Oct 7

The results of our Second Life scavenger hunt:

- Five animals at a zoo

- Domestic university

- Foreign university

- Dragon

- View from the top of the Eiffel Tower

- Dance club

Oct 7

The concept of a “gamer” had always more closely resembled a homely troll of a person you might find camped in front of a screen in some dark, dank basement.  As disturbing as that image may be, the movement of gaming into the mainstream has done a lot to make it a thing of the past.  No longer is a gamer necessarily antisocial, teenage malcontent, but the designation could extend to those as varied as an aspiring four-year old to a grizzled veteran.  In the grand scheme of things, this has not been a lengthy transition (several decades or less), but in that short period of time, the video game industry has flourished, gaining millions more potential customers and a new sense of legitimacy.

Gilette Markets Specifically to Gamers?

The ubiquitous representation of video gaming’s stake to legitimacy today is the Nintendo Wii.  While it’s certainly a prime example of the industry reaching out to a whole new set of customers and users, the Wii is not the only movement in this direction.  Aside from the obvious copycat efforts by Microsoft and Sony with their motion controllers mimicking that of the Wii, the number of user friendly video games has been burgeoning, feeding off Nintendo’s success.  From Nintendo’s (arguably more successful) DS using a simple button configuration and stylus combination to the completely intuitive game play behind the Apple  iPhone/iPod games, it has become easier than ever for anyone to embrace video games.

While much has been of the excessive nature of childhood video game play, the positive aspects of playing video games are gaining attention.  Benefits such as improved visual processing and boosted cognitive skills are receiving attention in the press that might have seemed impossible 20 or even five years ago.  Also somewhat of a news phenomenon has been the elderly use of the Wii; specifically the proliferation of Wii Sports bowling leagues.  Essentially, by taking a risk and pushing the boundaries of what defined a video game buyer, and more specifically, a video game user, Nintendo opened up a world once belonging entirely to the aforementioned recluses to those who may have once been considered Luddites.

There is no doubt today that the video gaming industry has inexorably changed, but before Nintendo’s bold venture into casual gaming, many questioned their potential for success.  By abandoning the “hardcore” gamer demographic, Nintendo committed what some considered industry suicide.  Today, however, not only do video games seem to be ubiquitous (with cell phone gaming provide uninterrupted access), but gamers seem to be ubiquitous.  Surely, the hardcore gamers still exist, but it would not be unreasonable to find three generations of game players in the same household.  So acceptable it has become, gaming is likely to show up in the most unlikely of places:

Sep 29

A few of my thoughts on music more obscure than it should be (listen).

M83We Own the Sky off of Saturdays = Youth

Mates of StateGet Better off of Re-Arrange Us

Slow RunnerYou’re in Luck off of No Disassemble

M83 – Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun, featured in Palm Pre commercial:

Sep 28

Presented with the opportunity to experience two new video games, I thought back to a game that had piqued my interest but normally wouldn’t merit a purchase.   Flower (Playstation 3, PSN $9.99), critically acclaimed but questioned for its status, is an experience that makes you reconsider what the term “video game” actually entails.   Surely, some form of electronic component is a requisite, but what beyond that?   Is it the use of a HID (Human Interface Device) like a mouse or controller?   Is it the existence of some sort of objective?  How does score-keeping and record breaking factor into the classification?

While surely there will always be major video game genres such as sports (Madden Football) and first-person shooter (Halo), there seems to be an increasing number of “experiential” game.  In other words, there are more games focusing less on objectives and more on immersing the player in an experience.  After spending some time with Flower (the game takes only several hours to “complete”), it’s easy to classify it as one of the latter.  An incredibly simple control scheme (the controller is manipulated like an airplane yoke and a single button is pushed), complete lack of objectives or pacing, and a heightened focus on aesthetics make this point clear.  All told, it was quite a worthwhile experience, making a 1080P TV highly recommended, if not requisite.

Stills and Video Dont Do Flower Justice

Stills and Video Don't Do Flower Justice

Flower’s design is exceedingly simple.  You “pilot” a single flower petal by maneuvering the controller around in space and “accelerate” by holding down a button, which produces a gust of wind.  Looking around the landscape, there are other flowers that a highlighted with a glowering ring of light.  Passing through other flowers allows them to bloom and you, to collect another petal.  As you allow entire groups of flowers to bloom, it will trigger the surrounding landscape to flourish and grow.  This creates quite the impressive effect where the area will turn green (or blue, purple, any colour featured in the landscape) with a strong gust of wind encouraging you to move on to the next desolate area.  Covering all areas in the landscape will generate a single flower into which all your petals will dissolve.

The aesthetics of Flowers are definitely the most striking part about the game, but equally compelling is the theme created throughout the game.  In choosing each of the landscapes to enter, you are shown an apartment in some cityscape with each different landscape represented by a single potted flower.  Taking that contrast a step further, each different landscape is introduced by a different typically industrial scene.  The first, for example, features a city street with cars rushing by at great speed (creating the familiar white and red streaks of sped-up traffic) and a soundtrack of car horns and jackhammers.  This cacophony is then met with a lush, open meadow.  The duality of instantly being transported between one scene and its antithesis is pretty striking.

Further reinforcing the stunning visuals in Flower is the immersive audio.  The music is light an soothing as you might expect of a game featuring flowers, meadows, and wind.  The sounds effect, though, go a long way to bring the player into the experience.  With each different type of flower representing a different tone, the sound effects add to the sound track in a way that make the motion, aesthetics, and sound blend together seamlessly (much like Everyday Shooter and Electroplankton, excellent examples of the blending of game play and music).  Flower might encourage a game player to bemoan the ten-dollar price tag for lack of content, but this undervalues the game’s impact.  Escaping what were once rigid guidelines of the video game development industry, Flower proves that more abstract titles can work (and more importantly, sell).  This is an excellent title to provide some perspective and remind us to slow down every once in awhile and appreciate those things we may take for granted, such as the simplicity and complexity of a meadow.

Coming to the realization that I simply no longer have the time to give truly immersive games their just due (a depressing realization), I chose another simplistic game in the form of Ragdoll Blaster (iPhone/iPod Touch, iTunes App Store $0.99 (link opens iTunes)).  The objective is to fire ragdolls out of a cannon into a target place in various place throughout the different levels.  What makes it increasingly difficult is the amount of obstacles and puzzles standing in your way as you progress.  The control scheme is arguable even more simple than flower, requiring nothing more than a finger tap on the screen which controls direction and speed (by tapping farther away from the cannon).  The levels are scored by how many ragdolls you require to hit the target; the fewer, the better.

As you progress through the levels, the complexity of each design increases.  Some require simple calibration of direction and power, but others make you operate levels or pistons by firing ragdolls at the mechanism.  The sound effects fit (such as the cannon firing or menu button presses) and the music can either be a clip of In the Hall of the Mountain King on loop (an excellent piece of music) or the music on the iPhone/iPod.  For a dollar, the 100+ levels that come with the game are a pretty good value.  Also, having expanded that number since the game’s introduction, the developer has left open the possibility of releasing additional levels in the future.  Ragdoll Blaster provides an interesting diversion that occasionally requires a bit of thought.

Sep 21

Day by day, we are developing more and more weak relationships under the guise of social networking.  Social networking is by no means a new concept, but only recently has it involved some sort of digital network taking the form of Facebook or MySpace.  Over the past several years, developments in technology have allowed us to access social networks anywhere, any time.  This act of convergence, making the website available in a wide variety of media on a wide variety of devices, has in my opinion, made social interaction more and more shallow.  There was a time when one could have a minor obsession with something like Facebook, only accessing it when on the computer.  It has now evolved to the point where you can (willingly) be woken up by a message on your phone at 3:00 AM and really see no difference between talking on Facebook and meeting people in person, but at what cost?

Convergence is often interpreted as the joining of electronic devices, but its reach goes far beyond the development of a simple camera phone.  Indeed, we are living in a time where convergence has a constant and inexorable effect not only on the devices and systems we use, but the products we buy, media we consume, and societal forces to which we’re exposed.  To think of the iPhone the current ultimate example of convergence would be to sell the concept short, effectively negating all of the structural changes that had to happen to make such a product possible.  No secret to the public, media companies of all forms are struggling to both adapt to the current high-tech, omni-connected society in which we live and determine ways to band together and still be profitable.

Sophisticated Technology Yielded the Camera Phone

Sophisticated Technology Yielded the Camera Phone

It used to be that a newspaper publisher would need only to send their reporters out to whatever events or locations that were deemed newsworthy, find a series of companies to fill ever-desirable ad space, and watch the profits and readers accumulate.  Surely, I don’t have to explain the current plight of the newspaper industry here, but the example goes a long way to explain the effect of convergence.  Take The New York Times, arguably the preeminent newspaper in America, if not globally.  The company once produced content exclusively for one medium.  Now, with their hand forced by a market more controlling than ever before, The Times obviously still produces content for the paper, but the same can be found on the Internet (along with exclusive online content), on a wide variety of mobile phones, in several platform-specific mobile forms, and in an increasing number of “niche products.”

At first glance, it might seem as if all this emerging technology is what is causing the failure of the newspaper industry.  This, however, should be no excuse for those publishers who ran their companies to the state of obsolescence that they are today.  Inability to realize a rapidly developing technological landscape and a need unmet to adjust antiquated business models are reason enough for the shift.  In an overarching sense, one can point to convergence as the downfall of the modern newspaper, but certainly another factor is the shifting of power from corporations to the consumer.  Today more than ever before the consumer commands supply in the marketplace, reversing the classic structure of business pushing products to market regardless of opinion.

Convergence has made the consumer’s life such that they can access (almost) anything they desire at any time.  And, to that end, they can stay in constant contact with (almost) anyone they see fit.  Using the aforementioned Times as an example, I can wake in the morning and start reading an article from the paper, continue reading the section on my phone on the train, on the computer at work, and then forward it on to a bevy of friends and coworkers.  What a world in which we humans, the social beings that we are, can communicate around the clock unencumbered by seemingly any obstacle, be it time or space.  We’re better connected and sociable than we’ve ever been before, right?

Well, it seems the jury is still out on that subject.  The comparison between Facebook friends and “real” friends has been made ad nauseum, and the frequency of teenage texting seems to be on the news every other day.  I’d argue that while we are constantly connected, we’re driving ourselves farther apart and diluting so-called real relationships.  Is there any substitute for playing with friends on your street?  For meeting face-to-face rather than holding a business meeting over video?  Technology seems to have rendered these interactions obsolete for the time being, but it doesn’t need to mean the end.  I could foresee a day when we finally realize the true value of such interactions and technology that fosters them will be buoyed.

Until then, it appears that we will be slipping farther and farther away from reality.

Sep 20

On paper, Delicious is a spectacular concept.  Leveraging a concept similar to Twitter’s trending and YouTube’s rankings, Delicious directs the user to those locations on the web that people find interesting, humourous, inspiring, or just worthy of killing time.  Given the endless vastness of the Internet, it’s nice to think that we can all band together, leverage our collective efforts, and cull the ether for diamonds in the rough together.

Unfortunately, as if often the case, this works better in theory than in practice.  I’m sure there are some very intriguing websites linked by Delicious users, but in order to get to them, I have to sift to ever-growing mounds of garbage.  Now, I’d have to think a good number of the sites are worthy of peoples’ time, but that doesn’t make them worthy of mine.  If the uproar over Kanye West has taught me one thing, it’s that I couldn’t care less about the interest of the mass audience.   How many I’mma let you finish videos can you watch?

I’ll stick to getting my recommendations from people I know.  Missing out on the next internet fad is something we could all use.  Besides, the fact that I find They Might Be Giants making an educational science album amazing may be a sign that my interests have veered from the masses at some point.

Sep 14

For all the freedoms we have in America, the political right seems to wield a surprising amount of power.  Religion is a driving force behind many of the seemingly political or innocuous decisions such as presidential elections, educational curricula, and even, it would seem, entertainment.  The two having been intertwined for centuries, our relatively recent desire to separate church and state is a work in progress.  Science, however, a discipline built on the tireless search for factual knowledge and an endless ambition to prove and disprove the work of others, is eternally at odds with religion (with no end in sight).

The latest episode in this ongoing  battle is the veritable blacklisting of Creation, the British biographical film of Charles Darwin.  Shockingly enough, millions of Americans not only disbelieve Darwin’s theory of evolution, but believe creationism should be exclusively taught in our schools.  Now I’m not one for blaspheming or forcing my ideals upon others, but it seems frightfully ignorant to deny the mounting evidence Darwin began 150 years ago.  Aside from that, this film has a mostly humanistic tone, featuring Darwin and his wife as he struggles with the theory and its contrast with his religion, possibly tempering the misgivings held for the film.

Inspiration to Hitler?

Supposed Architect of the Holocaust

The most disturbing part about the Creation failing to be picked up by an American distributor is the realization of the effect right wing Americans have on private industry.  Their effect has been known on politics and public policy for some time, but one might have been foolish enough to think that the influence stopped there.  If Corporate America is able to be swayed, where does that leave the minority?  Creation has received nothing but rave reviews across the globe (even in other heavily Christian nations), but I am denied its viewing.  For all of our progress, we have some pretty archaic views.

But, I digress.  I suppose the antics of Kanye West are more newsworthy [link deliberately omitted]…

Sep 7

The future is now?  The reoccurring theme in literature and film seems to be a fantastical and overambitious view of the future.  As the decades pass, the present always seems to be more subdued and practical than once foretold.  Is that necessarily to say that we can never live up to the ambitions of our ancestors?  Perhaps all of the advancements and technologies we take for granted on a daily basis are far more amazing than we stop to realize.

With all the hypothesizing of what the future holds in store, someone was bound to get some of it right.  These predictions often tend to be more of the academic variety.  Hollywood, on the other hand, tends to be hit or miss.  Is this more a reflection of those in academia striving for accuracy and those in film and literature striving for entertainment?  Quite possibly, or maybe we need creative people to develop visions of future to drive innovation, regardless of their role in society.

Minority Report

Computer Gloves, Tom?

The most common vision of future always seems to involve some form of flying cars.  Invariably, whether looking 10 years or 10 millennia into the future, flying cars are omnipresent.  Is the complexity of a gasoline-electric hybrid any less amazing because it doesn’t have the ability to levitate?  While certainly no one should laud us for taking so long to lessen our need for fossil fuels, embrace of the current innovations should not be discounted.  Development of new power sources is progressing faster than ever, the least important of which seems to be geared towards flying.

Another common vision of the future involves communication devices.  In the future, all communications were supposed to be made more realistic and life-like through the use of holograms (or not).  It seems today, though, that despite the lack of holograms, communication has become easier than ever.  From a variety of devices such as smartphones, netbooks, and even watch phones, people can communicate with each other around the clock (however little they might like to).  Aside from hardware, we now have a dizzying array of software-based solutions to stay in contact, from AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) to Ziggs which have existed in theory for decades:

First, life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity. Second, communication will be more effective and productive, and therefore more enjoyable. Third, much communication and interaction will be with programs and programmed models, which will be (a) highly responsive, (b) supplementary to one’s own capabilities, rather than competitive, and (c) capable of representing progressively more complex ideas without necessarily displaying all the levels of their structure at the same time-and which will therefore be both challenging and rewarding. And, fourth, there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone (who can afford a console) to find his calling, for the whole world of information, with all its fields and disciplines, will be open to him—with programs ready to guide him or to help him explore.

Licklidder, J.C.R.  (1968)

It would seem the best way to turn these visions into reality is to start small.  This is the only way to get from something as seemingly simple as the mouse to something like the gesture-controlled computer envisioned in Minority Report. This is how we evolve from Edison’s light bulb to the OLED’s of today.  And this is how we go from the utterly simplistic Sputnik to having an omnipresent global positioning system.  After all, isn’t innovation nothing more than taking fantastical ideas and placing them in the hands of people talented enough to make them a reality?

Besides, there’s no need to hypothesize.  We already have a prophet hard at work…

Sep 7

Already a Google Reader user before starting my ICM 501 class, I had amassed a fairly sizable list of RSS feeds.   Before adding Boing Boing, Mashable, Read/Write Web, Smart Mobs, and Smashing Magazine, I took a look at my websites.  Following a period of zealously adding news feeds, I had trimmed the list down to only the essentials (ESPN, essential?  Yes).  The three feeds I would recommend adding most:

  • The New York Times - In my opinion, the news source of record.  The New York Times should be a part of everyone’s day.
  • National Public Radio (NPR) – A different perspective on the same story often makes it that much more compelling.  Besides, you can’t go wrong supporting NPR.
  • Engadget - A technology and consumer electronics blog.  Excellent for keeping up with the new toys coming out, 95% of which you probably shouldn’t buy (we’re still in a recession.  Ask The Times).
Engadget Deutschland

Engadget. German? No Problem.

It helps to assess your RSS feed list once in a while to make sure that all the sites are keeping your interest.  A feed aggregator can be quite useful, but there is no quicker for it to fall out of use than to have bunch of news you don’t care about.  Check the site you’re looking to follow.  Sites often have subcategorized or niche feeds (NPR, for example) that could be more to your liking.  That Bacon of the Month news feed is only a couple of clicks away.