Gaming : ‘Home’ isn’t where the heart is

markPlaystation Home is Sony’s somewhat delayed response to the ever increasing social networking phenomena. It’s also an attempt to attract its share of the ever expanding audience of the ‘causal gamer’. With Sony’s entry, all three of the main consoles now have their own social networking infrastructure. The Wii has the ‘lightest’ of the three networks, mainly focusing on ‘offline’ networking, putting the emphasis on groups of people playing together around one TV, but it is noted for the fact that it was the first to introduce avatars to a wider audience. This is not to say that the Wii doesn’t have online facilities though. You can message friends, send them your home made avatars and with some of the more recent games, play against each other online. In recent months Microsoft has pushed its new Xbox Experience, essentially an update to the consoles user interface, the ‘dashboard’, granting access to a wealth of community material such as film trailers, interviews, reviews, all from the main interface. The new update also follows the example set by the Wii in allowing users to create avatars of themselves.

So, where does Sony’s ‘Home’ fit into things? They’ve attempted to integrate the best bits of Nintendo and Microsoft’s efforts but with a slightly different emphasis. With both the Xbox and the Wii, social interaction often occurs after a game has been chosen and loaded, which, whilst providing the user like mind individuals, can often limit social diversity. There is no central place to meet new people. Sony has taken note of this and has produced a stand alone environment that exists without any association to a game. This environment consists of a virtual world, similar in nature to that of the ever popular Second Life, into which users create an avatar of themselves. It’s through this avatar that the users can explore the world. Right from the start it’s obvious that Sony have tried to implement a virtual version of real world social interaction. Every avatar has an apartment, there’s a bowling alley, an arcade, a shopping mall and a cinema. All places that Sony’s key demographic are likely to interact socially.

“Upon leaving the shopping mall a small remote control helicopter heads straight for me, exploding inches from my face. I don’t ask„

So is it any good?…… Frankly, in my opinion, no. My first use of ‘Home’ was marred right from the word go by the horrendous amount of loading needed. I signed up and waited 10 minutes for the installation files to download. I then waited again whilst the files installed. ‘Great, I’m in’ I thought. After a quick tutorial and a very limited ‘create an avatar’ task you’re left to look around your rather minimalist apartment. I went to leave the apartment and guess what…… ‘Now downloading plaza’. By now 30 minutes had passed and all I’d done was stack a few pieces of furniture and attempted to throw chairs off the balcony (within ‘Home’ obviously but by this point I was considering it for real). Out in the plaza I was struck by two thoughts. The first was how empty the place was and the  second was how limited the ‘create an avatar’ function actually is. I was faced with about 20 or so people of which about half looked similar to my avatar. Most of these people were dancing, randomly, with no music. ‘OK…..moving on’ I thought, ‘Oh, cinema, I’ll go there’…..’Now downloading cinema’…….grrrrrrrrrr. The experience hadn’t started well.

So, to the cinema I went. Once inside (10 minutes later) I get the sneaky suspicion that a new film is about to be released. I could watch a constantly looping trailer of the new film Watchmen, a teaser trailer for the new film Watchmen, a 2 minute ‘making of’ the new film Watchmen, a short action scene from the new film Watchmen and about a million posters for the new film Watchmen. I left the virtual cinema with a strange urge to go to a real cinema to watch some kind of film, the name escapes me…….Leaving the cinema means going back to the plaza once again. ‘Ahh, at least this has already downloaded’ I thought. Well, yes but, ‘Plaza loading……..’ ZZZZzzzzzzzzz.

So, back in the plaza. Another avatar runs up to me and sends a private message in German. I slowly but politely reply stating that I don’t know any German. (A painful task as text input is never quick with a joy pad and I refuse to spend a fortune of the aftermarket keypad addition for the joy pad. Yes, I can use a USB keyboard, it’s just a shame I don’t own one!). The reply to that was in German. I laboriously reply once again and apologise. They reply, once again, in German but this time in capitals with many exclamation marks with the avatar flailing it’s arms wildly……. I run, deciding to hide in the bowling alley, forgetting I haven’t downloaded it yet. I hit the invisible wall at the door that refuses entry until it downloads and look back to see the German avatar chasing after me. I run back to the cinema whilst the bowling alley downloads. That was close. Whilst there I find out about this wonderful new film called Watchmen, don’t know if you’ve heard about it but I damn well have!!!! Anyway, I head to the bowling alley once it’s installed and think about going bowling. Thinking about bowling is as far as I get. I reach the top of the stairs and cast my ‘virtual’ eye over the bowling alley. This virtual world is open to greater Europe and how many bowling lanes do they supply?…..six….genius. I walk up to one game and start to write a message asking to join, only for another avatar to run up, controlled by someone with far more supple thumbs, who manages to type ‘hello, please could I join your game’ in the time it’s taken me to write ‘Hi’. Not wishing to look like the last kid to be picked for sports I leave promptly. Wow, that was worth watching the Watchmen trailer for the 7th time for.

“By now 30 minutes had passed and all I’d done was stack a few pieces of furniture and attempted to throw chairs off the balcony„

So, I finally arrive at the last place, the shopping mall. Now I know why the apartment is minimalist and the avatars are similar. The shops within the mall all sell virtual clothes and furniture. £4 for a virtual sofa for my virtual apartment….. Excuse me? £4 for a virtual item that does nothing but sit there. On to the next shop. £2 for a new virtual shirt? There are shops in real shopping malls that sell real shirts for that much!! I look at what’s free. Wow, what a coincidence, costumes from the new film Watchmen. I stand there, watching carbon copies of my avatar arrive, get changed and leave as carbon copies of Watchmen characters. I laugh and walk out (minus the costumes). Upon leaving the shopping mall a small remote control helicopter heads straight for me, exploding inches from my face. I don’t ask. Realising that there are more pressing things in real life; like choosing which fragrance of deodorant to put on and finding my car keys, I leave ‘Home’.

Whilst I think you’ll agree that all of the above would make for one interesting day out if it were real, I really couldn’t be bothered to go through all of that on purpose in the virtual world when in reality I’ve decided to allocate time in front of my Playstation to play a game. I’m not knocking the principle. I’m just as likely to be on Facebook or some form of messenger program as the next person, I just don’t think Home is worth it. There’s nothing in there I can’t already do with Google, YouTube, a few chat rooms, a few simple browser based games and possibly Amazon or Play.com which are all available anyway if you have an internet connection. Using the modern wonders that are the mouse, the keyboard and a multi-tab browser, it’d also be a damn site quicker! In its favour it is presented very well, with good graphics and some very nice touches to the virtual world. It also has massive potential as other areas, shops and games could be simply tacked on with a future download, however, as it stands, it’s a rather hollow experience. It’s easy to see why Microsoft and Nintendo decided to dispense with the visuals and stuck with a simple menu based system. The Xbox system I find particularly good as choice content is displayed on the main screen as ‘headlines’ next to your options to load a game. You are free to ignore them and load your game or explore the ‘headlines’ further. The Wii has its ‘Channels’ that sit on the front screen. You view the channel or you don’t, it’s up to you.  You let the content do the talking, not the visuals (or random Germans).

Is it fair to criticise a free addition? Not really, but you can’t help wondering whether the time and money being pumped into Home’s development couldn’t be better spent elsewhere. Anyway……..I’m off to go to a real cinema….. Watchmen looks quite good.

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Education : Open Source at the Cutting Edge of Science Education

So I’m not your traditional computer geek. I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft. I’ve never even seen a single episode of Battlestar Galactica. What I am is a nerd, a science nerd. I’m a PhD Chemistry student and my research has nothing to do with computers. However, open source software does have a long tradition at universities. I’m reminded of things like BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) and the MIT license, the number of .edu domains hosting Linux/Unix OS mirrors, and the sheer volume of open-source software that started out as a grad school projects. The open-source development model fits in fairly well with the “academic freedom” that universities stand for. It is also fits well with the model of scientific inquiry. Ideas like peer review, constant empirical testing, and emphasis on experimentation play right into the way open-source software developers often approach their work.

So one would think that open-source software would be simply ubiquitous in science education. However, my experience, at least in the field of Chemistry is quite the opposite. You can find lots of hard-core research applications that grad students or research scientists might use, but when it comes to teaching undergraduates in particular, I very rarely see open-source software used. In my department in fact, it’s been non-existent until this semester. I’d like to share two personal examples of how open-source software is helping push university science education and a little bit about why I think open-source software is going to revolutionize science education in many ways.

This semester I’m the teaching assistant for a Physical Chemistry Laboratory class. I’m teaching mostly chemical engineers and they mostly feel it’s just a tad bit like watching an old black-and-white movie, boring, antiquated, and irrelevant. One of the things we’ve done this semester to liven things up a bit is add a lab involving a Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM). I’ll spare you, dear reader, from all the gory details, but in short it lets us take pictures of molecules. It’s really pretty cool and the students get to work on a brand new instrument. The STM itself costs around $10,000 USD but the company wanted to sell us image processing software for ~$3,000 USD. The professor in charge of the class called up an STM expert at another university who had been using the same instrument for teaching and asked if the software was worth it. He said, “nope, just use this open-source program called Gwyddion“. Cool, we save $3,000 and get a better working program that is cross-platform, imports the native file format of the data acquisition program, and is easy enough for students to start using with only a few minutes of instruction.

There are two important aspect to me about this software. First, it was developed by scientists, for scientists. So much of the time when I use proprietary science software I can just tell that it was designed by somebody who knew more about programming than the science that the program was trying to accomplish. Gwyddion has a community of users and developers around it to support and guide the project. Second, its free and cross-platform. It may not seem like a huge deal, but a lot of times science software is > $1,000 USD which makes it impossible to let students take it home. Usually we make them check out CDs (and there are generally not very many) for a few hours at a time in the department’s computer lab. Students hate that and so they really never explore. Being able to say “you can download this for free at home, on Windows, Mac, or Linux, and play around with it” is really a big deal.

The second personal example I’d like to talk about is an up-and-coming molecular editing and visualization project called Avogadro. Like Gwyddion it is cross-platform and developed by scientists (covering biochemistry, molecular physics, and applied mathematics). I got involved with the project while looking for something to replace the software my department is currently using to teach first-year students about quantum mechanics.

Our current software was released in 1996 and cost something around $1,000. It crashes constantly, students hate it, and I end up teaching a “howto deal with computers” lab rather than the chemistry the students need to learn. I found that Avogadro had all the features needed for the first half of the lab, but was missing a couple key features for the second half. Since I had been in contact (and even contributed a patch here and there) with the developers on the mailing list and IRC I asked them if it would be feasible to add the features we needed. They were interested in the idea and started working on getting the needed code roughed out. To make a long story a bit shorter, starting in the fall semester we will have a program that will not aggravate the students, will have much better features, and they can install it at home to do homework with.

What I love about this story is that the open-source development model let me, as an educator, get involved with the development of the tools I need to help students learn some rather difficult material. The developers where interested not in what they were getting paid to code, but on what their users needs were. And as teachers use their software, they will continue to refine features that will drive education further.

I hope I’ve been able to give you a little glance into some aspects of open-source software that have great potential for improving science education. It is more modern because it is generally faster paced, more accessible because of low/no cost and often being cross-platform, and more science-like because it’s written by scientists and lets users get involved with design and development.

Review : PhotoShock Canvases

FactDeck
Price : £39.99
Size : 80 x 51cm
Style : Framed
Res : 300 dpi

Pros : Amazing quality, well made, fade resistant for 100 years
Cons : You will just want to keep buying more.

Never before have I been so excited about receiving a piece of art. Now I know what you are thinking, art? ART? This is a magazine about technology and all things geek. Does art really have a place here? Well a) yes of course it does, and b) when you combine Art and Gaming, then most definitely it does.

Recently whilst scanning for presents for my wife for mothers day I came across a canvas on amazon.co.uk. I’d run a generic search for final fantasy, (yes we’re big fans), and stumbled upon something wonderful. The canvas was an 80x51cm framed image of Lightning from the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII game on the PS3, sitting on a sofa and holding what appears to be a very similar to a gunblade from Final Fantasy VIII.

I was really in two minds whether to get it or not, I had no idea about the quality or anything. A few days later I re-visited the site and found amazon had hiked the price. I was not impressed and decided to leave it. I told the missus about it a few days later and she, like me, fell in love with the piece, so we went back to amazon to buy it. Shock Horror, it had gone. We were a little heartbroken…..just a little. We found the manufacturers website, PhotoShock, and found they sold them online, straight from their own shop. Eager to learn more, we emailed the guys at PhotoShock and asked for some details about the printing.

A few days later we received a reply stating that the printing was 300dpi. None too shabby. We just couldn’t hold ourselves back any longer, so we ordered it. I must point out here, that the canvas we ordered was actually in stock. Most are made to order and take around 7 days, according to the PhotoShock website. It was dispatched on the Friday by recorded delivery and arrived late Monday morning. Not bad Royal Mail! Interestingly, PhotoShock will send canvases worldwide, but shipping is free in the UK. Another bonus.

Some canvases are available in both framed and unframed varieties. We chose the framed version which cost around twice the price, but was well worth it. The frames are hand made and we were eager to see what it would be like.

It arrived in a large box, roughly the same size as the canvas itself, but a little larger as expected. Inside, the canvas was first wrapped in brown paper, before being wrapped again in bubble wrap. I was a little concerned to see that the brown paper and bubble wrap were only covereing the front of the framed canvas, but on reflection if something were to pierce the back side of the box, it would have to travel the thickness of the box to hit the canvas. Protecting the front is most important against knocks. If the unthinkable happens and something goes through the box, chances are the canvas will be ruined anyway.

On seeing the canvas for the first time I was thoroughly impressed. The colours are very rich and the detail is fantastic. It helps that the CG image is of good quality to begin with. In fact scratch that, the image is of amazing quality and clarity. PhotoShock state that the printing resolution is 300dpi, which appears to be the case, however I did notice some slight pixelation on a few areas of the image. To be perfectly honest this is something that would never have been noticed unless one was as eagle eyed as myself and spent 15 minutes looking at a canvas in a bright light at about 3cm from my face. In normal viewing conditions, you’d swear she was right there in the room with you.

The frame is very well made, yet exceedingly lightweight, which made hanging it easy, an presumably cut down on shipping costs. The hook bar on the back may have been a mite too far over in one direction, but it hangs straight nonetheless. The canvas is fade resistant for 100 years, which, assuming I don’t suddenly become immortal, means I’ll enjoy it for the rest of my life.

Overall there is really no bad points about it. The canvas and frame were exactly what was described and appear to be finely crafted. The price we paid was £39.99 which included a framed, 80x51cm canvas, including shipping inside the UK. To be honest for the product, I’d call this a steal. I have never wanted a piece of art so badly as I did this.

PhotoShock do a wide variety of gaming, movie and tv canvases, with a few other miscelaneous ones thrown in for good measure. If I won the lottery tomorrow, a good few thousand would probably be spent on a large number of canvases. We have been totally impressed by the canvas and the service we have received from PhotoShock. Maybe they’ll send us another one to review…..oh go on….you know you want to.

photoshock

Sign-off : The very definition of irony

peteWalking down the road to the shops the other day I started thinking about the differences between the Open Source movement and the proprietary model.  In recent years it really has seemed to be a battle.  The tiny, yet still significant faction of the Open Source movement, against the large corporation that is Microsoft.

Funnily enough, on closer reflection it really is like a small group of mercenaries trying to take down a large organisation because of what they believe in, because of what is right.  I’m not saying that this is the right view, but no one can deny that both parties are fighting for the same thing.  Adoption.

“there are some pieces of free software that are not quite as robust…….I have seen equally as many pieces of proprietary tat„

You can’t really deny that.  No one writes a piece of software so that it won’t get used.  No, the onus is always that the piece of software brings something new, unique, better to the market.  The thing that got me thinking more than anything is the entirely ironic nature of this.  The Open Source community is fighting for adoption, yet what are they asking for from their user base.  Money?  No.  Feedback?  Sometimes.  Yet realistically, the Open Source demands nothing from the userbase.

Now lets look at the flip side.  Microsoft and other commercial entities are requiring money to use, that’s right we’re not getting access to any source code here. They are requiring money just to use their product.  The end user usually obtains no rights to any source code, including, but not limited to, duplication, modification, or anything other than just using the software.  In some cases these companies also require other ludicrous client access licenses just for interoperability with existing installations.  These really get my goat, but I’ll groan about these at another time.

My point is that you’d expect that for the right to copy, modify and distribute a piece of software you’d pay far more than simply purchasing a license to use the damn thing.  The truth however is far from this, and it is this ironic nature that made me chuckle to myself as I walked to the shops.

“they walk away, generally mumbling something about us smoking crack, or living in a fairy land„

Why then do we find it so difficult to get people to try and to accept Open Source.  We bring them a piece of software and say, “Here, have this.  It’s free.  You can copy it.  You can give it away.  You can modify it.”  Then they say, “How much does it cost?”  We say “Nothing” and they walk away, generally mumbling something about us smoking crack, or living in a fairy land.  We’ve even seen stories about people thinking that we are actually in the wrong, that it is we who are the pirates, because of course nothing can ever be given away for free, can it?

I’m expecting there are a large number of people screaming “Quality, quality, quality” At which point I would ask you to kindly step down off the soap box and let me finish. Whilst I agree that there are some pieces of free software that are not quite as robust as their proprietary counterparts, look at Firefox, OpenOffice and Blender. To counter the quality argument, I have seen equally as many pieces of proprietary tat that are being sold by both small and large companies alike as I have badly written Open Source applications.

I guess the truth is we live in such a world now where it seems that nothing is ever given away for free and people who do are seen as crazy fools who have obviously got something wrong in their heads.  Volunteer work for charity is one thing, but people actually working, coding for free?  They must have a screw loose.  I’ve faced it several times, very good friends of mine have turned round and called me stupid for spending time working on the Ubuntu project.  “Why don’t you make money from it?”  Why not?  Because for me anyway, that’s not what it’s all about, and in fact to me, that’s where the industry and society in general has gone wrong.  People are willing to do things for free, for a variety of reasons; learning, helping, even just that feel good factor.  It’s time we started taking this message to people.  “Free doesn’t mean bad necessarily, maybe it just means different.”

Welcome to GeekDeck

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GeekDeck is a kind of zine/blog that will be updated at regular intervals by a team of authors, bringing you all things Geek.  We aim to have reviews, interviews, programming, culture…..hopefully anything you can shake a stick at. As long as it’s niche 🙂

GD has been started by several peeps who are interested and work in technological fields.  We should be releasing Issues once a month.  You’ll find the layout of the site allows you to browse by Issue or by topic.

So……we hope you enjoy, and will return again soon,

The GeekDeck Team