News for nerds

LA’s Jetpack Guy was probably a Jack Skellington balloon

Although jetpacks have moved from the domain of sci-fi to reality in recent times, it seems multiple sightings of a man flying over Los Angeles using one of the devices may have a much simpler explanation: balloons.

The first sighting came back in August last year when American Airlines pilots radioed in that “We just passed a guy in a jetpack.” Another pilot, this one approaching LAX in a Jet Blue airliner a few minutes later, also reported a jetpack flyer passing their plane.

Another report arrived in October from a China Airlines pilot flying at 6,000 feet, followed by a sighting in July this year. There was also a video shared on social media in December 2020 that showed what appeared to be someone with a jetpack flying at around 3,000 feet off the coast of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

While jetpacks are real, such as this one used by a UK paramedic, the chances of this being a man flying around like The Rocketeer seemed unlikely, though we did see a jetpack pilot reach 6,000 feet last year from a ground take-off rather than an elevated platform.

Now, it appears that the mystery has been solved. The FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigated the reported sightings, none of which had been verified. The organizations say the working theory is that the pilots may have seen balloons.

The conclusion seems all the more likely given the images taken by a police helicopter (above) in November 2020, a couple of weeks after the second sighting. They show what looks like an inflatable balloon character, possibly Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, floating several thousand feet above LA—one would assume it broke away from a Halloween display.

However, witnesses interviewed by the Los Angeles Times claim to have seen a human-shaped object that changed direction rapidly rather than just floated, leading to speculation that what people saw was a dummy or balloon attached to a drone to resemble a person with a jetpack, something that European drone enthusiasts have already developed.

Niantic’s Pokémon Go clone Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is shutting down

Although Niantic’s Pokémon Go found worldwide success following its launch in 2016, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, a very similar title released by the company in 2019, never came close to matching its popularity. As such, it will be closing down in just over two months.

Like Pokémon Go, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is an augmented reality game, this one set in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World and with more of a focus on the story. Niantic has announced that it will be removed from the App Store, Google Play, and Galaxy Store on December 6, 2021, and players will no longer be able to make in-game purchases as of that date.

“Not all games are meant to last forever,” Niantic wrote in a statement. “Our goal…was to bring the magic of the wizarding world to life for millions of players as they stepped outside and explored their neighborhoods. We accomplished that together, delivering a two-year narrative story arc that will soon complete.”

All features and servers for the game will be turned off on January 31, 2022, as will the community forum and all associated social media channels.

Using can keep playing the game until the end of January, and Niantic is adding in-game events throughout this month and December. There will also be several gameplay changes, including the cap on sending and opening gifts being removed.

Niantic never said why Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is closing down. Since release, it has lived in the shadow of Pokémon Go, and while the company never revealed official user figures, the newer game has 319,000 ratings on the Play Store while Pokémon Go has almost 15 million.

Certain Windows 11 built-in apps won’t work for some users

Early adopters of Microsoft’s Windows 11 operating system have had to contend with the usual collection of bugs and glitches, ranging from performance regressions to printing issues and everything between. Some people may even find they can’t use some built-in apps, but luckily there’s a fix for that.

Windows 11 is evolved from Windows 10, which is both a blessing and a curse. Microsoft has spent the past several years perfecting Windows 10, which means its successor is also based on a relatively mature core. At the same time, it has inherited various bugs and glitches that some early adopters have discovered in the past few weeks.

One notable issue is related to printers, which don’t seem to work in certain scenarios. Other issues are less visible to the average user, such as memory leaks in File Explorer when opening several windows on a daily basis, something that can lead to less RAM being available for any other apps you might use.

More recently, someone discovered that Windows 11 can flood your HDD or SSD with thousands of empty folders. This won’t impact performance or take any significant amount of space on your storage drive, but it’s a perfect example of old Windows 10 warts reappearing in Windows 11.

This week, some of you may have also found that you can no longer use or even open certain built-in apps such as Get Started, Tips, Snipping Tool, Touch Keyboard, Voice Typing, Emoji Panel, and Input Method Editor user interface (IME UI), as well as the accounts page and landing page in the Settings app for Windows 11 S users.

Microsoft says the issue only affects people that have not yet installed the KB5006746 update that was released on October 21, and S mode users are more likely to experience this problem.

The affected apps rely on a certificate that expired on October 31, and the best way to solve this problem is to manually install the latest update, as it will renew the expired certificate. KB5006746 is currently marked as an optional update, but it will soon be offered to everyone as part of the November Patch Tuesday update.

ZipCharge Go is a portable powerbank for your electric vehicle

UK startup ZipCharge has introduced a portable electric vehicle charger that could come in very handy in the right situation. I personally view this as a backup or emergency solution, but ZipCharge believes the best way to charge an EV is when you don’t need to – topping up wherever you park to avoid having to wait at a charging station later on. I’m not sure what would stop a would-be thief from helping themselves to your charger if left unattended in such a scenario, however.

The ZipCharge Go is essentially a portable battery pack like the kind you’d use for a smartphone, except it’s meant for an electric vehicle. The company describes it as a “smart charger on wheels” that’s no bigger than a compact suit case. According to InsideEVs, the Go weighs around 50 pounds.

ZipCharge says the unit is compatible with any plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle with a Type 2 socket, and can be charged from any standard household outlet. A full charge can provide 20 to 40 miles of range depending on your EV and can be delivered in 30 to 60 minutes, depending on capacity and temperature.

A companion smartphone app can be used to schedule charging at the lowest cost, provide status updates and more.

Full details are still pending but according to InsideEVs, units will be available to purchase or lease, with the latter starting around $67 per month. Look for the first examples to be available in Q4 2022.

Microsoft and Nvidia are working on their own more practical metaverse

Given all the hoopla surrounding the company previously known as Facebook rebranding itself to Meta last week, it’s not the least bit surprising to see other big tech industry players start talking about their own visions of what the latest versions of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)—the metaverse—can bring. What is somewhat unexpected, however, is how different the perspectives on the topic are already proving to be.

At Microsoft’s Ignite conference this week and as part of a news build-up towards next week’s Nvidia GTC conference, both companies showed a more practical and business-oriented approach to the metaverse than the consumer-focused version that Mark Zuckerberg and team presented.

While the Meta version of the metaverse focused on things like being able to take the digital skins purchased in one game environment into another, both Microsoft and Nvidia focused on team collaboration and business-to-business communication.

There are many other dissimilarities between the different metaverse perspectives. These differences speak to the intent of the different organizations, the means by which they intend to go to market, and more. Microsoft, for example, will be integrating its AR Mesh technology into Teams, providing a different “view” into the Teams environment for all Teams users.

The cartoon-like avatars provide participants a way to still offer non-verbal communication cues like facial expressions, gestures, and more without needing to be on camera all the time. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not that will actually relieve the “always on” stress associated with excessive video calls…

The Mesh and Teams integration also extends into activities like shared whiteboarding across different physical locations and other forms of interaction that are designed to make participants feel more like they’re in the same physical environment. Given the expected resilience of hybrid working models—even after employees start returning to work in larger numbers—it’s easy to imagine how some of these capabilities can provide a practical benefit.

In the case of Nvidia, the company has been talking about its Omniverse platform for several years now, where it means to provide a highly graphical 3D environment designed for engineering, graphics creation and collaboration.

Omniverse Enterprise is designed to collaboratively build graphically realistic simulations of real-world devices and systems, making it useful for everything from designing the latest cars to seeing how AI-powered versions of those cars would function in simulated environments. In fact, Omniverse provides the underpinnings for Nvidia’s Drive Sim efforts on autonomous driving, as well as its Isaac Sim robotics simulation platform.

Omniverse Create is the tool that leverages the company’s RTX graphics technology to create advanced scene compositions and virtual worlds with photo-realistic detail and then share them via the Pixar USD format. (Ironically, while we’ll never know for sure, it could even be that Meta used Omniverse Create to help build its fantastical metaverse “worlds”.)

One of the other interesting aspects of Nvidia’s approach is its focus on partnerships. As Microsoft is doing with Teams, Nvidia continues to emphasize Omniverse as an extensible platform that other software companies and developers can leverage, including big-name graphics ISVs like Adobe, Autodesk, and more. In addition, Nvidia is focused on working with a variety of hardware partners to help deliver the systems that can power its Omniverse vision. The company is also working with resale partners to bring the 3D graphics collaboration capabilities to enterprises.

All of which highlights yet another critical difference between the Meta, Microsoft, and Nvidia offerings: the expected scope of the efforts. Even though Zuckerberg and other Meta leaders acknowledged many times over that most of the innovations needed to achieve the vision of extraordinarily impressive graphics in its metaverse are several years off, they also implied that it would be a mainstream option for all. In a sense, it was like a real-world implementation of the Oasis metaverse from the book and movie Ready Player One that essentially anyone who currently uses something like the Facebook app would be expected to regularly use.

Both the Microsoft and Nvidia concepts, on the other hand, seem much more targeted to certain environments in certain businesses. Microsoft’s Mesh for Teams is meant to work for most types of business meetings in theory, but the fact that it requires dedicated AR/VR headsets (at least to power the avatars) will limit its usage. Nvidia’s offering is even more specialized, as it’s designed for the engineers, designers, and other creative professionals who are involved with creating 3D models and virtual worlds. It’s an important group to be sure, but not a huge one.

Despite more limited scopes, realistically they’re also more practical than the Meta approach, not only from a numbers perspective, but an acceptance factor as well. While I certainly expect there to be significant generational differences in preference, I still believe it is fair to say that most people don’t really want to spend significant amounts of time in a Ready Player One type metaverse—especially given the state of today’s VR and AR hardware.

While movie-like CGI graphics and fantasy-like environments are certainly visually compelling to watch, they aren’t something most people want to view all the time. Plus, let’s not forget what’s involved with making those kinds of visuals. Have you ever seen what actors working on science-fiction and other graphics-intensive movies have to go through to get their scenes done? Surrounding yourself with green screens isn’t an experience most people are going to want to do more than a few times and I certainly don’t see how it’s going to translate to home or even most office environments. Using such a setup multiple times a day doesn’t seem practical in the least.

… we need to think through the privacy implications of technologies that ultimately may be able to track all the environments we live, work, and play in, all the people we interact with, and all the things we do. That’s a lot to ponder.

Finally, we need to think through the privacy implications of technologies that ultimately may be able to track all the environments we live, work, and play in, all the people we interact with, and all the things we do. That’s a lot to ponder.

Part of this challenge has to do with the limitations of today’s hardware—a challenge that will eventually go away. But even when these constraints are removed, there’s still something very isolating about purely virtual interactions. Nearly two years into pandemic-driven changes to our work environments, most of us are feeling the effects of this, despite higher quality cameras and nearly non-stop video-based interactions. People like to interact with real people, in real time, in real life, and we’re a very long way from any technology replacing that experience.

In fact, I can’t help but note the irony of the timing for all these announcements. By the time most of these offerings become available next year, many people will likely be returning to the office on at least a semi-regular basis. As a result, the perceived need for these new types of interactions may not be as compelling as it currently is.

To be clear, meeting-based interactions and collaboration efforts with remote colleagues (across the world or just down the street) will continue to be critical. As a result, even though they’re probably the least sexy of these new technologies, collaboration-driven developments will surely be ongoing and the most impactful—certainly within next five years.

That’s why, at the end of the day, while it’s definitely cool to think about the interesting possibilities that technologies and concepts like metaverses might enable, practical benefits are what’s likely to ultimately find success.

Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

More than half a million players have left Amazon’s New World in just over a month since launch

Most games see their player numbers decline in the weeks following release, but rarely in figures as large as what Amazon’s New World is experiencing. The MMO has reportedly been hemorrhaging 135,000 players every week since arriving on September 28, which works out at around half a million people abandoning the game.

New World had been the number two game on Steam’s most-wishlisted chart before its release. That anticipation was reflected a few days after launch when concurrent player numbers hit 913,027, but as Steamcharts’ stats show, things have been declining rapidly since then.

Forbes worked out that, based on figures for each previous Sunday, the number of people playing New World simultaneously has been dropping by around 135,000 each week. The good news is that the trend does seem to be slowing, albeit only slightly: it peaked at just over 404,000 last Sunday, while the previous Sunday it was 508,000 players.

Despite the initial popularity, New World arrived to reviews that ranged from average to pretty good. PC Gamer said it was held back by abysmal PvE and a boring world, and PCGamesN criticized the humdrum and frustrating quest design. It has a user score of just 4.6 on Metacritic, while the 74% of good Steam reviews gives it a Mostly Positive rating.

In addition to finding faults within its game design, players have been complaining about New World’s many bugs, including one that allowed the generation of infinite gold, prompting Amazon to shut down New World’s economy controls to prevent the glitch.

We’ve seen several games lose a worrying number of players post-launch only for them to return once the game is patched/updated and has received extra content—No Man’s Sky being the most notable example. As it’s an MMO, New World will likely be a very different experience 12 months from now. Amazon will just be hoping that enough players stick around until then.

You can now build your own USB-C iPhone thanks to this open source mod

If you’ve been waiting for an iPhone with a USB-C port instead of a Lightning connector, it’s unlikely that you’ll get one from Apple. However, what you can do is mod an existing iPhone using detailed instructions from a passionate engineering student that spent several months developing the process.

Last month, we learned that an engineering student from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, EPFL, had successfully modded an iPhone X to change the charging port from Lightning to USB-C. This was a great accomplishment, since the USB-C port was fully functional for both charging and data transfers.

Ken Pillonel, who developed the mod, promised to come up with a more in-depth video about his project, and now we have one. Not only does Pillonel explain in great detail what it took to make the world’s first USB-C iPhone a reality, but he’s also created a GitHub repository containing all the instructions needed to machine the iPhone chassis and build the custom PCB for the USB-C port.

In the 14-minute video, Pillonel explains the mod required some reverse engineering and creative thinking to mimic a proper USB-C port. Specifically, he had to figure out how to map the power and data lines between the Lightning connection on the iPhone motherboard and the USB-C port, as well as reverse engineer Apple’s C94 chip. Then he had to figure out how to produce a flexible PCB that fits inside the iPhone X and a support structure that would hold the USB-C port in place.

Suffice to say, not many people possess the skills and the tools required to make this mod, but at least you don’t have to go through the same difficult journey as Pillonel thanks to his decision to open-source the documentation behind the final version he worked so hard to create.

If you’re interested in purchasing this unique USB-C iPhone X, Pillonel is auctioning it on eBay where the bidding has already reached $4,950 at the time of writing. However, keep in mind that this won’t be useful as a daily driver, and Pillonel notes you shouldn’t restore, update, or erase it either.