Facebook Roll Out New Auto-Play Video Feature on Mobile

Social networking behemoth Facebook has rolled out its latest on-site feature – auto-playing videos in users’ News Feeds.

The move is the company’s most recent attempt to garner attention from prospective online advertisers, with video advertisements also set to be introduced alongside users’ own shared content.

Facebook, which has sought to address investor unease regarding its inability to convert app download figures and “likes” to real revenue since its initial public offering last year, moved to evangelise the impact the feature could have on its app advertising space.

The company explained that videos will begin playing as soon as users scroll over them in their News Feed, but will only begin playing sound once a user has clicked to expand the video. USA Today says that the effect is similar to the effect generated by videos on Vine – a video hosting site that has become immensely popular with teens over the last few months.

Facebook hopes that the feature, which will only be available through the social network’s app for the time being, will allow the company to compete for a slice of the video advertising market, a niche which is set to explode in popularity over the coming years. In 2016, online video advertising is expected to be worth around $8bn in the U.S. alone, double the $4.1bn it’s expected to top this year.

The company began the roll out by testing the feature on a small number of users in the US on Friday. It will expand to the rest of its US base, and eventually to the rest of the world, in the coming weeks.

TechCrunch notes that only videos which originate from the Facebook platform, or from integrated sites like Instagram, will play automatically. Embedded videos from third-party sites like YouTube and Vimeo will have to be played as normal.

The feature’s big reveal took place two days after the Federal Trade Commission announced that it is probing an alteration the company made to its privacy policy back in August. The FTC is investigating if the company infringed on the rights of its users by altering its policy in order to allow it to use users’ images and information for marketing purposes without the consent of the user.

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Three Newly Discovered Exoplanets Could Yield Life

Astronomers in Germany have announced the discovery of three planets in a star system some twenty-two light years from Earth. The exoplanets, which are all believed to be rocky super-earths, orbit their host star in the so-called “Goldilocks” zone – where the temperature is not too hot and not too cold — meaning they may be capable of sustaining organic life, astronomers say.

The planets were discovered in a solar system which bears similarities to our own, astronomers at the University of Gottingen revealed. Between five and seven planets orbit Gliese 677C star – part of a trinary system called Gliese 667.

“We identified three strong signals in the star before, but it was possible that smaller planets were hidden in the data. We re-examined the existing data, added some new observations, and applied two different data analysis methods especially designed to deal with multi-planet signal detection,” commented Guillem Anglada-Escude, who led the initiative.

“Both methods yielded the same answer: there are five very secure signals and up to seven low-mass planets in short-period orbits around the star,” he continued.

The Gliese 667C system is unique as it is the first solar system discovered with more than one planet orbiting within its star’s habitable zone. In our own solar system the Earth is the only planet within the Sun’s “Goldilocks” zone, with Venus and Mars orbiting marginally outside.

The host star in the Gliese 997C system is just one-third the mass of our Sun, making the discovery of three planets within its habitable zone all the more impressive.

The newly discovered planets lie in the constellation Scorpius – which, at twenty-two light years away, is right in Earth’s cosmic back garden, and much closer than the stars being scanned by Nasa’s advanced Keplar telescope.

The discovery came about after scientists peering through the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope took another look at the Gliese 667 system, where they had already discovered three planets outside the host star’s habitable zone.

The discovery of the three new planets may mean that more habitable planets occupy the Milky Way than first thought.

Facebook Releases Info about NSA Requests

Social networking giant Facebook has revealed that it received thousands of requests from the US government for the personal data of users in the second half of 2012. The Palo Alto, California-based company made the disclosure after being granted permission by Washington to release data pertaining to previously classified government requisitions.

The world’s largest social network, majority controlled by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, requested permission to release the information to the public in order to limit the damage the recent NSA hacking scandal has had on its user base, experts believe.

Facebook says that it received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests for information from the US government – and by proxy from the NSA – in the last six months of last year, a figure which represents a “tiny fraction” of its overall user base. The company said that the requests, which in all affected around 20,000 users, were lodged by government sources seeking to root our foreign and domestic terrorist organisations, and criminal fugitives.

The US Justice Department said that many of the requests were made as part of routine police investigations, a practice which is also commonplace in Ireland and the UK.

Facebook’s general counsel Ted Ulloyt explained in a blog post that the company hopes the disclosure will help to repair Facebook’s often tenuous relationship with its users, and provide a measure of reassurance to users worried about their online privacy.

“With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide, this means that a tiny fraction of one per cent of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of US state, local, or federal government request,” Ulloyt wrote. “We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved, and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive.”

Facebook added that it did not comply with all of the requests, challenging some. In all, the internet behemoth said it complied with 79% of the NSA’s applications.

Facebook was not the only internet giant to move to allay fears of privacy breaches – Google and Microsoft also made similar disclosures after submitting appeals of their own. Microsoft said that it received slightly less of the so-called data security warrants than Facebook at between 6,000 and 7,000, while Google says it is still negotiating with lawmakers in the hope of providing users with information about exactly why it received and complied with the requests.

“We have always believed that it is important to differentiate between the different types of Government requests,” the Mountain View, California company said in a statement. The company added that it already deals with criminal requests and national security requests separately – explaining that any less would be a step in the wrong direction for users.

In an open letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder, the company’s top brass insisted they had “nothing to hide”. “Google’s numbers clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” the company’s chief legal officer David Drummond wrote.

The disclosures come after the companies reached an agreement with the US Justice Department to release some details – though experts say the amount of data released is nowhere near adequate enough to quell internet users’ fears and address reservations. Some companies which are known to have been the subject of requisitions – like Apple, PayPal and Yahoo – have not yet attempted to provide reassurances. Apple and AOL have released statements saying that they never heard of PRISM – the NSA operation under which the requests for user data was made.

After Facebook and Microsoft made their announcements, a spokesperson for the Justice Department confirmed that the government had “reached agreements with certain providers” about the release of some information. The spokesperson, Andrew Ames, explained that the companies’ requests were granted “to afford greater transparency to the public while preserving confidentiality required for law enforcement or national security reasons”. Some, he said, were the result of the issuance of criminal warrants or grand jury subpoenas.

Exciting New Prospects in App Development

Irish graduates are at the forefront of the app evolution, creating new business and opportunities.

In the last few years Ireland’s reputation as one of the world’s most promising hubs for technological development has been evolving. Long boasting a large volume of multinationals on our shores, the country has become renowned not just for the high profile businesses that have jumped at the chance to set up here, but for the talents and technical abilities of the well-educated workforce that has been trained and employed to maintain and develop the global brands of corporations like Google, Microsoft and  Apple. In recent years many of these talented and knowledgeable individuals have been turning their attention to apps, a fast-growing and highly popular market with millions of customers available worldwide at the click of a mouse.

New start-ups based on app development and on apps themselves have been springing up all around the country. ‘Appreneurs’ as they’re being called (a play on the words app and entrepreneur),are arguably most responsible for the rapid growth of the apps sphere, and are behind many of the most common apps (Facebook, Twitter) on smartphones today. Whether working with the backing of large MNCs or on their own steam, app developers are changing the way we interact with our computers and communication devices, generating new business as they go.

Dr Bryan Duggan, lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology School of Computing, is keen to evangelise the benefits of learning to code and develop apps, and says that some of his graduates have gone on lead extremely successful careers. “App development is something that most our final year students are keen to learn – probably most of my students’ final year projects are app related in one way or another.”

One of the most noteworthy and successful apps released by his students was done in cooperation with the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA), aiming to teach adults with reading and writing difficulties to learn how to develop their own skills through a familiar medium. The students who developed the app have since gone on the establish their own company. Glass Robot Studios, based in Dublin, is currently flourishing; developing a wide range of apps based on everything from education and learning to social media and games.

Gaming, Duggan says, is one of the most promising areas of development, and one of the most challenging. “I think personally that the fastest growing app space is the game space – gaming is really taking off. I think that’s where the innovation is coming from.”

Duggan explains that one of the main reasons why gaming apps are held in high regard by industry professionals and why they’re so popular with the public, is because they push the limits of what modern app technology can do. “The best apps are often the best because of something in its design that makes it an app – like the use of the touchscreen or accelerometer – rather than it just being a mobile website or something that just delivers content. Pushing the limit.”

Philip Kirwan, a mobile developer who has worked on a number of public service apps with his company Showoff, including for the Garda Siochana, fire, hospital and bus services, as well as in games, agrees that gaming is ahead of the curve in terms of development, and says that it will be for some time to come. “The biggest genre has always been gaming apps and probably always will be,” he explains. “Everybody loves a game of angry birds every now and then.”

Kirwan says that another rapidly growing app genre is education, which is “changing the face of the education system and the way people learn by making it fun and interactive.”

One of the most popular Irish educational apps of recent times is Numerosity,which developed by Irish educational technology provider ThoughtBox, has to date received over 20,000 downloads from a multitude of high value markets around the world, including Brazil and Germany, and has been translated into six languages.

The app is one of hundreds that has seen Irish developers prosper at home and abroad. Another is Grace, which is designed to aid autistic children in their learning, and for Kirwan is the stand-out Irish developed app.

Duggan warns however, that while app development can be a rewarding and lucrative experience, it isn’t for everyone and it takes a lot of hard work and more than one app to make a business. The lecturer, who himself has released an app onto the market – Tunepal, a search engine-based tool for traditional music enthusiasts – explains that “There isn’t much money in a single app – it depends on what the app does. Apps alone don’t make that much money – maybe a couple of thousand quid a year and that’s not enough generally to cover the cost.”

“There’s loads of apps on IOS that’s never had a single download. It’s not a golden goose.”

Both Duggan and Kirwan agree that there is much more room for apps to expand into and that the technology is nowhere near peaking.

One trend Kirwan says he is beginning to notice in his own business is a growing demand for finance orientated apps, which although they have been around for a while, continue to grow in popularity.

While apps this year and next will more than likely remain compatible with today’s technology, one thing that’s a sure bet is that apps will continue to evolve at considerable speed. “Modern android apps look nothing like android apps two years ago so there’s a constant recylcing and that’s just going to accelerate. The app didn’t exist before the iPhone, and even then there was no app store. As devices become more powerful – and that’s just been the trend in this industry for the last 30 years or so,” Duggan explains.

Exactly what apps will look like in five or 10 years time is anyone’s guess, but with the pace at which our third level institutions are churning out computer science graduates, it’s certain that Irish minds will be on the frontline.