Netflix Knocks a Dollar Off Its SD Streaming Service for New Users [Updated] Lower rate will ‘definitely’ roll out to a wider range

By Sam Thielman

Netflix has cracked down on password sharing this year (the streaming service has a $12-per-month plan if you want to stream on four devices simultaneously), but it looks like there’s a new tier to its pricing plan, albeit one available only to new users: you can now sign up for a single-screen standard-def stream for a dollar less than the hi-res, two-streams service most users are currently using.

The service’s user base has grown by leaps and bounds this year—Netflix passed top-dog pay-TV network HBO’s domestic sub count with a whopping 40 million subscribers of its own—and it makes sense that the company would seek to expand that base yet further by adding new price points to entice more users.

Its share price has been the main focus of financial reporting about Netflix, and so less attention has been paid to the ballooning content costs, which are headed nowhere but upward over the next few years. Future content costs for the company will extend into the billions of dollars based on existing agreements, and Netflix needs to grow revenue quickly enough to keep up with those costs.

But ease of use and affordability are its two main selling points at the moment, so Netflix isn’t in a position to either immediately institute a major price hike or crack down hard on pirates in a way that might jeopardize the experience of paying users.

The question on the minds of those existing users, of course, is likely, “Hey, can I pay less, too?” Our tipster said that, in conversation with at Netflix customer service rep (who couldn’t issue the new rate to an existing user), the rep said by way of apology, “This is just because we want to test it out among a group.” So if you want one-stream standard def for a dollar less, you may be able to get it eventually—”[W]e will definitely offer it on a wider basis,” the rep said.

Update: “We always are testing new things and this is a test for a $6,99 single stream plan,” said a spokeswoman. “Not all people will see this option and it may not be something we ever offer generally.”

Fingers crossed they do, because with the proliferation of cheap DSL accounts as MSOs crank up prices on high-speed internet, standard-def to your one television sounds like a great deal for people who don’t have every tech gadget on the market and just want to marathon Mad Men.

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HP Announces Another 5,000 Layoffs, For A Total Of 34,000


HP has officially ratcheted up its layoff numbers again. It will be cutting another 5,000 jobs above and beyond the 29,000 jobs it had previously targeted.

HP CEO Meg Whitman


And that was an increase from the 27,000 jobs it announced in May 2012, as first reported by Business Insider.

In HP’s previous quarterly earnings reports filed with the SEC, it warned investors that the company might get rid of more than 29,000 employees.

In its annual report filed on Monday, it made the bigger layoff official, declaring it would cut 34,000 jobs.

Here’s what HP said in that SEC document:

Due to continued market and business pressures, as of October 31, 2013, HP expects to eliminate an additional 15% of those 29,000 positions, or a total of approximately 34,000 positions, and to record an additional 15% of that $3.6 billion in total costs, or approximately $4.1 billion in aggregate charges. HP expects to record these charges through the end of HP’s 2014 fiscal year as the accounting recognition.

HP CEO Meg Whitman has promised that HP will not do another big layoff once this one is complete. It is supposed to end by October, 2014, HP says.

HP says it currently has about 331,800 employees.

The silver lining for current employees is that HP has already done most of the cutting. As of October 31, 2013, HP had eliminated approximately 24,600 positions of the 34,000 it expects to cut, the company said in its annual report.

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Archos will debut multiple ‘Pebble-like’ smartwatches at CES, starting at less than $50


There’s one more interesting nugget in today’s jam-packed Archos press release. Alongside the home tablet, scale, weather system, activity monitor, et al. is a very brief mention of a smartwatch — a “selection of” smartwatches, actually. There’s not much info here, save for the fact that at least one of the wearables will hit an under-$50 price point. The company is also apparently comparing the iOS/Android-compatible line to a familiar wearable, referring to it as “pebble-like” in the included press material (lower case, mind). If we had to venture a guess, we’d say the similarity comes from what looks to be an e-ink or e-ink-like display, but it looks like we’re going to have to jump on a plane to Vegas to find out for sure.

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Fitbit in push to lead the wearable tech boom

Silicon Valley maker of health gadgets plans major international marketing push in 2014

By  8:00PM GMT 28 Dec 2013

The Fitbit Force, left, shown among other wearable fitness devices Photo: AP

Fitbit, a Silicon Valley maker of health gadgets, is to mount a major international marketing push in 2014 in an attempt to establish itself at the forefront of the new growth sector of wearable technology.

The company aims to capitalise on new year health resolutions and the wider trend for healthier lifestyles to push its brand and devices into more mainstream positions this year.

Fitbit was founded in San Francisco six years ago, but took until late 2009 to launch its first product. The company competes with direct rivals such as the French health gadget maker, Withings, the main technology giants, and sports brands including Nike and Garmin.

Fitbit’s range of microchip-packed wristbands, which track wearers’ exercise and sleeping patterns, has become a common sight on the wrists of technology workers in Silicon Valley.

The devices upload their data to an online account via a wireless link to their owner’s computer or smartphone, building a digital lifestyle profile that the company says motivates people to exercise.

Now, following a $43m (£26m) injection from backers including the venture capital arms of the microchip maker, Qualcomm, and the Japanese mobile network, Softbank, it aims to break into the mass market with an international marketing push.

Industry analyst Juniper Research estimates the wearable fitness technology market will be worth $1.5bn in 2014, almost double 2012 sales.

James Park, Fitbit’s chief executive, said: “The next two years for us are going to be about serious brand building.”

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First Look At SketchFab: A Youtube For 3D Files

by Rakesh Sharma, Contributor TECH |12/28/2013 @ 1:51PM

Sketchfab is a web service to publish, share and embed interactive 3D modelsin real-time. Put simply, the site is part of a growing network of online 3D software to enable artistes, designers, and lay users to design 3D models that can, subsequently, be crafted into objects using a 3D printer. According to Alban Denoyel, co-founder of the site, Sketchfab was devised to enable sharing of 3D files without 3D software. Over the last year or so (since its launch), a community has formed around it. Subsequently, the site has christened itself the “Youtube for 3D files.”

Alban Denoyel (L) and Cedric Pinois (R) , founders of SketchFab.

Alban Denoyel (L) and Cedric Pinois (R) , founders of Sketchfab.

Denoyel says the site is similar to Youtube in terms of its workflow. Users upload files in one of the 28 supported format and the browser displays the rendered file. Subsequently, users can embed and share the 3D file across a number of sites. “I think the bottom line is that when you have spent ten hours working on a 3D file, which is a media, in 2014, it just feels natural to share it,” he says. Currently, designs from the site can be embedded across a network of popular sites such as Kickstarter, LinkedIn LNKD -1.88% and Behance.

However, that is where the Youtube analogy ends. Unlike Youtube (which is free), Sketchfab uses a freemium pricing model (a combination of free for the basic service and premium pricing for paid products). The pricier version of the platform’s services provides more memory and greater privacy for designs (as compared to the free version). In this respect, Denoyel says the service is like SoundCloud. “Each media format gave birth to a major platform to host, publish, share and embed them,” he says, explaining the hybrid model.

An Overview Of SketchFab

I played around with the site briefly. Uploaded files are rendered in a WebGl-enabled browser and organized based on different categories and users. Much like Youtube, users can create their own channels. Supported categories include topics such as art and architecture, military, and science.

In addition, much like the popular video platform, the site has a list of popular designs within different categories such as Most Viewed, Most Faved, and Brands (ostensibly, this is for a future monetization strategy).

You can also perform light editing for some file formats. For example, you can shade materials and brightness associated with different regions of your 3D files. However, so far, support for such editing tasks is limited to obj, VRML, and Blender formats. Denoyel says the team plans to expand this capability down the line with light and shadow editing. In addition, they plan to include API extensions to remotely control settings related to the solution. Post-editing, you can either embed the 3D model on your webpage or share it through social networks. The latter requires special configurations, such as apps that enable iFrames for Facebook.

Another iteration of the site is Sculptfab, which is a tool to sculpt 3D models online and publish directly to the Sketchfab site. Denoyel told me that Sculptfab was a quick hack to build an easy workflow dedicated to publishing on Sketchfab. Then, there is, which acts as a personal 3D modeling display site. Whilst the sites are useful and intuitive (I was able to create a 3D model on Sculptfab within minutes), I am still trying to grasp the intent behind these sites. For example, Sculptfab is a relatively simple platform, which lacks the richness of other 3D modeling platforms. However, it balances this drawback with an ease-of-publishing, which is absent in other, competing platforms. Similarly, seems to be an extension of the main site and is, probably, targeted at a professional community. However, in its layout and publishing workflow, the site is fairly similar to the main site.

A Couple Of Thoughts On Sketchfab

There are 3D design tools that help you create and there are 3D design tools that help you propagate your finished design, Sketchfab belongs to the latter category (though Sculptfab seems to be the beginning of a new direction for the company). The premise and technology for the site is impressive and is a leap over current methods to share 3D files or render them in the cloud.

I faced issues due to hardware (Yes, I work on an outdated machine); so, I could not test latency completely. However, a fast processor and graphics card will go a long way in making the site more user-friendly for your needs. I also could not test the site for design complexity. For example, I created relatively simple designs on SculptFab. The 3D file I uploaded on the Sketchfab site was also fairly simple. So are most designs available on the site. As I understand, design complexity is an important factor, especially for professionals such as architects and engineers.

Further down the line, the site may also face problems associated with piracy and noise. The site’s categories includes brands, who can use the site to gain feedback and advertise their products. Startups, such as Pebble, have already begun advertising on the site. Interestingly, the maximum number of views, however, belong to fan art for established products, such as iPhone and Tesla. This could become a problem down the line as fan art noise will drown out the actual brand’s channel.  Currently, the site has a Model Request feature that enables you to order models available on the site. Considering the popularity of fan art, this might create piracy problems as imitation models could price actual brands out of the market.

The site is already undergoing changes. After receiving a fresh round of funding this month, Denoyel and his team are busy revamping their site. The site’s backend architecture will be redone with the new funds to handle traffic surges. Expect a new version of Sketchfab soon along with a slew of editing features, such as the ability to reduce model size, and marking hotspots on the completed files.

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Driver cellphone ban arrives in Illinois

New law aims to reduce distracted driving; critics are skeptical

By Monique Garcia, Chicago Tribune reporter 10:35 a.m. CST, December 28, 2013

A man uses a cell phone while driving (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune / May 28, 2013)

A driver who zooms down the road with one hand on the wheel and the other propping a cellphone against an ear soon could find that choice a costly one — a new state law taking effect Wednesday bans the use of hand-held devices while driving in Illinois.

Motorists still can chat and drive, but only if they use hands-free technology such as a Bluetooth device, earpiece, headset or speakerphone. Otherwise, they’ll need to put it in park or face fines that start at $75. A handful of towns, including Park Ridge, will issue warnings for the first few weeks of the year, but state police say they’ll offer no such grace period.

“It’s a change in behavior that we are all going to have to get used to,” said state Sen. John Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the measure. “But it wasn’t too long ago that we didn’t even have cellphones, so this might actually make your life a little more enjoyable. Hang up, and enjoy the ride.”

It’s the latest driving safety push in Illinois, where ad campaigns remind drivers to “Click It or Ticket” and to “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.” There’s no catchphrase associated with the cellphone driving ban, but give safety advocates some time.

The change will put Illinois in the ranks of about a dozen other states with similar restrictions. Supporters contend the ban will make streets safer by limiting driver distraction and providing more uniformity to the rules of the road. As it stands, dozens of municipalities, including Chicago, have enacted their own cellphone driving restrictions, creating a complicated patchwork of local laws. The statewide ban eliminates the confusion.

Opponents argue it should be up to motorists to make sure they are driving safely on the roads, not police who will be required to enforce the law. Foes also say there are a wide range of other distractions for drivers and raise concerns about forcing motorists to buy expensive hands-free gadgets.

“The evidence out there that talking on a hands-free phone is less dangerous than putting on your lipstick or eating a cheeseburger or admonishing your kids in the back seat is unclear at best,” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican from downstate Mattoon who voted against the bill.

Despite the push to regulate cellphone use on the roads, research is murky as to whether requiring hands-free devices make roads safer. Researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by the insurance industry, have found little difference between drivers who use hand-held cellphones and those who use hands-free devices.

Researchers instead contend that all cellphone use is equally distracting once a conversation starts, noting that accident rates have not changed in other states that have bans on hand-held phones behind the wheel. Nonetheless, supporters argue that Illinois’ new law is a step in the right direction, contending the best course of action will be to eventually ban all cellphone use behind the wheel.

“It doesn’t make driving entirely distraction-free, the best law would be no cellphones at all, but at least this is a start,” said John Kennedy, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “The distraction is in your head, not just the device.”

It’s already illegal to use hand-held cellphones in school and construction zones, and all cellphone use is banned for drivers under age 18 unless they are making an emergency call. Illinois also prohibits texting while driving. Commercial truck drivers have been required to use hands-free devices for almost a year.

Driving without a hands-free device will be a primary offense, meaning police can pull a driver over and ticket them if they see a motorist with a phone pressed to their ear. The same standard applies to text messaging while driving, and some law enforcement officials say the new cellphone rules will make it easier to catch violators tapping out notes as they drive.

Under the law, first-time offenders would face a $75 fine. That cost rises to $100 for a second violation, $125 for a third and $150 for each subsequent offense. After four violations, the Illinois secretary of state would have the power to suspend a driver’s license.

Drivers still could make calls legally on hand-held phones in the case of an emergency or when stopped in traffic jams if the car is in park or neutral. The law also allows hobbyists to fiddle with their citizens band radios. Police and emergency personnel are exempt from the ban while performing their official duties.

Meanwhile, a separate measure that also takes effect Wednesday increases penalties for drivers who injure or kill others in crashes caused by the use of a cellphone or other electronic device.

Distracted motorists who harm other drivers would face penalties of up to $2,500 in fines and less than a year of jail time if convicted. Distracted drivers involved in fatal accidents could be charged with a Class 4 felony, where a conviction carries fines of up to $25,000 and up to three years of jail time.

In Illinois, almost 6,000 crashes have occurred from 2008 to 2012 in which some form of driver distraction involving a cellphone was cited by police, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. The toll included 30 fatalities, according to the agency.

While the cellphone ban law technically takes effect Jan. 1, a few local police departments say they’ll give drivers two or three weeks to become acquainted with the law before issuing tickets. Park Ridge police Cmdr. Jason Leavitt said the suburb is distributing informational fliers to clear up any confusion and “make sure everyone is on the same page.”

“A lot of times these laws come up and people don’t know about it until they get a ticket and we want to give people time to get educated,” Leavitt said. He added the department is also teaming with schools to educate parents, noting a law passed last year that banned hands-held devices in school zones caused confusion for parents picking up and dropping off children.

Such a grace period is less likely to be found on state highways, however. A state police spokeswoman said troopers are prepared to start issuing tickets for violations on state roads beginning New Year’s Day. Troopers will have discretion to issue a warning depending on the severity of the offense.

Mulroe said he hopes drivers will avoid warning situations altogether and simply follow the law.

“Your hands should be on the wheel and your eyes should be on the road,” Mulroe said. “It’s just common sense.”

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Computer Use May Improve Fine-Motor Skills In The Brain, Scientists Say

By  Posted: 12/26/2013 1:33 pm EST

A new study suggests using a computer hones fine-motor skills. | James Porter via Getty Images

Don’t worry about watching all those cat videos on the Internet. You’re not wasting time when you are at your computer—you’re honing your fine-motor skills. A study of people’s ability to translate training that involves clicking and twiddling a computer mouse reveals that the brain can apply that expertise to other fine-motor tasks requiring the hands.

We know that computers are altering the way that people think. For example, using the Internet changes the way that you remember information. But what about use of the computer itself? You probably got to this story by using a computer mouse, for example, and that is a bizarre task compared with the activities that we’ve encountered in our evolutionary history. You made tiny movements of your hand in a horizontal plane to cause tiny movements of a cursor in a completely disconnected vertical plane. But with daily practice—the average computer user makes more than 1000 mouse clicks per day—you have become such an expert that you don’t even think about this amazing feat of dexterity. Scientists would love to know if that practice affects other aspects of your brain’s control of your body.

The problem is finding people with no computer experience. So Konrad Kording, a psychologist at Northwestern University’s Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago in Illinois, and his former postdoc Kunlin Wei, now at Peking University in Beijing, turned to migrant Chinese workers. The country’s vast population covers the whole socioeconomic spectrum, from elite computer hackers to agricultural laborers whose lifestyles have changed little over the past century. The country’s economic boom is bringing people in waves from the countryside to cities in search of employment.

A team led by Kording and Wei recruited three groups of people: Chinese migrant workers with no computer experience, workers who were matched by age and education but did have computer experience through a job, and a control group of college students who were computer proficient. All the subjects went through a 2-week training period during which they had to use a computer mouse to play games. (That included the classic game of “Pong” played for 2 hours per day.) The researchers ran each group through a battery of standard motor control tests before and after the training.

pong computer game
Training people to play the game of Pong with a computer mouse improved general hand motor skills.

The test that Kording and Wei were most interested in gauged generalizability. If you learn how to use a computer mouse, does that skill generalize to similar motor tasks? To measure the subjects’ ability to perform unfamiliar tasks, the researchers tested motor skills that involved no mouse at all, such as controlling the position of a finger when the hand is hidden beneath a cover. If expertise in using a computer mouse doesn’t generalize to other motor skills, migrant workers without previous computer experience should do far worse than the other two groups on these other tests.

Before the training period, migrant works who already had computer experience performed better than their computer-naive peers on all the tests. Individuals without computer experience found it far more difficult to make finely controlled adjustments of the hand, especially when the hand was hidden. But after just 2 weeks of training,migrant workers with no previous computer experience performed just as well as college students at using a computer mouse and applying that skill to other fine-motor hand skills, the team reports today in Current Biology.

“The results are surprising,” says Robert Scheidt, a biomechanical engineer at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who works with stroke victims. “Two weeks is not a long time at all” to gain a specific new motor skill, let alone boost a whole set of them. Until now, he says, the evidence has supported “narrow generalizability,” in which learning one motor skill translates to improvement only in nearly identical tasks. So for those helping rehabilitate people who have lost motor abilities, “this is exactly the result we wanted to see,” Scheidt says. The study lends support to computer-based methods for helping stroke patients to regain control of their limbs. And for healthy people who are trying to learn a new motor skill, it may be possible to accelerate learning through carefully designed computer games.

This story has been provided by AAAS, the non-profit science society, and its international journal, Science.

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