Friday, August 31, 2007

Saturday's Tech Page

Dan Whisenhunt: Resistance — Fall of Man
09-01-2007

Picture an alternate 20th century, where the enemy is not the Russians but a horde of Zombie-like monsters called the Chimera. Only a small military alliance of humans stands in the way of their world-domination plans. You are Sgt. Nathan Hale, a U.S. Army Ranger, star of "Resistance: Fall of Man" for Sony's PlayStation 3.

If this game's name is ringing some bells, you may be recalling the controversy it generated in June when the Church of England threatened legal action against Sony because one of the fight scenes takes place in Manchester Cathedral. Now, frankly, I don't understand the church's argument here. If it were my hometown church being invaded by a horde of Zombie-like Chimeras, I would want to know how to deal with the situation. At the very least, I'd appreciate the house cleaning.

So the Church of England is making sort of a pro-Zombie argument, if you think about it.

The battle maps are a bit confusing at times, but you increase your chances of survival by doing the multiplayer campaign mode. With help from my friend, Kevin, we beat this game over the course of a weekend. Like all great shoot-'em-ups, the guns are big, the graphics strive for realism and the plot is insane. And, like all good action games, fans are already drooling over the sequel.

"Resistance" gets three buttons out of five.

Big Doings

There's going to be some big changes here coming in the next month. The biggest will be a new Pushing Buttons blog. Because video games appeal to a wide variety of people and my interests represent a small sliver of the pie, I'm recruiting some other folks within the office who will be regular contributors.

Katrina Junkin, one of The Star's Web producers and my fiancé; and John Dietrich, who works on the copy desk in the Sports department, will be frequent voices heard in online version of this column.

The Wii-centric nature of my columns will end. Thanks to the generous gift of another co-worker, I now have unrestricted access to Sony's PlayStation 3 console, and I am working on getting my hands on as many of the latest titles as I can.

As the Christmas season approaches, you can expect a ramping up of content both in print and online. There will be weeks where columns will appear back-to-back when necessary, and local events, like the "East Meets South" anime convention in Oxford, will be on the horizon.

It all starts this weekend with "Dragon*Con" in Atlanta, which bills itself as America's largest multimedia event, drawing around 30,000 gamers, the curious and science fiction fans from nearly every television show and movie imaginable. As you are reading this, I've been at the event for one day and probably need a shower. Keep up with what's happening in Atlanta this weekend on our new blog and look for coverage on the event in Sunday's Anniston Star.



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Keep up with Pushing Buttons at http://pushingbuttonsblog.blogspot.com/

About Dan Whisenhunt: Dan Whisenhunt was raised in Mobile and is a graduate of the University of Alabama. When he's not staying on top of current trends in gaming, he covers local politics for The Star.




Can a cute bunny energize your home Wi-Fi?
By David Colker
Los Angeles Times
09-01-2007

Nabaztag can vocalize e-mail, MP3 files and other data from the Internet. Photo: Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times

The white plastic bunny from France looks kind of Hello Kitty sweet as it sits all by itself on a kitchen counter or living room bookshelf.

It's a minimalist rabbit — bell-shaped with simple black dots for eyes and a mouth, and pointed ears that stick up straight. Quiet, nice bunny.

Then it gets an e-mail.

Suddenly, the ears start twisting weirdly in different directions, lights flash in its belly and the bunny that seemed dormant a second ago begins speaking.

Think of it as a cross between a pet rock and Bride of Chucky .

What brings about this transformation? Wi-Fi.

The rabbit, whose commercial name is Nabaztag (Armenian for rabbit), is one of the latest attempts to give consumers another use for wireless Internet besides getting home computers online.

And why not? According to Forrester Research, 27 percent of U.S. homes are equipped for Wi-Fi, a technology that only a few years ago seemed exotic.

In addition to the bunny, another recent product is a digital screen, framed in wood for hanging on the wall, that can receive pictures via Wi-Fi from Internet photo services.

Both are sophisticated devices. Nabaztag, especially, can offer numerous audio services. The bunny can pass along stock prices, weather forecasts and news headlines, all periodically updated from Internet sources.

The bunny can pipe up as "Ryan deep voice," "Heather speaking quickly" and other choices. The device can play an Internet radio station or a short MP3 file sent by a friend.

The digital picture frame, from PhotoVu in Boulder, Colo., can show high-quality images non stop from collections stored online.

But are these products ready for prime time? They are far from the first attempts at finding alternative home uses for the Internet, untethered from computers.

In 2000, the online, stand-alone radio Kerbango made a big splash at trade shows. But it needed to be plugged into a modem. After the Internet bubble burst, the venture collapsed.

With the subsequent rise of Wi-Fi came radios, cameras and portable Internet phones with wireless capability. But they never caught fire with the public.

The latest rage, Apple Inc.'s iPhone, has Wi-Fi for Web browsing and e-mail, although not, curiously, for making online calls.

Nabaztag is all about Wi-Fi. Although it didn't hit the United States until this year, it has been on sale in Europe since 2005, where it has gained at least a cult following.

Is Nabaztag just a gimmick? Josh Martin, an analyst at Yankee Group, thinks so.

"It's an interesting, quirky device," Martin says. "But it doesn't do anything all that startling. Most people already have their computers on, and it doesn't take much to stick your head in a room to see if there is e-mail, check stock prices."

And if it is a gimmick, it's a fairly expensive one at about $190. A spokesman for Violet, the company behind Nabaztag, says it takes time to fully appreciate all the features of the device.

"It takes many days to live with it, people have found," says Jean-Francois Kitten, speaking from France.

But Martin doesn't think the features of Nabaztag will warrant long trial periods.

"It's the kind of thing," Martin says, "that might be cool for a day."

David Hauser disagrees, although he acknowledges being a tech head. He co-founded GotVMail Communications, a Weston, Mass., company that operates an Internet-based call answering system for small businesses. He and others at the company configured their Nabaztag to vocalize status and trouble messages that arose on their system.

"We could have done that without the bunny," Hauser says. "But we need something to laugh at when we are working at 3 in the morning."

This being Wi-Fi, setup isn't always smooth. Even Hauser had to call Paris a couple of times to get his Wi-Fi bunny hopping.

But analyst Van Baker of Gartner Inc. says technical barriers were a fact of life for Wi-Fi, making the bunny and other gadgets less appealing.

"Issues around configuration and the changing Wi-Fi standards make them too complicated for most consumers," Baker says.

He didn't predict a bright future for Nabaztag.

"I don't know if I should say that," Martin says. "Maybe the Wi-Fi bunnies will come after me."

Calling all luxury phones: Does iPhone outclass them all?
By Peter Svensson
Associated Press
09-01-2007

The iPhone makes me mad.

Not, mind you, at the iPhone itself, but mad at cell-phone manufacturers who have saddled us for years with interfaces that lure us into labyrinths of menus.

The buttons that are supposed to guide us through this maze do different things on every screen: a single button can mean "Back" on one screen, "Cancel" on another, "Exit" on a third.

The iPhone has one button on its face. It always does the same thing: takes you to the top menu, where icons representing all functions of the phone — music player, Internet browser and more — are laid out in a clear manner. Wham, you're out of the labyrinth.

This makes me mad, because this isn't just the way it should be done, it's the way it always should have been done. This became clear to me as I set out to look at the iPhone along with two other top-of-the-line phones, the Nokia N95 and Helio's Ocean.

The Nokia N95 costs $750, even more than the iPhone, and is jam-packed with features like a high-resolution camera, radio receiver and satellite Global Positioning System receiver. There are 13 buttons on its face, and that's before you slide the screen out to reveal the keypad.

Two of the N95's buttons take you to a top menu. But each button takes you to a different top menu. The menus navigate differently. The first doesn't have all the options of the other, the second has all the options but hides some of them. How am I supposed to remember which menu has which option?

This wouldn't have bugged me before using the iPhone. But the iPhone has a way of opening one's eyes. After using its beautiful, logical touch-screen interface, I get the feeling that if an Apple designer had said "Hey, let's give it two top menus! Give the user more choice," Chief Executive Steve Jobs would have demanded not just his resignation but his left pinky finger. Just as a lesson.

As you probably know, Apple's first phone launched amid tremendous hype in late June. Since then most of the press has been about hacks and complaints, and speculation that it's not living up to sales expectations. Most recently, the news has been that AT&T uses too much paper to print bills for the iPhone (the company said it would shorten them).

Don't pay it any attention: the iPhone is the best phone you can buy right now. The two iPhone models, with 4 and 8 gigabytes of memory respectively, cost $499 and $599, and AT&T's plans start at $60 a month. Like the N95, its price is high partly because the cell-phone carrier doesn't subsidize the cost of the phone. Unfortunately, with the iPhone you're locked in to the AT&T plan for at least two years.

With the N95, you can sign up for any AT&T or T-Mobile plan, those being the two major U.S. carriers that are compatible with the phone's GSM technology.

The Ocean is considerably cheaper, at $295, with monthly plans starting at $65. Helio's stated goal is to bring cool high-powered phones, as found in Asia, to hip, young Americans. It rents time on Sprint Nextel Corp.'s network, which provides broadband download speeds. This gives it a leg up over the iPhone and N95, which both use slower data networks, supplemented by Wi-Fi where available.

But the Ocean's main claim to fame is that it's a "dual slider:" push the screen t5up, and you reveal a standard numeric keypad. Push it sideways, and you get a QWERTY keyboard.

The screen on the N95 slides two ways too: up to reveal the keypad, down to reveal a set of media-player controls: play, stop, forward, backward.

Three months ago, I would have found these Swiss-knife-type designs brilliant, or at least useful, but really, they're not the way to go. To do different things with them, like switching from typing an e-mail to listening to music, you switch between different modes — slide parts of the phone this way or that, and see buttons change their functions.

Basic theory of user interface design states that you should keep the number of different modes to a minimum, for ease of use. This theory seems to have been hammered into the designers of the iPhone.

Sure, the iPhone has its annoyances. To name a few:

• The headphone jack is deeply recessed. The only headphones I managed to use were the earbuds Apple supplied, which don't do justice to music or shut out noise. You can't use wireless headphones, at least yet.

• You have to use Apple's iTunes application, which doesn't run well on PCs. In fact, my PC screen turned itself off, then back on a few seconds later, when the iPhone was connected. It's a phenomenon I have never before seen.

• AT&T's EDGE data network can be painfully slow, taking minutes to load a Web page or load e-mail. A pity, since the iPhone's Web browser is the best ever.

• The pictures from the 2-megapixel camera are fuzzy, and the lens smudges easily to make them even fuzzier.

• Standby time is supposedly up to 10 days, but I found I had to recharge the phone at least every three days of light use, which isn't very good.

Sushi, Sci-Fi


Just got back from a very respectable Sushi dinner at a place down the street- Benihana. A little earlier, chatted a bit with Sci-Fi author Julie Cochrane, but the context of her panel (whether mentoring is good for aspiring sci-fi authors) was a bit over my head.

Going back out to take a few more pictures like these.

The WOW killer


Dragon*Con doesn't offer much in the way of console gaming, at least as far as I've seen. What it does offer is a place for fans who enjoy Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, a chance to get together and discuss similar games coming down the pike.
Unfortunately, many of the game's manufacturers, like "World of Warcraft" makers Blizzard, aren't interested in attending the event, according to Kevin Stallard, who runs http://www.dragoncon-mmo.com/ and was heading up the programming for an upcoming games panel.

"You go to their Web sites look for PR contacts and there's none to be had," Stallard said.

That's too bad, because Blizzard, the makers of World of Warcraft, would be amazed at the dedication of their fans. Going to the panel I felt a real sense of urgency from fans who wanted to be connected to their favorite online games- and I felt the frustration of them being denied access.


When the room was asked which upcoming games they wanted to talk about, more than a few people chimed in with "Warhammer Online" from EA Mythic, slated to launch in 2008.

"EA Mythic wasn't interested in coming," Stallard said. Tommorrow, the entire day will be dedicated to various topics surrounding "World of Warcraft."

In the interest of fairness I sent an e-mail to both companies; we'll see what they say.

Two companies which did make the panel were Sony Online Entertainment, makers of "Ever Quest," and Funcom, makers of "Anarchy Online" and the upcoming "Age of Conan."
"(Game makers) love to control the message," Stallard said. "They love to control the forum."
Dragon*Con, he said, is different.
"This is democracy in action," Stallard said. "IF you don't like (what the company has to say) you can walk out and go get an autograph."

Many of the people attending the panel were interested in what will be the game to unseat "World of Warcraft" as the reigning MMO champ, counting "Age of Conan" and "Warhammer" as likely contenders.
"It's just the way 'Ever Quest' was before 'World of Warcraft,'" Stallard said. "It was, 'what's going to beat EQ?'"




Made it to Dragon*Con


"Stress" sums up the whole experience of checking into Dragon*Con. But when you're working crowd control with thousands of people, things tend to get a little tense. When we got to the Hilton, the check-in line was wrapped around itself in the lobby. The line to get our Dragon*Con badges was lengthy as well, but thanks to a multitude of bullhorns (and/or extremely loud Dragon*Con staff) everything moved along. I was in the line with some girl dressed as Blueberry Tart from Strawberry Shortcake, who was busily putting away some vodka and fruit juice concoction.


I got my press badges and tried my best to coordinate all four of us so we could get to our hotel- the self-parking deck was full so we had to get the Valet, which is also full now. We got into the room, threw our bags down on our beds and sought out "Dragon*Con TV," a special convention programming channel available in all three of the host hotels.


So we're taking a moment to soak up some air conditioning, exploring our menu options for lunch and getting ready to head back out. I've got an upcoming game releases panel I'm going to at 4 p.m., and I'm gong to see science fiction author Julie Cochrane at 7 p.m.


Other than that, my shedule is wide-open. I managed to snag this picture of one of the characters from the Chronicles of Riddick.


I feel about as frazzled as I look- but at least I'm finally here.

Waiting

Ok, so my friends who are riding with me are running a little late, giving me some time to check up on http://www.joystiq.com/.

It's a place where news events, the politics of gaming and gaming news often collide in interesting ways. Case in point:

Virginia finds no link between violent games and V-Tech murderer

Dragon*Con check list


It's 9 a.m. Atlanta time, 8 a.m. in Alabama. I've loaded the last of my stuff into the back of my car. My final check-list includes:


1) A Superman tee-shirt.

2) Bread and cereal bars, diet sprite and water: so I don't have to spend ridiculous amounts of money on food.

3) Company lap top computer.

4) My Nintendo DS-Lite.

5) Cats have food and extra water.


Here's an ad for this year's event:

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Gaia Online's first Summer Festival


Gaia is throwing its first ever Summer Festival! And okay, I don't know many other people my age who play this online game, but it can really be quite addicting. My hubby-to-be absolutely hates it so I thought I would rattle off a few thoughts about the current storyline here.

Right now a battle is being waged against the four towns in the Gaia world: Barton, Isle de Gambino, Aekea and Durem. Not just any battle mind you ... a water balloon fight! Durem is currently kicking everyone's rear. Of course, each Gaian had to choose a team without looking at the stats first, so I decided to go with Isle de Gambino. Bad choice as we are currently in dead last.

The overall winning team gets an exclusive "item" but everyone can also earn other items by hitting opposing team members with water balloons. Every five hits gets you something, up to fifty hits. At fifty, you max out your "Drench-O-Meter" and get a really sweet squirt gun, as my character can be seen modeling below.



Yes, I do love my squirt gun. :)

The battle will go on for a week before they finally declare a winner. Who knows, maybe Team Gambino will make a dramatic comeback?

Unfortunately, I'll have to cease my battling for the weekend, as I will be submersing myself in the geekdom that is Dragon*Con. So if anyone decides to join Gaia and jump into the battle, go for the underdog! Team Gambino could use some help.

PC World reports 60GB PS3s at an End

PCworld.com has this item up:

"Sony: All Remaining 60GB PS3s are on Store Shelves
Sony has confirmed that its own supply of 60GB PlayStation 3s is at an end -- the only ones left remain in retail inventory.Part 1 of a special five-part series. "

http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,136535-c,gameconsoles/article.html


I wrote about this a few columns back:

Sony’s latest snafu
So I’m reading my latest edition of GamePro when I notice a personal profile titled “The Toughest Job in Video Games.”
That job, says GamePro, belongs to Dave Karraker, Sony’s senior director for corporate communications, which is a fancy way of saying the guy who talks to reporters.
In light of the withering criticism after Sony’s PlayStation 3 launch, GamePro’s assessment of Karraker’s gig is pretty accurate. But Karraker, quick to blame the media for Sony’s troubles in his interview with GamePro, isn’t fully acknowledging Sony’s role in creating its own bad press.
Case in point: Sony is now touting a PS3 price drop of $100, making the console $499 instead of $599. For some, this seemed like an epiphany of common sense, something good for Sony’s marketing strategy. However, those suspicious of Sony’s announcement dug a little deeper. According to gaming Web site Joystiq.com, the price drop is for the 60-gigabyte PS3 only. The catch? Sony may eventually stop producing this model and will continue to produce the 80-gigabyte version, priced at the usual $599, says Joystiq.
Is Sony’s PS3 price drop announcement a tad disingenuous? The writers over at Joystiq think so. Karraker wrote on his PS3 blog that there would be ample supplies of the 60-gigabyte model. But conflicting statements from company officials on the price drop only added to the confusion.
Some people were annoyed at Sony. Perhaps none more annoyed than Karraker, who has the ignoble task of spraying perfume on the latest rotten egg laid by his company.
If the picture in his GamePro interview is any indication, he’s enduring it all with a smile so wide it looks like half his head is about to fall off. That’s why Sony pays him the big money.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dragon*Con


For those of you who don't know, Dragon*Con, an annual multi-media event is going on this weekend. Last year it drew around 30,000 people to downtown Atlanta. These people go all out, dressing up as their favorite characters from movies, television shows and video games.

I've spent the last two weeks interviewing people here locally who are going this year. My interviews include:

- Two Piedmont women who are into Stargate SG-1...... really into it. They write fan fiction and one of them has a $5,000 insurance policy on trading cards from the series.

- An Anniston man who's entire hobby is based on 20 minutes worth of scenes from the show Firefly.

- A woman who spent much of her youth in Calhoun County and is now a best-selling science fiction author.

- A local judge who goes to the convention to get celebrity autographs.

In Saturday's column I review "Resistance: Fall of Man" for the PlayStation 3 and give a shameless plug for the new blog.

See you in Atlanta.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

A couple of days ago I came across the "final trailer" for the upcoming PSP game, Crisis Core. It's technically a prequel to Final Fantasy VII and just another game they have in the works related to their most famous Final Fantasy ever. Prequels, sequels and the like usually make me groan, but I have gotten wrapped up in the excitement of the FFVII spin-offs. I absolutely LOVE FFVII. It was the first video game RPG that I picked up and was immediately swept up into the storyline, the characters, everything. And that was all in ancient graphics! (Keep in mind I didn't play the game until 2006...late bloomer in gaming.)

So watching the new trailer for Crisis Core, I was enthralled with the pretty graphics, Zack in all his SOLDIER glory, the new character Genesis (who I am pretty sure is physically based off Japanese singer, Gackt) and the game play looks awesome!



There is also a subtitled version available on youtube and you can find that here.

Of course, all the U.S. fans are jumping the gun as an American release date for Crisis Core has yet to be announced (the current rumor appears to be Spring 2008) but I do feel confident that they will release the game here eventually. It hits stores in Japan on September 13, 2007.

Official Crisis Core website (Japanese)

Video games score points by keeping the sounds real

08-25-2007
In ‘NBA Street: Homecourt,’ engineers went out to real street courts to record the sounds of games being played, including shoes on the court, balls hitting the rim and backboard and — of course — trash talk. Photo: Special to the Star

When the fight broke out Charles Deenen figured he had something.

On an outdoor basketball court in Venice, Calif., Deenen was watching the tempers flare. As the senior audio director for Electronic Arts’ Black Box division, located in Vancouver, B.C., he was securing audio for EA’s “NBA Street: Homecourt” video game. He liked what he was seeing and, more importantly, what he was hearing.

He’d arranged for street ballers to be miked while playing a game that EA had organized. Deenen, hoping to generate strong audio, required the players to use only half the court, which led to a slightly cramped crew, a higher rate of player contact and eventually sparks flying. Every street ball game certainly doesn’t turn into a fight, but verbal sparring and sharp elbows are often a big part of the game — and that’s what Deenen was trying to capture.

“It would’ve been a lot easier to do it in a studio, but it wouldn’t have sounded believable,” Deenen says.

Full Story