Microsoft''s 3-D Strategy

The future of 3-D: During a talk at MIT last week, Craig Mundie, Microsoft”s chief research and strategy officer, showed how a natural 3-D interface could let users manipulate and examine products–like the disassembled motorcycle in the background.  Credit: Microsoft/Technology Review

Microsoft”s Craig Mundie describes how the company”s vision of 3-D gaming could extend to all computer interactions.

By Erica Naone

Microsoft has joined the wave of companies betting that 3-D is the next big thing for computing. At a recent talk at MIT, chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie said he sees the technology as an innovation that “will get people out of treating a computer as a tool” and into treating the device as a natural extension of how they interact with the world around them. Microsoft plans to introduce consumers to the change through its gaming products, but Mundie outlined a vision that would eventually have people shopping and searching in 3-D as well.

The combination of better chips, better displays, and better sensors, Mundie said, is finally making it possible to move computing from today”s graphical user interfaces to the “natural user interface,” by allowing people to interact with 3-D content through the gestures they normally use. Today”s interfaces require users to learn about menu bars and double-clicks, but Mundie believes natural user interfaces, which work through gesture and voice, will be faster and easier to learn, and will prove more flexible in the long run.

Mundie also argued that natural user interfaces would reduce the mental effort required for people to operate software. Even people who are good at using controllers, keyboards, and mouses might find that a natural interface frees up attention and concentration so that they can focus better on the task at hand, he said. He believes that natural interfaces will make it easier to introduce software to people unfamiliar with computers, as well as make software generally easier to use, and therefore more attractive to consumers.

He also noted that today many programs come with what is essentially “an application-specific prosthetic”–for example, some driving games come with a steering-wheel device. Natural user interfaces may require some peripherals, such as depth-sensing cameras that can detect users” movements, but Mundie sees these as ultimately having broader purpose than most of today”s devices.

The first step in this strategy, Mundie said, is Microsoft”s release next month of the Kinect sensor for the Xbox 360 gaming console; Kinect incorporates a depth-sensing camera and voice recognition and will cost about $150. It will allow users to play games by gesturing, without the need for a controller or additional equipment. This opens the way to 3-D interaction with games that Mundie hopes will lead to broader use of 3-D displays.

Mundie demonstrated how Kinect would allow a user to interact with 3-D game content through hand gestures, virtually picking up clues to examine them or show them to friends. “We”re trying to create a genre of games where you don”t have to think about how what you would do naturally would map to the controls,” Mundie said.

He also showed a concept video for a real-time 3-D multiplayer game called “The Spy from the 2080s” that included a TV show and a game that players could interact with using multiple devices. For example, they might watch an episode in 3-D on TV, then log in through a gaming console to work with friends to solve clues from the show. Mobile devices might provide additional updates. In the video, the outcome of gameplay even influenced the course of the TV show.

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Xbox 360 Kinect Puts ‘Play’ Back in ‘Gameplay’

By Mark Wilson

I can’t remember the last time I jumped so high. Kinect Adventures looked so lame in Microsoft’s press conference just two days ago. But now I find myself leaping and lunging like a stuck lamb to win. I’m frolicking.

Hop to go faster. Dodge left to slide by a bumper. A glance to my right to eye my competition who, a few moments before, had shared a raft with me as we negotiated a path down a river, leaning and jumping in tandem—another unexpectedly enjoyable experience.

My heartbeat quickly accelerating, I realized something: The Wiimote rewards gamers’ proficiency at exercising the least possible physical exertion—indeed, if you get too frantic the Wiimote can stop registering your motions altogether—while with Kinect, I found myself exaggerating everything.

The experience of Kinect Sports is much the same—I underestimated the title’s fun until I actually tried it out. Less like Wii Sports than Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, a track-and-field-style hurdle game requires me to pump my knees high into the air, then jump at appropriate times, then pump my knees some more. While Kinect’s lag means I have to make my leaps earlier than expected, the frenetic and earnest competition (a testament to Kinect’s accuracy and Kinect Sports‘ game design) keeps it fun.

There’s something very special about using Microsoft’s Kinect system, something that separates it from every other combination of software and hardware I’ve ever used. Kinect adapts and accommodates the user. I’m not learning it; it’s learning me.

Maybe I’m tossing around the word “learn” a bit too liberally. Kinect actually works because it’s already learned how humans move thanks to Microsoft’s (Prime Sense’s) research—intelligence is built into the box before I step in front of it.

I’ve never felt that a computer understood me—a flesh-and-bone human—so well. More than once my fellow humans, designers of the very games I was playing, attempt to explain and clarify how to play.

Nice people, but they’re just getting between me and my new friend.

* * *

Xbox 360 Kinect Puts 'Play' Back in  'Gameplay'

But another bundled game in Kinect Sports‘ impresses me in a completely different way: bowling. This game really showcases the platform’s flexibility to natural human movement. I reach to my right to pick up my ball, asking, “Can I take a normal 3-step bowling approach?” The designers look at one another nervously. They say that I might want be careful not to extend myself beyond Kinect’s radius of sight.

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Gaming flexibility takes on new twist with Project Cobra

As a gamer bends a corner of the Cobra display, the figure on the screen responds by powering up his sword

By Paul Ridden

Zi Ye and Hammad Khalid from the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University in Canada have created a truly flexible, portable gaming interface called Project Cobra. Users of the system interact with images projected onto a handheld board by physically bending and twisting sections or applying pressure to areas containing sensors.

The idea for Project Cobra was born when Ye and Khalid noted that the focus for stationary gaming hardware developers had been moving away from “maximizing graphical power to creating new, more natural methods of interaction for players.” Examples of this new breed of systems include Nintendo’s Wii Remote, Sony’s PlayStation Eyetoy, and Microsoft’s Project Natal. What was lacking was a similar mobile gaming solution.

Some strides in the right direction have been made with such devices as Nintendo’s DS and even Apple’s iPhone, but none provide the level of physical interaction that the creators of Cobra were looking for. “In this project, we envisioned a flexible, handheld surface that players could twist and bend in order to provide input without requiring fast movements or obstruction of the display” the developers stated.

Personal gaming interaction

The Project Cobra system consists of a pico projector mounted on the strap of a regular laptop bag hung from the gamer’s shoulder. This shoots an image onto a flat piece of plastic board held out in front. The laptop bag also holds a netbook or laptop which runs the game, giving users the level of freedom offered by handheld devices whilst also benefiting from the processing power generated by a larger mobile unit.

The board, which acts as both a display and an input device, is made up of two plastic sheets, thin enough to be flexible but sturdy enough to snap back into place and not sag if held in one hand. Inside the plastic sheet sandwich are three infrared LEDs. These help a customized Wiimote camera mounted above the pico projector keep track of the board’s position and orientation relative to the player. The housing also contains four bidirectional bend sensors and two pressure sensors controlled by an Arduino Bluetooth control board.

As the user enters gameplay, the sensors pick up any bending or pressure from the gamer and sends the information wirelessly to the netbook or laptop controlling the game. So bending a corner of the board forward could, for instance, power up a sword, and releasing or bending it back could then bring down all the force of hell on a once mighty opponent!

A flexible future

As the Cobra system benefits from multiple analog inputs, game developers could insert numerous unique gestures into game mechanics. The portable technology is also open for further sensor implementation which could see the whole board being mapped with control zones. The technology need not be limited to gaming environments, of course. Controlling video playback or mixing audio or panning, tilting and zooming through three dimensional landscapes are all possible future applications for the flexible, mobile display interface.

The creators from the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University in Canada recently demonstrated Project Cobra at the Computer-Human Interface conference in Atlanta.

Man ‘beats’ Bejeweled 2 after 2,200 hours playing

The unbeatable game just got beat.   (Credit: GameSpot)

by Don Reisinger

When it comes to gaming, there’s dedication and there’s dedication. Mike Leyde has the latter.

The 56-year-old from California spent 2,205 hours–“the equivalent of playing for eight hours a day, five days a week, for an entire year” — over the past three years playing his favorite game, Bejeweled 2. In that time, he accumulated the game’s highest allowable score, 4,872,229 gems, to “beat” it.

Leyde’s feat is especially surprising because Bewjeweled 2’s creator believed no one would ever invest the time to beat the game.

“We had to give the game some sort of maximum-displayable score, and figured that was high enough; no one would ever get that many points,” Bejeweled co-creator Brian Fiete said in a statement. “When Mike collected that next gem match, the additional 2,200 points would have put his score above the maximum ‘calculable’ score, and much like some of the original arcade games, it caused his score to ‘flip around’ to a negative number. Well, the game’s code wasn’t designed to display a negative number so it just showed a blank where the score should be.”

Leyde said in a statement that he spent about one to two hours each day playing Bejeweled 2, but he doesn’t consider himself much of a gamer. He said that he enjoys Tetris, but hard-core games don’t appeal to him. That said, he has a will to win whatever he decides to invest his time in.

“If you’re going to invest time in something,” Leyde said, “you might as well be as good at it as you possibly can, and I really enjoy the thrill of victory.”

Cub Scouts Can Now Earn “Video Games” Merit Award: Finally, Justification!

by Ray Willington

Generations from now, our grandchildren will look back at 2010 and pinpoint this moment as one of the “ah ha!” moments of the 21st century. It’ll be live the day the first television was shipped, or the first e-mail was sent. Maybe it will even be compared to the day that Bill Gates founded Microsoft or Apple shipped the Apple IIe. It’s probably right up there with the invention of the mouse, the fax machine or even the cellular telephone.

Yes, a new “Video Game” merit pin is up there with all of those milestones in our opinion, and it’s exactly the ammunition that parents have needed for years to coerce their lazy children into sticking with something that’s greater than them in an effort to learn loads of life lessons at a young age. The Boy Scouts of America is a solid foundation, but it requires a lot of work and determination from youngsters who generally do anything they can to avoid just that. For those unfamiliar with the organization, young males work their way up through Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts, Webelos and eventually Boy Scouts, earning pins, belt loops and badges along the way to prove their hard work.

This new “Video Games” pin is specifically designed for the first three of those (so for the younger ones, before they hit the “Boy Scout” stage), and if they complete the tasks, they really will get to sport a pin that looks like the one pictured here. There’s no doubt this will already be the envy of the troop, and we’re guessing that it will be the most earned pin of all time in just a decade or so.

Contrary to popular belief, the badge doesn’t require you to actually be an outstanding gamer. No Gamertags are looked at, no trophy case is inspected. It really doesn’t matter how many hours you log in Xbox LIVE; you just have to be a good teacher. We’ll admit to being somewhat disappointed by the requirements here, but really it’s hard to complain with a Video Games pin, even if it’s not as fun to earn as we had hoped. At the very least, this proves that even Boy Scout leaders understand that video gaming isn’t just a complete waste of life, and that’s likely to be good enough for some kids who are fighting to prove that very point to their strict parents.

Follow the  link to read the requirements to earn the Video Games belt loop and academics pin

New Graphics Tech Promises Speed, Hyperrealism

By Priya Ganapati

Chipmakers have spent billions of dollars over the decades to create specialized processors that can help make computer graphics ever more realistic and detailed.

Now an Australian hobbyist says he has created a technology that can churn out high-quality, computer-generated graphics for video games and other applications without the need for graphics chips or processor-hungry machines.

“Major companies have got to a point where they improve the polygon-count in graphics-rendering by 22 percent a year,” says Bruce Dell, 32, the creator of the new technology, which he calls Unlimited Detail. “We have made it unlimited. It’s all software that requires no special hardware, so you get truly unlimited detail in your scenes.”

Dell is an unusual candidate for a computer-graphics revolutionary. He’s an autodidact who’s never been to a university and who ran a supermarket chain for about eight years.

But he claims to have found a way to search through trillions of voxels, the 3-D counterparts to pixels, to render a scene quickly. Voxels have so far been used largely in medical- and mining-graphics applications, not video games.

Bringing voxel-based rendering to the world of video games is an interesting idea, says Jon Peddie, founder of Jon Peddie Research. That’s because voxels could take a middle ground between two current rendering techniques: the fast but not graphically realistic world of polygon rendering (used by most video games today) and computationally resource-hungry and comparatively slow ray-tracing technology.

“With voxels, you create a volume of points and look at those points to see what the picture is all about,” says Peddie. “That gives a very accurate representations of the world you are trying to render, without taking up too much computational resources.”

Creating lifelike images through graphics-rendering usually requires major computing power. To recreate three-dimensional objects on a computer screen, programmers define a structure in terms of its geometry, texture, lighting and shading.

The resultant digital image is an approximation of a real-life object, but has a computer-generated–graphics feel to it. It also requires intensive computing power, which means graphics programmers must have state-of-the art machines with special chips from companies such as Nvidia and AMD.

In most 3-D graphics-modeling programs, the virtual depiction of almost every real-life object, such as a trees or a stone, starts as a little flat polygon. More-powerful processors can help the software have more of these polygons, which means increased roundness to the objects on screen. With enough computing power, billions of little polygons can be generated, and each made so small that it’s almost a dot.

Another alternative is to use ray tracing, a method in which the computer traces the path of light through space, simulating the effect on the light as it encounters different objects. That approach creates much more visually attractive scenes, but it is extremely intensive in its need for computational resources.

Dell says Unlimited Detail has an alternative to these systems. It uses billions of “point cloud” dots, or voxels, to accurately represent a world. To render an image, Unlimited Detail then acts as a search engine.

Dell says his algorithm can quickly figure out the dots needed to render a scene, search the data to find only those points, and pull them up quickly enough for smooth animation. He calls it “mass connected processing.”

“Instead of putting a trillion dots on screen and covering the ones you don’t use, we show only what needs to be done and how you can manipulate those dots,” says Dell.

It’s all so new that Dell, who claims to have single-handedly written the software, is still in the process of forming a company.

So how legitimate are his claims? It’s hard to evaluate. Few graphics programmers or industry analysts have actually seen his software at work. Dell says those who have are bound by tight nondisclosure agreements limiting their ability to talk about it.

And graphics chip makers such as Nvidia are not impressed.

“Voxel graphics have been around for quite some time, but they are not considered to be as precise as polygon-based graphics,” says Ken Brown, a spokesperson for Nvidia.

Graphics rendered using voxels can run on less-resource-hungry machines, but they can’t offer the same level of quality as ray tracing or rasterization, he says.

“With voxels, there are issues that come up with shading and coloring the images properly,” says Brown. “If you look at the screenshots that Unlimited Detail has posted, the images don’t look all that realistic.”

Some of those problems can be ameliorated by using better tools, but it can’t be done by a one-man band, say Brown and Peddie.

“There needs to be an infrastructure around every new rendering technique,” says Brown. “There have to be SDKs, tools and drivers, and these are things that teams of people from many different companies come together to create.”

As for claims that Unlimited Detail can do real-time graphics rendering on a machine with a single-core processor and no graphics card, Nvidia people say they’re skeptical. Searching through trillions of points of data would require large amounts of RAM (random access memory), and Dell isn’t sharing any details on how his algorithm deals with that problem.

Even if Dell can validate his claims, it could be years before graphics programmers start using the voxel-based technique that Dell is advocating, says Peddie.

“It will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, because there are too many entrenched systems and legacy files to be managed,” he says. “Anybody who is making graphics-creation software like Adobe, Autodesk and Maya will have to change their way of doing things. That’s a pretty big thing to change.”

Major companies such as Microsoft and HP also have patents around voxels, and if Dell wants to go professional, he’ll have to make sure he’s not infringing on the work of other researchers.

“The jury is still out on this idea,” says Peddie. “But Bruce Dell seems real, very sincere, and the idea looks solid.”

To preview Dell’s technology check out his own video (Bottom of page):

7-Eleven explodes into video game sales

By Mike Luttrell

Nearly 100 games are on the fast track for shelf space at thousands of 7-Eleven convenience store locations across the country.

The mammoth retail company announced today that 3,000 of its 8,200 stores in North America now stock used video games in a new section called the “Gamers Factory,” and around 100 new stores are planned to add the section every week through at least the end of the year.

7-Eleven began dabbling in the video game market at the end of 2008, with select locations partaking in the retail firestorms of games like God of War III and Madden 2010. Over the last year, more franchise owners have started stocking video games, and late last year the company began setting up shelf space for budget games at a few hundred stores.

Now the aim is to bring gaming shelf space to virtually all of its stores as 7-Eleven tries to brand itself as the “Most Convenient Destination” for video games. With most stores open 24 hours a day, it will be the only nearby location for many gamers to get a late-night fix.

The new expansion of video games includes used PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, DS, and PSP games at less than $20. 7-Eleven gets its product from used game company Game Trading Technologies.

“7-Eleven’s franchisees have been very receptive to our program—they understand the unique opportunity that value-priced video games offer their customers,” said Todd Hays, president and CEO of Game Trading Technologies. “We have seen demand for these games increase from both the consumer and the retailer, creating a new marketplace that allows us to offer excellent value.”

7-Eleven is expected to continue to sell big-name new titles at launch as well.