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‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Taps Performance Capture Tech to Elevate Effects

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Alita: Battle Angel is a thrilling mix of powerful cyborgs, post-apocalyptic cities, and gory fights. The sci-fi movie’s action sequences are courtesy of an advanced innovation: performance capture technology.

The futuristic flick, which hits theaters on Feb. 14, follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), an abandoned cyborg who becomes a fierce warrior to fight corrupt forces. This plot would be hard to accomplish with basic animation, however, performance capture technology enabled the movie’s team to generate lifelike special effects, PCMag reported.

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“This is the tech we’ve been developing. In an earlier test shoot, for [a movie that never got made, based on the novel] Brother Termite, when aliens were arriving, we had an actor perform with an umbrella rig around his head—12 cameras—everywhere,” Jon Landau, the producer of the film, told PCMag. “We saw a future where we would use that facial performance capture to drive performance rather than animating it.”

To make this digital vision possible, Alita: Battle Angel’s team partnered with Weta Digital, a visual effects company based in New Zealand. Unlike other animation systems, this performance capture technology doesn’t interfere with actors’ performances.

Rosa Salazar as Alita in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ (Photo Credit: PCMag)

“The giant system [we have today], when it loses a data point, it’s still able to solve for the skeleton and what the muscles do,” Landau added. “[In our partnership with] Weta Digital … we’re now [able] to create Salazar’s performance from the inside, driving the performance from a muscle base—not putting a mask on the actor through animation—to make sure we are living up to the performance that Salazar is giving us.”

According to Weta Digital, performance capture technology notes details of an actor’s face performance, analyzes how their muscles move, and then maps these motions onto a virtual character. (For example, see Salazar above with dots on her face during the filming process.) What makes this technology cool is that it provides animated figures with human-like reactions, so directors can keep a good shooting flow without stopping to map every facial movement.

“I’m pretty technically proficient and I usually do my own visual effects supervisor role, but now I get to geek out with [Weta Digital],” Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel’s director, told PCMag. “We can take it to another level having them and their knowledge.”

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The Best Streaming Media Device: Roku, Chromecast, or Amazon Fire

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Let’s be frank: there is probably too much stuff plugged into your TV. A few companies are looking to declutter your media center by selling you an all-inclusive media streaming device with a tiny footprint that plugs right into your screen. Two popular media streaming devices are the Google Chromecast (3rd Generation) and the Roku Streaming Stick, but a few new competitors have joined the fray for your entertainment needs.

Roku has the experience coming into the fight; the company has been in the streaming business since 2008, starting with set-top boxes and introducing the first Roku Stick in 2012. Google followed suit with the Chromecast in 2013. Amazon, the internet bookseller turned one-stop shop for pretty much everything, is also making moves in the streaming media space with its Fire TV Stick. Their hardware initiatives have been uneven, but with a push for streaming video, it only made sense for them to try and carve out a chunk of the TV market.

Photo Credit: Roku

The truth is nobody really cares who makes the things that put content on their televisions, as long as the content gets there in the highest quality with as little effort as possible. Ultimately, what matters are the apps and services that come with the hardware, as well as how easy those apps and services are to use for binge-watching sessions. Comparing Amazon, Chromecast, or Roku streaming media devices really comes down to how you use your television, and what apps deliver the content you want.

Under the Hood

Roku Streaming Stick

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The Roku Streaming Stick comes with a minimal remote that’s basically just arrow keys and a few media streaming service shortcuts including Hulu and Netflix, but you can use the Roku app for iOS and Android so your phone or tablet can be used to surf channels instead. The Roku Streaming Stick is by far the simplest choice on this list, for better or for worse. Your home screen can quickly fill up with channels if you consume a lot of media, and filtering and sorting can be annoying. Not every app follows the same design guidelines, so the experience from service to service can be uneven.

Services like Netflix allow you to go to a website and punch in a short code to authorize the device to your account, while others force you to navigate an on-screen keyboard to log in and start watching. Once you’ve logged in, the Roku Streaming Stick remembers your account details so you shouldn’t have to repeat the process. Plus, you can use your voice to search for your favorite movies and TV shows. The Roku Streaming Stick is available to purchase on Amazon.com.

Google Chromecast (3rd Generation)

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Google’s Chromecast (3rd Generation) works a little differently. The dongle doesn’t store any account information because it doesn’t directly connect to streaming services initially. Instead, when you connect a Chromecast you set it up through a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. That device then hooks up the service and the TV.

That means you need to have whatever streaming app — Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, and so on — installed on that particular device. Once your media is playing, just tap the Chromecast button in the app to switch the stream to your television.

Whatever device you used to start the stream now becomes the remote, which you can use for pausing, volume control, and whatever else. The Chromecast function works exactly the same in every app, so if you’ve done it once you’re already an expert. You will need a Google Home device to activate voice commands, however, it’s worth it if you want to have an easy binge-watching session. Head over to Amazon.com or Walmart.com to buy the Chromecast (3rd Generation).

Amazon Fire TV Stick

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The Amazon Fire TV Stick tends more towards the Roku side of the fence with its dedicated remote, although it offers a few innovative features. The latest model works with an optional remote that listens to voice commands (much like the Echo unit does). Although it supports pretty much all of the same streaming apps that Roku does, the Fire Stick naturally puts Amazon Instant Video front and center. A separate Bluetooth-enabled remote rounds out the package. The Amazon Fire TV Stick can be purchased at Amazon.com.

What’s on the Screen?

Photo Credit: Roku

Roku is by far the winner in terms of sheer volume of content. The service supports thousands of channels, from the big names like Netflix and Hulu down to niche services like The Monster Channel. The system’s search functionality is also extremely well-tuned, letting you hunt down your desired content no matter where it might live.

Photo Credit: Google

Chromecast started out with a fairly limited array of apps that it would play nice with, but that number has increased considerably. The real selling point here is the ability to “mirror” content from your devices directly on your TV screen. Even software that doesn’t have dedicated Chromecast streaming can be pushed to the device — games, websites, and so on. This can be pretty cool.

Amazon Fire Stick

Photo Credit: Amazon

Amazon’s offerings are slightly less diverse than Roku’s, but the service still boasts all of the big players in the streaming space. However, the device is tuned to prioritize Amazon Instant Video, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Like the Chromecast, the Fire Stick can also be used to mirror device screens, but only phones and tablets.

The Final Decision

Photo Credit: Amazon

At the end of the day, it’s between Roku Streaming Stick and the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Although the Chromecast (3rd Generation) is the least expensive option on the table, it’s significantly less user-friendly and requires another piece of hardware.

Which one is right for you? It depends on how tech-savvy you are. The Roku Streaming Stick is a great unit for those new to streaming media devices. The remote is durable, the user interface is time-tested, and the content is robust and easy to search. The Amazon Fire Stick is more cutting-edge and has better performance, but it’s more cluttered and has less content overall.

Our final judgment: the Amazon Fire Stick is the Geek pick for best low-profile streaming device. If you can get past the intense focus on Amazon itself (and paying for Instant Video), it has the best mix of features and by far the more powerful hardware. Failing that, grab a Roku.

Streaming Extras to Consider

Photo Credit: Amazon

You should also keep in mind that as sticks, all of these devices are limited. It’s tough to beat the streaming content they can provide in such small, hidden form factors, and we think they’re enough for most people. However, if you’re willing to upgrade to a bigger, more expensive streaming box, you will get a little more.

Streaming boxes like Amazon Fire TV and Roku Premiere+ are faster than their stick counterparts and have more features, like 4K streaming. Meanwhile, the Apple TV is a great way to access Apple’s impressive, curated ecosystem on your television, and has recently announced its own 4K, HDR model. The Nvidia Shield TV is an Android streaming box with an emphasis on gaming. Or you could just get a full-fledged video game console, like a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, since they all also offer media streaming now.

Your streaming journey doesn’t have to end with these devices, though. There are a wide range of products and services that interact with the Amazon Fire TV Stick, Roku Streaming Stick, Chromecast (3rd Generation), and others to cut the cord and put the exact content you want on whatever screen you want. Here are some of our favorite streaming TV services and why. Keep checking back for new additions.

DirecTV Now is live TV powered purely by the internet. You have to buy channels in bulk and still deal with commercials, but in return you get the real live TV experience delivered through streaming. (3 out of 4 stars)

Slingbox is more of a utility than a streaming service. But it’s a really convenient utility. If you’re already paying for live TV you can hook up a Slingbox and access that same TV content wherever there’s an internet connection.

Photo Credit: Crunchyroll

Crunchyroll is the definitive anime streaming service. Subs>>>Dubs. (3.5 stars out of 4. Geek Pick)

CuriosityStream has a nearly endless supply of educational shows and documentaries on everything from nature to technology to culture. Learn something! (3.5 stars out of 4)

Boomerang is a solid source of retro cartoons like Looney Tunes or Scooby-Doo. It may not mesh as well with kids’ modern tastes, but it’s a nifty animation time capsule. (3 stars out of 4)

FuboTV is the escape from cable that sports fans are looking for. It’s pricey, but being able to easily stream live sports and more from dozens of channels with only one subscription might very well be worth it. (3 stars out of 4)

Brown Sugar has all of the classic Blaxploitation movies you could want and then some. It’s niche, but it’s one of the most impressive niche libraries we’ve seen. (3.5 stars out of 4)

FilmStruck is for the true cinephile. Its library collects classic films from all eras and countries, including Criterion Collection movies. (3.5 stars out of 4)

More on Geek.com:

1.

Netflix / Hulu / HBO Go Accounts

So many streaming TV services to choose from. Where do you start?

2.

Netflix is still arguably the biggest name in streaming TV.

3.

Hulu trial screen

Although it no longer has a free option, Hulu is a great streaming TV service that is worth paying for.

4.

From buying to renting to subscribing to individual channels, Amazon offers a bevy of streaming TV options.

5.

YouTube Red subscribers can watch original shows from streaming stars, but YouTube TV lets you watch actual live TV.

6.

Hook up a Slingbox and watch the cable and live TV you’re already paying for anywhere.

7.

You have to buy channels in bulk and still deal with commercials, but with DirecTV Now you get the real live TV experience delivered through streaming.

8.

Crunchyroll is the best anime streaming service if you’re all about subtitles.

9.

If dubs are more your thing, Funimation Now is the anime streaming service for you.

10.

If you want to stream shows and documentaries that actually teach you something, go with CuriosityStream.

11.

AMC Premiere just focuses on current AMC shows, but for Walking Dead super fans that might be enough.

12.

With Boomerang, tons of retro cartoons, from Looney Tunes to Scooby-Doo, can all come back to you

13.

FuboTV may be the escape from cable that sports fans are looking for. It’s pricey, but being able to easily stream live sports and more from dozens of channels with only one subscription might very well be worth it.

14.

Brown Sugar has all of the classic Blaxploitation movies you could want and then some. It’s niche, but it’s one of the most impressive niche libraries we’ve seen.

15.

For the true cinephile, FilmStruck has a large collection of classic films from all eras and countries, including movies from the Criterion Collection.

16.

CollegeHumor’s Dropout provides premium streaming online laughs.

17.

DC Universe offers live-action adaptations of less familiar superheroes, like Doom Patrol.

18.

Along with presenting streaming services like Netflix and Sling through one box, Dish AirTV also lets you watch local over-the-air channels with an additional installation.

19.

Get a streaming media device to enjoy these services on your TV. Our favorite is the Amazon Fire Stick.

20.

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Best Gifts for Grads: Tech Presents for Class of 2019

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High school, college, or graduate school is done and now, it is time to start a new chapter in your life. If you are a member of the Class of 2019, you are most likely getting ready for that exciting next step, whether it is moving to a new place, traveling abroad, starting a new job, or continuing your education. Regardless, you will need some savvy gadgets to help you along the way. Here are the best (and most useful) tech gifts for the graduate in your life, whether it’s you, a family member, friend, or coworker.

Garmin Vivoactive 3

Photo Credit: Amazon

If you like to workout, the Garmin Vivoactive 3 can help you keep track of time and give you vital health stats, including VO2 max and fitness made estimates. Unlike other wearable devices, this smartwatch is not too bulky, includes more than 15 preloaded GPS and indoor sports apps for yoga, running, and other exercise activities, and you can stay updated on smartphone notifications whenever you’re at the gym.

Buy it Here

Instant Pot Pressure Cooker

Photo Credit: Amazon

Dining hall days are over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an amazing cook on your own. This Instant Pot Pressure Cooker will step up your daily meal game: Soup, stew, rice, and oatmeal can easily be made in this kitchen-friendly (and space-saving) gadget.

Buy it Here

Beats Solo3 Wireless On-Ear Headphones

Photo Credit: Amazon

Walking or taking public transit to work? You’re going to need a good set of wireless, noise-canceling headphones, such as the Beats Solo3 Wireless On-Ear Headphones. You can listen to your favorite playlists or podcasts without having to use an annoying pair of earbuds. 

Buy it Here

Portable Phone Charger

Photo Credit: Amazon

Wouldn’t it be great if every place you went to had outlets? Sadly though, this isn’t in the works anytime soon. However, you can always keep your smartphone powered up with a portable phone charger, like this one from Luxtude. It works with most Android and iPhone models and easily fits in a backpack, purse, or briefcase.

Buy it Here

Keurig Coffee Maker

Photo Credit: Amazon

Save money on your daily Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, or bougie coffee shop trips and invest in a Keurig Coffee Maker. All you need to do is buy the K-Cup pods, which honestly save you from using filters and ground coffee, put it into the machine, and bam, you get a cup o’ joe on the spot with minimal effort.

Buy it Here

Fire TV Stick

Photo Credit: Amazon

Binge-watching sessions are essential for downtime, so why not keep all your favorite entertainment sources in one place with the Fire TV Stick? This streaming media device makes it easy to control and launch Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services right from your bed, couch, or desk. Plus, Amazon Alexa can help you search for flicks, dim the lights, and order takeout for the perfect movie night.

Buy it Here

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Ford Wants This Headless Humanoid to Make Door-to-Door Deliveries

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As I type this, I am awaiting a delivery from the postman of a parcel I ordered online yesterday.

I am part of the problem.

According to Ford Chief Technology Officer Ken Washington, perks like one-click shopping and two-day delivery are taking a toll on our cities and neighborhoods—not to mention the postal service.

And Ford wants to help.

Together with Agility Robotics, the automaker this week introduced last-mile solution Digit.

The two-legged humanoid robot curls up in the back of an autonomous delivery van, then unfolds to talk packages directly to your door.

Designed to look and move like a human (albeit a decapitated one), Digit can lift packages weighing up to 40 lbs., move up and down stairs, and navigate uneven terrain. It even reacts to being bumped without losing its balance or falling over.

“But Digit isn’t just capable of traversing obstacles—it has a hidden advantage,” Washington wrote in a blog announcement.

The bot, he explained, can tap into the resources of its self-driving vehicle, wirelessly sharing data like detailed maps and other analytics.

“After all, both Digit and the self-driving car need to know where they are in the world, where they need to go, and how to get there,” Washington added.

Equipped with LiDAR and stereo cameras, Digit is smart enough to handle basic scenarios. But what if a strong wind has blown the trash cans into its path? Or a garden ornament is slightly askew?

No worries: Digit simply sends an image to the vehicle, which comes up with a solution and dispatches it via the cloud, where the android retrieves it and follows through.

Once a self-driving vehicle arrives at its destination, Digit can be deployed to grab a package from and carry out the final step in the delivery process (via Ford)

“Whether we are working side-by-side with robots in our numerous factories around the world or living with them as they help push packages to our door, our primary goal is to ensure they are safe, reliable, and capable of working alongside people in intelligent ways,” Washington said.

“Through our collaboration with Agility,” he continued, we are striving to determine the best way for our self-driving vehicles to cooperate with Digit and understand how this new delivery method can be taken advantage of in the future.”

Ford is no stranger to bizarre innovations.

In December, the firm unveiled a prototype noise-cancelling kennel, using the same technology found in cars and headphones to protect sensitive canine ears during loud fireworks displays.

And I’ve had my eye on the lane-keeping smart bed: a revolving mattress which, just as Ford’s Lane-Keeping Aid avoids accidents by “nudging” the steering wheel in the correct direction, gently shifts bed hogs back into position.

Last month, Ford Europe revealed a self-braking trolley inspired by its Pre-Collision Assist technology, and aimed at ushering in a new era of supermarket shopping.

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