Tech Tent - gaming futures, Uber culture and a rocket man

Rory Cellan-Jones
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It was the week when the gaming console wars took a new turn, when accusations of a poisonous culture at Uber saw the founder take a leave of absence - and when a real-life rocket man wowed a gathering of elite tech founders and investors. That's all in this week's edition of Tech Tent.

Console battles

Image copyright Microsoft
Image caption No mention of VR in the unveiling of the Xbox One X

The E3 expo in Los Angeles is the biggest event in the games calendar, the place to see where the industry is heading. Back in 2005, when I first attended, Sony unveiled the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft showed off its Xbox 360, setting the scene for a titanic battle between the two giants - although Nintendo's Wii turned out to be a more engaging and disruptive force in the console wars than anyone had expected.

In recent years, amid all the excitement about mobile and social gaming, we have heard plenty of predictions that the days of the console are numbered. But somebody failed to tell Microsoft which this week unveiled the Xbox One X, a high spec and high priced slimline machine that offers 4K high definition gaming.

What was missing from the unveiling event was any mention of virtual reality, the technology that has promised to transform gaming. Dave Lee asked Xbox's Phil Spencer about that omission and got a fairly non-committal answer which suggested Microsoft saw VR as something tied to a computer rather than a games console.

Perhaps the company has concluded that the hardcore gamers who will be the customers for the Xbox One X are quite conservative about new technology.

After all, they showed little interest in the Kinect motion sensor which was once touted as the future of gaming.

Poisonous culture

Image copyright ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty
Image caption Uber founder Travis Kalanick has taken a leave of absence from the firm

Throughout the short life of the taxi app business Uber, its founder has seemed to revel in conflict. Travis Kalanick seemed to take Silicon Valley's mantra of disruption all too literally - he intended to shake up the transport industry, and if that meant disrupting regulations, unions and the labour laws along the way, well so be it.

But now the effect of that culture on his own staff - and in particular female employees - has come home to roost. After a series of scandals - and a report for investors detailing a misogynistic and unprofessional culture - the CEO has agreed to take an indefinite leave of absence.

Adam Lashinsky wrote a book called Wild Ride about what he called Uber's quest for world domination. He tells us that the problems inside the business seems deeper and more systemic than anyone had thought. He says Uber is "a juvenile company that, if it is going to succeed, needs to become a more mature company".

Having received almost $9bn in backing from venture capital funds, you might think that Uber had enough money to ignore any criticism. But Lashinsky warns that if those investors turn against the firm and sue to get their money back, there is an existential threat to Uber.

Rocket man

Image copyright Richard Browning
Image caption Richard Browning practised his flights in Wiltshire in the UK

If you want to get a feel for the wealth and sheer power of the tech sector, then my advice is to head for the Founders Forum. This event, now in its 12th year, attracts wealthy founders of technology companies, along with investors - and a clutch of start-ups eager to make connections and possibly raise some money.

We have a report from this year's event at a country club on the fringes of London. It's an amazing place to network - I found myself chatting to the founder of chip designer Arm, the investor who first introduced me to Spotify, and the woman who started Mumsnet. The boss of BT brushed past, and across the room I spotted Google's European chief.

The speakers included Prince William and the former prime minister David Cameron - though as the whole event takes place under the Chatham House Rule I can't report what they said.

In any case, the real interest is in the new technologies introduced to a crowd looking for a home for their billions. This year, inevitably, everything seemed to come with AI attached - there was even a start-up promising to use artificial intelligence to improve the process of networking at events like this.

But it was two transport innovations that appeared to spark most enthusiasm. Lilium is a German start-up which has made what it describes as the world's first fully electric vertical take off and landing jet. The plan is to use it to take passengers on short hops, say from Manhattan to JFK airport, apparently removing the evils of pollution and congestion from cities.

Eventually it would become an autonomous aircraft, with no pilot on board. All sorts of regulatory and safety issues come to mind but the project has already received ample funding. Founders Forum lapped it up.

But it was a demo of a technology that has always seemed a fantasy, the personal jetpack, which had the wealthy crowd oohing and aahing on the lawn behind the hotel.

Richard Browning, a former oil trader, fired up the six micro gas turbines strapped around his body and hovered 20ft off the ground for a minute. It was not exactly clear that this technology had practical applications - but, as he said, it was a lot of fun.

And after all those complaints that we were promised jetpacks and all we got was Twitter, how refreshing to see someone with the ambition and vision to make a sci-fi dream come true.

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