Tech Update (October 2017)

Andy Cormack gives us the heads up on what’s on the horizon in hardware and technology, giving you the lowdown on the next big thing.  

This month, he looks at Facebook’s new VR platform, Facebook Spaces, Oculus’ new VR headset, a glance at Microsoft’s efforts to add a bit more polish to Windows 10, and looks at a vunerability in the WPA2 Wi-Fi security protocol.

Facebook Spaces

Both Mark Zuckerberg and social VR chief Rachel Franklin put on some Oculus Rift headsets and dived into Facebook Spaces, Facebook’s VR social platform that was officially announced last year at Oculus Connect 3, to make a short live broadcast talking about their relief efforts in Puerto Rico and showing off Spaces.

The timing of this broadcast was no coincidence however, as the latest Oculus Connect 4 event was just around the corner days after the broadcast.

Most of the event was taken up with Zuckerberg and Franklin playing around with the system, going to different ‘spaces’. and explaining some of the reasons you’d want to use Spaces, compared to just video chat, highlighting that the technology makes larger meetings between more than two or three people a lot less confusing, as body language which is invisible from meetings online can now be seen, such as eye contact and other visual cues are how we interact with each other.

While the broadcast was attempting to be lighthearted, I couldn’t help but feel that the cartoonish avatars and relatively informal approach to the broadcast somehow cheapened the serious message they were trying to convey, regarding the suffering happening in Puerto Rico and of their commitment to helping with the relief fund and the Red Cross.

Criticism was also heard far and wide on the internet, calling him a “heartless billionaire”, and describing the broadcast a “corporate stunt exploiting [the] disaster”. We won’t know for sure how much of it was a “corporate stunt”, but it’s hard not to consider the timing and general approach taken here. Zuckerberg has said that Facebook had donated over $1.5 million to the relief fund for Puerto Rico, and is using AI to help map the population to aid the Red Cross in making decisions, such as where to go to help the most people possible.

Oculus Go Headset 

Trailing on from the previous topic, the Oculus Connect event that happened days after the aforementioned Facebook Spaces live VR broadcast brings with it some interesting news at the keynote.

After the reveal last year of a prototype standalone Oculus headset that requires no separate computer or smartphone in order to work, Zuckerberg reveals Oculus Go to the world as a finished product; all the necessities are packed into the headset itself and the device comes in at a surprisingly affordable $199 price.

Some of the marketing jargon and touted features of the Go from the website includes a mention that it is designed with breathable fabrics, it is comfortable and fully adjustable and can even be used with glasses. It has crystal-clear optics with integrated spatial audio, and optimized 3D graphics which come together to ‘bring your virtual world to life’.

After this, Zuckerberg goes on to talk about the next steps in this same technology, currently codenamed “Santa Cruz”. It packs in the standalone capabilities of the Go headset, with the six degrees of freedom controllers that improve the freedom and immersion of the VR experience as a whole.  Improved golf swing simulation…more accurate casting of your virtual fishing rod.  You get the gist.

Microsoft flaunts Fluent Design update coming to Windows 10

Windows 10 has arguably been a mixed bag since its launch back in July 2015, with shady and excessively pushy update notifications on their older operating systems, less than stellar features, poor app store consumer uptake and support, varying degrees of failures to help improve gaming, and incredibly limiting customisation options that include even removing features and options that existed in previous iterations of the operating system.

While all of these shortcomings may not have been addressed or improved, one way Microsoft hopes to improve on the user experience is their user interface. Many, myself included, were rather dismayed with the lack of cohesion in the interface, where many different parts of Windows 10 feel like they were, and probably were, designed by separate teams in different stages of the development process; some parts have the new square flat design while others stick to the older Windows 7 style visuals, and with some parts light and some dark depending on user customisation instead of all one or the other. And don’t get me started on the incredibly lacklustre built-in app offerings that shipped with the operating system.

By introducing Fluent Design, Microsoft is attempting to rectify this lack of cohesion and solidify a more unified look over the whole system. They recently released a video showcasing the visual improvements, the first part of which will be in the Fall Creators Update.

WPA2 Wi-Fi security protocol may be vulnerable

The Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) protocol, the modern standard for the majority of modern Wi-Fi connections the world over, may have a severe vulnerability according to security researchers. While the vulnerability doesn’t allow an attacker to gain full access into the network, it does mean those within Wi-Fi range can eavesdrop on the traffic being transmitted over it, and could if inclined to do so, potentially inject malicious data.

The proof of concept attack, entitled KRACK (Key Reinstallation Attack) was developed while researching this vulnerability, and the website discussing it with more details is krackattacks.com.  It has also been described in detail in a research paper by Mathy Vanhoef and Frank Piessens at the University of Leuven in Belgium..

The site outlines all the details about the vulnerability: “Our main attack is against the 4-way handshake of the WPA2 protocol. This handshake is executed when a client wants to join a protected Wi-Fi network, and is used to confirm that both the client and access point possess the correct credentials (eg: the pre-shared password of the network). At the same time, the 4-way handshake also negotiates a fresh encryption key that will be used to encrypt all subsequent traffic. Currently, all modern protected Wi-Fi networks use the 4-way handshake. This implies all these networks are affected by (some variant of) our attack.”

It continues on to discuss the details of the attack and examples, then steers towards the practical impacts of this discovered vulnerability.  In short, the initiators of such an attack can decrypt packets sent by the targeted clients, so they can intercept sensitive information. By instigating a key reinstallation attack causes the transmitting packet numbers  – known also as nonces – to be reset to zero. Because of this, the same encryption key is then used with the reset nonce values which have already been used, causing the WPA2 protocol to reuse the same keystream when encrypting packets. If that packet is known content, it then becomes comparitively easy to work out the keystream, which can then be used to decode any traffic using the same reset nonce.

Tech Update – September 2017

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