Facebook aims to prove VR’s popularity more than virtual

An attendee tries out the new Oculus Quest Virtual Reality (VR) gaming system at the Facebook F8 Conference at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California. (File/AFP)
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Updated 02 June 2021

Facebook aims to prove VR’s popularity more than virtual

  • The pandemic should have been VR’s big moment, offering an escape for millions of locked-in households
  • Consumers have balked at the hardware’s expense: a headset costs several hundred dollars, the same price as video game consoles that support hundreds of games

NEW YORK: Virtual reality — computer generated 3D environments that can range from startlingly realistic to abstract wonderlands — has been on the cusp of wide acceptance for years without ever really taking off.
The pandemic should have been VR’s big moment, offering an escape for millions of locked-in households. Special headsets and gloves let people interact with a 360-degree, three-dimensional environment, seemingly a good fit for people stuck indoors. But consumers preferred simpler and more accessible tech like Zoom, Nintendo’s Switch and streaming services like Netflix.
It’s the latest disappointment in an industry famous for stop-start progress.
Patrick Susmilch, 33, an administrative assistant in Los Angeles, figured it was time for a VR headset after the lockdown began. He has a PlayStation and a Nintendo Switch and was spending about an hour and a half a day gaming when he couldn’t do outdoor hobbies like rock climbing at the beginning of the pandemic. He had tried an Oculus when it was still a Kickstarter project in 2013, and thought it would be ready for prime time in 2020.
“I was stuck at home here in L.A.,” he said. “I thought now must be the time.”
Industry observers have thought the same thing for years. Facebook was so wowed by early demonstrations of the Oculus Rift back in 2012 that it bought the company for $2 billion. Rivals like the HTC Vive and Samsung’s Gear launched in 2015. The Oculus Rift finally went on sale in 2016.
But consumers have balked at the hardware’s expense: a headset costs several hundred dollars, the same price as video game consoles that support hundreds of games. Early VR headsets also lacked a game or service that would make them seem indispensable, like web browsers for consumer PCs or the mobile Internet for iPhones. Headsets’ hefty weight, slow software, and tendency to sometimes cause nausea also kept VR from taking off.
“It’s not easy to try to do a work out while you have a 4-pound weight attached to your head,” said Susmilch. “And it doesn’t feel good to sweat directly into a $400 dollar piece of electronics you purchased.”
Facebook discontinued the Rift last month. Its latest devices have had more success. It launched the $300 Oculus Quest 2 in October, a cheaper and more sophisticated version of its original $400 wireless Oculus Quest. Facebook doesn’t release sales figures, but it says Quest 2 sales have been better than expected, and has already outsold all of its predecessors combined since its launch.
The standalone headset doesn’t need to be tethered to a computer or gaming console, and is designed for gaming with dual hand controllers.
In a call with analysts in April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the Quest 2, while still mainly used for games, is increasingly used for activities like fitness and virtual workplaces.
“I believe that augmented and virtual reality are going to enable a deeper sense of presence and social connection than any existing platform, and they’re going to be an important part of how we’ll interact with computers in the future,” Zuckerberg said. “So we’re going to keep investing heavily in building out the best experiences here, and this accounts for a major part of our overall R&D budget growth.”
“Quest 2 serves as a necessary step toward VR maturity,” said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen. “It’s also an expected step in the sense that consumers and the market have been conditioned by smartphone trends to see very regular technology upgrades.”
Hardware updates are good, Nguyen said, but creating more content and ways to create content, and improving the gadgets’ usability, is needed for the tech to fully mature, he said.
Part of the original Quest’s success was the first-person shooter VR game “Half-Life: Alyx” which sold about 680,000 copies in its first month, according to Nielsen’s SuperData. That’s a hit for VR games, but still niche compared with games like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which sold 13.41 million copies worldwide in its first six weeks.
Creating content for VR is “a heavy lift,” Nguyen said. “A lot of companies out there are creating platforms you can build stuff on. But the talent and content pipeline isn’t there yet.”
Susmilch scoured online retail sites until he found an Oculus Quest he could pick up at a local Best Buy. He enjoyed it, but said the novelty wore off after only a few days. First-person shooter “Superhot VR” was fun, but he beat it after a couple of hours. He was hoping games like “Beat Saber,” a rhythm game that encourages movement, and boxing game “Box VR” would help him exercise, but found the headset unwieldy.
On the workplace side of VR, the absence of networking capabilities has also put a damper on things. Zoom was ready to go when the pandemic hit, and people could use hardware they already had to connect. While some small VR firms like Spatial offer VR meeting software, most people who suddenly found themselves working from home didn’t have a headset, and employers weren’t likely to spend money shipping them out.
George Jijiashvili, principal analyst at research firm Omdia, said the Quest 2 is a big turning point for VR. It’s lower price point and wireless connectivity are two big draws. Omdia estimates 2.3 million Quest 2s were sold globally in the last quarter of 2020. That’s roughly half what it took Sony four years to sell with its PlayStation VR headsets.
Still, “mass adoption of VR headsets remains well over a decade away,” Jijiashvili said, due to the lack of hit games or a “killer app” and the friction it takes to set up and use the headsets. He estimates people spent $1 billion on VR content in 2020 — a drop in the ocean compared to the $168 billion total consumer spending on video games in 2020.
Susmilch ended up returning his Oculus. “I used the money to buy hiking gear and have just been spending the weekends hiking around the Angeles National Forest,″ he said. The Quest 2 might address some of his comfort issues, he said, but he doesn’t plan on buying it. “Ultimately there just isn’t much to do in VR right now. Maybe when the Quest 3 comes out,” he said.


Instagram launches new campaign to tackle phishing

Updated 19 October 2021

Instagram launches new campaign to tackle phishing

  • Social networking service offers users 5-step action plan to protect against phishing attacks

DUBAI: Phishing has become one of the main methods for hackers to access the personal information of social media users across different platforms.

The online hoaxers typically use deceptive messages that appear to come from an official source such as a bank, social media platform, or email service to encourage users to download an attachment or click on a link.

Nadia Diab Caceres, public policy manager for Instagram in the Middle East and North Africa region, told Arab News: “Phishing is one of the most common types of cyberattacks and it can take many forms – from fun quizzes about your favorite cereal brand to receiving direct messages claiming to be from Instagram about issues with your account.”

Instagram users, in particular, have been the target of many such attacks. In September, Romania’s cybersecurity incident response team warned about a targeted campaign against Instagram users in the county, and last year TrendMicro reported similar activity led by Turkish-speaking hackers preying on high-profile accounts on the social networking platform.

Diab Caceres did not reveal the number of users that had been subject to phishing but said: “Phishing on social platforms is an evolving issue that has been increasing in both frequency and sophistication.

“We are constantly evolving our safety and security features to protect our community from cyberattacks. We have strong defenses in our existing security tools and features, and we continue to upgrade these in line with the needs of the times.”

As part of its efforts to raise awareness and increase usage of its safety tools, Instagram has collaborated with influential content creators including Khaled Mokhtar, Amr Maskoun, Aly Osman, Adel Aladwani, and Mazen Yaseen.

Additionally, it is educating users on steps they can take to protect their accounts.

One such way is its new security checkup feature that guides users whose accounts may have been hacked through the steps needed to secure them, including checking login activity, reviewing profile information, confirming the accounts that share login information, and updating account recovery contact information such as phone number or email.

Another method users can take is to enable two-factor authentication, whereby they receive a notification or are asked to enter a special login code when someone tries logging into their account from a device the platform does not recognize.

Enabling login request is available to users setting up two-factor authentication on Instagram. Any login attempt from an unrecognized device or web browser triggers an alert showing details of the device that tried logging in and its location. Users can then approve or deny the request from their already logged-in devices.

A further safety step is to update phone numbers and emails. Instagram advises users to always keep the email and phone numbers associated with their device up to date, so the platform can reach them if something happens to their account, as well as aid the recovery process even when a hacker changes their information.

In addition, Instagram encourages users to report suspicious or spammy accounts and content to help the platform better combat attacks.

There has recently been an increase in malicious accounts direct messaging people to try and access sensitive information, such as account passwords, by falsely stating that the user account is at risk of being banned, that users are violating Instagram’s policies around intellectual property, or that their photos are being shared elsewhere.

Users are urged to report these accounts to Instagram which has stressed that it would never send a direct message to users and would only communicate through the emails from Instagram tab in settings.

“Instagram is a people’s platform, and we are at our strongest when our entire community is aware of and uses the safety features at their disposal,” said Diab Caceres.


Remembering Roger Harrison: He loved the Kingdom, and Saudis loved him back in equal measure

Updated 19 October 2021

Remembering Roger Harrison: He loved the Kingdom, and Saudis loved him back in equal measure

  • Family, friends and former colleagues mourn man of many talents with 25-year connection to Saudi Arabia


JEDDAH: Roger Harrison, who has died on the Spanish island of Mallorca at the age of 75, was a man of more than one career and many talents — among them an event organizer, a writer and photographer, a jeweler and gemologist, a lecturer and raconteur.
Here at Arab News, where he was a senior reporter from 2001 to 2013 covering Saudi affairs and expat life, he will be best remembered as a news magnet to whom stories simply happened.
Among Harrison’s many achievements was his work on the book Wings Over Arabia, a photographic record of a three-man glider team flying over and photographing spectacular and rarely seen areas of the Kingdom. The team included Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first Arab and Muslim astronaut, and Prince Bandar bin Khaled Al-Faisal.
In his preface to the book, Prince Bandar paid tribute to Harrison’s abilities and his work: “He captures the beauty of my country from a perspective that most of the population will never experience. I thank him sincerely for writing and photographing a definitive work that is both a fascinating story and, perhaps, a source of inspiration for future glider pilots.”
So fascinated was the British historian Robert Lacey by Harrison’s work that he wrote: “Lawrence of Arabia captured it from a camel. Roger Harrison captures it from the air. Both convey the magic of Arabia with breathtaking power.”
Harrison was also one of the last journalists to interview the famed explorer of Arabia and the Middle East, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, in 2002.
Stories had a way of coming to Harrison. One of his last visits to Saudi Arabia was in October 2019, when he was invited to a government-sponsored media conference just as visas on arrival became available to foreigners. Harrison flew into Jeddah from London, and offered to pay the visa fee by credit card, prompting a bank security request to enter a one-time password — which was sent to his cell phone back in London. It seemed an insoluble problem, but the Saudi officer at the airport offered to pay the fee. Harrison assured him he would be repaid as soon as the problem was sorted out, but the officer said: “You are our guest. You don’t have to worry.”
Later Harrison regaled the Arab News Jeddah newsroom with the tale, his eyes filling with tears as he told how a complete stranger had come unhesitatingly to his assistance. He loved Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis loved him back in equal measure.
Harrison was born in Eastbourne, England, in 1946. He arrived in Saudi Arabia with his wife Sian in September 1996, to teach at Jubail Industrial College, where he remained for four years. The couple then went back to London, but the Kingdom had made its mark on Harrison and he returned to Jeddah to teach English to the Saudi Navy.
Harrison’s career with Arab News began by accident — quite literally. He and his wife were involved in a collision with a car that came out of the desert and ran straight into them. Harrison wrote a letter to the newspaper describing the incident, and Arab News replied asking him to write it in the form of an article rather than a letter. The piece appeared on the front page under the headline: “Why throw yourself to death when you can drive there?” The article led to an offer of employment at Arab News.
“He loved the people he worked with and he loved the opportunities the paper gave him,” his wife Sian said. “He went to places he would never have visited and was even able to indulge his love of racing by test-driving cars he could never have owned. The articles he wrote, especially ‘Adam and Eid,’ showed the depth of his humanity and his love of Saudi Arabia and its people. There were so many articles that displayed this empathetic side of Roger. The one he wrote after the dreadful floods of Jeddah was more personal, about the many friends who helped us.”
The Harrisons left Jeddah in 2013 and went to live in Ras Al-Khaimah in the UAE. He had visited once to write an article, and liked the idea of being there while still close to Saudi Arabia. The couple’s son Ben, a newly qualified teacher, came from London to join them and applied for his first teaching post — in Riyadh. “Roger was thrilled the Harrison connection was continuing in the Kingdom and gave him a reason to visit,” Sian said. “Ben left Riyadh in 2019 and was going to accompany Roger on a trip to Saudi Arabia in January, when they wanted to do a follow-up to the Wings Over Arabia book, but this time from the ground.”
Ben Harrison hopes to return for a visit, and would love to be able to honor his father’s last wish.
In 2017, the Harrisons moved to Mallorca, which they knew well from visits over the years. Why Mallorca? “We had been visiting the beautiful Spanish island for over 20 years since my sister had moved to live there,” said Sian. “My mother also sold up and left London to live in Mallorca. She was very close to Roger. They loved to debate and had many spirited conversations, and the highlight of their week was a shopping trip to Lidl where they discussed anything and everything.”
Sian has received many messages of condolence from people who knew her husband. “They have shown me a side of him that truly shows the honorable and honest man he was, his old-fashioned values of being true to your word, his love for the Kingdom and the opportunities it gave him. I can’t stress enough how much being in Saudi Arabia meant to him.”
Harrison had great respect for Saudi Arabia, and was adamant in correcting people’s misconceptions about the Kingdom. He regularly called UK radio stations and wrote letters to various publications out of a sincere desire to set the record straight. As Prince Sultan bin Salman once said, Harrison knew more about Saudi Arabia than most Saudis.
“Although I never had the pleasure of working with Roger, I have crossed paths many times with him covering events in Jeddah in the early 2000s. He was full of passion for journalism and for the Kingdom, was kind to everyone around him and was always the first to arrive and last to leave during any press event,” said Faisal J. Abbas, current Editor in Chief of Arab News.
“Obviously, we at Arab News extend our condolences to Roger’s family, and on behalf of all the editors and colleagues he worked with in the past, we thank him for all the work he has done and all his contributions to our newspaper,” he added.
Harrison’s motto was: “Everybody dies, but some never live.” He lived a remarkable life in a remarkable country, and documented all that he could for future historians and writers of Arabia. He was a gentle soul, a humanist first and journalist last. Among those who admired and respected him is Razan Baker, director of international communication at the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.
“He touched many lives, including my own, and for that I consider myself lucky,” she said. “I was honored to know him as one of my dearest Arab News family members. He was always inspiring and motivating. Nothing was impossible for him. He was like a generous moving library that challenged us all to learn, be passionate about what we love and do, and try to do it better.”


Facebook plans to hire 10,000 in EU to build ‘metaverse’

Metaverse is a futuristic notion for connecting people online that encompasses augmented and virtual reality. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 October 2021

Facebook plans to hire 10,000 in EU to build ‘metaverse’

  • Facebook plans to hire 10,000 workers in the EU to work on the new virtual reality tool 'metaverse'

MENLO PARK: Facebook says it plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to work on a new computing platform.
The company said in a blog post Sunday that those high-skilled workers will help build “the metaverse,” a futuristic notion for connecting people online that encompasses augmented and virtual reality.
Facebook executives have been touting the metaverse as the next big thing after the mobile Internet as they also contend with other matters such as antitrust crackdowns, the testimony of a whistleblowing former employee and concerns about how the company handles vaccine-related and political misinformation on its platform.
In a separate blog post Sunday, the company defended its approach to combating hate speech, in response to a Wall Street Journal article that examined the company’s inability to detect and remove hateful and excessively violent posts.


Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage

Updated 16 October 2021

Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage

  • An Iranian-government aligned group has tried to steal personal information and passwords of notable individuals across Europe and the US through 2021
  • Iran set to continue on the same cyber-espionage path despite the exposure of their tactics, expert tells Arab News

Tech giant Google has exposed how Iranian-backed groups attempt to use its platforms to carry out espionage on behalf of the government in Tehran.

In a blog post released on Thursday, Google’s Threat Analysis Group exposed the work of APT35, a shady hacking group that Google said is linked to the Iranian government.

Ajax Bash, of TAG, said: “This is the one of the groups we disrupted during the 2020 US election cycle for its targeting of campaign staffers. For years, this group has hijacked accounts, deployed malware, and used novel techniques to conduct espionage aligned with the interests of the Iranian government.”

APT35 “regularly conducts phishing campaigns targeting high risk users,” Bash said.

In one instance, he said, Iranian hackers targeted lecturers from a British university — the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London — and impersonated them in an attempt to trick others in the academic community into divulging their personal information and passwords. This form of cyber espionage is called credential phishing.

“APT35 has relied on this technique since 2017 — targeting high-value accounts in government, academia, journalism, NGOs, foreign policy, and national security,” said Bash.

“Credential phishing through a compromised website demonstrates these attackers will go to great lengths to appear legitimate — as they know it’s difficult for users to detect this kind of attack.

“One of the most notable characteristics of APT35 is their impersonation of conference officials to conduct phishing attacks,” said Bash. He explained that Iranian-backed operatives impersonated officials from the Munich Security Conference and an Italian think-tank to steal passwords and information.

Amin Sabeti, the founder of Digital Impact Lab and an Iran-focused cyber security professional, told Arab News that Google’s blog exposes how Iran continues to build on its national cyber security strategy.

“This report shows again that Iranian state-backed hackers are very good in social engineering and they have improved their technique,” he said.

“For example, using a legitimate website to convince the target to enter the credential details of their online account is something new that we didn’t see a few years ago.”

Sabeti also said that, despite Google unmasking Iran’s cyber-espionage activity, it is unlikely that they will change their strategy entirely.

“I think we will see the same techniques but with new ideas.”

Google’s Bash said: “We warn users when we suspect a government-backed threat like APT35 is targeting them. Thousands of these warnings are sent every month, even in cases where the corresponding attack is blocked.  

“Threat Analysis Group will continue to identify bad actors and share relevant information with others in the industry, with the goal of bringing awareness to these issues, protecting you and fighting bad actors to prevent future attacks.”

Decoder

Credential phishing

It is a form of cyber attack in which hackers impersonate a reputable entity or person to steal user ID or email addresses and password combinations, then use the victim's credentials to carry out attacks on other targets.


Microsoft shutting down LinkedIn app in China amid scrutiny

The company said in a blog post Thursday it has faced a “significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.” (File/AFP)
Updated 15 October 2021

Microsoft shutting down LinkedIn app in China amid scrutiny

  • LinkedIn will replace its localized platform in China with a new app called InJobs

REDMOND, Washington: Microsoft is shutting down its main LinkedIn service in China later this year as Beijing tightens its internet rules.

The company said in a blog post Thursday it has faced a “significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.”

Microsoft is the latest American tech giant to lessen its ties to the country after years of trying to tailor its services to the demands of government censors.

LinkedIn said it will replace its localized platform in China with a new app called InJobs that has some of LinkedIn’s career-networking features but will not include a social feed or the ability to share posts or articles.

Chinese regulators have been escalating a broad crackdown on the internet sector, seeking to exercise greater control over the algorithms used by tech firms to personalize and recommend content. They have also strengthened data privacy restrictions and expanded control over the flow of information and public opinion.

LinkedIn in March said it would pause new member sign-ups on LinkedIn China because of unspecified regulatory issues. China’s internet watchdog in May said it had found LinkedIn as well as Microsoft’s Bing search engine and about 100 other apps were engaged in improper collection and use of data and ordered them to fix the problem.

Several scholars this summer reported getting warning letters from LinkedIn that they were sharing “prohibited content” that would not be made viewable in China but could still be seen by LinkedIn users elsewhere.

Tony Lee, a scholar at Berlin’s Free University, told The Associated Press in June that LinkedIn didn’t tell him which content was prohibited but said it was tied to the section of his profile where he listed his publications. Among his listed articles was one about the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and another comparing Chinese leader Xi Jinping with former leader Mao Zedong.

Lee said Thursday it is “wishful thinking for LinkedIn to maintain its presence in a different form” without social media elements, its distinctive selling point against other online job boards. He said LinkedIn is better off pulling out of the country entirely than “practicing censorship dictated by China” that damages the company’s worldwide credibility.

It’s been more than seven years since LinkedIn launched a site in simplified Chinese, the written characters used on the mainland, to expand its reach in the country. It said at the time of the launch in early 2014 that expanding in China raised “difficult questions” because it required censoring content, but that it would be clear about how it conducts business in China and undertake “extensive measures” to protect members’ rights and data.

Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Washington, bought LinkedIn in 2016. LinkedIn doesn’t disclose how much of its revenue comes from China, but it reports having more than 54 million members in mainland China, its third-largest user base after the U.S. and India.

“LinkedIn once served a crucial role, as the only social media network on which Chinese and Western colleagues could communicate away from (Chinese Communist Party) censorship and prying eyes,” said Eyck Freymann, another scholar who received a censorship notice letter this year, in a text message Thursday.

Freymann, a doctoral student in China studies at Oxford University, said it is “shameful that Microsoft spent months censoring its own users — and, worse, pressuring them to self-censor” but that the company ultimately made the right choice to pull the plug.

Google pulled its search engine out of mainland China in 2010 after the government began censoring search results and videos on YouTube. It later considered starting a censored Chinese search engine nicknamed Project Dragonfly but dropped the idea following internal protest in 2018.

Other US-based social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked within China.

Microsoft’s own search engine, Bing, was temporarily blocked in China in early 2019, leading the company’s president, Brad Smith, to reveal that executives sometimes have difficult negotiations with the Chinese government over censorship and other demands.

“We understand we don’t have the same legal freedom that we do in other countries, but at the same time, we stick to our guns,” Smith told Fox Business News in January 2019. “There are certain principles that we think it’s important to stand up for, and we’ll go at times into the negotiating room and the negotiations are sometimes pretty darn direct.”

Adding to the sensitivities this year was a massive hack of Microsoft’s Exchange email server software that U.S. officials have blamed on criminal hackers associated with the Chinese government.

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