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E3 Post-Mortem

Now that the pixilated dust has settled on the E3 videogame convention, what will remain?  Plenty.   As I blogged before, the big technology innovations include:  Microsoft’s motion-sensing camera, Kinect; Sony’s motion-remotes, Move; Sony’s 3D games; and Nintendo’s 3DS.  But what about the rest?

Here’s a rundown of ten games to look for in the months to come:

Def Jam Rapstar:   Music games have never quite nailed a hip-hop title, but this one from start-up 4mm promises to pick up the beat.  The game measures your ability to rap in sync with a classic playlist of tunes, and, best of all, battle head to head with other players.   

RAGE:   The latest from id Software is another showcase for programmer John Carmack.  Carmack’s new graphics engine renders sweeping outdoor environments, allowing for the game’s off-road driving adventures.  Creeptastic mutants attack with fluidly realistic animations that are astonishing for an Xbox. 

Portal 2:   Valve’s highly anticipated sequel to the cult fave 2007 game earned plenty of fanboys at E3.  Once again, the game puts an Escher-like twist on action titles, letting you navigate environments through inter-connected portals. 

Dead Space 2:   Quite simply, the freakiest, spookiest sci-fi game to come around since BioShock.  This sequel pumps out way more of the zero-gravity action that made the first so unique. 

Epic Mickey:   Veteran game designer Warren Spector takes Disney’s coveted mouse into bold new territory with this heavily-hyped platform game.  The title includes meticulously rendered recreations of classic Disney environs, such as the black-and-white Steamboat Willie cartoon.

Little Big Planet 2:    LBP was easily the most giddily original game ever to hit the PS3.  The sequel puts more creativity into players’ paws, letting them create their own role playing game and strategy game experiences using the built-in editors. 

Dance Central:   Goofy, but addictive, this is one of the few games shown that truly takes advantage of Microsoft’s new Kinect camera.  Look for it to be a big hit with kids, and maybe even get adopted in schools where physical education teachers are already using games like Dance Dance Revolution to get students moving.

APB:   From Dave Jones, creator of Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown, this massively multiplayer online action game pits Enforcers and Criminals against each other.   Skeptics have dismissed it as GTA online, but that misses all the innovation here – like the incredible customization options.  You can even script your own death theme when you blow opponents away.  

Mafia II:  Epic and elaborately detailed, is an open world action game set in the 1940s and 50s.   It’s heavily character-based, as you navigate a returning WWII through a life of crime in the mob.

Rock Band 3:   Multiple vocals, check.  Customizable playlists, ready.  But the next generation of the play-along-with-the-music game is all about something more innovative:  getting real.  Harmonix is releasing real MIDI instruments that you can use in game – or out of game – with the hope of making players more like actual musicians. 

I'm Buying My Next Cell Phone in San Francisco

It may take years before researchers figure out whether cell phone radiation carries long-term risks or is completely benign. The Interphone study, released in May, was supposed to settle the matter; it didn’t.

Meanwhile, governments regulate the amount of radiation mobile devices can emit—the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR). They do this because the science is clear on one way radiation can damage cells—by generating heat. Limiting the SAR limits the amount of heat generated to a recognized safe level. Countries differ in how they set these limits; in the U.S., the number is 1.6 watts per kilogram. Researchers are investigating other ways radiation can affect human tissues besides heating them, but this issue has yet to be settled, or reflected in a standard.

Someone like me, who doesn’t want to hide under a rock until cell phones are either given a clean bill of health or proven dangerous, might want to choose a cell phone with as low a SAR number as possible. (They range from 0.1 to the maximum 1.6.) That person might be particularly careful when purchasing a phone for a child—it turns out that children’s brains absorb radiation differently. In recognition of this, a number of European agencies have warned parents to limit their children’s cell phone use.

I set out to find a low-SAR phone the last time I purchased a cell phone. It wasn’t, however, easy to get those numbers, particularly standing inside the store looking at phones. (They can be buried in manuals or data sheets packed with the phones, they sure aren’t on display.) Standing in the store, I spent about 20 minutes on the phone with a customer service rep at a call center, and he managed to eventually find the information. The phone I settled on had a moderate SAR of 0.54.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only shopper frustrated by how hard it is to get this information. This week, the San Francisco board of supervisors passed a law requiring retailers to post SAR data or face a fine. The law goes into effect in February.

The CTIA, the association that represents wireless manufacturers, is not happy about the San Francisco law, the first of its kind in the country. The CTIA says SAR information is irrelevant, and that no phones are safer than other phones. (I suppose CTIA members would rather compete on camera megapixels and apps and music capacity rather than radiation levels.) So it is going to make San Francisco pay—the CTIA is taking its annual trade show, held for the last seven years in San Francisco, elsewhere.

Wow. That’s like the cheese industry freaking out because they have to list fat grams on their labels.

But I can vote with my feet, too. The next time I buy a cell phone, I’ll be going to a retailer in San Francisco.

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How 3D is Nintendo's "Glasses-Free" Game System?

While at E3 in LA this week, I got to spend some more time playing around with the Nintendo 3DS, the upcoming "glasses-free" 3D version of the popular handheld game system.  Nintendo was showing a few limited applications of the device, including the camera feature, two playable games, and some video demos.   

 

The 3DS looks like the current DS, with two screens – a touch screen on the bottom half of the device, and the 3D screen on top.  One of Nintendo’s challenges will be marketing this device to the general public, since you can’t really appreciate the glasses-free visuals unless you’re eyeballing it live.  This is why, at the press conference, Nintendo quickly dispersed dozens of models into the audience to let attendees check it out first-hand.  During my extended time with the 3DS later, I tried to put myself in the mind of a kid picking it up for the first time – and heard a resounding “awesome!” echo in my brain.  But my grown-up brain had a few quibbles.

Though Nintendo isn’t revealing technical specs yet, the 3D image is rendered on the top screen of the 3DS without the need for the Real-D or Dolby glasses used at homes and theaters.  The 3D image isn’t as in-your-face as one you might find in a theater, but the depth and precision is striking.   Two camera lenses on the back of the device are used when you snap 3D photos, and the effect is mesmerizing (even when I just snapped my outstretched hand). A thumbpad on the left side of the 3DS lets you shift the image to change perspective. 

Impressed by the still images, I dove into the gameplay.  Nintendo showed two  flying games, which feature  a long depth of field.  Zooming around the sky while firing off torpedoes into the distance looked amazing.  The moments when other ships drifted behind mine were wow-worthy. At several points in the games, however, I found my eyes slipping momentarily out of focus – sort of like the feeling I used to have reading those Magic Eye 3D books several years ago.  The Nintendo rep showing me the device explained that “everyone’s eyes are different" (really?), which is why the 3DS includes a slider on the right side of the device allows you to toggle between a 3D and a 2D version of the images.  I supposed the occasional toggling is a small price to play for not having to wear glasses (let alone find them hidden or broken in your sofa cushions). 

Overall, the 3DS is extremely impressive, and surely will be a must-have for grown up game geeks and schoolyard players.  But…it’s just a start.   I’m surprised though that Nintendo didn’t demo games designed more specifically with 3D in mind – rather than 3D versions of familiar franchises.  The Nintendo Wii launched with specially designed titles (like Wii Tennis) that genuinely redefined what videogames can be.  It’s  disappointing that Nintendo didn’t make the same effort when debuting the 3DS.  I’m sure visionaries like Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto and others are dreaming up all new kinds of game experiences that will exploit 3D for its fullest potential.  But for now we’ll have to wait to see if and when they deliver. 

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Hands-On With the Hottest New Games

Day Two of the Electronic Entertainment Expo here in Los Angeles, and that means exclusive hands/eyes-on time with the groundbreaking new technologies at the show.

First up, Kinect - Microsoft's motion-sensing camera that promises "controller-free" gaming.  Yesterday, I got to hear Microsoft's PR spiel on Kinect at the opening press conference.  But you can't really get a feel for these new interfaces until you try them out for yourself.   So what's the verdict?  The first few of the half dozen demos I tried out today left me feeling a little bit...meh. 

Kinect Adventures, a sort of extreme outdoor sports obstacle course with rafting and roller-coastering, aims to get players jumping, smacking, ducking, and leaning for points.  But a noticeable lag time between my movements and my avatar's on-screen gave the action a gimmicky feel (something, although, that will probably go lost on the target audience of families and kids).  Sadly, Kinectimals - the virtual tiger pet game - failed to impress hands-on for the same reason.  It gets high points for cuteness, but the most interactive moments - like reaching out to "pet" the cat - felt canned, especially when the animated representation of your fingers on screen wiggle out of cue.  Your Shape:  Fitness Evolved fairs much better, delivering a convincingly precise exercise training experience.  For example, the yoga routines measure the (fairly) exact angles of your squats as you stretch, scoring/correcting you on-the-fly.  Look for this to be big with the Wii Fit home fitness crowd.  The best of the Kinect bunch is definitely Dance Central, a boogie-along-with-the-avatars game that's giddy enough to distract players from any inaccuracies. 

Over at Sony, the much-hyped 3D games were also hit and miss.  More than once, it took some adjusting to get the 3D viewing to snap into focus - and moving around while gaming didn't help.  Killzone 3 in 3D, however, was suitably awesome once it clicked in, proving that fast action videogames could be a huge sell in getting consumers to adopt 3D televisions in the years to come.  While Sony's motion-sensing controller, called Move, feels more responsive than the wireless remote for the Nintendo Wii, it also feels like a bit of a me-too afterthought.  A gladiator game delivers the most pow, as you use two Move controllers to wield your shield and hammer.  No games come close to the aha moment delivered when Nintendo first demoed Wii Tennis here at E3 a few years ago. 

In fact, some of the best games at E3 have nothing to do with 3D or motion-gaming.  Little Big Planet 2, the sequel to the wildly creative Playstation 3 game, adds even more dynamic tools for do-it-yourself players (who can now design their own strategy and action mini-games too).  Rock Band 3, the upcoming music game from the Cambridge-based developer Harmonix (whom I profiled for Spectrum magazine), adds a real MIDI keyboard and multiple vocalists for tracks.  During a behind-closed-doors preview, I got to try out maybe the coolest peripheral ever - the Fender Mustang Pro, a real MIDI guitar controller with 150 buttons.  Players will also be able to plug in an actual electric Stratocaster guitar, since the game can now parse which strings you press. Yes, this is the school of rock for the Xbox generation.  And who says videogames don't teach you anything of value?

5 Missing iPad Accessories

So, err, how to put this? We published a humorous slideshow about iPad accessories and said slideshow uses Flash, so our readers can't see it on an iPad. D'oh! So for those of you on an iPad, here's the story in an iPad-friendly version: good old HTML.

ipad accessories
Are you tired of cleaning fingerprints and greasy smudges off your iPad? Stop wiping and start iWiping. With iWipe, your slate will always be clean. Illustration: David Goldin

ipad accessories
Are you worried about using your new iPad in public? Introducing iCuffs. Now your iPad will never leave your hands—and vice versa. Illustration: David Goldin

ipad accessories
Did you know that falls are a main cause of iPad damage? Now avoiding crashes just got a lot easier. iChute gives your iPad a soft landing. Illustration: David Goldin

ipad accessories  
Do your hands get tired while holding your iPad? Do you feel ridiculous using it on your lap? Don’t stress over it. Get a helping hand with iHold. Illustration: David Goldin

ipad accessories
Do your eyes hurt from the sunlight reflected off your iPad? Are you tired of squinting at the screen? Then you need iShade. (Includes iCupHolder.) Illustration: David Goldin

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Early Videogame Buzz at E3

The first (official) day of E3 videogame convention started today, and already there are clear standouts:3D and motion-gaming, as I anticipated. Here’s my initial take: 

Kinect

Formerly known as Project Natal, Microsoft’s controller-free, voice-command, motion-sensing cam captured much of the buzz after the big press conference yesterday.Is it cool?Yeah – though not entirely for the reasons you expect. Hardcore gamers have been (loudly) grumbling about whether a wave-your-hands-to-move interface will have any relevance for them. Maybe it won’t. I’d still rather play shooters like Halo Reach with the precision of an old-fashioned controller. But hardcore gamers aren’t the sell here. Instead, look for casual gamers to flock to this device. And there are three games here that are reason alone to buy the Xbox 360 add-on. First, Kinectimals. This kid’s virtual pet game is in the vein of Nintendogs. The demo shows a girl playing with a cuddly tiger who jumps when she jumps, purrs when she tickles it, and whimpers when she hides off camera – a must-have for girls under 12. The next Kinect hit, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.This is clearly Microsoft’s Wii Fit killer for cardio and yoga enthusiasts. The game measures you instantly down to your waist size and arm length, tailoring workouts accord to your progress. But the biggest smash – Dance Central, a dance game from Harmonix, creators of Guitar and Rock Band. Dance games like Dance Dance Revolution have a long history of success, particularly in Japan, and Dance Central has all the makings of a global phenomenon. Instead of dancing on pads, you move freely in the game, mimicking the moves of dancers on screen. Score! But my personal favorite Kinect innovation – making my TV viewing remote control increasingly obsolete. In addition to playing games, Kinect lets you choose, view, and manage your videos and films without looking for the clicker. That means all the streaming Netflix and Zune content to the Xbox 360 can be navigated just by flicking your hand or voicing commands. And with ESPN striking an (awesome) deal to bring 3500 on-demand live sport events to the Xbox 360, it means no more rifling for the remote under your couch cushions.

Nintendo 3DS

Yes, it looks like real 3D. I got an early look at the new Nintendo 3DS handheld game unit, the 3DS, and the glasses-free 3D actually works. It’s not quite as in-your-face as, say, watching Avatar, but it definitely pops out at you. Nintendo is touting the beefed-up graphics processor and the two screens of the unit, which enable them to pull off this spectacle-free spectacle. I’m impressed.

Sony Playstation 3D

Because Sony has end-to-end 3D technology, from the game systems to the 3D TVs, the company rightly put its muscle behind this innovation. The demo of this first person action game, Killzone 3, looked incredible – from the waves splashing up against the arctic bergs, to the blood dripping down the contours of your goggles. It almost made me upset that I didn’t buy my 3D TV yet after all. Of course, a lot of people will make noises about how few consumers have 3D yet, but all in due time. Killzone 3 proves that some games – particularly first person shooters – will look waaaaaay better in 3D, since this genre of games has always been aping 3D since its inception. Doom 4 in 3D please.

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How Much Water Did It Take To Make Your Cellular Phone?

IEEE Spectrum’s June special report on the water-energy nexus reminds us of how little we know about how much clean water is required to enjoy the comforts of the modern age. Take for instance the electronics we use every day. Just how thirsty is the chip making industry? Extrapolating from recent reports that a new ultrapure water system that GE is designing and building for a Global Foundries semiconductor fab under construction in upstate New York will need to filter millions of liters of water a day, the answer is: very thirsty.

Why? Chip making processes require each wafer to be rinsed more than 30 times. And while the reports made no mention of how much of the facility's wastewater will be recycled, Intel boasts of having received U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awards for reclaiming 25 percent of its wastewater.

Major Chip Makers Expand Production in the West

A couple of major chip makers seem to be bucking the trend that has seen most of the world’s manufacturing firms scramble to set up shop in places where there are leagues of technically skilled people willing to accept a fraction of the prevailing wages in the United States and Western Europe. Globalfoundries, which was already in the process of building a chip fabrication facility in upstate New York, recently announced that it will tack on an additional 27 800 square meters of clean room space. The move, which will allow the fab to turn out 60 000 22-nanometer wafers per month when it is completed in 2012, will mean dozens of new jobs in the area. The company also announced an expansion of its Dresden, Germany, facility where it will eventually make 28 nm wafers. The output there is slated to reach 80 000 units a month.

Meanwhile, Samsung is readying a new production line at its Austin, Texas, semiconductor manufacturing facility that will create 500 new jobs. The addition, which will be the site of 45-nm LSI logic chip wafer production, is expected to come on line in 2011.

These moves come after Intel’s 2009 announcement that it will spend US $7 billion to upgrade its Oregon, Arizona, and New Mexico factories so they can do 32-nm production. Intel says the investment will create or save about 7000 U.S. jobs.

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The Videogame Circus Begins

Last night in Los Angeles, Microsoft herded journalists into a big room, dressed them in weird ponchos, and set loose a troupe of Cirque du Soleil dancers overhead.  

Oh yeah, and it all had something to do with videogames.

The occasion was the kick-off of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo - the bachannalian convention better known as E3.  Microsoft wasted no time hyping The Motion Capture Camera Formerly Known as Project Natal, now christened Kinect.  If you've been reading this blog, then you know that Kinect isn't new - I was one of the journalists who got a hands-on preview of it at last year's E3.   But now it's going wide - expected to hit the Xbox 360 in November.  There was little in the way of games shown last night, but I'll be at Microsoft's press conference today to hear/see more.

Despite the fact that no new videogame consoles are hitting this year, the convention promises to be heavy on hardware hype.  The Kinect camera will be getting much of the buzz, along with Nintendo's new 3D handheld system, the 3DS and, in third place, Sony's after-the-fact motion sensing Move controllers.  Yes, this means a host of new kinds of game experiences on the horizon - but the horizon may be further off than it seems.  A true golden age in gaming - like the one first coined in the 80s - really has nothing to do with technology.  It's about iconic and addictive games that don't necessarily look or feel that impressive at all (see Pong, C64, etc.). 

The last "revolution" in gameplay came with the Nintendo Wii, and some of the most unlikely and ubiquitous titles for that game were not even a faint dream at launch (Wii Fit, for example).  I suspect it'll be several months before we really see games that deliver on the HUGE hype behind Kinect and company.  

Cheap, wireless, automatic backyard sprinkler control

Maybe it’s just because as the editors of IEEE Spectrum have lately been paying a lot of attention to the problem of water conservation, and the coming clash between water and energy, but right now any easy, inexpensive way to cut back on water usage seems like a good idea to me.

And Digital Sun, a startup company based in San Jose, Calif., purports to have such an idea (I have yet to try it for myself). They presented their product, at Launch: Silicon Valley, an annual conference sponsored by the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs, held Tuesday, June 8, in Mountain View, Calif.

Digital Sun has developed a system that includes sensor that goes into a hole you cut in the dirt with a wireless receiver that you attach to your existing sprinkler control box. The sensor uses a proprietary wireless communications protocol over a very low power 2.4 GHz signal, sent through the dirt, to override the sprinkler timer if it’s due to start watering cycle already damp ground. Digital Sun CEO Dale Hitt explained the technology to me, in the video below.

Right now, the basic package—one sensor, the receiver, and a tool that cuts a hole in the ground for the sensor—retails for $200. The company attended the Launch conference in hopes of attracting enough venture investment to move their manufacturing offshore, which would enable them to cut their price below $100 and get into Home Depot and other low-cost retailers.

I think they’re on the right track. In fact, I might suggest their product to a few neighbors, whose sprinklers seem set to “create swamp” rather than “water lawn.” Just a thought.

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