Friday, August 31, 2007

Saturday's Tech Page

Dan Whisenhunt: Resistance — Fall of Man

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.


Keep up with Pushing Buttons at

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

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

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.

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