those marked as "New" aren't available anymore. You'll also see that each category -- Sports, Stainless Steel, Hermes and Edition -- has several Sold Out listings. If you've been thinking of finally getting an Apple Watch, it'll definitely be wise to wait until the event is over. That way, you can be sure that you don't miss out on getting a second-gen wearable or a discount on the first.