Date night checklist: Dinner, movie… virtual reality?

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By Ian Sherr

I see a floating walkway through the opened door of my spacecraft. I pause a moment to get my bearings, then — WHOOSH — I’m hit with the bright light and heat of boiling lava a few feet away. Stormtroopers stand to my right, blaster rifles in hand in case things get messy.

Three other people and I had been recruited to help the Rebel Alliance infiltrate an Imperial stronghold and steal something… important. (Isn’t it always?)

My fellow intergalactic spies and I are dressed for the part, wearing full Stormtrooper regalia so we won’t get noticed. So far, things have been going smoothly.

I steady myself as the moving platform beneath my feet makes its way to an ominous-looking castle surrounded by a sea of lava. Hot air blows on my face, and I can’t stop staring at the spectacular view of the boiling ocean that surrounds me.

For a moment I actually forget I’m in a convention center in San Jose, California, where I’m wearing a virtual reality headset and playing Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was old enough to say “May the force be with you,” swing a toy lightsaber and dream of living in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve played the games, collected the toys, read the books, ridden the amusement park rides and (obviously) watched the movies and the TV shows.

“Watching movies, playing video games, there’s always been a separation between you and the Star Wars universe,” says Mohen Leo, director of immersive content at Lucasfilm’s ILMxLab experimental storytelling group.

Which explains why I couldn’t wait to play The Void’s Star Wars game and actually feel as if I lived in that world. When my son, 2, gets old enough, he’ll probably be joining me. A lot.

That’s because how we spend our evenings and weekends out is set to change radically. As more of us shop from our phones, malls and other venues are exploring immersive experiences that would give us reasons to visit. Some may offer VR games from the likes of The Void and Nomadic that include sensors and strategically placed fans and heaters for an extra level of immersion. Other experiences have a carnival atmosphere, with a mix of VR and real-world games. And then there’s Meow Wolf, an immersive theatrical experience created by an art collective in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with funding by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin.

The result — as with arcades of the ’70s and ’80s and laser tag of the ’90s — is experiences we can’t have at home.

“Everything’s becoming more immersive,” says Dan Wenhold, a principal at Fifth Wall Ventures, a venture capital firm funding next-generation real estate technology.

Livestreaming on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube needs radical change

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By Ian Sherr

There’s a lot not to like about Facebook these days. But when one of its core features, livestreaming video, is being used as a tool for terror, simple outrage just isn’t enough.

The latest evidence that live video needs to change came Friday when, before entering a mosque and committing one of the deadliest mass murders in New Zealand history, the accused gunman began a stream on Facebook Live.

As he prepared to carry out his heinous act, he quipped, “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.” Then his followers watched for nearly six minutes as he streamed video from the massacre that otherwise could have looked like it came from Call of Duty, Battlefield or any other realistic war simulation game.

It was a shocking reminder that the magical devices tech companies create to give us access to nearly all human knowledge and easy ways to take photos and connect with friends, have a darker, more grisly side.

Technology has always had its pluses and minuses that we take in stride because on the whole, it’s worth it. But now’s the time to consider whether livestreaming in particular may finally be the first Silicon Valley invention that needs radical reform, or to just go away.

“The New Zealand shooter was able to livestream a 17-minute video of his murderous rampage that continues to spread like wildfire online. This is flatly unacceptable,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of civil rights organization Muslim Advocates, in a statement. “Tech companies must take all steps possible to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Of course, livestreaming won’t go away. It’s already ingrained in internet culture as a driving force behind online news services, quiz shows and popular video games like Fortnite.

At a minimum, though, the approach to livestreaming needs to change. Facebook and others like YouTube, Twitter’s Periscope and Amazon’s Twitch, need to treat this technology as the potential tool for mass terror that it is. Otherwise, this whole situation is only going to get worse.

None of the companies offered details when asked if they had plans to prevent violent streams in the future.

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 isn’t meant for you, but it could change your tech in the future

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By Ian Sherr

Ask me to fix a broken car or motorbike, and you’d be out of luck.

But that’s exactly what Microsoft wanted me to do. And the tool it gave me was its new mixed reality HoloLens 2 headset.

After I slipped it on, a set of digital instructions popped up over an actual broken ATV, set up in a mock repair shop at Microsoft’s headquarters. There were buckets of bolts to my right side and tools to my left. Then a set of neon-blue cartoonish arrows appeared, pointing at which gears I needed to move and where to move them to start the repair.

Next, I was told to get parts from bins around the room. The blue arrow directed me to the bin with the bolt I needed, then the washer to go with it, and then to a table with the right wrench.

Which size bolt? What type of wrench? I didn’t need to worry about that, because the HoloLens 2 guided me every step of the way. After about eight minutes, I went from cluelessly looking at a broken ATV to marveling at my first repair job. As Keanu Reeves says in the sci-fi epic The Matrix after getting fighting skills downloaded directly to his brain, “I know kung fu.”

This is the promise of Microsoft’s HoloLens: a computer that can help you do pretty much anything you’d use your hands for. It does this by sensing where it is in a building and then laying computer images on top of the real world you’re actually seeing. And unlike Microsoft’s original HoloLens, announced four years ago, this new headset is more comfortable and easier to use.

That makes working with HoloLens that much more immersive when you’re looking at the holograms it’s creating. And those can be anything from a massive movie screen to a model of a new building. Or a set of instructions showing you how to bake a batch of cookies or repair an aircraft engine. And with a pair of cameras, the headset can also be a phone-a-friend, allowing anyone to see through the eyes of whoever’s wearing the headset. Think about that. Your friends can also use an app to circle things they see, which show up as holographic notations when you’re wearing the headset.

“The goal is these things will transform humans,” HoloLens leader Alex Kipman said in an interview at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters. “They’ll empower people and organizations to do things they plainly were not able to do before.”

Microsoft isn’t crazy for thinking big about the potential of these headsets. The tech industry’s brightest minds are already investing billions of dollars to develop mixed reality (or, as some call it, augmented reality). They’re all betting it’ll change the way we use computers in the next few years. The market for AR gear is expected to explode, from under $6 billion last year to almost $200 billion by 2025, according to data compiled by Statista.

“We don’t have to just imagine it, this future is here,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at an event announcing the device Sunday at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. “Together, these advances are shaping the next phase of innovation.”

A high-profile startup called Magic Leap started shipping a $2,295 headsetlast August after working on it for seven years and raising $2.3 billion in investment from backers including AT&T, Google and Warner Bros. Facebook, which sells a $399 fully immersive virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift, is working on a HoloLens competitor as well. Even Apple is secretly building one, which sources told CNET may arrive in 2020.

Microsoft is opening preorders for the HoloLens 2 on Feb. 24 for $3,500. The company plans to ship the device later this year.

HoloLens (the name is inspired by holograms) sounded straight out of sci-fi when it was first demoed. “We’re not talking about putting you into virtual worlds,” Kipman said when he introduced the device in 2015. “We’re dreaming beyond virtual worlds, beyond screens, beyond pixels.”

But HoloLens had its problems. The original headset was hard to put on. It felt heavy at nearly 1.3 pounds, which is a little heavier than an iPad Air. The HoloLens squeezed some people’s heads, too. It didn’t always fit over your glasses. At $5,000, it was expensive. And the software used to run it often needed extra setup and adjustment.

The worst part was that the holograms appeared in an area in front of you that was only about the size of a deck of cards. (In AR parlance, that area’s called the field of view.) Practically, that meant you usually saw only a small portion of a hologram.

“The previous headset’s field of view was its biggest drawback,” said Scott Stein, CNET’s senior editor for reviews, who’s tried on more headsets than I knew existed. “Virtual objects have to be lined up just right, and the drop-off breaks the illusion and adds some fatigue trying to find things again.”

So Microsoft set out to fix those problems. Kipman invited Stein, CNET Español Managing Editor Gabriel Sama and me to the company’s headquarters to see what it’s accomplished with HoloLens 2. And to share the promise of HoloLens 3 and beyond.

Bottom line, according to Kipman: “We have a lot of work left ahead of us.”

Your kids hate your smartphone addiction

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By Ian Sherr

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can’t stay off my phone. And I’m afraid it’s hurting my 2-year-old son.

Sometimes it’s a breaking news story that draws me in, other times it’s boredom. Whatever it is, this device in my hands — which gives me access to nearly all human knowledge plus all the cat videos I could ever want — is constantly calling for my attention.

Setting boundaries with my smartphone hasn’t been easy. I’ll sometimes sneak a quick glance at headlines when I’m in line at the grocery store or when we’re waiting to see our son’s pediatrician. Once I tapped on an alert during a religious service.

My wife, Laura, first realized I would have a problem when she saw my excitement ahead of Apple‘s iPhone launch in 2007. For years, she’s told me I’m being rude when I look at my phone. Now we talk about whether my behavior is affecting our toddler, Theodore.

“I’m worried that in the future, he’s going to feel like we weren’t active parents,” she says. “It’s just very frustrating.”

I’m not alone in my screen addiction. The average US consumer now spends about five hours a day on a mobile device, according to data analytics firm Flurry. That number skews even higher for young adults. Nearly 40 percent of those aged 18 to 29 are online “almost constantly,” the Pew Research Center found, and nine times out of 10 they’re using a mobile device.

Our brains make us do it.

That’s because all those mobile alerts, notifications and online search results give us a sense of reward and surprise whenever we see them cross that little screen. This feeling triggers the brain to produce dopamine, the chemical that causes us to seek out food, sex and drugs — and leads to addictive behavior. Dopamine is at its most stimulating when the rewards come on an unpredictable schedule, just like phone alerts. All of which means there are plenty of new parents spending too much time staring at their phones. Parents like me.

That raises a question: How does our device addiction affect the adorable little sponges we’re rearing? Theodore already picks up random objects, holds them to his ear and says, “Hello!”

I set out to learn the answer.

VR’s missing link? A killer app that convinces us to buy in

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By Ian Sherr

Chika Umeadi could be the poster child for what’s wrong with virtual reality today.

At a glance, he seems like the perfect candidate to buy a VR headset. He’s an app developer and techie. He loves video games. He’s 30, unmarried and says he has the means to splurge when he wants to.

Yet even though the Chicagoan has tried a friend’s VR gear several times, and even slipped on the fabled Magic Leap mixed-reality headset that was released in August, he’s just not convinced enough to buy a device of his own.

“It’s low on my priority list right now,” he says. “I can’t see a reason to buy it.”

What’s missing, industry insiders say, is a killer app, the experience that gets everyone buzzing that they just have to try it and possibly even buy one of their own.

As a result, people are expected to buy only 8.7 million headsets this year, up from 7.1 million last year and 6.7 million the year before, according to data from industry watcher SuperData Research. That includes Oculus VR’s $399 Rift headset, which was released in 2016, two years after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bought the company for more than $2 billion.

It’s not like there aren’t cool VR experiences. One of the most popular right now is Beat Saber, a $20 rhythm game in which you slice through bricks to the beat of a song. It’s become the top-selling VR game on the popular Valve Steam Store, and people who’ve filmed themselves playing have garnered millions of views on YouTube.

But even with those successes, the money that might help fund developers, game studios and others working on those killer apps seems to be drying up.

Venture funding for consumer VR software companies may drop by more than half this year, to $265 million from $576 million a year ago, SuperData says. It’s even a third lower than funding levels in 2015, just after Facebook’s Oculus acquisition.

VCs aren’t the only ones cooling on VR. Industry executives and developers tell me that alternative sources are drying up, too. They say Hollywood marketing teams, which had tapped companies to build VR apps to hype hit movies such as 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and TV shows including Game of Thrones, are paying less and appear to be more cautiously approaching projects.

Even early VR boosters are tapping the brakes. Samsung, which was one of the first to market with its Gear VR mobile headset, didn’t say anything about VR in its major headset announcements this year.

That’s sure to be on the minds of the more than 2,500 developers heading to San Jose for Facebook’s fifth annual Oculus Connect developer conference, starting Wednesday. There, they’ll brainstorm in talks like “the next generation of storytelling,” “video that doesn’t suck” and, tellingly, “building brand + community (on a budget).”

“There has been a cool-down in general in terms of investment,” said Tipatat Chennavasin, a general partner at the Venture Reality Fund. Companies are still getting funded, he notes, and new initiatives like VR arcades, where people can go to a mall or a warehouse and play VR games in a large room, are gaining traction.

The wait for VR’s eventual uptick has already been too long for Nicolás Alcalá, a film producer in LA who founded a well-regarded VR studio Future Lighthouse in 2015. At the beginning of this year, he had to shut down because he couldn’t raise enough money to keep going.

People need a reason to try VR and they don’t have it yet, he said. “The industry is hoping people will embrace this new technology that isn’t yet so useful, but it’s cool.”

Here’s what happened to Microsoft’s Xbox VR gaming headset

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By Ian Sherr

Two months ago, Microsoft said it didn’t have specific plans to create an Xbox VR headset. What it didn’t say is that it had been working on a device, but put existing VR plans on hold until better technology comes along.

Microsoft courted partners over the past couple years to create games for a virtual reality headset designed to work with the Xbox video game console, according to people familiar with the matter. While the physical designs of the device weren’t widely known, the screen quality specifications were considered good — but not as good as those for Facebook’s rival Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive headsets, the people said.

Earlier this year, however, Microsoft started telling partners it was putting its Xbox headset plans on hold. Two people familiar with Microsoft’s thinking said the company decided to wait until promising new tech like wireless headsets were more feasible. Today, high-end headsets like Sony’s $299 PlayStation VR, Facebook’s $399 Oculus Rift and and HTC’s $499 Vive rely on long and bulky wires plugged into their respective devices in order to work. Wireless adapters meanwhile, add about $300 in cost.

The move wasn’t much of a surprise to partners and those briefed on the device, considering Microsoft has largely stuck to a supporting role during VR’s recent renaissance, led by Sony, HTC, Steam game store owner Valve and Facebook’s Oculus VR. And you could argue it’s a smart strategy.

So far, the VR market has struggled to win over a mass market of consumers. Analysts believe Sony has sold the most high-end VR headsets, tallying 3 million PlayStation VRs soldsince that product’s launch in 2016. In May, Facebook released its $199 Oculus Go, a midlevel standalone VR headset. Though Facebook declined to disclose sales data, SuperData Research estimates it sold 289,000 units in the three months ended in June. That may not seem like much when stacked against the 41.3 million iPhones Apple sold during that same time, but the researcher said it’s better than what Facebook’s higher-end Oculus Rift did in the second half of 2017.

All told, VR today is a mixed bag. “Virtual reality may yet become a massive mainstream hit, but it’s not going to happen with this generation of tech,” CNET’s Dan Ackerman wrote in April. “It’s time to throw in the towel.”

This is not your father’s Microsoft

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By Ian Sherr and Connie Guglielmo

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ix days after sharing Microsoft’s blowout earnings with Wall Street in July, Satya Nadella stops to listen to a few of the more than 23,500 employees taking part in a three-day hackathon the company is hosting at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

One team shows him digital tattoos made of gold leaf that’s embedded with sensors. Apply these wearables to your skin and, with a tap, you one day might be able to turn on the house lights or play a tune on your digital piano. Another team tells him about a feature for the company’s Seeing AI app that uses your phones’ camera as an optical character recognition device, speaking menus and other text so the visually impaired can play video games.

As he walks among tables littered with laptops, soldering irons, empty cans of Talking Rain sparkling water (a Microsoft customer) and 3-inch-high silver toy robots that read “Hackathon 2018,” a crowd of employees follows him like groupies at a music festival. “He’s taller than I thought,” one says. “Do you think he’ll let us take a photo?” asks another.

Nadella dreamed up the Microsoft Hackathon, which the company calls the “largest private hackathon in the world,” when he became CEO in February 2014. Just a few of the thousands of projects pitched over the past five years have inspired mainstream products. Most of these let’s-change-the-world ideas aren’t the kind of business tech that Microsoft makes the bulk of its money on — at least not today.

That’s just fine with Nadella, because the meetup serves another purpose: rebranding Microsoft as a modern, relevant company. When he became the third CEO of the world’s largest software company, after Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Nadella made changing Microsoft’s rigid, hierarchical and arrogant culture his top priority. He sort of had to. Though arguably one of the most successful technology companies in history, Microsoft’s had a string of high-profile misses in mobile, search and social networking. Additionally, the company’s toxic culture, characterized by corporate politics, infighting and backstabbing, fed an image of Microsoft as a fading legend.

Rivals Apple, Google and Facebook were seen as innovators creating shiny new opportunities with their disruptive tech. A generation grew up without ever having used a Microsoft product.

“One of the things that happens when you’re super successful is you sort of sometimes lose touch with what made you successful in the first place,” Nadella tells us when we ask what he was trying to solve with the hackathon.

“I wanted to go back to the very genesis of this company: What is that sense of purpose and drive that made us successful? What was the culture that may have been there in the very beginning or in the times when we were able to achieve that success?  How do we really capture it?” says Nadella, who joined Microsoft in 1992. It’s about “the renaissance as much as about just sort of fixing something that’s broken.”

The first order of business was jettisoning the rally-the-troops employee meetings Ballmer held each year at the local sports arena. Instead, Nadella opted for One Week, a global fest that, in addition to the hackathon, includes a science fair and an expo of upcoming products and technologies. His aim: Getting Microsoft’s 131,000 employees around the world to step away from their day jobs, think ambitiously and collaborate on projects the world might need — not just on products Microsoft thinks it can sell.

The event is “the metaphor for the one week that then informs the rest of the year in terms of really getting in touch with the core of this company around innovation — but that innovation being driven by a sense of purpose and reinforcing a culture that we aspire to,” Nadella says.

The culture fix seems to be paying off. Annual revenue crossed $100 billion in the fiscal year ended in June (the highest in its 43-year history), driven by demand for the company’s cloud computing business products. And Microsoft’s stock price has tripled since Nadella took charge. The stellar share price and financial performance speak to his success, say analysts, in changing investors’ perceptions of Microsoft as dated and in decline.

“Satya is owning the market he already had, and he’s doing a bang-up job of gaining share in a market we weren’t sure he was going to be successful at,” says Maribel Lopez, head of Lopez Research and a longtime Microsoft watcher.

Now the question that Nadella and Microsoft, founded by Gates and Paul Allen in 1975, need to answer is what this software behemoth will become next.

So we’ve been invited to get an inside look at One Week and learn from employees and executives how Microsoft has changed and why they believe Nadella’s path will lead to continued success.

Asta Roseway, a principle research designer who’s worked at Microsoft for two decades, is pretty candid in her description of life before and after Nadella took over. She said collaborative projects like her gold-leaf tattoos wouldn’t even have been discussed a few years ago. “This feels like, collectively, we’re building toward more creativity,” she says. “It’s why we’re here.”

The answer to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube’s problems with Infowars? Transparency

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It’s time to pull back the curtains. Big time.

Over the past two years, the tech industry has found itself in the middle of so many world-changing events, it’s hard to keep track. We’ve seen privacy leaks like the one centered on Cambridge Analytica, Russian interference in our elections, endless harassment, hate speech, the rise of white supremacists and threats of all-out nuclear war, to name just a few.

And yet, we know shockingly little about the decisions that Facebook, Twitterand YouTube make, impacting billions of people every day.

Consider just the past week. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his publication Infowars were largely booted off Apple’s iTunes and Podcasts services, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Stitcher, MailChimp and Vimeo, all within a few days.

In each of these cases, the companies cited their community rules or terms of service, which prohibit hate speech and harassment. When I asked which specific posts violated the rules and what rules in particular Jones had run afoul of, Facebook, YouTube, Stitcher, Apple and others either declined to provide details or didn’t respond to my request.

All they would say is that Jones and Infowars violated their rules, and that was it.

Many people cheered tech’s moves. After all, Jones in particular has accused the families of the 20 first-graders killed in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 of faking their children’s deaths. At least nine families of Sandy Hook victims have now sued Jones and Infowars for defamation. How could that type of speech — demonstrably false claims that led to harassment of grieving families — be OK?

Add in that more than half of US adults support tech companies taking steps to restrict false information, “even if it limits the public’s freedom to access and publish information,” as a Pew Research Center survey found in April. You’d think this is a no-brainer.

Yet, when the big tech companies cut off Infowars account, some people cried foul. This time, because the companies didn’t explain the specific reason why. What had changed that week? They refused to say.

That’s why I think it’s time for Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Susan Wojcicki, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to share with us, publicly and openly, the details every time something’s taken down from their sites and why.

When Facebook pulls down a terrorist ad, put information about it in a publicly accessible database so we all know it happened, and what rule it violated.

When Twitter bans an account, like when it shut out the conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after he inspired a hate mob against the comedian Leslie Jones, put the case file up for all to see.

When YouTube pulls down a video, leave up an image for when people click on the link that not only says the video violated YouTube’s policies, but also what part of the video had run afoul of which policy.

I know, a journalist advocating transparency is hardly shocking.

But the truth is that these companies’ habits of keeping enforcement teams’ work confidential doesn’t just leave users in the dark and journalists frustrated. We’ve now learned it also sends conspiracy theorists into a frenzy, prompting even more destruction in our public discourse.

Being more transparent about what is and isn’t OK on these platforms won’t solve all these problems. It may even create even more headaches because now the companies will have to publicly back up their decisions. But it’ll go a long way toward helping us understand what these companies are doing and quelling people who call them out for being biased in their decision-making.

To give some credit, Facebook’s Zuckerberg is talking to the media slightly more, though his most recent podcast interview with Recode’s Kara Swisherset off a firestorm when he defended Holocaust deniers.

Twitter, meanwhile, invited two New York Times reporters into its headquarters last Friday to visit one of the company’s policy meetings and chat with Dorsey, though the takeaway seems to be that Twitter continues to wrestle with hard questions and doesn’t have easy answers. It’s since shared a little more with reporters, such as about Jones’ Periscope video that led to his suspension, but that’s one instance so far, and an extreme case. (In the video, Jones encouraged viewers to “have their battle rifles” ready amid statements like “mainstream media is the enemy” and “now it’s time to act on the enemy.”)

It’s time for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others to publicly and openly publish information on each enforcement action. Make it available in a database. Make it easily searchable. Let us see what’s going on.

Microsoft’s new Xbox Adaptive Controller puts disabled players back in the game

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By Ian Sherr

Mike Luckett is a lifelong gamer.

He started at the age of 5 nearly three decades ago, joining his older brother who was playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Within a few years, he was playing games like Id Software’s 1992 Nazi prison break shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, and the followup sci-fi hit Doom.

Over the years, Luckett collected lots of consoles, including 1988’s Sega Genesis, 1994’s Sony PlayStation, 2005’s Xbox 360 and 2017’s Xbox One X. One of his favorite games was Vectorman, a shoot-’em-up adventure in which you’re a robot in the future protecting Earth from an uprising of evil robots.

But that all changed after the accident.

Luckett had been deployed overseas and working ordnance logistics for the Army in Iraq from 2010 through March 2011, when he came home. A few months later, in August, he was driving a motorcycle when things went wrong. The accident severed his C6 spinal cord, leaving him unable to use his legs. While he can move his hands, he lost control of his fingers.

And he could no longer use a computer. “I couldn’t even function, using the keys or using a trackpad or any of that,” Luckett said.

But he got really frustrated when he realized that while he was eager to try Activision Blizzard’s 2016 team-based shooter Overwatch, it required him to use a controller he couldn’t physically get his hands around. Luckett said that’s when he nearly decided to quit gaming.

He wasn’t the first gamer facing physical challenges. Since nearly the beginning of the industry, video games have been built with a few basic assumptions about the players: They can hear, they can see and they have two fully functioning hands. The first video game controllers, from the likes of Atari and Nintendo, were designed with joysticks and buttons.

To help them play on their own terms, some people in the disabilities community hacked together solutionsby breaking apart the controllers and attaching buttons, switches and other gizmos — changes that allowed them to send signals to the game using their feet or elbows, by bopping their head against a button or even by blowing into a tube. But building specialized controllers is onerous, expensive and time-consuming. Worse, the setup process doesn’t always work.

Fortnite is changing the video game landscape, but it’s also kinda not

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Fortnite: Battle Royale, the video game that’s taken the world by storm.

Here’s how it works: You and 99 other players are dropped out of a flying bus (not a typo) onto an island. You land with nothing but your wits and a pickax. As the game starts, there’s usually space between you and the next person, which gives you time to scrounge up supplies and weapons — and use your pickax to take apart walls, furniture and anything else you can find nearby. As the game goes on, the landscape effectively shrinks, forcing players closer together and into combat. It’s them or you — so everyone starts to pick each other off, Hunger Games-style, until there’s a winner.

Fortnite wasn’t the first to use this addictive formula called “battle royale” inside the video game industry, but its quirky take helped turn the game into one of the biggest hits in years. On Tuesday, Fortnite maker Epic Games said during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles that 125 million people have played Fortnite since it was released for PCs, Macs, the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One and mobile devices beginning nearly a year ago.

And though the game is a free download, in the month of April alone Epic rang up nearly $300 million in sales of add-ons such as color schemes for weapons or new outfits for characters, according to industry watcher SuperData Research. Fortnite also sells dance moves for characters, called “emotes,” that have become so popular that real-life sports stars including Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield have taken to re-enacting them in real life (and Fortnite, has taken inspiration from stars like the MMA champ Conor McGregor.)

So it’s probably no surprise that Activision last month said its rival war simulation game, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, will also have a battle royale mode when it comes out later this year. And on Saturday, Electronic Arts said it will offer a battle royale mode for its upcoming WW II-themed Battlefield 5 game, after fans asked it to take on the genre.

“The raw gameplay is what draws people into it, which is brilliant,” said Patrick Söderlund, EA’s head of design. “That’s how a game should be.”

Battle royale is popular for a reason. It’s the latest example of how many of the games we play are changing dramatically to focus on people playing together rather than one person playing alone. Thanks to the internet and powerful services such as Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus, game makers are tapping into our primal urges to compete against one another, giving us all manner of new ways to play.

The Hunger Games approach caught on thanks to the drama that comes with it. The shrinking circle of play, the defined winner and how everyone’s pitted against one another makes the game not just fun to play, but entertaining to watch too. Which is part of the reason why Fortnite is the top game on the streaming service Twitch.TV. (PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds, its next largest competitor, is currently ranked seventh-most streamed.)

Epic is looking to take advantage of that popularity with a big push into esports, announcing Wednesday the first Fortnite World Cup will be held in 2019 with qualifiers taking place later this year. The company said it will drop $100,000,000 to fund prize pools for Fortnite competitions.

Frank Azor, head of Dell’s Alienware gaming PC division, said his 6- and 8-year-old kids began playing Fortnite after talking about it with friends at school and watching videos of people mimicking the celebratory dances online. Before Fortnite, they’d played the world-building game Roblox and Blizzard’s cartoonish superhero shooter Overwatch. But now, it’s all about Fortnite.

And he doesn’t think they’re alone. Sales of Alienware’s powerful PCs have jumped double digits this year, he says, something he attributes in part to Fortnite.

“It’s crossing into the mainstream,” Azor said of the game.