Dead Rising 3 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Dead Rising 3: Oh This is Bad.

The original Dead Rising was one of those games that every owner of a Xbox360 had on their shelves. It was just the right combination of not taking itself seriously and solid zombie killing action, long before the dearth of zombie based titles we have today. There was enough variety that pretty much any player could find something to like in it although the constantly ticking down clock ensured that you’d never get everything you wanted done in a single play through. The latest instalment, Dead Rising 3, continues along the series’ tried and true lines, although the experienced is marred by both performance and design level issues.

Dead Rising 3 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

It’s been 10 years since the last outbreak when suddenly Los Perdidos finds itself in the grip of another zombie apocalypse. You are Nick Ramos, a young mechanic in this city who’s trying to find a way to get himself and his crew out of there. After a routine search for supplies you find out that the army is going to fire bomb Los Perdidos in order to contain the outbreak, giving you just 6 days to get yourself out of there. However as you ready your escape it becomes clear that there’s far more to this outbreak than would appear and it’s up to you to stop it.

Considering that Dead Rising 3 is a next-gen only title you’d expect the graphics to be a bit of a step up from its predecessor however it looks largely the same as many of its previous generation counterparts. This is partly due to the fact that the scale of the game has been ramped up significantly, going from an apocalypse inside a mall up to an entire city being taken over. That increase in scale also means an order of magnitude of zombies on screen, something which is at odds with high end visuals. I’ll touch on the performance later however suffice to say that Dead Rising 3’s graphics are pretty average, even when you take into account the scale that it’s operating at.

Dead Rising 3 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Pantsless

Dead Rising 3’s game play follows the same formula as its predecessors, putting you in charge of a single character who has to make his way through untold hordes of zombies using anything he can find. As you massacre your way through you’ll be rewarded with levels and points which you can spend on improving various aspects of your character. The crafting system also makes a return however this time you’re also able to craft vehicles as well, something you’ll be doing a lot of if you want to get across town in any sort of reasonable time. You can now also bring survivors along with you, equipping them with weapons so they won’t just be zombie attractors who will die shortly after you rescue them. This, combined with the usual affair of achievements and collectables, means there’s dozens of hours of play time within Dead Rising 3, more than enough to keep even the most keen achievement hunters busy.

The combat feels largely the same as its predecessors, retaining the same 3rd person beat ‘em up style that the Dead Rising franchise is known for. The variety of weapons ensures that you’re always finding news ways to dispatch large numbers of zombies quickly however it doesn’t take long to find the really overpowered combos that you’ll want to exploit. This is counterbalanced by the fact that some apparently powerful looking combos are pretty lacklustre although thankfully you won’t be spending a lot of time tracking down components in order to make them. The grim reaper, for example, trivializes much of the game and the store you originally find it in has enough to make 2 of them, enough to kill 1000 zombies.

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The inclusion of vehicles in Dead Rising 3 is a necessity, given the scale, however the vehicle crafting adds a little entertainment to what would otherwise be one of the game’s more annoying aspects. Again there are certain combos which are just insane, like the turret rig, but their limited life means you likely won’t have access to one every time you need it. One more annoying aspect of the vehicles is that you’ll need to find one with enough seats for your crew if you’re going to use one otherwise you’ll simply leave them behind, never to be found again. Whilst this isn’t an issue if you’re near a garage often you’ll find yourself in the middle of no where needing some form of transportation and the 2 seater varieties seem to be far more common than their larger counterparts.

Which brings me to my next point: the survivors in your possie are usually a liability more than anything else which is frustrating considering there doesn’t seem to be a way to tell them to stay at a safe house. Their AI is incredibly basic, often getting stuck in wide open spaces, unable to figure out how to proceed until you knock them over and they redo their pathing. This is only made worse by the fact that they don’t seem to understand how to use their weapons properly as they’ll either do nothing until you do the same motion (I.E. they won’t melee unless you do) or they’ll wait until they’re swamped before attempting to do something. The only time they become useful is during boss fights but apart from that you’re better off just letting them meet their end.

Dead Rising 3 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Turret Rig

As many other PC reviewers have noted Dead Rising 3 suffers from some major performance issues right off the bat, often struggling to render a single frame for seconds at a time. It’s largely tied to when you first see a large group of zombies for the first time however there are also random times when it occurs, often leaving the sound playing which ends up with the characters being wildly out of sync. Creating a user.ini file to unlock the framerate (it’s capped at 30 fps natively) and knocking down the graphics a couple notches pulls it into the realms of playable but it still manages to peg all aspects of my system, even when there isn’t much going on. This is even after a couple patches which you’d presume would’ve made the experience better but, honestly, in its default form Dead Rising 3 is an unplayable mess.

This is only made worse by the lacklustre story which attempts to err more towards the serious side of things rather than the more comedic style of its predecessors. Sure, the essence of the not-so-serious nature of Dead Rising games is still there (like your costume appearing in cut scenes or the cartoony boss fights) but overall it feels like they’re trying too hard to make the story serious. Whilst I admit you’d never play a Dead Rising game for its deep story content it still feels like a good chunk of what made Dead Rising games so fun was lost in the latest instalment which is a real disappointment.

Dead Rising 3 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Blanka Fire Fists

Dead Rising 3 is another solid instalment in the series, one which is unfortunately marred by performance problems and lacklustre story elements. The essence of what made this franchise good is still there, like the ridiculous combat and comedic game elements, however it just falls short of the “must have” status that the original had. It’s still a blast to play, especially when you unlock some of the more overpowered combos, however there’s probably not enough in there to keep me coming back for untold hours at a time. I’m sure long time fans of the series will find a lot to like in Dead Rising 3 but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s flawless.

Rating: 7.5/10

Dead Rising 3 is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $49.99 and $57 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours play time and 25% of the achievements unlocked.

Windows 10 Start Menu

Windows 10: The Windows 8 For Those Who Can’t Get Over 7.

Microsoft really can’t seem to win sometimes. If they stop making noticeable changes to their products everyone starts whining about how they’re no longer innovating and that people will start to look for alternatives. However should they really try something innovative everyone rebels, pushing Microsoft to go back to the way things ought to be done. It happened with Vista, the Ribbon interface and most recently with Windows 8. Usually what happens though is that the essence of the update makes it into the new version with compromises made to appease those who simply can’t handle change.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, Microsoft has announced Windows 10.

Windows 10 Start Menu

Everyone seems to be collectively shitting their pants over the fact that Microsoft skipped a version number, somehow forgetting that most of the recent versions of Windows have come sans any number at all. If you want to get pedantic about it (and really, I do) the last 10 versions of Windows have been: Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Windows ME (gag), Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. If you were expecting them to release Windows 9 because of the last 2 versions of Windows just happened to be in numerical order I’m going to hazard a guess you ate a lot of paint as a child.

On a more serious note the changes that many people were expecting to make up the 8.2 release appear to have been bundled into Windows 10. The start menu makes its triumphant return after 2 years on the sidelines although those modern/metro apps that everyone loved to hate will now make an appearance on there. For someone like me who hasn’t really relied on the start menu even since before Windows 8 arrived (pressing the window key and then typing in what I want is much faster than clicking my way through the menu) I’m none too bothered with its return. It will probably make Windows 10 more attractive to the enterprise though as many of them are still in the midst of upgrading from XP (or purposefully delaying upgrading to 8).

The return of the start menu goes hand in hand with the removal of the metro UI that hosted those kinds of apps, which have now been given the ability to run in a window on the desktop. This is probably one of the better improvements as it no longer means you get a full screen app taking over your desktop if you accidentally click on something that somehow associated itself with a metro app. For me this most often seems to happen with mail as even though I’ve got Outlook installed the Mail app still seems to want to launch itself every so often. Whether or not this will make that style of apps more palatable to the larger world will have to remain to be seen, however.

There’s also been a few other minor updates announced like the inclusion of multiple desktops and improved aero-snap. The command line has also received a usability update, now allowing you to use CTRL + C and CTRL + V to copy and paste respectively. In all honesty if you’re still doing your work in the command line on any version of Windows above Vista you’re doing it wrong as PowerShell has been the shell of choice for everyone for the better part of 7 years. I’m sure some users will be in love with that change but the vast majority of us moved on long ago.

The release date is scheduled for late next year with a technical preview available right now for enterprising enthusiasts. It will be interesting to see what the take up rate is as that date might be a little too late for enterprises who are still running XP who will most likely favour 7 instead. That being said the upgrade path from 7 to 10 is far easier so there is the possibility of Windows 10 seeing a surge in uptake a couple years down the road. For those early adopters of Windows 7 this next release might just be hitting the sweet spot for them to upgrade so there’s every chance that 10 will be as successful as 7.

I’ll reserve my judgement on the new OS until I’ve had a good chance to sit down and use it for an extended period of time. Microsoft rarely makes an OS that’s beyond saving (I’d really only count ME in there) and whilst I might disagree with the masses on 8’s usability I can’t fault Microsoft for capitulating to them. Hopefully the changes aren’t just skin deep as this is shaping up to be the last major revision of Windows we’ll ever see and there’d be nothing worse than for Microsoft to build their future empire on sand.

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ASUS Transformer Pad TF103C Review.

I’ve only really owned one tablet, the original Microsoft Surface RT, and try as I might to integrate it into parts of my life I honestly really can’t figure out where it fits in. Primarily I think this is a function of apps as whilst the Surface is capable in most respects there’s really no killer feature that makes me want to use it for that specific purpose. Indeed this is probably due to my heavy embedding within the Android ecosystem, with all the characteristics that make my phone mine persisted across Google’s cloud. With that in mind when ASUS offered me a review unit of their new Transformer Pad TF103C for a couple weeks to review I was intrigued to see how the experience would compare.

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The TF103C is a 10.1″ tablet, sporting a quad core, 64 bit Intel Atom processor that runs at up to 1.86GHz. For a tablet those specs are pretty high end which, considering the included keyboard signals that the TF103C is aimed more towards productivity than simply being a beefy Android tablet. The screen is an IPS display with a 1200 x 800 resolution which is a little on the low side, especially now that retina level displays are fairly commonplace. You can get it with either 8GB or 16GB of internal storage which you can easily upgrade to 64GB via the embedded SDHC slot. It also includes the usual affair of wireless interfaces, connectors and sensors although one feature of note is the full sized USB port on the dock. With a RRP of $429 (with street prices coming in well under that) there’s definitely a lot packed in the TF103C for the price.

As a full unit the TF103C is actually pretty hefty. coming in at a total 1.1KGs although the tablet itself only makes up about half that. The keyboard dock doesn’t contain an additional battery or anything else that you’d think would make it so heavy, especially considering other chiclet style keyboards come in at about half that. Considering my full ultrabook weighs in at about 1.5KGs it does take away some of the appeal of having a device like this, at least from my perspective. That being said I’m not exactly the biggest tablet user, so the use of two different form factors is lost on me somewhat.

When used in docked form the TF103C is actually quite capable, especially when you attach a mouse to the dock’s USB port. I had wondered how Android would fair when used in a more traditional desktop way and it actually works quite well, mostly since the web versions of your typical productivity applications have evolved a lot in the past couple years. The keyboard is probably a little on the small side for people with larger hands but it was definitely usable for quick tasks or replying to email. It falls a little short if you’re going to use it on your lap however due to the fact that the screen can’t be tilted back past a certain point. It’s still usable but it’s a much better experience when used on a desk.

The quad core Intel Atom powering the TF103C is extremely capable, as evidenced by the fact that everything on it runs without a stutter or hiccup. I threw a few of the more intensive games I could find at it and never noticed any slowdown, commendable for a tablet in this price range. When you’re using such performance however the battery life does take quite a hit, knocking the rated 9.5 hours of run time to less than 4. That being said it managed to stay charged for about a week when it was idle making it quite usable as a casual computing device.

All in all I was impressed with the capabilities the TF103C displayed, even if I couldn’t really see it replacing any one of the devices I have currently. There’s a few missed opportunities, like integrating a battery into the keyboard and allowing the screen to tilt more, however overall it’s a very capable device for the asking price. I could definitely see it having a place on the coffee table as something to be used when needed with the added keyboard dock capability coming in handy for more grunty work. It might not end up replacing the device you have now but if you’re looking for a decent tablet that can also be productive then you wouldn’t go wrong with the TF103C.

A review unit was provided to The Refined Geek for 2 weeks for reviewing purposes.

Mars_Orbiter_Mission_-_India_-_ArtistsConcept

India’s Mars Orbiter Arrives Successfully.

When you think of space faring nations India probably isn’t one of the first to come to mind but they’re fast becoming one of the big players in terms of capability. Their space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), began back in 1975 and has primarily focused on developing both launch and satellite capabilities. They made headlines back in 2008 with Chandrayaan-1 which was their first satellite to visit another celestial body. Every year since then has seen India launch multiple satellites every year, with the vast majority of them blasting to orbit aboard their very own Satellite Launch Vehicle brand of rockets. Last week saw them tick off another incredible milestone: their first interplanetary mission arriving successfully at its destination.

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The Mars Orbiter Mission (or Mangalyaan) is a comparatively small craft, weighing in at just on 500 kgs with only 15kg of that being dedicated to the various payloads it’s carrying. It’s primarily a technology demonstration mission, designed to provide a shakedown for the various systems required to maintain an interplanetary mission. Thus the payload of the mission is relatively simple, consisting of some atmospheric and particle sensors along with your standard imaging affair, although it does have the rather interesting capability of being able to radically change its orbit over time. Just the fact that India has joined the rather exclusive club of nations that have sent craft to Mars (3 total, now) would be noteworthy in of itself but there’s one more thing that makes MOM noteworthy.

The cost.

A typical Mars mission usually costs on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, usually tickling the billion dollar mark when all things are considered. The Phoenix Lander, for instance, cost about $386 million and was considered to be quite cheap as it reused a lot of technology from other projects. MOM however was done for a total budget of $74 million including launch costs making it the cheapest interplanetary mission by any nation to date. A lot of this comes down to the simplicity of the mission however a big part of it is the fact that their launch vehicle costs around $19 million per launch, a cost that rivals even that of SpaceX’s Falcon launch system. If ISRO is able to keep their costs at this level there’s every chance that other nations will look to them to provide launch capabilities like this in the future.

Even though MOM is a simple craft it has the capability to provide extremely useful data like its predecessor Chandrayaan-1 did. The instruments might be few in number but the data they provide will function as a validation point for all the missions that have come before it, ensuring that the models we’ve developed for Mars are still valid. Having another set of eyes on Mars means that we’ll be able to catch many more of the geological phenomenon in action that we’ve seen in the past which will provide us even more insight into how its environment is changing, even today.

It always amazes me to see how rapidly space capability is being developed not only by private industry but also nation states. Exploring space is an incredibly expensive affair, one that seemingly doesn’t contribute to the nation’s economy directly, but the benefits always outstrip any cost that follows them. For India the ROI is going to be amazing as they’ve built a capability that took other nations decades and several billion dollars to achieve. I’m very excited to see what they accomplish next and whether or not they can continue the tradition of doing it far cheaper than anyone else.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Destiny: All Ends are Beginnings.

I never spent much time with the Halo series. It’s not that I had anything against it per se, just that by the time I had an Xbox the series was already well under way and I didn’t really feel inclined to go back and play through all of them. Still I was well aware of how much of a following Bungie had and so was somewhat intrigued by what their first post-Halo title would be like. To be honest though I was going to wait for it to come out on PC (controllers and FPS don’t mix) however an endless barrage of requests from a mate of mine saw me begrudgingly pick it up. Now that I’ve lost almost a full day’s worth of my life to this game I’m glad he berated me into buying it as Destiny stands out as an exceptional title.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Centuries ago mankind was beholden to an event unparalleled in its entire history. Out of no where it arrived, a white sphere larger than any city, and with it came a time of endless prosperity. Human life spans tripled and they reached out across their solar system, colonizing all the planets. However The Traveller, as the white sphere had became known, had a dark enemy that sought nothing more than its demise. This led to the collapse of human society as it was known, pushing humanity back to a single safe haven under the Traveller’s protection. The darkness still encroaches, slowly killing The Traveller and threatening to wipe out all of humanity for good, It is up to you, one of many empowered by The Traveller to wield it’s light, to save it and humanity from the darkness that threatens to consume everything.

As this was my first PlayStation4 title it was great to see Destiny making use of the extra grunt under the hood. The gritty styling that was common across previous generation titles has finally passed and has been replaced with a much more visually diverse environment. Indeed there were numerous times I had to stop and stare out at the vast environments Bungie created as the breadth of scale they gave the game was just phenomenal. This extends out to all the other elements in the game, like the system map and various UI pieces, which just have this level of polish to them that you don’t see often, even in other AA titles. It’s not exactly Crysis levels of eye candy however, but the fact that it can run smoothly (albeit at 30fps) at 1080p says a lot of the capabilities of the system and the titles developers can create for it.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper Shootin Stuff

Destiny is most readily compared to games like Borderlands, comprising the same key elements whilst including some MMORPG style mechanics to keep you glued to your controller. You have your choice of 3 different races (which have no impact apart from cosmetic) and 3 different classes, each of which have their own unique abilities and play styles. Whilst you’ll have a traditional levelling system the gear you find will also level up with you, providing an additional path for progressing your character. There’s also the bevy of skills you’ll unlock as you play through the game (which occurs independently of your main levels) and should you max all of that out you have another sub-class you can level up which will completely change you play the game again. This is not to mention the dungeons, raids and PVP that you can also engage in. Suffice to say there’s a ton to do in Destiny and even with the inordinate amount of time I’ve spent on it I still feel like I’m only part way through it.

The combat in Destiny is mostly your typical fast paced, run and gun style shooter however there are elements of strategy that you’ll need to understand should you want to complete certain objectives. You still have unlimited life in the form of of the tried and true “take cover and regenerate” mechanic, which does allow you to blast your way to victory in the early stages of the game, however it doesn’t regenerate to full immediately. So whilst you might get yourself out of trouble initially you might find yourself in trouble once again should you take a stray bullet before the second round of regeneration kicks in. Since the typical encounter is wave after wave of enemies this can sometimes lead to your untimely demise when enemies spawn behind you however the death and respawn mechanic is generous enough that you don’t feel overly punished for when that happens.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper In Orbit

If that was all Destiny was it would probably be in the same class as Call of Duty however the addition of class skills and abilities helps to make the combat  more fun and varied. I played as a Titan which roughly translates to your front line, heavy hitter style of class who also has several delightful augments to your melee attack. Whilst it’s not advisable to punch everything in sight I have to admit it’s a lot of fun to try. Combine this with your super ability (you charge up over time and eventually become “supercharged) which allows you to decimate large hordes of enemies in a single blow and you have a recipe for combat that’s fun, varied and ultimately thrilling when you pull off a large combo.

However the combat gets a little bit repetitive when it comes to the boss fights as they’re typically just larger versions of smaller enemies you’ve faced before and with a bucket load more health (and endless swarms of minions around them). You can usually figure out how to avoid most of the damage from them but you’ll usually be there for a good 10 to 15 minutes unloading clip after clip into them, hoping you’re chipping away at that ginormous bar of health they have. Sure I can understand why it’s in there however it can be down right frustrating when you’ve spent a good chunk of time whittling a boss down only to get unlucky with a bunch of spawns that wipes your party, forcing you to redo the whole thing again. It’s for this reason I usually couldn’t do more than a couple dungeons a night as they start to wear you down after a while.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper Murder Cave

The levelling system, both in terms of your character’s levels and unlocking upgrades for your gear, both seem to happen often enough that you never feel like you’ve gone ages without progressing something. This is most certainly what kept me coming back through the first few hours of the game as you rapidly go from being a complete and utter noob to someone who feels at least partly effective when doing things with your team. The progression does start to taper off as you approach level 20 and you’ll quickly find yourself lusting after an upgrade for a piece of armour or that weapon you’ve been hanging on to for far too long.

Indeed this is where Destiny most closely resembles MMORPGs as whilst you can find decent loot from drops you’ll need to engage in the good old dungeon and reputation grind in order to get the premium tier of gear. Even the beloved Murder Cave (which Bungie has now shut down) wouldn’t yield much in the way of upgrades over the course of hours of farming. No if you want to progress you’re going to have to pay your dues and grind out that faction rep. I can’t exactly fault Bungie for this, time invested in MMORPGs is what separates the hardcore from the filthy casuals, however if that’s not the kind of thing you like to do then I’d recommend enjoying the story and then pretending the rest of the game doesn’t exist.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper CHOOSE YOUR PLANET

The world that Bungie has created in Destiny is definitely one of grand scale and one I’m sure that they’ll be looking to expand upon in the future. Whilst I’m not complaining about the length of the storyline it definitely felt like a lot of the supporting elements weren’t given enough time to shine. The various races that you encounter are usually given a rough background as to where they’re from and why they’d want to kill you but apart from that you’ve got no idea what their greater motivations are. The Vex are probably the most fleshed out however they still feel like a faceless enemy. I’m sure this is something Bungie will look to expand upon in further instalments in this series but for now much of the world feels underdone.

The story itself is pretty enjoyable, not straying too far from the hero’s journey paradigm, however it’s marred by the surprisingly lacklustre performance by the main driver of the story: your ghost (voiced by Peter Dinklage). So many of the lines are delivered lacking emotion or an understanding of the context in which they’re said, making the character feel disconnected from pretty much everything that’s going on. This is in stark contrast to nearly every other big name actor that has a voice acting role (apart from the Crucible announcer) who do a fantastic job in portraying their characters. Since it’s his first major game voice over I’ll give him some slack but I hope he improves for future releases.

Destiny Review Screenshot Wallpaper All Ends are Beginnings

Destiny is an amazing title, combining elements from FPS, RPG and MMO genres into a single experience that is well above many of its peers. As an introduction to what the now current generation of consoles are now capable of producing Destiny is very impressive, showcasing just how capable they are. The combat is challenging and fulfilling, pushing you hard enough to make you feel like the ultimate soldier when you manage to dispatch massive hordes of enemies in a single swoop. The loot, levelling and dungeons are sure to keep you coming back long after the story has run its course. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Destiny and for fans of Bungie, or just good games in general, I’d be very surprised if you were disappointed with the experience it provides.

Rating: 9.25/10

Destiny is available on PlayStation3, PlayStation4, XboxOne and Xbox360 for $79, $79, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation4 with 22 hours of total play time, reaching level 22.

Medieval vs Modern: The Making of a Gargoyle.

One thing that always fascinates me is how much (or indeed how little) technology can change some processes. Technology almost always makes things better, faster and cheaper but you’d think there’s a few areas where technology simply couldn’t put a dent in good old fashioned human processes. I don’t know why but when I saw the following video I thought there would be no way that modern processes could be better suited to the task than simply giving it over to a stone mason. By the end of the video however I was stunned at just how fast, and accurate, we could mill out a giant block of sandstone.

Honestly I probably should have expected it as I’ve seen numerous demonstrations of similar technology producing wildly intricate show pieces using all sorts of material. However I figured something like this, a craft that many would have thought was now in the domain of only a handful of dedicated practitioners, would be better suited to human hands. I have to say though that I doubt anyone today could carve out something like that in the space of 10 hours, even if you counted in all the preparation time they did before hand. It’s surprisingly hard to find out just how long it took to carve your average stone gargoyle unfortunately so I’m not sure how this compares to times when stone carving a s a profession was more common.

Realistically though that’s all a flimsy premise for me to post yet another large engineering demonstration video. I can’t help it though, they tickle me in all the right ways :)

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IBM’s Watson has an API, and It’s Answering Questions.

In a world where Siri can book you a restaurant and Google Now can tell you when you should head for the gate at the airport it can feel like the AI future that many sci-fi fantasies envisioned is already here. Indeed to some extent it is, many aspects of our lives are now farmed out to clouds of servers that make decisions for us, but those machines still lack a fundamental understanding of, well, anything. They’re what are called expert systems, algorithms trained on data to make decisions in a narrow problem space. The AI future that we’re heading towards is going to be far more than that, one where those systems actually understand data and can make far better decisions based on that. One of the first steps to this is IBM’s Watson and it’s creators have done something amazing with it.

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Whilst currently only open to partner developers IBM has created an API for Watson, allowing you to pose it a question and receive an answer. There’s not a lot of information around what data sets it currently understands (the example is in the form of a Jeopardy! question) but their solution documents reference a Watson Content Store which, presumably, has several pre-canned training sets to get companies started with developing solutions. Indeed some of the applications that IBM’s partner agencies have already developed suggest that Watson is quite capable of digesting large swaths of information and providing valuable insights in a relatively short timeframe.

I’m sure many of my IT savvy readers are seeing the parallels between Watson and a lot of the marketing material that surrounds anything with the buzzword “Big Data”. Indeed much of the concepts of operation are similar: take big chunks of data, throw them into a system and then hope that something comes out the other end. However Watson’s API suggests something that’s far more accessible, dealing in native human language and providing evidence to back up the answers it gives you. Compare this to Big Data tools, which often require you to either learn a certain type of language or create convoluted reports, and I think Watson has the ability to find widespread use while Big Data keeps its buzzword status.

For me the big applications for something like this come for places where curating domain specific knowledge is a long, time consuming task. Medicine and law both spring to mind as there’s reams of information available to power a Watson based system and those fields could most certainly benefit from having easier access to those vast treasure troves. It’s pretty easy to imagine a lawyer looking for all precedents set against a certain law or a doctor asking for all diseases with a list of symptoms, both queries answered with all the evidence to boot.

Of course it remains to be seen if Watson is up to the task as whilst it’s prowess on Jeopardy! was nothing short of amazing I’ve still yet to see any of its other applications in use. The partner applications do look very interesting, and should hopefully be the proving grounds that Watson needs, but until it starts seeing widespread use all we really have to go on is the result of a single API call. Still I think it has great potential and hopefully it won’t be too long before the wider public can get access to some of Watson’s computing genius.

First 3D Printer in Space

First Space Based 3D Printer Launched.

The boom that 3D printing has experienced over the past couple years has been nothing short of astonishing. The industry started off as predominately as a backyard engineering operation, designing machines that’s sole purpose was to be able to print another one of itself, but it quickly escalated into the market we know today. Indeed it seems even the most wildest predictions about how it would revolutionize certain industries have come true with leading engineering companies adopting 3D printers for both prototyping and full blown production developments. With that in mind it was only a matter of time before one of them was bound for the International Space Station and yesterday SpaceX launched the first 3D printer to be based in space.

First 3D Printer in Space

The printer, made by Made in Space, isn’t simply a stock standard model that’s been gussied up to work on the ISS. It’s been specifically designed to work in the microgravity environment in low earth orbit, undergoing thousands of simulated zero-g tests (presumably on one of NASA’s vomit comets). Whilst the specifications might not be exactly astounding when compared to some of the printers available down here on earth, it only has a print volume of 5cm x 10cm x 5cm with ABS plastic, it has the potential to be quite revolutionary for NASA, not to mention 3D printing at large.

One of the worst things about space travel is having to bring everything you need with you as there’s really no manufacturing capability to speak of in space. A 3D printer however provides the opportunity to ship up bulk supplies, in this case large reels of ABS plastic, which have a much greater density than the parts created with them will have. This drastically reduces the cost and complexity of shipping things up into space and provides a greater opportunity to create things in-orbit that might not be feasible to ship up otherwise. Of course whether or not 3D printing will be viable in space is another question, one which this device will attempt to answer.

There’s a lot of use for 3D printed plastic parts on the ISS, notably pretty much any small clip or connector on the interior of the craft, however I feel that the real usefulness of 3D printer will come when they can print with metal. Right now there’s no good solutions for doing that via the extruder (although there are a few out there using solder, which doesn’t have the greatest construction properties) as most use the powder bed sintering process. As you can probably guess having a bunch of powder in a microgravity environment isn’t going to work out too well so I’ll be interested to see how future space based 3D printers deal with metal and other materials.

It’s really quite exciting to see developments like this as there’s an incredible amount of opportunity for 3D printing to revolutionize several aspects of space travel. Indeed for long duration missions, one where component failure is a real risk, these kinds of in-orbit manufacturing capabilities are a necessity. Whilst we won’t be mass producing spacecraft parts in orbit any time soon these are the first few baby steps needed to developing that capability.

And wouldn’t you know it Planetary Resources already has partnerships in that direction. I should have guessed!

Working From Home

Telecommuting For All: The Research Shows Benefits.

For all of my working life I pined for the ability to do my work from wherever I choose. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to work in my trackies, only checking email whenever it suited, no more I wanted to avoid having to waste hours of my day travelling to and from the office when I could just as easily do the work remotely. Last year, when I permanently joined the company I had  been contracting to the year previous, I was given such an opportunity and have spent probably about half the working year since at home. For me it’s been a wonderfully positive experience and, to humblebrag for a bit, my managers have been thoroughly impressed with my quality of work. Whilst I’ve always believed this would be the case I never had much hard evidence to back it up but new research in this field backs up my conclusions.

Working From Home

Researchers at the University of Illinois created a framework to analyse telecommuting employee’s performance. They then used this to gain insight into data taken from 323 employees and their corresponding supervisors. The results showed a very small, positive effect for the telecommuting workers showing that their performance was the same or slightly better than those who were working in the office. Perhaps most intriguingly they found that the biggest benefit was shown when employees didn’t have the best relationship with their superiors, indicating that granting flexible working arrangements could be seen as something of an olive branch to smooth over employee relations. However the most important takeaway from this is that no negative relationship between telecommuting and work performance was found, showing that employees working remotely can be just as effective as their in office counterparts.

As someone who’s spent a great deal of time working from various different places (not just at home) with other people in a similar situation I have to say that my experience matches up with research pretty well. I tend to be available for much longer periods of time, simply because it’s easier to, and it’s much easier to focus on a particular task for an extended period of time when the distractions of the office aren’t present. Sure after a while you might start to wonder if you’ll be able to handle human contact again (especially after weeks of conference calls) but it’s definitely something I think every employer should offer, if they have the capability to.

It also flies in the face of Marissa Mayer’s decision to outright ban all telecommuting in Yahoo last year, citing performance concerns. Whilst I don’t disagree with the idea that telecommuting isn’t for everyone (I know a few people who’d likely end up like this) removing it as an option is incredibly short sighted. Sure, there’s value to be had in face time, however if their performance won’t suffer offering them flexible working arrangements like telecommuting can generate an awful lot of goodwill with your employees. I know that I’m far more likely to stick around with my current company thanks to their stance on this, even if I probably won’t be able to take advantage of it fully for the next couple years.

Hopefully studies like this keep getting published as telecommuting is fast becoming something that shouldn’t have to be done by exception. Right now it might be something of a novelty but the technology has been there for years and it’s high time that more companies started to make better use of it. They might just find it easier to hold on to more employees if they did and, potentially, even attract better talent because of it. I know it will take time though as we’re still wrestling with the 40 hour work week, a hangover over 150 years ago, even though we’ve long since past the time where everyone is working factories.

One day though, one day.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Commander Termintated

Planetary Annihilation: Unleash the Spam.

Total Annihilation was probably one of my favourite games when it was first released 17 years ago. It wasn’t the massive swarms of units, or the epic scale of the battles, no I loved building up the superpower units that could decimate an entire army in one fell swoop. I’d spend hours crafting the perfect base, one that no one could break through so I could sit there crafting my doomsday weapon. I even downloaded TAUIP to give me even more units and a better AI, sending me further down the TA rabbit hole. It’s spiritual successor, Supreme Commander, was also one of my favourites, even if the sequel fell short. You can then imagine my excitement when I saw the Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter which I couldn’t back fast enough. Here we are, 2 years later, and Planetary Annihilation has finally launched and I’ve spent the last week playing through it.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Humanity has long since left this universe. You are a relic of a war that has long since past, a machine built with a single purpose in mind: to annihilate everything that stands in your path. You will travel to the far reaches of space, seeking out new technology that you’ll incorporate into your unrelenting war. However your foes have the same goal and they will stop at nothing to ensure that you are wiped off the face of this universe permanently. Do you have the strength and skills to beat them before they get the better of you? Or will you fall to the same unrelenting fervour that you are a slave to?

Visually Planetary Annihilation is definitely a step up from its predecessor (for the sake of argument I’m going to say that’s Supreme Commander 2) although the art direction now tends towards the stylized/cartoony. Considering the purpose of Planetary Annihilation this isn’t much of a surprise as one of the long running problems with any of the Annihilation series was that performance often suffered the longer the game went on. Suffice to say that even with the slight improvements it still manages to remain quite smooth over the course of longer games. The interface is also much more streamlined, making it far easier to get acquainted with everything than it was in previous titles.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Commander Termintated

Like previous installations in the Annihilation series Planetary Annihilation puts you in charge of a single unit, the Commander, to start off with and then lets you loose upon a world to build an army to destroy your foes. However you’re now no longer constrained to just a single planet, escalating the potential warfare to planetary levels. This introduces a whole host of new mechanics like orbital units, teleporters and whole planets which can be used as weapons. Notably absent from the game however is the inclusion of a single player story campaign which has been replaced by a procedurally generated series of AI skirmishes called Galactic War. Finally there’s multiplayer to be had which is likely where most people will be spending their time, although it’s done in the older style of “find a lobby to join” rather than the newer style matchmaking.

Long time fans of the Annihilation series will be instantly familiar with the core gameplay of Planetary Annihilation as all the units are essentially the same with your standard air/vehicle/bot/naval choices immediately available from your commander. The tech trees have been reduced from 3 tiers to 2 which significantly reduces the number of units you’ll have at your disposal. However this is made up for by the inclusion of the new types of units and was probably done because you’ll likely be splitting your concentration across multiple planets with multiple warfronts. The same mechanics are at play, you’ll need metal and energy in order to be able build things, however they have also been streamlined with only 2 types of energy generators and metal extractors. So overall the gameplay is largely similar but streamlined with a few mechanics thrown in to elevate the combat to a planetary scale.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Work Work

However unlike previous Annihilation titles there’s no factions to speak of so all the units are exactly the same for every player. For me this was one of the defining features of the Annihilation series as it meant that each race had it’s own strengths and weaknesses and different strategies were needed to cope with each different race. In Planetary Annihilation that’s not the case however and all you really need to do is figure out what kind of units your opponent is building and make the counter to them. This, especially when competing against the AI, means that the game favours those who rush their opponents with swarms of a certain mix of units early, even more so when you’re on the same planet. Indeed there are very few opportunities to craft super units that can devastate armies, a trademark of the Annihilation series, thus eliminating much of the strategy that I came to love about these games.

In fact I think this is reflected in one key metric: the length of each game. Games in Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander could easily go on for hours as everyone tried various tactics against each other, all the while hoping to build that one unit or structure that would give them the upper hand. In Planetary Annihilation most games will go for 20 to 30 minutes before it’s obvious who’s going to win. Again this was something that I loved about the Annihilation series as it always felt more strategic rather than tactical and was the primary reason many disliked Supreme Commander 2. The planetary scope had a lot of potential to recapture that feeling that so many previous Annihilation titles had but it unfortunately fell way short of the mark.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Metal Planet

This is only exacerbated by the incredibly lackluster single player campaign. Whilst the idea behind Galactic War sounded good on paper in practice it’s not much more than one AI skirmish after another, ones that are either easily won within the first 10 minutes or others which are an uphill battle due to the fact that the AI is given a head start over you. It’s made worse by the fact that you can get shoehorned by the technology that you collect during the various missions, sometimes putting you in a spot that’s nigh on impossible to bypass. Like, for instance, if you’ve got all naval and air tech but the enemy starts on another planet you’re likely sweet out of luck as you won’t be able to use the teleporter to get them across. Instead you’ll have to rely on shooting nukes over there and hope that they haven’t got more anti-nuke facilities than you have missiles.

There’s also some niggling issues around the game itself. If you start an AI skirmish or Galactic War there’s no way to restart a battle if it isn’t going your way so you’ll have to quit and restart Planetary Annihilation in order to start over again. I can somewhat understand that not being in the Galactic War (if it’s meant to be a Roguelike experience, although I have no idea if that’s the case) but for AI skirmishes it seems like a really glaring omission. Things like that are supposed to be about testing builds or trying out units that you haven’t seen before and so restarting the battle quickly and easily is key to that. Having to boot the game over every time you want to do that is a right pain in the ass and not something I expected from veteran developers like Uber Entertainment.

Planetary Annihilation Screenshot Wallpaper Victory

Planetary Annihilation feels like a game that’s still in beta mode, lacking the polish of it’s spiritual predecessors and ultimately failing to deliver on the tried and true Annihilation franchise experience. The core aspects of the series are there, the massive units, larger than life scale, etc. but the game itself just doesn’t play like the titles of yore. This isn’t a case of the game not living up to the hype, after backing the game I ignored pretty much everything to do with it until I heard of the official release, more that too many things of what made the previous Annihilation titles good have been left out and what remains just isn’t enough. I really wanted to love Planetary Annihilation but it just feels like the official launch came way before it was ready for primetime with a lot more work to be done before I can say that it’s up to the calibre of its predecessors.

Rating: 6.5/10

Planetary Annihilation is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 6 hours. The writer backed this game on Kickstarter at the $250 pledge level.