Basketball Court

NBA And Microsoft Team Up To Bring Fans Courtside Virtually

As professional competitive sports in America slowly make their way back to our television screens, many are unsettled by the sight of their favorite teams playing in front of empty crowds. Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, all mass gatherings have been put to a halt, prompting all sports to essentially shut down. Now, sports are able to exist again, just in a much more condolences fashion. 

The NBA has heard their fans and as they gear up to restart the 2020 season on July 30th, they came to the agreement with tech-giant Microsoft that fans needed to be present at every game, just in a much safer and distanced way. Microsoft and the NBA announced this week that it would be using new technology to project more that 300 basketball fans onto 17-foot tall video screens that will be courtside during all games. 

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The fans will be able to interact with each other as well, allowing them to feel like they’re really sitting next to a bunch of other fans during the live games. Sara Zuckert is the NBA’s head of next generation telecasting, and recently spoke with the media about this new fan experience. 

“Our goal is to create an enjoyable and immersive experience where fans can engage with each other and maintain a sense of community as we restart the season under these unique and challenging circumstances.”

The specific feature from the Microsoft team is known as “together mode” and it was initially released in the beginning of July as a feature for remote workers to make meetings more engaging, allowing everyone to “focus on other people’s faces and body language, making it easier to pick up on non-verbal cues that are so important to human interaction.” 

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Microsoft claims that Together Mode uses AI technology to put all video chat participants in the same setting by giving everyone a shared background. The company claims this makes it easier for everyone to feel as though they’re in the same space as one another. In this case, that space will be a basketball arena, and the NBA claims that the chosen fans will be able to impact visual effects within the arenas themselves through “virtual cheering” and different graphics and animations to motivate the players. 

As we know, the NBA is using the “bubble strategy” to resume their season and protect all players and NBA staff members from potential Covid-19 infection. 22 teams are projected to play a total of 88 games, after which 16 will move on to the playoffs. Once eight teams remain, friends and families will be able to join and watch in person on the sidelines. 

Major League Baseball is looking into similar technologies to bring the same level of fan-energy to their arenas as they continue with their recently restarted 2020 season. As of right now the MLB is offering their fans the ability to buy cardboard cutouts of themselves to place in the stands for a more visually appealing game. 

Initial pictures of the new NBA fan format has a lot of individuals online criticizing the “dystopian” aspect of having what looks like a giant zoom meeting going on during basketball games, however, during uncertain times finding new ways to enjoy normal past times is what we all have to adjust to.


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Microsoft Logo at store

Microsoft Plans to Become Carbon-Negative by 2030

Many major companies have publicly announced their commitments to reduce their contributions to climate change, particularly after the occurrence of a number of extreme weather events that are thought to have been made worse by the impact of human activity. Amazon, for instance, recently announced its intention to become carbon neutral by 2040 by contributing to reforestation programs and switching to electric vehicles. Though Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said that he wants Amazon to lead the world in transitioning to carbon-neutral forms of energy, Microsoft has unveiled a plan even more ambitious than Amazon’s, as not only did Microsoft recently pledge to become carbon negative by 2030, but the company also announced a plan to remove all of its historical carbon emissions by 2050.

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Microsoft’s plan depends on the widespread deployment of carbon-capture technology which is currently expensive and not widely available. As such, a substantial component of the plan is to invest in developing this technology, as the company wants to spend $1 billion to fund innovation in this technology. The company has already been carbon neutral for the past eight years, as Microsoft is switching to renewable energy and purchases carbon offsets to negate the greenhouse gases they emit. The policy of being carbon-neutral is supported by a kind of internal carbon tax, as Microsoft charges its business units an internal fee for using greenhouse gases, driving these units to slash their emissions. Now, however, given the immediacy of the threat climate change poses, Microsoft has decided that their efforts thus far are not enough, and has pledged to radically transform their use of energy across their entire supply change.

Microsoft hopes that by investing a billion dollars into carbon capture technology, the company can drive innovation in the field, eventually bringing down the cost of the technology so that it is more practical for other businesses to use. With this technology, Microsoft hopes not only to make up for their own carbon emissions since the company’s founding in 1975, but to make it easier for other businesses to do the same. That being said, carbon capture technology is not without its critics, as some believe that the proliferation of this technology would delay the transition towards renewable energy sources and encourage companies to continue to emit carbon.

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A number of problems exist when it comes to using carbon capture technology, not the least of which is the question of how to safely and permanently store the carbon after it is captured. Despite the company’s commitment to becoming carbon-negative, Microsoft continues to do business with oil and gas companies, which belong to an industry that has significant interest in carbon capture technology. The decision to work with these companies has been met with criticism from within Microsoft, as employees wrote a letter criticizing their employer for working with Chevron and Schlumberger, two oil companies. Microsoft sees their use of carbon capture technology as an appropriate method of negating the carbon emissions created by these companies; however, the company is sure to be met with criticism from environmentalists for this approach, despite the audacity of their recent announcement and plan.

Amazon App

Amazon Threatened to Fire Employees who Spoke Out on Climate Change, Complaint Alleges

The activist group Amazon Employees For Climate Justice has alleged that the company has threatened to fire employees who are outspoken about climate change. According to a statement released by the group on Thursday, Amazon’s human resources and legal departments targeted four employees who spoke out about the issue. Two of these employees were threatened with firings via email, according to the group. In response, the group sharply criticized Amazon’s behavior, accusing the company of attempting to suppress activism related to environmental policy. Maren Costa, an Amazon employee, said that her employment was threatened after she spoke with The Washington Post about climate change, and in a statement remarked that “this is not the time to shoot the messengers … this is not the time to silence those who are speaking out.” Members of the activist group have pressured their employer to take a more meaningful stance against climate change, including urging the company’s leaders to cease working with the oil and gas industry. Though Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2020 by investing in reforestation efforts and electric delivery vehicles, the group nonetheless believes their employer is taking insufficient action on climate.

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In response to the complaint, Jaci Anderson, an Amazon spokesperson, said that the company’s policy of prohibiting communications with external organizations is nothing new, and that employees should work within their teams and internally with the company to raise their concerns and suggest improvements. Employee activism within the tech sector has been on the rise in recent years, as several Google employees protested against the search giant’s cooperation with the Pentagon, and Microsoft employees complained that their company was cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even after news broke of migrants being detained in poor conditions. Last year, Amazon Employees For Climate Justice introduced a shareholder resolution, in a letter signed by thousands of employees, asking the company to release information about how it plans to mitigate its contribution to climate change. This suggestion was rejected by shareholders in May, but a few months later Bezos announced a climate plan that met many, but not all, of the protestors’ demands. Additionally, the company lessened restrictions on allowing employees to speak with the media after a planned employee strike in September, though employees now have to ask the company for permission before discussing Amazon in any public forum.

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Though it does not fully satisfy every employee, Amazon’s planned changes to its operations to reduce and eventually eliminate carbon emissions are substantial, as the company intends to lead the world in the fight against climate change. The plan, called The Climate Pledge, aims to achieve the goals established at the 2016 Paris Climate Summit ten years early by encouraging other companies to match Amazon’s environmental efforts. Those who signed the pledge agree to regularly release reports on their own greenhouse gas emissions, implement “decarbonization strategies” to reduce carbon emissions, and invest in technologies to neutralize any remaining carbon emissions. The goal of the pledge is to create a carbon-neutral economy by 2040, which is an ambitious goal, but one that scientists agree is essential for avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. Bezos hopes that by leading the pack when it comes to climate change, he will encourage other companies to follow suit. In order to reach this goal, Bezos announced the company would spend $100 million on reforestation and order 100,000 electric vans to replace Amazon’s existing network of diesel vehicles. The company also intends to move to 100% renewable energy by 2030; currently, 40% of the energy Amazon uses comes from renewable sources. 


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Corporate Culture

Companies with the Best Corporate Culture, According to Forbes

There are plenty of factors to consider when determining what makes for a good corporate culture, and it’s not as simple as it may seem to create an environment where workers are productive, satisfied, and motivated. As the Business Roundtable recently said that stakeholders, including employees and customers, should take precedence over shareholders, many business leaders are searching for ways to improve their companies’ cultures.

Fortunately, companies like Glassdoor have conducted research to determine the elements of a good corporate culture. In their study, Glassdoor found that there are three factors that strongly influence the quality of a company’s culture: the presence of a workplace where employees feel like they have a clear mission and social purpose; high-quality leaders who inspire and empathize with their employees; and clear opportunities for career advancement. In accordance with this research, Forbes conducted their yearly survey of the companies with the best corporate culture in 2019, giving its readers an insight into the most fulfilling companies to work for as well as providing leaders with references for improving the culture of their own businesses.

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In order to determine the top companies for corporate culture, Forbes looked at, a website where employees are invited to anonymously comment on various aspects of their workplace. Forbes included quotes from employees at the top 5 large companies, Microsoft, Zoom, ADP, Google, and Hubspot. Microsoft is well-known for having adopted a culture that encourages employees to pursue their passions and collaborate to solve problems, resulting in a high level of employee satisfaction. Google is also well-known for having a unique and fun employee culture; the employee quoted in the Forbes article cites their relationships with their coworkers as well as the number of opportunities available as a reason why the company makes the top 5 list yet again. Employees of Zoom, ADP, and Hubspot cite a good work-life balance, happy coworkers, and a belief in the company mission as reasons why they value their work environments.

Young workers in particular are more likely to be dissatisfied if they feel that their work does not contribute positively to society in some way

Forbes also took a look at the top 5 mid-small companies, whose employees had similar things to say about their jobs. An employee of Weave HQ said how much they love how the company makes employees feel comfortable and welcome, whereas a worker at HighSpot pointed to the employees’ excitement about their product. Employees at Greenhouse Software Inc. and Salesloft both highlight the spirit of collaboration in their workplaces, where employees are happy to work together to solve problems, hold each other accountable, and admit their mistakes.

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The author of the Forbes piece, Rachel Montanez, spoke with the CEO of Comparably, Jason Nazar, about the findings. Nazar pointed out that 2019 was one of the most competitive years he had seen, and this year’s list represents a more diverse set of companies than just the tech sector, which ranked prominently on prior years’ lists. He also stressed the importance of providing employees and job hunters with real opportunities for career growth, as doing so not only improves job satisfaction but prepares the leaders of the future to take on ever-more challenging and necessary roles.

Nazar argues that investing in company culture is a profitable move for companies in the long run, as it results in companies recruiting and keeping the best talent in their industries. A positive work culture, he says, includes good compensation and strong leadership, which motivates workers to do the best job they can. Young workers in particular are more likely to be dissatisfied if they feel that their work does not contribute positively to society in some way, increasing the risk of burn-out or leaving the job; as such, ensuring employees understand the value of their work pays off in the long run.

Microsoft Logo at store

Microsoft Surface Pro X: Review Roundup

Microsoft is certainly interested in presenting itself as a hardware-focused company, as evidenced by its strong keynote address this year which details the company’s plans for mass-market computer products for next year and beyond. While many of the most exciting products discussed at this event aren’t due to be launched until the 2020 holiday season, the release dates for refreshes of the company’s existing hardware have just recently passed. In advance of Microsoft’s release of the Surface Pro X, reviews of the cutting-edge device have hit the Internet, and critics have mixed feelings.

The Surface Pro X uses a processor based on the ARM architecture, rather than the x86 architecture more common for the Windows operating system. As such, the Surface Pro X runs a version of Windows specifically built for compatibility with this processor, meaning many third-party programs familiar to Windows users won’t function on the device as well as you might expect. In order to run x86 apps, the Surface Pro X uses an emulation layer which is compatible with 32-bit x86 apps, but not 64-bit ones. Apps running through this emulation layer are significantly slower than native ARM-optimized apps, and can run into various unexpected problems. Photoshop, for instance, is a 32-bit x86-optimized app, and while it does function on the Surface Pro X, it is so slow as to be nearly unusable. Other apps, like Lightroom, won’t run at all, as they are built for 64-bit x86 processors.

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Although the ARM architecture is ideal for mobile environments, as it is more power-efficient than its x86 counterpart and has better support for LTE, the majority of Windows developers have not made their programs available on this platform. Microsoft-made apps like Edge run fine, though, and some third-party apps like Google Chrome are compatible. Perhaps this is the reason why Microsoft is positioning the Surface Pro X as a tablet which runs Windows and features an optional keyboard cover rather than as a device to replace one’s laptop or desktop PC. The app compatibility issues led The Verge’s Dieter Bohn to call the device “a computer built for a world that doesn’t exist.” 

Overall, the Surface Pro X is a tough sell when compared to products like the iPad, which has a mature app ecosystem, superior battery life, and many of the same features.

Though reviewers complained about the device’s unfortunately limited functionality, they praised the look and feel of the Surface Pro X. This iteration of the Surface tablet features a thinner design and smaller bezels than previous ones, but maintains its signature kickstand, which is emblazoned with the Windows logo. The display was also well-received, with reviewers like Jacob Krol of CNN calling it “sharp and vibrant.” The 13-inch screen, featuring a 3:2 aspect ratio and a 2880×1920 resolution, is ideal for watching movies and editing photos, among other graphics-intensive applications. (Very few modern video games, however, will work on the device.) Depending on how you use the Surface Pro X, the battery life can last between 5 and 13 hours, which CNet’s Dan Ackerman characterized as “respectable but not record-breaking.” The device does support fast-charging, however, and can be charged via one of its two USB-C ports. Dieter Bohn, despite his criticisms of the device’s software functionality, called the Surface Pro X “the best-looking computer [he’s] used in the past year.”

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Reviewers also judged the Surface Pro X’s optional $269 Signature Keyboard with Slim Pen. Though it is expensive, they praised the improved design of the accessory relative to the models of years past, and considered it essential for getting any advanced computing work done with the device. The keyboard was considered robust and comfortable, but the small size of the trackpad was criticized. Though initially met with skepticism, the Slim Pen device was also well-received, and reviewers quickly adjusted to the stylus’ flat shape, though some complained it became uncomfortable after a while.

Overall, the Surface Pro X is a tough sell when compared to products like the iPad, which has a mature app ecosystem, superior battery life, and many of the same features. Though Microsoft is taking an important step by pushing Windows compatibility with ARM architecture to compete with companies like Apple and Samsung in the tablet market, this iteration simply doesn’t have the developer support, speed, and battery life necessary to justify its price tag.


Microsoft Hopes to Revolutionize Computing with Surface Neo and Duo

Though its Windows line of products has represented by far the most popular choice of operating system for decades, Microsoft is relatively new to the hardware space, as the cornerstone of its business has long been its software offerings. Barring their Xbox series of video game consoles, the company has only been manufacturing mobile computing devices for a few years, starting with its innovative Surface 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid in 2012. With the original Surface tablet, Microsoft intended to directly compete with Apple’s iPad line, but also aimed to innovate on the form factor by offering a keyboard accessory and a kick stand as well as compatibility with the Surface Pen, for precise touch input. While the Surface line of products has been a moderate financial success for Microsoft, the products have received acclaim from critics and consumers alike, and the Surface products have a very high favorability rating among customers.

Building on the success of its Surface tablets, and iterating on the philosophy of enabling different types of functionality that inspired the design of these tablets, Microsoft recently announced an entirely new suite of Surface products, many of which will not launch until Holiday 2020. The most notable of Microsoft’s announcements are the Surface Neo and the Surface Duo, which are a folding tablet and a folding smartphone, respectively. These two products have  a form factor which is fundamentally unlike any product that has since been announced, marking a bold new direction for the company. The two products, the latter of which resembles a smaller version of the former, feature two displays placed almost directly next to one another, separated by a hinge that allows the device to fold 360 degrees.

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When closed, the devices resemble notebooks or journals, but constructed with a sleek and sturdy-looking metallic finish. When opened, the devices can be used in the form factor of a traditional laptop, with the lower screen acting as a software keyboard, or held sideways like a book. They can be opened further at 180 degrees to allow the two screens to work as one for a widescreen viewing experience. If the devices are opened further, they can sit on a table, with one screen allowing for a viewing experience from a distance. Finally, if the devices are folded all the way, they can be held in the hand like a traditional tablet or smartphone, with displays present on both sides.

Microsoft intends for these devices to enable a level of creativity and productivity not possible on other devices by allowing them to assume what they call different “postures.” As the devices can be unfolded and positioned in a variety of ways, each of these postures also enables different software opportunities, as the operating systems of the devices are able to detect how they are being held and offer options to the user accordingly. For instance, the Surface Neo can be used with a magnetically-attached keyboard peripheral, which can be placed on top of half of the lower screen, allowing the remainder of the display to be used as a trackpad. Additionally, both devices are compatible with styluses, allowing for precision input for a variety of applications, but perhaps most notably for digital artists.

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During the keynote in which these devices were announced, representatives from Microsoft envision the current decade as being one in which devices are used for consuming content, and see the following decade as being one characterized by using technology to create things, hoping to lead the industry in that direction. By announcing these devices so far ahead of their release dates, Microsoft intends not only to give developers time to work on software applications that take advantage of their unique form factor, but also to give consumers an opportunity to invest in the Microsoft digital ecosystem in advance of the release of these groundbreaking products. 

Perhaps the most surprising feature of Microsoft’s announcement is the fact that the Surface Duo runs the Android operating system, leveraging software from Google, a direct competitor to the software giant. After the failure of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system, which failed to gain traction in large part because of the absence of support from third-party developers, Microsoft has seemingly given up on creating mobile operating systems. However, the company’s decision to go with Android, currently the most popular mobile operating system around the world, is a clear advantage to consumers, who will have access to a wide range of already-existing apps. The extent to which third-party developers take advantage of the unique form factor of the Neo and Duo, however, remains to be seen, and this factor likely will predict the long-term success of the products overall.

Flight Simulator

Microsoft Leverages Cutting-Edge Technology in Flight Simulator

Believe it or not, Microsoft’s longest-running franchise is its Flight Simulator series of titles which debuted in 1982 on IBM PCs. The latest release in the series, 2006’s Flight Simulator X, was widely believed to be the end of the franchise as Microsoft had not made any announcements on the subject for over a decade. That changed this year, however, as the software company announced they were working on a reboot of the franchise, simply titled Flight Simulator, which is due to release in 2020 on Windows and Xbox platforms. Though the program is still in the alpha stage of development, Microsoft showed off their progress at a press event in September, impressing journalists with the depth and complexity of various aspects of the simulation.

Perhaps the most immediate and visually striking aspect of the simulation’s design is the environment. In crafting a believable and lifelike world for users to explore, Microsoft leveraged its extensive collection of satellite and aerial imagery, creating 3D facsimiles of real-world locations using software. Whereas the environments in previous Flight Simulator titles were created by artists who placed individual objects in the virtual world, next year’s title uses machine learning to extract details about the real-world environment to represent in the simulation. For instance, the program identifies forests and other wooded areas and populates them with procedurally-generated trees and other fauna. The result is an environment so detailed and true-to-life that members of the press were even able to identify their apartment buildings while flying overhead in a small plane.

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In addition to the terrain, the simulation also attempts to replicate real-world weather conditions, constructed from data collected by weather stations around the world. The system analyzes radar imagery and other measurements in order to reconstruct cloud patterns, rain, snow, and other weather events, allowing users to fly through storms and hurricanes in real-time. As volumetric clouds are rendered dynamically, either in accordance with conditions in real life or at the user’s behest, the scattering of light through the sky is also simulated, leading to realistic shadows, sunrises, sunsets, and even rainbows where they would appear in real life.

By leveraging an approach where the environment is procedurally-generated, the developers at Microsoft are able to graphically represent the entire world, a feat that would be next to impossible if the environment were crafted by hand. There exist 44,000 airports in the real world, and Microsoft is intending to replicate all of them in their simulation. That also means that the game’s file size, relative to other games, is absolutely massive – as such, content is dynamically streamed into the simulator from the Internet. An offline mode is also available, but this mode reduces the detail of the environments considerably, causing them to look more like the simple, flat satellite imagery used in 2006’s Flight Simulator X.

Aircraft reacts realistically to changes in weather and other variables, and photogrammetry technology was used to replicate the interior of planes’ cockpits.

While the program’s simulation of the entire Earth is impressive and perhaps unprecedented, perhaps the more important aspect of the simulation is found within its collection of aircraft. Microsoft is focused on creating as realistic an experience as they can, with an additional focus on accessibility, as the team is working to ensure that a wide range of peripherals, from flight sticks to the standard Xbox gamepad, are supported. Aircraft reacts realistically to changes in weather and other variables, and photogrammetry technology was used to replicate the interior of planes’ cockpits. To demonstrate the accuracy of the simulation, Microsoft even invited a journalist to pilot a real plane after learning how to do so using the simulator.

Microsoft has very ambitious plans for this iteration of Flight Simulator. The company intends to support the product with continued development for an impressive ten years after its release, though it admits it doesn’t know yet exactly what this support will entail. Instead, Microsoft is going to release the closed alpha to a select number of users to observe how they interact with the virtual environment, and focus continued development efforts on the areas that generate the most engagement. There is certainly a lot of potential for simulation opportunities with a foundation as strong as the one Microsoft is building, and the company is going to be looking to the community for direction moving forward.