Microsoft Power Apps update includes new Common Data Service

Microsoft announced the spring update to its Power BI and Power Apps platform today with a significant enhancement, a new common data service that enables companies to build data-based applications from a variety of data sources.

This is part of a wider strategy that is designed to remove some of the complexity associated with gathering, processing and incorporating data into applications.

Microsoft is essentially giving customers access to the same set of tools and services it has used internally to build Dynamics 365, its enterprise suite of tools that includes CRM, marketing automation and field service along with enterprise resource planning tools (ERP).

While the company has been allowing third party developers to build application on the platform for about 18 months with its Power Apps tools, they haven’t been able to take advantage of the data under the hood without some heavy lifting. Microsoft aims to change that with the Common Data Service.

Diagram: Microsoft

“What that service means, practically speaking, is that it’s not only a place to store data, but a model (schema) that is stamped out there with everything you would need to build a business app around [elements] such as contacts, events, customers [and so forth], Ryan Cunningham, Microsoft program manager for Power Apps explained. This allows the programmer to take advantage of pre-built relationships and rules and how they should be enforced without having to code them from scratch.

Cunningham points out that they tried to make it fairly simple to build the apps, while still providing a level of customization and the ability to use Microsoft data or data from another source. That’s where the Common Data Store comes in.

He says that developers can take advantage of the 200 connectors that come pre-built out of the box and connect to all that data you’ve been collecting in the Microsoft products, but they aren’t limited to the Microsoft data. “You can still build custom applications on top of the platform, and get the benefit of the platform we’ve built our tools on,” he said.

The Common Data Store is part of a much broader set of announcements around the spring releases of Dynamics 365, Office 365 and Power BI platforms all announced today.

CryptoKitties raises $12M from Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures

CryptoKitties, the virtual collectible kitten game that turned into a viral sensation has raised $12M in funding and will be spun out from Axiom Zen, the Vancouver and San Francisco-based design studio that originally built the game.

The round is being led by Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures, both of which have quickly developed a reputation for backing fast-growing cryptocurrency startups like Coinbase. A bunch of notable angels also participated, including Naval Ravikant (CEO and founder of AngelList), Mark Pincus (founder of Zynga) and Fred Ehrsam (founder of Coinbase) among others.

So what are CryptoKitties? They’re essentially digital collectibles built on top of the Ethereum blockchain. Each one is unique and has certain attributes that make them rare and desirable, almost like a digital beanie baby. And users are spending tons of real money on them, with some of the rarest kitties fetching over $100,000 when the game first launched.

While the startup is being pretty mum on what the future looks like and what they’re planning on using this funding for, it’s almost certain that the long term goal is to expand beyond CryptoKitties and use the same Ethereum ERC-721 collectible standard to create other game experiences, especially ones that can be played by regular people who are unfamiliar with cryptocurrency.

To this note, Fred Wilson of USV quickly outlined the firm’s thesis behind investing in CryptoKitties, saying “we think digital collectibles is one of many amazing things that blockchains enable that literally could not be done before this technology emerged. We also think digital collectibles and all of the games they enable will be one of the first, if not the first, big consumer use cases for blockchain technologies.” 

If you want to find out more about how CryptoKitties works check out our original story here.

Researchers find the best way to press a button

When all you have is a finger everything looks like a button . But what happens if you’re unable to press buttons or, more likely, we begin using robots and other tools to interact with the real world? That’s what researchers at Aalto University, Finland, and KAIST, South Korea wanted to find out when they started examining how humans tap buttons.

“This research was triggered by admiration of our remarkable capability to adapt button-pressing”, said Professor Antti Oulasvirta at Aalto University. “We push a button on a remote controller differently than a piano key. The press of a skilled user is surprisingly elegant when looked at terms of timing, reliability, and energy use. We successfully press buttons without ever knowing the inner workings of a button. It is essentially a black box to our motor system. On the other hand, we also fail to activate buttons, and some buttons are known to be worse than others.”

During their study, they assessed the push buttons – buttons with actual travel – were more usable than touch buttons and that the best buttons were the ones that reacted at time of maximum impact. The researchers created something called “Impact Activation.” These buttons activate only when they are fully pressed, thereby ensuring that users will know exactly when they are and are not tapping a key on a keyboard or even a musical instrument.

From their release:

The simulations shed new light on what happens during a button press. One problem the brain must overcome is that muscles do not activate as perfectly as we will, but every press is slightly different. Moreover, a button press is very fast, occurring within 100 milliseconds, and is too fast for correcting movement. The key to understanding button-pressing is therefore to understand how the brain adapts based on the limited sensations that are the residue of the brief press event.

The researchers argue that the key capability of the brain is a probabilistic model: The brain learns a model that allows it to predict a suitable motor command for a button. If a press fails, it can pick a very good alternative and try it out. “Without this ability, we would have to learn to use every button like it was new,” tells Professor Byungjoo Lee from KAIST. After successfully activating the button, the brain can tune the motor command to be more precise, use less energy and to avoid stress or pain. “These factors together, with practice, produce the fast, minimum-effort, elegant touch people are able to perform.”

How can we use this information in our daily lives? Well, this research suggests that high-travel, clicky keys with switches from Cherry and other “tactile” keyboard makers could be better for us, neurologically, than keyboards with less precise travel. Further, it shows us that the best interfaces are physical and not touchscreen, something that anyone who has tried to play touchscreen-based fast-twitch video games can attest.

Further, the researchers discovered that button pressing is an acquired skill and perhaps we were right to force ourselves to let Mavis Beacon teach us keyboarding. “We believe that the brain picks up these skills over repeated button pressings that start already as a child. What appears easy for us now has been acquired over years,” said Lee.