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Epic Games raises $1B for long-term metaverse plans, with $200M from Sony

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Tim Sweeney (right), CEO of Epic Games, talks with Dean Takahashi at GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse

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Epic Games said today it has raised $1 billion in a new round of funding in its bid to build the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.

The company said the money will enable it to support future growth opportunities, and it places Epic’s equity valuation at $28.7 billion.

This round includes an additional $200 million strategic investment from Sony. This builds on the already close relationship between the two companies and reinforces their goals to advance the state of the art in technology, entertainment, and socially- connected online services. One of the keys to the metaverse will be making realistic animated digital humans, and two of Epic’s leaders — Paul Doyle and Vladimir Mastilović — will speak on that topic at our upcoming GamesBeat Summit 2021 conference on April 28 and April 29.

Other investment partners include Appaloosa, Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, GIC, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Park West, KKR, AllianceBernstein, Altimeter, Franklin Templeton, and Luxor Capital.

Above: Tim Sweeney (right), CEO of Epic Games, talks with Dean Takahashi at GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse

Image Credit: VentureBeat

Epic continues to have only a single class of common stock outstanding and CEO Tim Sweeney remains the controlling shareholder of the company.

“We are grateful to our new and existing investors who support our vision for Epic and the Metaverse,” said Sweeney in a statement. “Their investment will help accelerate our work around building connected social experiences in Fortnite, Rocket League, and Fall Guys, while empowering game developers and creators with Unreal Engine, Epic Online Services, and the Epic Games Store.”

Sony CEO Kenichiro Yoshida said in a statement that Epic continues to deliver revolutionary experiences through their array of cutting edge technologies that support creators in gaming and across the digital entertainment industry. He said Sony is excited to collaborate and bring new entertainment experiences to the world.

Sweeney’s view of the metaverse

Epic Games is launching the Unreal Engine in 2021.

Above: Epic Games is launching the Unreal Engine 5 in 2021.

Image Credit: Epic Games

Sweeney has been one of the biggest advocates for the metaverse in recent years. At our GamesBeat Summit event in January, he said that the metaverse should be built with open standards so that walled gardens do not dominate the community.

I asked Sweeney what the killer attraction of the metaverse would be. He said the killer feature is simply getting together with your friends to have great social experiences, like going outdoors for a walk. That’s more fun than just sitting on a couch and talking.

“In a game environment, you can constantly go back and forth between the real world stuff and what’s happening in-game and it’s constantly engaging and constantly messing up the conversation,” he said. “I think that’s a key ingredient. And I think this mechanic is essential. It’s been mechanically proven out in dozens of different genres of games. Every genre that we know is going to be represented.”

I noted that Fortnite has added concerts and brands, and so I wonder if Epic’s blockbuster battle royale will evolve into its own metaverse.

Sweeney said, “I think I think there will be a linear evolution. It’s not going to be a massive sudden disruption. It’s going to be a meeting place for individuals and creators of all sizes, including brands. Every company will be there at some point. If you are a car manufacturer, your brand presence in the metaverse isn’t going to be a bunch of advertising for your cars. It’s going to be a place where you can actually drive the cars around and feel the experience of it. You can use a Corvette in the game. We have an opportunity for much, much more interesting  interactions.”

Sweeney said he started thinking about the metaverse more seriously in 2017, after Fortnite succeeded. He said it became apparent that all of the science fiction writers were talking about the same thing, even though it had some crazy ideas attached to it.

“We realized that you don’t need this crazy technology to do this,” he said. “We have everything we need right now. And the limiting factor on becoming reality is not much more than that. Developers learning what elements really make for awesome online social experiences, continuity of experience, and science fiction.”

Epic Games shows off intricate details amid shadowy lighting.

Above: Epic Games shows off intricate details amid shadowy lighting.

Image Credit: Epic Games

Some fiction (like Star Trek‘s holodeck) focused on making the metaverse photorealistic with outstanding graphics. Epic Games has been pushed its Unreal tool in that direction. But he added, “There are different threads because if you look at the leading contenders right now, none of them are photorealistic.”

Fortnite has been bringing brands into its universe in an art style that matches the game world, which is more cartoon-like. In the future, those brand assets could be automatically stylized to match the world that they’re going to be used in.

If the metaverse is open, each company will still want to own some things.

“The principle here is every creator owns their original creations and has the right to make the profit from them,” Sweeney said. “And it’s great to choose service providers they choose to work with, without being forced to accept a massive bundle of services in order to reach the customer base. We want each component of the system to stand on its own merits and not use dominance or significant market power in any space to force adoption.”

Epic owns Fortnite and the Unreal Engine, which anyone can licensed. You can use that engine to create anything you want, and Epic has zero say in what you can build.

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Speech recognition system trains on radio archive to learn Niger Congo languages

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For many of the 700 million illiterate people around the world, speech recognition technology could provide a bridge to valuable information. Yet in many countries, these people tend to speak only languages for which the datasets necessary to train a speech recognition model are scarce. This data deficit persists for several reasons, chief among them the fact that creating products for languages spoken by smaller populations can be less profitable.

Nonprofit efforts are underway to close the gap, including 1000 Words in 1000 Languages, Mozilla’s Common Voice, and the Masakhane project, which seeks to translate African languages using neural machine translation. But this week, researchers at Guinea-based tech accelerator GNCode and Stanford detailed a new initiative that uniquely advocates using radio archives in developing speech systems for “low-resource” languages, particularly Maninka, Pular, and Susu in the Niger Congo family.

“People who speak Niger Congo languages have among the lowest literacy rates in the world, and illiteracy rates are especially pronounced for women,” the coauthors note. “Maninka, Pular, and Susu are spoken by a combined 10 million people, primarily in seven African countries, including six where the majority of the adult population is illiterate.”

The idea behind the new initiative is to make use of unsupervised speech representation learning, demonstrating that representations learned from radio programs can be leveraged for speech recognition. Where labeled datasets don’t exist, unsupervised learning can help to fill in domain knowledge by determining the correlations between data points and then training based on the newly applied data labels.

New datasets

The researchers created two datasets, West African Speech Recognition Corpus and the West African Radio Corpus, intended for applications targeting West African languages. The West African Speech Recognition Corpus contains over 10,000 hours of recorded speech in French, Maninka, Susu, and Pular from roughly 49 speakers, including Guinean first names and voice commands like “update that,” “delete that,” “yes,” and “no.” As for the West African Radio Corpus, it consists of 17,000 audio clips sampled from archives collected from six Guinean radio stations. The broadcasts in the West African Radio Corpus span news and shows in languages including French, Guerze, Koniaka, Kissi, Kono, Maninka, Mano, Pular, Susu, and Toma.

To create a speech recognition system, the researchers tapped Facebook’s wav2vec, an open source framework for unsupervised speech processing. Wav2vec uses an encoder module that takes raw audio and outputs speech representations, which are fed into a Transformer that ensures the representations capture whole-audio-sequence information. Created by Google researchers in 2017, the Transformer network architecture was initially intended as a way to improve machine translation. To this end, it uses attention functions instead of a recurrent neural network to predict what comes next in a sequence.

Above: The accuracies of WAwav2vec.

Despite the fact that the radio dataset includes phone calls as well as background and foreground music, static, and interference, the researchers managed to train a wav2vec model with the West African Radio Corpus, which they call WAwav2vec. In one experiment with speech across French, Maninka, Pular, and Susu, the coauthors say that they achieved multilingual speech recognition accuracy (88.01%) on par with Facebook’s baseline wav2vec model (88.79%) — despite the fact that the baseline model was trained on 960 hours of speech versus WAwav2vec’s 142 hours.

Virtual assistant

As a proof of concept, the researchers used WAwav2vec to create a prototype of a speech assistant. The assistant — which is available in open source along with the datasets — can recognize basic contact management commands (e.g., “search,” “add,” “update,” and “delete”) in addition to names and digits. As the coauthors note, smartphone access has exploded in the Global South, with an estimated 24.5 million smartphone owners in South Africa alone, according to Statista, making this sort of assistant likely to be useful.

“To the best of our knowledge, the multilingual speech recognition models we trained are the first-ever to recognize speech in Maninka, Pular, and Susu. We also showed how this model can power a voice interface for contact management,” the coauthors wrote. “Future work could expand its vocabulary to application domains such as microfinance, agriculture, or education. We also hope to expand its capabilities to more languages from the Niger-Congo family and beyond, so that literacy or ability to speak a foreign language are not prerequisites for accessing the benefits of technology. The abundance of radio data should make it straightforward to extend the encoder to other languages.”

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Gamescom announces online-only festival in August, reversing hybrid event plan

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The crowd at Gamescom 2019 on opening day on Tuesday, August 20.

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Reversing a plan announced in March, Gamescom will no longer try to do a hybrid gaming expo this summer. Instead, it will focus on an online-only event at the end of August.

The fan-and-business trade show is the world’s biggest game-industry event — with 370,000 people attending the physical event in 2019 — but it had to switch to online-only in 2020 due to the pandemic. The event organizers floated the idea of a hybrid physical event where fans could come see games in person along with digital announcements. The hope was that the coronavirus would subside thanks to vaccinations and that people would want to recapture the excitement of an in-person event.

But today, the Association of the German Games Industry and Koelnmesse decided against that plan, based on responses from potential exhibitors and fans. They plan to hold the main part of the show from August 25 to August 29.

Gamescom Congress will once again take place Thursday, August 26, and Devcom will start off the events August 23. The main days of Gamescom will take place on August 26 and August 27. IGN will produce a show dubbed Awesome Indies. Opening Night Live, which Geoff Keighley produces, will still take place, but it will now be online-only as well. Gamescom was planning to start selling tickets in May.

Above: The crowd at Gamescom 2019 on opening day. The show was online-only in 2020. It will be online-only again in 2021.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

“This decision was made after extensive discussions with partners and exhibitors,” the organizers said in a press release. “Thus, the organizers take into account the current situation, in which too many companies are unable to participate in physical events this year due to the still difficult development. In this way, they also meet the partners’ strong need for planning security. This means that Gamescom 2021 will be held exclusively digitally and free of charge for all Gamescom fans.”

Last year, Gamescom had more than 100 million video views over all formats and channels, more than 50 million unique viewers from 180 countries, and 370 partners from 44 countries. Oliver Frese, chief operating officer of Koelnmesse, said in a statement that Gamescom was coming too early for many companies in the industry, as it required so much advanced planning amid an uncertain environment. Companies need that planning reliability, he said.

Felix Falk, managing director of the German Games Industry Association, said in a statement that next year the groups will be able to implement more of the concepts they had in mind for a hybrid version of Gamescom. There will be business-to-business matchmaking events such as “indies meet investors and publishers” pitch events.

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Riot Games will launch Wild Rift esports tournament in late 2021

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Riot Games will launch Wild Rift esports tournament in late 2021

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Riot Games will launch the League of Legends: Wild Rift esports tournament in late 2021.

The company hopes to apply the lessons of a decade of League of Legends esports to the mobile game. Riot Games wants to build a similar community for Wild Rift. It made the announcement this morning on the eve of the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational tournament.

League of Legends: Wild Rift is a 5-on-5 multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) experience of League of Legends, developed for console and mobile by Riot Games. Wild Rift brings League to new platforms, featuring competitive gameplay, a twin-stick control system, and a roster of over 60 champions to take to the Rift, with two more coming every month this year.

John Needham, the global head of esports at Riot Games, said in a statement that Riot believes mobile gaming will transform the future of esports. The company didn’t specify whether the Wild Rift esports tournament would be an in-person or digital event.

Needham also noted that regional teams will qualify for this tournament in the fourth quarter of the year.

A worldwide competition

Above: The stage for the Riot Games esports event.

Image Credit: Riot Games

Regional Wild Rift Esports competitions have already started around the world. Southeast Asia recently concluded the first official esports competition, the SEA Icon Series: Preseason. The five week-long event took place in multiple locations: Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore and featured 54 professional teams.

Leo Faria is global head of Wild Rift esports. He said in a statement that a number of esports organizations have announced their Wild Rift teams. In Southeast Asia, organizations like The Alliance, RRQ, and LoL Esports veterans Flash Wolves all announced Wild Rift rosters. More big names are coming, he said.

Faria said that a regional competition schedule, third-party tournament guidelines, and more information about the global event will be revealed later this year.

Other big events

wild 3

Above: The Masters Trophy

Image Credit: Riot Games

Other events include the Valorant Stage 3 Masters event, which will increase in size with 16 teams in attendance. It will take place from September 9 to September 19. The winner of Masters: Berlin will automatically qualify into Valorant Champions where a single team will be crowned the best Valorant team of 2021. HyperX will sponsor that event as a keyboard and mouse partner. Other Riot partners include Spotify and Verizon. More than 2,000 teams have participated in qualifying events.

Cisco will be providing the network supporting MSI in Iceland and Riot Games’ production centers in Berlin and Los Angeles. For the first time, pro teams at MSI will be able to practice from the comfort of their hotel rooms on the same high-performance servers at ultra low ping.

Riot is also launching a new podcast that will be available exclusively on Spotify that will cover trending LoL Esports news from around the world. The episodes will be hosted by Riot Games personalities and will drop weekly throughout the year.

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GamesBeat’s creed when covering the game industry is “where passion meets business.” What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you — not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it.

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  • Special members-only interviews, chats, and “open office” events with GamesBeat staff
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