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Bill Gates' Vision of Computer Vision

In case you didn't catch Meet the Press this Sunday, Bill Gates made an appearance.  The segment mainly dealt with his foundation, but dabbled a bit with technology.  Specifically, Gates discussed the future of interface - how keyboards and mice are just one means of interaction.   Here's an excerpt:

"Bill Gates, founder, Microsoft: We'll also have computers we can talk to, computers that can see what we're doing. So whether it's making a gesture in a business meeting to zoom in on a chart or try and look at what a house would be like before it's built, this idea of the computer seeing 3D displays and voice interaction leads you to where the keyboard and the mouse, which is how we think of the computer today, is not the only way we interact. It's a far more immersive, rich environment....

David Gregory, host, Meet the Press:
We can talk to each other?

Absolutely. You'll be able to put onto the wall of your office a video conference with whoever you'd like and have the computer listen to what's going on there and create a transcript and make it searchable. And so, natural interface, I think is the thing that people underestimate right now."

Of course the subtext here is Project Natal, the motion-sensing camera due next year.  Project Natal will allow gamers to manipulate action on screen without the use of controllers.  Miming as a race car driver is neat enough, but how about flipping through files like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.  That's where this is heading.  And this is another perfect example of how gaming drives innovation.  Project Natal's most immediate and compelling application is in the entertainment space.  Innovation/experimentation will happen here first, then trickle down into utility programs.

Xbox Alive with Facebook

It's been a week since Xbox Live launched access to Facebook on its online service - and the numbers are in.  Two million players logged on to Facebook through their game consoles.

This is a big deal.

Xbox Live was already a thriving social hub, combining gameplay, community, and chat.  Now with Facebook/Twitter access, it's unstoppable. What's Microsoft's big plan?  To build "the largest social network connected to the TV," as a spokesperson puts it.

It wasn't long ago that Microsoft was the new kid in console gaming - taking on Sony and Nintendo.  I remember going to the Microsoft campus months before Xbox launched, and leaving with the feeling that this was not just a console but a trojan horse to "own" the living room.  Now look at what's happened.  Sony has been dethroned, and Xbox Live is by far the coolest console community online. 

The UK Wants a Few Good Gamers

"A world of malicious hacking and miltiary conflict.   Of terrorism, money laundering, and international smuggling. No, not a game.  It's real."

Real, indeed.  This is the pitch in an advertisement running on Xbox Live - Microsoft's online gaming service - for the UK's Government Communications Headquarters, one of the country's three intelligence agencies.  GCHQ sees the Xbox as an efficient means through which to target engineers and coders.  "This means we can offer excellent training and careers for people with specialist technical skills," a GCHQ spokesperson told the Guardian, "However, the fact remains that many potential candidates remain unaware of GCHQ and what we do. Using video on Xbox LIVE helps carry our message to the right people in a creative and innovative manner."

This isn't the first time that a government has used games for recruitment.  The U.S. Army created a free online game called America's Army for this purpose.  According to Army Subcommittee Testimony from February 2000, the game is more effective recruiting soldiers than any other means. 



The Xbox Red Ring of Death

A few weeks ago, I booted up my Xbox 360 only to fine the power light flashing - rather ominously - red instead of the usual green. 


Unplugging, rebooting, cursing...nothing worked.

When I went online, I found I was hardly alone.  The so-called Red Ring of Death is a surprisingly common problem among Xbox owners.  How common?  Check out this study by CNET UK, which finds that an astonishing 60% of Xboxers have experienced the dreaded disaster.

CNET writes:  "Only 25 per cent of disappointed 360 owners had owned the console for more than 18 months before it broke, with 47 per cent reporting a failure inside a year. Seventy two per cent returned their Xbox to Microsoft, who extended the 360's warranty to three years after the console's problems became widely known. Fifteen per cent sought their own solution, such as repairing it themselves or giving up and throwing it under a bed. One miserable gamer reported, "I can't afford to get (the Xbox 360) fixed as it is out of warranty, so it sits in the spare room all lonely."

Count me among the 15% who gave up - at least temporarily.  Fortunately, I have a second Xbox which I'm using in the meantime (I gotta play Modern Warfare 2 somehow).  But  I've never had a problem with my PS3 or Wii, how can Microsoft allow this to happen?   

Gamers' Jesse James

By now, you’ve may have heard the legend of Colton “Colt” Harris-Moore.  The 18-year-old bandit has become the so-called Jesse James of the gamer generation.  Across the islands of Western Washington, he has been allegedly robbing homes, busting into ATMs, stealing laptops, hijacking boats, and, most dramatically, joyriding and crashing stolen planes in the woods.  He got the nickname the “barefoot burglar” after getting caught leaving crime scenes with no shoes.

Moore is still at large – and his legend is spreading fast, and selling.  What’s interesting is how this elusive criminal has become sort of like a real-life digital star, with a meta-game of "players" tracking him down.  The Colton Harris-Moore fan club now boasts 7,000 members, with posts from Iowa to Italy.  There are Colton Harris-Moore t-shirts, messenger bags, and bumper stickers.  Hackers set up fake Colton Harris-Moore email addresses to lure and dupe hapless Hollywood producers (it’s working).  “Fly Colt Fly!” is the motto of Moore-heads.  Something about this kid’s brash style and escapist dreams is seducing admirers across the Web.  This dude rocks,” posted one fan, “Reminds me of myself when I was his age. STAY FREE, COLT!!!!!!!”

Microsoft Gives Games the Boot

Infoweek reports that one million (!) gamers have been kicked off of Xbox Live, Microsoft's online gaming service, after being suspected of playing illegally downloaded games.\

Hackers are using mod chips to outwit the Digital Rights Management protection system on the console.  This isn't new. Check out a book called "Hacking the Xbox," which detailed how to pull off the trick. 

Thing is, people aren't just modding their consoles to play bootleg games.  They're also putting on their own operating systems, among other things.  Of course Microsoft needs to fight against piracy, but the company should consider how the mod communiy has benefited some of the biggest game companies around.  id Software, Valve, and Epic are among those who have embraced the modders, even opening up software to allow for greater personalization.  People - including some of those inside id Software, for example - thought this was a crazy idea at the time.  But the more ideological coders won out, and were proven right.  By allowing fans to tinker with wares, they vested an audience and increased the shelf life of products.  Is there a way to battle piracy while protecting this hobby?



Blind Gamer Rights

Gamespot has a pretty fascinating story today.  It's about a visually-impaired gamer who is suing Sony for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.   The player wants Sony to make online games accessible with features such as high-contrast graphics and audio compasses.  The suit has triggered a fair amount of debate online over a compelling issue - blind gamer rights.  

I once wrote a story about games for the blind.  One player created a program called Shades of Doom, a first person shooter played entirely with audio cues.  The blind gamer mod-community is highly-organized and skiled - maybe they can create modifications for some of Sony's online titles. 

Want to Make a Game? Get the Unreal Engine for Free.

From Gears of War to Unreal Tournament, Epic Games is known for great games and bleeding-edge technology.   And now you can add another bonus to the list - free software. 

The company just released the Unreal Development Kit for free online.  Download the software, and you can use the acclaimed engine to make your own titles.   Yes, there's a caveat - only for educational and non-commercial use.  But Epic - along with Valve Software in Bellevue, WA and id Software in Mesquite, TX - remains committed to nurturing the homebrew gaming scene.  It's worth noting that all three of these companies rose from the PC gaming underground, and have never forgotten their roots. 

Nintendo Eyes the Kindle

Gamers are using consoles to watch movies, but will they use them to read books?   Maybe so.  In an interview with the Financial Times, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata says “I’m interested because it’s a new business model in which the user doesn’t bear the communications cost."

Nintendo is actually already into the e-books business with a classic novel collection for the DS handheld.  I described this in a commentary for National Public Radio, which you can listen to here.   Or read the transcript:

Do gamers read? To me it's always been a silly thing to ask, like wondering if gamers sleep or wash. It's as if by picking up an Xbox controller, a person ceases to be human, that ordinary values and interests get unplugged, that after a few rounds of Grand Theft Auto, all that's left in front of the TV is a twitching Neanderthal with big thumbs and a tiny brain.

Players don't have to defend themselves against this charge anymore. Video game culture hit an important milestone with this year's release of the 100 Classic Books Collection for the Nintendo DS handheld game system. Plug the cartridge into your DS and you get a choice of electronic books to read - from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" to William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

The experience is ideally suited for the DS, which has two screens. Hold the DS upright and you'll see a page of text on each small menu. To turn pages, you tap the screen with your stylus. To keep your place, you press a button and a brightly-colored bookmark awaits your return.

There are gamey features, too. If you're not sure what you feel like reading, the DS will suggest a book based on how you answer a quick quiz about your mood. What did you dream about last night? Something scary? If so, then the pages of "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson might materialize on your screen.

Gamers who crave more atmosphere for their reads can select from ambient background audio like a soothing beach or bustling airport. And not to worry -if you burn through the 100 available books, with a wireless Internet connection, you can download more.

While a Nintendo DS won't replace Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, it marks a significant advance, just as Guitar Hero and Rock Band turned a new generation onto classic rock artists, like Rush and The Who, publishers and authors can now rethink how they reach this audience, too. Grand Theft Dickens may be coming your way soon.

Insomniac's New Game

I profiled Insomniac, makers of games including Resistance and Rachet & Clank, in a previous issue of IEEE Spectrum.  The company always manages to churn out great games that exhibit both sophisticated technology and addictive play.

But, according to this blog post from Insomniac's Mike Acton, the games are changing.  The company had long been making games under a certain formula - the higher the frame rate, the better.  But those days are done, Acton says.   "One of the long-standing sacred cows here at Insomniac is framerate," he writes, "We’ve long viewed a solid framerate as both a sign of a quality product and professionalism as developers. It’s always been point of pride in our work and considered an extremely serious part of our development process. However, during development, there are hard choices to be made between higher quality graphics and framerate. And we want to make the right choices that reflect our commitment to providing you with the best looking games out there. To that end, our community team did some research into the question of framerate. The results perhaps confirmed what I’ve known for a long time, but found it difficult to accept without evidence. They found that:  A higher framerate does not significantly affect sales of a game.  [AND] A higher framerate does not significantly affect the reviews of a game."

Read more here.



IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.

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